Imagining a peaceful Northeast


The ongoing conflicts and liberation movements in Northeast India were triggered by various causes like immigration into the region, ‘exploitation’ of the region’s resources by the Centre, and the increasing feeling of alienation from the rest of India. Prof. M. Amarjeet Singh examines the issues closely and concludes that any peace accord in the region has to involve all the relevant groups to be successful.

When British colonial rule in India came to an end, the Nagas protested against integration into newly independent India, and even started a movement for disassociating themselves from India. They were subsequently joined by other ethnic groups. Now, Northeast India is affected by political movements of varying scale, ranging from movement for independence to demands for increased political autonomy. The conflict, apart from undermining governance, has added new institutions. Some of the new institutions are socio-political, while others are economic. The former are the armed groups who lay down a set of rules and have the power to enforce them. The economic institution is the taxation mechanism put in place by them. The central and root causes underlying this conflict is the lack of political and cultural integration of the region with the rest of India, leading to the feeling of alienation from the Indian mainstream.

Central and root causes

It was primarily after the British rule extended into Assam and surrounding areas, that these places became one of the great destinations of migration. This further brought significant social, economic and political transformations. Besides the change in territorial boundary of Assam from time to time, Bengali language was once introduced as the language of administration and education, despite opposition from the local population. Although Bengali language was subsequently replaced by Assamese language, the conflict had already commenced.

The communal riots that came with the partition of India and Pakistan triggered the migration of hundreds of thousands of people; of this, many came to Assam and Tripura. During the liberation war of Bangladesh from Pakistan, many refugees fled to Assam and Tripura due to fear of reprisals from pro- Pakistani groups there. In addition, there has been normal migration, again mainly from Bangladesh to India. Immigration became a major source of concern to a great many people who consider themselves to be natives of Northeast India, since they feared that the immigrants would soon outnumber and dominate them. The concerns grew louder and more open in the 1970s, which ultimately led to the anti-foreigner movement in Assam and other places to put pressure on the Centre to identify the “foreigners”, remove their names from electoral registrars and deport them back to their country. As a result, an agreement was concluded in 1985 in which the “reluctant” Centre had promised to take appropriate actions to identify and deport the “foreigners” who came to Assam after March 1971, and to disenfranchise those who came between January 1966 and March 1971. The accord also promised constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of “Assamese people”. But, the promises remained unfulfilled.

In addition, Assam is one of the largest producers of natural gas, oil and tea in the country, but there is resentment against the Centre for overexploitation. Assam protested against the Centre when it decided to construct an oil refinery at Barauni in Bihar to refine crude oil extracted from Assam on the assumption that Assam was unsafe. The refinery was constructed at Barauni in 1962 and a 600-km long Guwahati- Barauni crude oil pipeline was laid immediately for transportation of the oil. This incident alienated the local population. Further, most tea gardens were not owned by the local entrepreneurs and their headquarters were located elsewhere. Thus, the general impression was that the profits from the tea industry were not utilised for the development of the region where the tea is grown. As a result, the tea industry is also seen as a symbol of exploitation.

These were the reasons why the United Liberation Front of Assam (popularly known as ULFA) came into existence in 1979 to liberate Assam through an armed struggle from the “clutches of the illegal occupation of India”, and to establish an independent state of Assam. Its founding members were fully aware that the anti-foreigner movement was not enough because the Centre would not listen to mere rallies. Likewise in Tripura, refugees arrived in large numbers after the partition, which eventually became the root cause for conflict between the natives and the newcomers. The natives of Tripura, known as the Boroks, have already been outnumbered by a combined population of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and native Bengalis of Tripura. Being the majority group, the Bengalis are today elected from about 40 out of 60 territorial constituencies of the Tripura Legislative Assembly, and hence the state government is “controlled” by them. The minority Boroks do not have the number needed for mustering political power.

