An overview of the under reported menagerie of conflicts in India’s restive northeast.
When to words “India” and “war” are mentioned, most people think about the hostilities between India and Pakistan. While there seems to be no end in sight to that conflict, India is also engaged in a battle for hearts and minds in the ethnically diverse region of the northeast. With a population approaching 40 million and hundreds of different ethnicities and tribes, it also serves as an area of strategic importance with more than 2,800 miles of international border. About 90 percent of these borderlands is with China, who disputes India’s claims to some areas of Arunchal Pradesh.
Despite being a border dispute between the world’s two most populous nations, the region gets scant international media attention. For frequent travelers to India, the region is simply the place that requires a lot of permits. I wanted to know more about what was happening in this part of the world recently, so I spoke with Esha Roy of the Indian Express about the conflicts in region, Chinese sovereignty, whether a plebiscite is a solution, and what kind of impact will Modi’s plans on having on the region.
When you do your reporting for the Arunchal Pradesh region, where are you based? Do you travel around frequently in the North East?
I have been posted in Imphal, Manipur for over three years now. While my focus is on Manipur and the conflict here, I do travel to Meghalaya and Nagaland whenever there is a story that needs to be told.
When the words ‘India’ and ‘war’ are mentioned most people quickly think of Pakistan and Kashmir, but there is quite a deep conflict in the northeast as well. This area comprises a lot of different groups, cultures, and languages. What are these conflicts about?
It’s true that whenever `conflict’ in India is mentioned it is usually referring to Kashmir, and in more recent years the Naxal areas of the country. But the fact is that the conflict in the northeast, now called a low-intensity conflict – it is anything but that, as it has been raging in this corner of the country for 60 years now. Kashmir’s proximity to India’s arch rival Pakistan is, I believe, what makes it so high profile, also the states proximity to New Delhi, our seat of power. The sheer distance between New Delhi and the northeast – a massive 2000 kilometers – keeps this region off Delhi’s radar, both in terms of resolution of the conflict here as well as various development needs. It is this neglect that has intensified the feeling of alienation among the people of the northeast.
The conflict in the North East is an extremely complex issue – in each of its states. While the reasons for conflict vary in each state, the final outcome of demands for each banned underground group is practically the same – that is secession from the Indian State and the formation of an independent nation.In Assam, domination by Bengalis and other non-Assamese groups and the influx of thousands and thousands of illegal Bangladeshi migrants intensified the feeling of insecurity among the Assamese and the desire for an independent identity emerged. There were similar issues in Tripura where the different tribal groups felt taken over by the Bengalis and were threatened with a loss of identity.
While in the other northeastern states the movement for secession arose after Indian independence. In Nagaland and Manipur the demand existed before and during 1947, when India embarked on the creation of a new nation. The Nagas, an umbrella group of as many as 35 tribes across Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam, are a fiercely proud and independent people. They resisted the British when the Crown tried to annex their areas and include it in the British Raj. The British then simply administered the area which largely remained autonomous in many ways. When the British were leaving various Naga groups came together and are believed to have told them that they wanted to be an independent nation. This was not accepted. The Nagas have been fighting a civil war of independence since. But the movement fractured with various Naga tribes calling for their own individual movements. What emerged, amongst the many smaller groups, were the two large powerful groups – the NSCN (IM) which has a ceasefire agreement with the Indian Government and are engaged in peace talks; and the NSCN (K) which is a Myanmar based Naga group (there are many Naga tribes in Myanmar) and functions out of what is called Eastern Nagaland in Myanmar and are fighting for one Naga nation (that is the unification of the Indian and Burmese Nagas).
The movement has been somewhat diluted over the years and the Nagas now feel that actual secession is no longer practical nor desirable. They are looking for an amicable resolution with the Indian Government by which their dignity can retained and in all probability autonomy of the Naga areas within the parameters of the Indian State and Constitution is now being considered.
In Manipur state the conflict is even more complex. It was an independent kingdom known as Kangleipak before the British annexed it as a part of the Raj. The kingdom, located in a valley and inhabited by the Meitei Hindus, was surrounded by tribal Nagas who would raid the kingdom time and time again. The British brought the Kuki tribe from Myanmar and placed them around the top of the kingdom like a horseshoe to protect the people from the raiding Nagas, the Kukis were to function as a buffering population. These are now the three big communities in Manipur – the Hindu Meiteis and the tribal Nagas and Kukis. Each community has its own insurgent group – and sometimes each tribe. This means that officially Manipur has 33 banned insurgent groups and unofficially (because of the splintering of these groups) as many as 60 – the largest number of militant groups anywhere in the country. The 20 odd Kuki groups have signed suspension of operation agreements with the Indian Government and now live in camps designated by the government. They are not allowed to take their arms outside of these camps. The NSCN (IM) has a ceasefire agreement. The Hindu Meitei groups – which include seven prominent groups, such as the People’s Liberation Army and the Kangleipak Communist Party and United National Liberation Front, have no agreement with the government and continue to operate from their bases now located in Myanmar. Cadres of these active groups come into Indian territory, strike, and then quickly cross the border into Myanmar, as happened on June 4 when an ambush set by these groups killed 18 Indian soldiers in Chandel district of Manipur.
