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July 15, 2022 | Expert Insights

Colloquially called the Seven Sisters (Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya) and the ‘eighth brother’ Sikkim, North-eastern India is precariously connected with the heartland by a narrow stretch of land- the Siliguri Corridor. India’s Northeast is home to a charming mix of ethnically, linguistically, and culturally distinct groups, traditional tribes and languages. It is also resource-rich, with limestone, coal, oil, gas, uranium, and copper supplies.   

Strategic Significance

The North-eastern states are India’s forward sentinels sharing borders with China, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. The borders stretch over 5385 km, almost one-third of India’s total land frontiers (15200 km). 
The Siliguri Corridor (Chicken’s Neck) is the primary road, rail and air connectivity gateway. With a width of approximately 22 km and a length of 60 km, the corridor is highly vulnerable to security threats. 
The Siliguri Corridor’s proximity to China, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh further adds to its geostrategic significance.Chinese territorial claims in Arunachal Pradesh referred to as ‘South Tibet’, concern India’s security. The rugged terrain, inadequate socio-economic development and factors such as tribal rivalry, different ethnicity, illegal migration and percieved feeling of alienation have resulted in a fragile security situation in the North-Eastern states. This has resulted in sporadic violence and diverse demands by various Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs).

Getting Own House in Order

The reasons for alienation amongst the NE states are manifold, some perceived while others justified.
Identity Politics. The politics of identity and self-determination in a region home to diverse ethnic groups, traditional tribes, and languages has led to tensions and inter-tribal conflicts, the latest being the ongoing Meitei-Kuki conflagration in Manipur.   
The tendency for ethnopolitical assertion is naturally high, primarily owing to the political boundaries not coinciding with the existing social boundaries. Many ethnic groups bordering the international boundaries have more in common with the population living across the border than with their co-nationals. 
The sense of support (both material and non-material) they derive from across has had security implications. 
The traditionally open borders add to the challenge, despite India fencing off its border with Bangladesh. However, fencing off Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, China etc., is neither physically practical nor diplomatically possible.
NE Insurgencies. Long before the proxy war in J&K and the Khalistan movement raised their ugly head, the NE was the scene of armed insurgencies waged with a ferocity that left the nascent Indian Army staggering. 
Even the British Raj had very tenuous control over these fierce and proud communities, using a very flexible system of political residents to more or less allow autonomous rule by tribal chiefs. 
In the heady days immediately after independence, New Delhi was in a hurry to amalgamate the Indian Union into one solid entity and in the process, ethnic and cultural specificities were ignored in the delineation of state boundaries in the 1950s, giving rise to discontentment and forceful assertion of ethnic identity. 
Admittedly, the rate of economic progress has been nowhere close to what has been achieved in the mainland, for whatever reasons, triggering widespread discontent that simmers with varying intensity even today. 
The insurgents point to the lack of investment in the region and perceived or real ‘injustices’, and these continue to dog New Delhi’s efforts to turn its North-East into its Gateway to SE Asia. 
Narcotics Fuelling Crimes. The sub-region joining Thailand, Laos and Myanmar is called the “Golden Triangle” - a major source of illegal drugs. Drugs are a major source of income for insurgent groups and a means of cooperation with their partners outside India. 
Thus, to deal with the problem of separatism effectively, a systematic and multi-pronged approach must be adopted to cut off the links of local armed separatist groups with Myanmar, China and other countries.
Boundary Disputes. Boundary disputes, particularly with China, have been a longstanding concern in the North-eastern region. 
These disputes have, at times, escalated tensions and affected the overall security situation. Hostile neighbours are extending moral and material support owing to porous international borders.
Governance Deficit. Indigenous people feel that they have little share in political and economic structures at the central level, depriving them of determining the nature and context of the problem, thereby frustrating their aspirations.
Inadequate Infrastructure. Without a doubt, the region has underdevelopment, poverty, unemployment, lack of connectivity and inadequate health care and educational facilities. 
The migration of people from the Indian mainland and across the porous border is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an economic, cultural and political threat by the locals.
Political Representation., The ‘Seven Sisters and one Brother’ send only 24 Members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha, out of which Assam alone sends 14 members. Clearly, compared to the North Indian states (Bihar 40, UP 80, MP 29), this is a small number, thus exacerbating the sentiment of being treated as stepsisters by New Delhi.

The External Dimension

India’s neighbours -China, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal-are involved in the region by political backing, economic assistance, logistic support, military training and arms supplies. 
This external involvement seriously impacts the security situation in India’s Northeast.The China Connection. China’s logistical and moral support to separatist groups in India is not new. 
Since the 1950s, China has been fanning the flames of separatism in India’s north-eastern states - Nagaland, Manipur, and Assam, as part of Beijing’s effort to contain India. 
In the early 1960s, it was routine for insurgent Naga ‘gangs’  to trek to the Chinese mainland for a dose of indoctrination, military training, arms and ammunition replenishment and much-needed funds. 
China’s links with Cox Bazar in Bangladesh, a hub of illegal arms trade, are well established. Cox’s Bazar effectively supports insurgencies in NE India and even deeper into the heartland. 
Instability in Myanmar. An ethnically and politically volatile Myanmar on India’s doorstep is a cause of concern for the stability of NE India. 
Ever since its independence in 1948, the instability fuelled by disparate insurgencies fomenting concurrently in various corners of Myanmar has created much anxiety in New Delhi. 
Since the coup in February 2021, the situation has only quantitatively escalated. Myanmar’s military—the Tatmadaw- is busy fighting dozens of separatist and anti-military, anti-regime armed tribal groups with a spillover impact on the Indian security situation. 
Bangladesh. While Bangladesh denies it vehemently, the presence of an overwhelming illegal immigrant population, mostly Bangla in origin, along the border between the Indian states of Assam, West Bengal and Bangladesh is a reality. 
Indian intelligence agencies have been on record drawing attention to Pakistani operatives working from their High Commission in Dhaka to unite various IIGs and coordinate their anti-India operations more effectively.
Nepal. Similarly, Nepal is a favourite point of entry for Pakistani agents/non-state actors trying to infiltrate India to make mischief. 
While remaining dormant, the Pakistani ISI has tried to bring better coordination into forging a common strategy for the IIGs. The string of madrasas, mushrooming at a rapid rate along the unguarded Indo-Nepal border, have an insidious role to play, something the Seema Suraksha Bal, responsible for the Indo-Nepal border and respective state CIDs, have been cautioning for years.

