The Northeast, India’s volatile periphery

Surrounded by five countries and connected to the rest of India by a tiny corridor between Bhutan and Bangladesh, the Northeast symbolizes the distant and forgotten periphery of New Delhi. Known as the “seven sisters,” the region is an amalgam of tribal communities, castes and identity-based political antagonists. From the plains of Assam, Tripura and Manipur, to the mountains of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, the history of the Northeast is insurgency and response to the narrative of “one nation” by an Indian centre that portrays it as a homogeneous territory.

Nationalist movements there originated around a strong sense of difference. Among them, the Naga stress that they have never been part of India —neither historically nor culturally, geographically or ethnically— and claim the right to decide their own future. Others, such as the Assamese, organize themselves against the exploitation of their natural resources by mainland India and the arrival of outsiders from other Indian states or neighbouring Bangladesh and Myanmar. The ghost of Tripura, where indigenous communities have been reduced to 28 per cent of the population and have been marginalized in the political, economic and cultural spheres, concerns the entire Northeast.

The history of the Northeast is linked to the evolution of the Indian state. After declaring independence in 1947, India had to face multiple challenges for its legitimacy and existence, from the war with Pakistan for Jammu and Kashmir to the communist uprising of Telangana or the rise of Tamil nationalism in the south. When an armed revolt against the idea of India began in the Assamese district of Naga Hills during the 1950s, the State decided to send the army there and enacted the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Thus begins a chronology of insurgency, repression and challenge to Delhi-promoted national identity.

Assam, citizenship based on the native versus the stranger

Home to 32 million people, a third of whom are Muslims, the federal state of Assam was incorporated into the British Empire in 1826. The arrival of British settlers was accompanied by large movements of people of Bengali origin to cultivate its fertile lands, behind which another agenda was envisioned: to polarize society between Assamese natives and outsiders.

After independence in 1947, more than 200,000 Bengalis were deported to East Pakistan —present-day Bangladesh— on suspicion of being Pakistani infiltrators, which strengthened local perceptions of Bengalis as “land grabbers” and as a danger to the preservation of local culture.

From 1979 to 1985, an anti-foreigner movement broke out in Assam. “It is in that context that most parties and social actors —including ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities— agreed on the National Register of Citizens (NRC),” explains Teesta Setalvad, a journalist and member of the secretariat of the civil organization Citizens for Justice and Peace. The agreement specified that only those who proved that they and their parents entered or lived in India before 1971 could get Indian citizenship and legally reside there. Last year, the Indian authorities were again preparing a new NRC according to the 1985 rules. “The arrival of Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist Hindu party to the Indian government, as well as the bias of the local bureaucracy against the most disadvantaged people, and pressure to achieve immediate results, perverted the process,” adds Setalvad. Almost 4 of Assam’s nearly 33 million inhabitants were excluded from the draft census, 62% of whom were women.

At the end of August, Delhi published the final version of the NRC, reducing the number of non-citizens to 1.9 million. Despite the figures, the decision was supported by the indigenous communities of Assam, fearful that their culture might be endangered by the arrival of migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Organizations such as the Rights & Risks Analysis Group did an alternative reading of the register, and pointed out how poor people without studies or property were the main victims. The lack of school certificates —which can be used as birth certificates— is particularly detrimental to tribal women such as the Reang, who are erased from ration cards and other family identifiers once married.

In case of exclusion from the National Registry of Citizens, the affected persons can appeal before one of the more than 300 courts for foreigners. It is a long and costly procedure in a national judicial system that accumulates more than 30 million pending cases.

Setalvad also explains how another exclusion process has been initiated in parallel to the NRC. “The Election Commission of India has started to remove people from the electoral roll, declaring them ‘D’ voters, and referring them also to courts for foreigners, where 85% of them are declared strangers and sent to detention centres,” she says. The Assam government has confirmed the existence of about 1,100 detainees in six facilities, and has admitted the death of 25 people within them since 2013. “Detention centres are far beyond their capacity, with people who have been in detention for 6 to 9 years, more than those allowed by law, whom are neither allowed to see their families nor granted prison permits,” says Suhas Chakma, director of the Rights & Risks Analysis Group. In February, the Assam state reported in a statement to the Supreme Court that only four foreigners have been deported since 2013, while Delhi remained silent about the future awaiting people denationalized by the NRC.