The Naga groups in Manipur have been fighting for a greater Nagaland, the Kuki groups for a Kukiland and the Meiteis for an independent Manipur – there is much hostility between the different communities and thus between the different groups and there are inter-group and intrafactional gun fights which come to light from time to time. These fights often have turf wars between these groups. They all have “operating areas.”
But while the original intention of all these groups has been secession from India, ideologically they are no longer as strong. At the present moment they operate more like Mumbai’s underworld – gangs which carry out kidnappings for ransom, extensive extortion rackets, drugs and arms smuggling, and sometimes even human trafficking.
From a historical and territorial perspective, is India correct in its assertions of sovereignty? Does China have a legitimate claim? Is there any room for self-determination of any of the parties involved?
This is a tricky question. Some quarters say that these territories rightfully belong to India. Such as the Maharaja of Manipur having signed the Shillong Accord leading to the inclusion of Manipur in India. Detractors say that the Maharaja was coerced. There is no way of really knowing what exactly happened at the time. China has never claimed any part of the northeast with the exception of Arunachal Pradesh. The people of Arunachal Pradesh, a largely Buddhist population, deny this claim.
The people of Kashmir have spent decades demanding a plebiscite, do the various groups in northeast India have a similar rallying cry?
The UNLF in Manipur has for years been demanding a plebiscite. The government has never accepted this demand. In May 1951 the NNC held a plebiscite in Nagaland in which they claimed that the Nagas overwhelmingly voted for independence. The Indian government did not accept this claim. There are attendant problems with carrying out plebiscites in the northeast. Even the elections conducted in these states are far from democratic. Either the village chief of a village decides whom to vote for and the entire village complies or there is tremendous pressure from various militant groups to vote for a particular candidate. Politicians in these states are hand in glove with insurgents and are commonly known to pay hefty amounts to these groups to use force and terror to ensure their victory. Booth capturing is rampant and bogus voting common. If a plebiscite were to take place, it would more than likely not be independent or necessarily the will of the people.
Modi seems to be positioning as a ‘big’ political leader? What is his party offering do about India’s myriad of conflicts?
As far as the BJP is concerned, they seem to be a little more proactive than the congress governments have been. Under the leadership of former BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee a separate Ministry for the North East was created in the Union Government – the DONER Ministry – to look into the development of this region. Vajpayee was also the first Indian Prime Minister to acknowledge that the Nagas have a “unique history” and therefore a unique solution was required to resolve the Indo-Naga conflict. He is still this day highly considered and respected by the people of Nagaland.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a number of measures to try and integrate the north east region into mainstream India and eliminate the feeling of alienation. Connectivity to the rest of the country is a major issue in the region and heightens the already existing feeling of alienation. Modi has announced that his government has allotted Rs 20,000 crores for the development of roads here. Power augmentation, creation of economic zones and hubs, including IT parks, new rail linkages to various states, and other infrastructure projects are on the anvil. He has further mandated that every minister in his government has to visit the states of the northeast every two months. I don’t think this region has such a flurry of visits from union ministers in its history. His Minister of State for Home Affairs has been given to Kiren Rijiju from Arunachal Pradesh – an important profile for someone from the northeast. He has initiated a scheme by which 20 police officers and personnel from the north east will be inducted into the Delhi Police force either as training or as a part of the north Indian police.
He has also set a deadline of 18 months for the resolution of the Indo-Naga conflict, the first time a definite deadline has been set. The message he seems to be giving to the people of the northeast is that this government considers them an integral and valuable part of the country and is dedicated to ensuring the development of the region and bringing peace. It is still in the early days yet and how far this will be achieved and how sincere the government’s efforts will be is yet to be seen.
In a recent column you said Myanmar is offering what distant India is not, what exactly should India be offering?
I was talking in particular about the border villages abutting the border. These villages are a stones throw away from the Burmese villages. On the other hand, ranges of scraggy steep hills separate them from their Indian counterparts, leaving them dependent more on Myanmar than India. What India needs to do in order to integrate them is to provide infrastructure and facilities – proper road connectivity and transportation being the first priority. Basic amenities such as electricity, medical care, and education are severely lacking. This is the responsibility of both the Indian and state governments and is sadly being overlooked and neglected.