A Status Check

Arunachal Pradesh. The insurgency-impacted regions are primarily Tirap, Changlang and Longding. The IIGs are getting trained in camps opposite this area by the Chinese. Extortion is also on the rise. 
The GovernmentGovernment should intensify its efforts to contain spillover insurgency activities from neighbouring states into Arunachal Pradesh and strengthen the cooperation and interaction between the police and other security forces of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to reduce incidents in the border areas.
Assam. The NRC issue (The National Register of Citizens, a register of all Indian citizens whose creation was mandated by the 2003 amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955) in Assam is vitiating the environment; the central Government must conclude the issue expeditiously. 
The collusion of NSCN(KYA) with ULFA results in rampant extortion from tea estates, coal mines, oil and construction companies. 
The Government should closely monitor the activities of recently surrendered groups in coordination with the state government.
Manipur. The Hill versus Valley disturbances in Manipur started in March 2023. It accounted for the maximum violent incidents in the entire north-eastern region, with extremely high civilian casualties. 
The state is home to the maximum number of insurgent groups, including PLA, UNLF, ZUF, NSCM(IM) etc. The valley-based insurgent groups are also targeting non-locals in the state. The Government should intensify the pace of engagement with both groups to arrive at a settlement. 
The development projects got stalled due to recent unrest, and impetus is needed to ensure recommencement and completion. 
Nagaland. The delay in concluding the Naga Peace Process (NPP) resulted in growing unrest and frustration among the Naga Tribals. 
The Government should conclude peace talks at the earliest and prepare a generous rehabilitation-cum-settlement scheme for the insurgent outfits, who will surrender as a part of the agreement. This will avoid the emergence of any splinter rebel groups.
Mizoram. Repatriation of the Brus community (ethnic tribe) to Mizoram by offering financial and rehabilitation packages to ensure their peaceful rehabilitation and instituting security measures in the areas Brus are to be rehabilitated is still not completed. 
The Chakma issue in Mizoram must also be resolved earliest to ensure lasting peace in the stable but sensitive state.


•    Ensure inclusive peace accords with insurgent groups, ensure enforceability and address the enduring ethnic tensions for long-term stability.
•    Indian Government should conclude the ongoing dialogue with NSCN and other Naga groups, and all parties must sign the long-delayed accord.
•    Promote Inter-State boundary agreements to resolve boundary disputes and prevent conflicts.
•    Engage neighbouring countries - Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar- to address cross-border security challenges. Diplomatic initiatives pertaining to security-related issues should be taken to strengthen the security situation.
•    Political and social awareness is necessary to foster inclusivity and change the perceptions of neglected, misgoverned regions into a dynamic soft power.


•    The geostrategic location and natural resources make it a potential powerhouse for development. A comprehensive approach should be adopted to make the region a preferred investment location by improving the limited entrepreneurial base and capacity building for local entrepreneurs.
•    Economic development with initiatives to uplift the region aimed to provide job opportunities for the local youth and reduce the appeal of insurgency.
•    Enhance connectivity to Improve transportation infrastructure, including road, rail and air links, and enhance connectivity within the region and with the rest of India. 
Connectivity drives commerce and countries such as Japan are willing to be partners in the development of the North-East and connectivity to Southeast Asia.
•    Digital connectivity is necessary to move towards digital inclusion in the Northeast.
•    Higher Education infrastructure is grossly inadequate, with many students migrating to other parts of the country for education, emphasising the need for setting up centres of excellence for professional and higher education.
•    Tourism development is another facet with huge potential to channel the region into mainstream development.
•    Promote sports. The Northeast is fast emerging as a major sport hub, with some of India’s iconic sportspersons acting as role models for the youth of Northeast.  
•    Tackle Insurgency, the root cause of regional unrest movements, by addressing feelings of exploitation and alienation from other Indian states.
•    AFSPA should continue in insurgency-affected areas; steps should be taken to address the genuine demands of ethnic groups for development and for autonomy in managing their affairs. 
•    Strengthen security measures to improve the security situation in the region through effective law enforcement and specific intelligence-based counter-insurgency operations.


Comprehensive implementation of the ‘Act East’ policy is relevant to the entire country but particularly important for the long-term growth of the Northeast. To be effective, New Delhi has to make all stakeholders a partner in this endeavour and not run it remotely from South Block. Its success can achieve lasting peace and security, fostering development and strengthening ties with neighbouring countries.