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India’s Northeast insurgencies: a somewhat forgotten story June 10, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kirpalani, Kunal P , trackback

Kunal P. Kirpalani

India’s Islamist and Maoist insurgencies receive critical attention within public and governmental circles domestically and abroad. Incidents, including the Islamist terrorist 26/11 attack of Mumbai and the Indian Army crackdown on Maoist militants in West Bengal’s Lalgarh district, are prime examples. However, general awareness of tribal rebellions occurring within the states of Northeast India is lacking. This is despite the fact that the Assamese, Naga and Mizo guerrilla movements are on the rise. The following is a brief introductory analysis on the causes of these insurgencies and why they should no longer be ignored.

What seems to be a common grass-root cause in South Asian insurgencies is socioeconomic and political developmental deprivation. India’s Northeast is no exception. It is a region that lags behind most of India developmentally. While the southern and western states reap the benefits of India’s booming economy, the economic situation in the Northeast has deteriorated. Poverty rates in the Northeast states linger officially at 22.3 per cent, well under the 28.3 per cent national average. There has even been an improvement in literacy rates, which are higher than the mean rate for the country (65.38 per cent) including those of women.

India’s states of the Northeast.  Source – Wikimedia

Paradoxically, except for Mizoram, data provided in the Times of India show that the per capita incomes for the northeast states are below the national average and declining.  In 1993-94, the per capita incomes for Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Sikkim were 10 per cent to 20 per cent higher than the national average. They are today 15 per cent, 25 per cent and 2 per cent below it respectively. Assam and Manipur’s per capita incomes have from 1993-94 to present, decreased from 25 per cent to 35 per cent below the national average; while Meghalaya’s has lowered from 10 per cent to 17 per cent respectively.

These poor and declining statistics are attributed to federal economic neglect of the region. Although there are thriving timber and coal mining industries, especially in Assam, the Northeast States are not great beneficiaries of the financial revenue generated by them. In fact, much of the industries are owned by outside settlers, usually from Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The monetary capital is consequently channelled to these states and others as remittances to the families of the settlers and their communities of origin. This is done at the expense of the Northeast’s economic wealth, which could have otherwise contributed towards its socioeconomic development.

It is no surprise that local inhabitants, who are mostly tribal, do not welcome the presence of these settlers. More so, the majority of locals do not emotionally adhere to the common Indian identity due to their ethno-cultural distinctness from the rest of the country. India is overall ethnically Indo-Aryan or Dravidian, with strong Hindu-centric cultural traditions, including religious non-Hindu ones. The ethnic groups in the Northeast, on the other hand, are of Indo-Tibetan extraction. They are far more culturally affiliated with Burma than with the rest of the Indian Subcontinent. Historically, they were part of several Burmese kingdoms until the British colonialists brought them into the fold of British India. The British rarely interfered in tribal affairs, even though European missionaries converted many of them to Christianity. India’s independence in 1947 fully integrated this region with the rest of the nation. This introduced widespread immigration from other parts of India into the region, particularly from Bengal (the British brought many Bengali Muslims from undivided Bengal to work on the tea plantations). The tribes have become a minority in all of these states and fear for the survival of their ethno-cultural identities.

The only exception has been Assam. It is a Hindu-majority state which was historically integrated into India. This is specially due to the embracing of Vedic culture and occupation by the Bengali Nawabs. Yet it is still racially Indo-Tibetan, and many Assamese perceive themselves to be separate from India.

Ethno-cultural and religious differences, along with socioeconomic and political marginalisation by the Indian State, have led certain segments of Assam and other Northeast states to retaliate by taking up arms. Although there are dozens of rebel groups that operate regionally, the most prominent ones include Assam’s United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and Tripura’s All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). For reasons already discussed, these militant organisations are fighting not only for greater rights for the tribes they represent, but also for separating their regions from the Indian State. Their insurgencies have been recrudescing sporadically since the 1950s and enjoy a wide support-base amongst the local tribes.

They have employed guerrilla tactics that have attempted to derail the power of New Delhi in their regions of operation. These include bombing markets in major cities, especially in Assam’s capital, Guwahati, economic targets such as freight trains and crude oil pipelines, and police stations. Bihari and Bengali workers are particularly detested by the local populace. They are therefore raided and massacred by insurgents. Such attacks have lessened India’s political grip on the Northeast. There are many regional villages that are controlled by rebels instead of New Delhi.

However, the insurgents are evidently not entirely genuinely fighting for the tribes they claim to represent. They have contrarily perpetrated several atrocities against the tribal villagers. Many groups enslave villagers to work in the mines in order to finance their operations. The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFA) takes such tactics further. The group is notorious for forcing tribal women to act in lucrative pornographic films. It is also common for male cadres to rape female rebel recruits, a problem plaguing all insurgent outfits.

These actions of the guerrillas have begun to undermine their public support. With their recruitment pool evaporating, some are now on the brink of dismemberment and are negotiated with the Indian Government for concessions to ensure their survival. One example is the Mizo National Front (MNF), which signed a peace treaty with New Delhi in 1985. Consequently, Mizoram is largely peaceful today.