Unlike Assam and Tripura, partition and refugees have nothing to do with the conflicts in Manipur and Nagaland. Manipur was formerly a princely native state under British rule, in which the Meitei kings had enjoyed considerable autonomy as long as they respected colonial interests. It lost the autonomy after its merger with India in 1949, and 23 years later Manipur became a state. The Manipuris alleged that Manipur had unwillingly joined India after their king was “coerced”. Thereafter, it was directly ruled by the Centre from Delhi. Subsequently, a democratic movement against the merger was started, which ultimately transformed into an armed conflict.

The Nagas rejected the argument that their “ancestral” land which was under a special dispensation during British should become a part of India at the end of British rule. They claimed that their ancestral land was an independent country during the pre-colonial era. It was stated that they traditionally live in village-states, independent and self-contained, with a democratically constituted village council headed by the “Chief ”. They further claimed that their country was unconquered by anybody, and hence existed independently in the past. Their land was said to have consisted of several unspecified “regions” inhabited by people speaking different languages, which could not be mutually understood. Until the British colonial rule brought them together, there was no unity among them. They alleged that their country was divided “without their consent” into two, between India and Myanmar (parts of Kachin state and Sagaing division); and further subdivided by India into Nagaland and parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, respectively. Though these territories were handed down to India by the British, they never considered themselves as part of India. Hence, they waged an armed conflict against India to establish an independent Nagaland.

Conflict management and lessons learnt

The government has contributed to these conflicts through its action and inaction. The Centre has consistently relied upon strategies of; political reconciliation, use of military force and development measures, but with limited success. Firstly, since these problems are viewed simply as law and order problem, it has legitimised the use of military force under special laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. The counter-insurgency strategies also included use of divisive tactics to split armed groups. Secondly, political reconciliations have resulted in reorganisation of the region into smaller states (such as Nagaland and Mizoram) and autonomous regions (such as Bodoland Territorial Areas District in Assam). Finally, the region gets favourable financial support from the Centre and is the only territory of the country whose economic development is the mandate of a separate central ministry known as the Ministry of Development of North-Eastern Region. But conflicts continued since armed groups lay down a set of rules and have the means and resources to enforce them. In short, they not only undermined the state, but also administered their own social welfare services.

Several decades of conflicts has compelled the conflict parties to realise the importance of negotiated settlements. As a result, several peace accords have been concluded so far. But, most peace accords, instead of leading towards resolution of conflict, have worsened conflicts. This could be due to the ignorance on the part of the Centre in concluding peace accords with the wrong groups, excluding the main groups, and the prevalent infighting among the armed groups. It is also evident that there is no reason to assume that strategies that work in one conflict environment will work in another. Strategies will have to be worked out on a case-tocase basis.

However, lessons have been learned from past experience. The successful peace accords depend upon popular leaders. We have seen that leadership squabbles can undermine the credibility of peace accords. Weak and unpopular leaders can never expect to get maximum concessions from the government. The Nagaland experience tells us that signing peace accords with unpopular leaders has the potential to worsen conflict. Most armed groups are faction-ridden. As a result, peace accords arrived at with one faction is often opposed by other factions. In this regard the role of the government is crucial. If it succeeds in working with most of the reliable factions together, the outcome will be useful. An inclusive peace accord, in which all important stakeholders take part, is more likely to be successful. Thus it is important to establish a dialogue with each reliable faction. If not, it must negotiate with major groups/factions which enjoy popular support. Otherwise, the outcome will be counterproductive. Rushing for peace accords without proper ground-work must be avoided. When that happens, the substantive issues are not properly discussed. Past experiences have shown that the government is always open to negotiate with any group without assessing their relevance. This gives the impression that the government is interested only in signing peace accords, one after another, without assessing their long-term impact. Monitoring the implementation of peace accords also requires special attention. It has however been found that this aspect has been neglected so far. Further, once a peace accord is signed, the particular armed group should be encouraged to join electoral politics. Finally, Northeast India has a vocal civil society groups working on several societal issues. It is time to nurture them in a way which will facilitate their stepping into the crucial role of bridging the gap between the government and the armed groups.


Prof. M. Amarjeet Singh

The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. He was formerly with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science campus, Bangalore.