The political complexities of India's North East can be best understood by examining the historical genesis of the conflict.
The situation in India's North East is consequential to both its history and geography. The entry of Britain into the region in the 1820s was in response to a request from the Ahom rulers of Assam for help in countering frequent raids by the Burmese to the South. Habitation in the region was primarily confined to areas close to river valleys and hills - the effect of historical migrations.
The British introduced tea plantations in Assam, which was followed by the discovery of oil and coal in the last decade of the same century. The extraction of these resources required an educated local populace that was lacking. It resulted in the British facilitated migration of an educated non-local population that was primarily Bengali. This has resulted in the most fundamental issue that has continuously dogged the North East. The situation has subsequently aggravated, with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) being the latest move at seeking solutions.
The changing demographic pattern in the North-East which initially impacted Assam and Tripura the most, gradually spread to other parts of the region. Under these circumstances, Christian evangelism in Nagaland served to abet a secessionist movement that led to the declaration of independence of the State on 14th August 1947. Central intervention, primarily under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi, resulted in the issue of independence being withheld. The Naga-Hydari Agreement of June 1947, brokered by Shri Akbar Hydari, then Governor of Assam, provided interim respite. Disputes over the interpretation of the provisions of the Agreement prompted the Nagas to resort to violence in the early fifties, and non-participation in India's first General Elections in 1951-52. The armed forces were inducted into the region to quell the insurgency. The conflict has spiralled and since turned bitter.
The Naga insurgency escalated due to a combination of internal and external factors. Naga intransigence can be attributed in some measure to western intervention that elevated the Naga issue to the global stage. Chinese meddling through the training of insurgents and supply of weapons was an important factor. Pakistan was equally complicit in the supply of weapons up to 1971. Conflict resolution and diplomacy was simultaneously found lacking internally.
Talks with the Government of India through the Naga Peoples Convention (NPC) led to the grant of Statehood to Nagaland in 1963. The first ceasefire between the Naga National Council (NNC) and the Government of India was brokered by the Rev. Michael Scot in 1964. Subsequent talks failed, and violence resumed. A concerted campaign by the Army after the 1971 war resulted in the signing of the Shimla Accord in 1975. Internal disagreements within the NNC resulted in its splitting into the Accordist and Non-Accordist groups.
Following this, a tenuous peace was shattered with the breakaway formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980. Tribal dynamics within the NSCN resulted in its further split into the NSCN (IM) and the NSCN (K) in 1988. The Indian government's patronage of one group over the other did not help matters, but it successfully signed a ceasefire with the NSCN (IM) in 1997 and with the NSCN (K) in 2001. The latter split once again in 2011. One more group calling itself NSCN (R) was formed out of the NSCN (K) in 2017. The ideology of the early days has given way to personality cults based on tribal loyalties. The business end of insurgency is the glue holding it all together.
The Naga insurgency, considered the mother of all revolts in the North East, had its proliferative effect on the rest of the region. The resort to arms was the guarantee of getting New Delhi's attention and more recently, its largesse.
Manipur apprehended that any concession to the Nagas as part of conflict resolution would be at the cost of Manipur i.e. ceding of its hill areas to Nagaland. Meitei insurgent groups found cause to seek independence, claiming that Manipur's accession to the Indian Union was coerced. Violence in the State persists. The hill districts of Manipur remain a playground for the NSCN (IM). The Kukis dwelling in the lower reaches, long pressured by the Nagas, took to arms to protect their turf and distinct identity.
Mizoram succumbed to Government apathy during the famine of 1959, which was exploited by the Mizo National Front (MNF). A ceasefire agreement witnessed a transition to a lasting peace with the MNF forming the government. It remains a model case of conflict resolution.
Tripura underwent a demographic inversion which caused tribal groups like the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) to take up arms to safeguard tribal rights. But with the tribals having been reduced to a minority (30%), the insurgency has failed to create an impact because of the inability to contest the State.
The indigenous population of Assam similarly feared being overwhelmed by the migrant Bengali population. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was formed out of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) after the sham elections of 1983. Other ethnic groups like the Bodos and Dimasas have similarly taken to arms, seeking recognition of their distinct tribal identities.
Meghalaya has identity seeking groups of the Garos in conflict with the Khasis. It remains relatively low key.
The Naga dwelling districts of Arunachal Pradesh continue to witness violence as a result of competitive turf wars between the NSCN (K) and the NSCN (IM).
Multiple other groups have been formed in the North East, all seeking to gain recognition of respective tribal identities.
- Every State of the North East has its own unique set of problems that demand customized solutions. The common thread is the effect of prolonged neglect of the region. Education, Health Care and basic facilities are severely lacking.
- The large scale migration of youth from the North East regions to the metropolitan cities of India is an explicit manifestation of the malaise. The 'Look East' and 'Act East' policies of the Central Government have focused attention towards the infrastructure development of the region in the recent past. Corruption is endemic, with deep linkages to politics. This aspect is not unique to the North East, but when combined with tribal dynamics, the situation is cause for concern. A classic case for study and analysis is the situation in Nagaland.
- The Naga insurgency, having been tagged as the mother of all insurgencies in North Eastern India, is viewed as the litmus test for conflict resolution in the region. The Indian Government has signed a Framework Agreement with the NSCN (IM) in 2015. The process continues in secrecy, with little indication of what is commonly referred to as the "Naga Solution".
- How did we get here? History and geography are beyond our control. We must consider the post-independence period to debate issues that could serve as pointers for the future.
Image Courtesy: Hindustan Times