The Indian government has additionally enforced an effective scheme to encourage rebel soldiers to surrender. Hundreds of ULFA cadres are surrendering each year. This has been reinforced by Dhaka arresting and handing over to New Delhi ULFA founder Rajkhowa in December 2009. Bangladesh has been a popular base for various rebel leaders for many years. Dhaka has since last year instigated a massive crackdown on its rebel presence. Dhaka’s relationship with New Delhi has greatly improved thanks to this. Systematically, the effectiveness of these organisations is waning. Yet they still cause havoc and kill thousands of civilians and government troops annually.

There is now hope that political stability will once again flourish in India’s Northeast. It could mean that socioeconomic progress can now actualise to correlate with stability. Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has specifically allocated RS1 114 crore in the 2010 Union Budget for developing the Northeast’s infrastructure. The budget envisages several economic projects for the region, including the construction of an Agartala-Akhuara rail line to encourage industrialisation of Tripura. However, little has been done to counteract the grievances of the tribes. As long as New Delhi neglects the region, and while immigrant settlers continue to exploit it economically, local tribes will continue to persevere in political separation through armed struggle.


1. Geeta Kirpalani - June 14, 2010

Well researched and an interesting informative read
thank you!

2. Praktika - June 15, 2010

This is a very good summary of the state of play in the North East. The exploitation of tribal land and assets is being taken up by mainsteam activsts like Arundhati Roy and others. The Government of India cannot wish away this festering issue. It needs to be more inclusive and respectful to the demands of its own sons of the soil. The soil unfortunately lies in the resource rich North East.

3. Kristina Baird - June 26, 2010

Perhaps this is the state of affairs in Assam and Manipur today but once Assam, in particular, was a Hindu tantric stronghold of the highest Hindu left-hand path, so much so that they had not even a need of a statue in their central shrine. My opinion is that these matters are not solely related to economy and ethnicity, though undoubtedly, it is easiest to influence the impoverished to take up arms, who are apparently ethnically different to the Indo-Aryan mainstream, if one can say there is an Indo-Aryan mainstream because the Aryan migration theory is at question. In the same way that Israel questions the route of opposition via Gaza and Palestine we should question the route and the source of opposition within India’s so-called tribal states. In the same way, we should question how was it that the king’s family was slaughtered in Nepal where Maoists are also prominent? How is it that Thailand, which also has a kingdom, is now facing strife and who lies behind the phantom figure supposedly hiding in the tribal mountains of Afghanistan? These are the questions being asked within the US today and my belief is that it is important to ask these questions rather than risk fascism overtaking the world and an India splintered into pieces along the lines of Yugoslavia, the USSR, and so on, regardless of original ethnicity, Brahmanic, Dravidian or otherwise.

4. Dikgaj - July 9, 2010

An otherwise well-researched article, but I am puzzled at some curious omissions. (1) Apart from Assam, Manipur also has a strong “Hindu” presence, with a well-known Vaishnavite tradition and a well-known dance form associated with explicitly Hindu motifs. There are also other “Hindu” groups scattered throughout the region, including Tripura. All three had “Hindu” kingdoms retaining their independence from the Mughals. In fact, the Mughals failed to conquer Assam. (2) The Assam violence started primarily as a reaction to what was seen as Bangladeshi plains Muslim “infiltration” and illegal migration. This led to a targeting of “Bengali” in general, and there are alleged political twists to turn this movement against West-Bengal Hindu Bengalees who were settlers from many previous generations. Note that all of this happened under Congress ministries in the state. (3) The other NE states violence initially took the form of communist insurgency in the late 60’s and 70’s as part of the general Maoist insurgency engulfing the eastern part. A detailed analysis of socio-economic parameters of the period should have shown that they were not much different from the previous decades and in fact were starting to improve. Moreover, any developmental effort in this region also has to consider the so-called resistance to “interference in traditional lifestyles”. (4) There have been allegations of Missionary activities and involvement in indirectly supporting insurgency, or the use of Christian themes and identities to claim international legitimacy for insurgency. In fact there are studies of the correlation of growth of missionary activity in Nagaland with the growth insurgency related violence. This should not be taken as an implication of missionaries in violence against the Indian state or separatism but could indicate a complicated political and international angle to the whole process.

Finally, there are schools of thought that see the selective and biased treatment of separatism by neo-imperialism working in the separatist and insurgent violence in NE India. The region is strategically important to a host of international entities keen on gaining a foothold here. China would be interested as it gets closer to a direct route to Bangladesh and protecting its Tibetan interest from the south-east. Western powers would be equally interested in checking Chinese advance and getting an independent foothold to gain intervening or surveillance powers over the critical Kunming-Myanmar-Bangladesh-NE-India region – a region of difficult terrain, insurgency, drugs and arms trafficking – all of which can be used to generate resources outside of national western budgets to fuel covert operations against perceived enemies.