The Naga, self-determination and India’s longest-standing internal conflict

With uncertain origins and a population of around 4.5 million people, the Naga are a confederation of tribes that have inhabited the Indo-Burmese border since the 10th century BC. Theirs is a history marked by colonialism, first by the British Empire that tried to unsuccessfully subjugate them —and with which they signed a non-aggression treaty— and then by the Indian state, with whom peace negotiations have taken place where the Naga call for the establishment of their own independent state, Nagalim, with a territory that would go beyond the borders of present-day Nagaland.

The conflict is the longest-running one in independent India. On August 14, 1947, the Naga people proclaimed independence one day before Delhi did, and established a federal government headed by Angami Zapu Phizo, the founder of the Naga National Council (NNC). The Council held control of the territory until 1950, when the Indian army occupied its main cities. When in 1951 the Naga government organised a referendum on self-determination in which 99.91% of the population voted in favour of independence, then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared a state of emergency. In 1957, the Naga leaders reached an agreement with the Indian government to create the Naga Hills region, directly administered by Delhi which, despite having a high level of autonomy, did not satisfy the tribal communities. With Phizo in exile, a period of violent insurgency and harsh repression against Naga activism began, ending with the signing of a new agreement with Nehru in 1960 for the creation of Nagaland as a new state within the Union.

In 1980, the NNC was replaced by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), a Marxist people’s army with Chinese and Pakistani support, led by Isak Chishi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and S.S. Kaplang. Internal strife and disagreements led to its division into two: the NSCN-Kaplang and the NSCN-IM, the latter being the largest faction among the Naga in Nagaland and neighbouring Manipur. After decades of violence in the region, the NSCN-IM and Delhi signed a ceasefire in 1997 culminating in the negotiation of a 2015 peace agreement between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Muivah, secretary general of the NSCN-IM. The agreement, however, has not yet been ratified, and at the end of July Modi pronounced what the rebels perceived as a three-month ultimatum.

“The Naga movement must be understood in terms of an internal struggle over the historical legitimacy of factions, ideological differences, and the dominance of territory, tribes and taxation system,” explains Jelle J. P. Wouters, anthropologist and professor at the Royal University of Bhutan, on what he considers to be one of the main complications of the peace process. Delhi’s decision to negotiate with the NSCN-IM only was not well received by the other rebel groups, who felt that the organization did not represent the aspirations of the various Naga tribes.

Rich in natural resources and with a largely agricultural economy, the Naga territory is the epicenter of opposition to the Indian state on other fronts beyond the national layer. “More than passive spectators of a liberal democracy, the Naga make use of their agency, imagination and creativity to adjust democratic values and practices to their own customs and ways of life,” says Wouters. An example is the fact that the basic political unit of the tribe is not the individual, but the village, which gives rise to unanimous votes for the candidacy that the village has agreed to support when elections are held. Even if it is a society without castes, critics attack patriarchal dynamics that silence the vote of women. To this day, this has prevented any female candidate from being elected as a representative to the Assembly of Nagaland, as the Naga Mothers’ Association points out.

Manipur’s civil disobedience against AFSPA

A land of mountains and plains, Manipur is the territory where modern polo is believed to have originated. The state has also been the birthplace of rebellions such as that led by the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur, which initiated a guerrilla war against the Indian army with the stated aim of uniting the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis into a socialist and independent Manipur. Home to 1.8 million people, Manipur is also the setting where Irom Sharmila held a 16-year hunger strike against the application of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

“I am not a goddess, what I want to be is the head of government,” said Sharmila on 9 August 2016, the day she ate honey symbolically to announce the end of the world’s longest hunger strike and her intention to stand as a candidate in local elections. A member of the Meitei community —Manipur’s largest ethnic group—, Sharmila was born in 1972, the year Manipur became a state of the Indian union and the AFSPA came into action, a law that gives the Indian armed forces legal immunity for their actions and allows them to arrest civilians without warrant and shoot to kill in specific situations. Sharmila’s hunger strike to demand a repeal of the AFSPA began in November 2000, a few days after 10 civilians were killed by paramilitaries in the Malom Massacre.

“Although the AFSPA has been gradually repealed in the northeastern territories [today it continues to apply to Nagaland and parts of Manipur and Assam], and the problems appear to have evaporated, the existence of the law itself is the problem,” says Sanjoy Hazarika, writer, activist and international director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

Sharmila’s action paved the way for popular mobilizations such as those of the Meira Paibi movement, a group of mothers who in the 1970s patrolled the streets with torches to prevent the arrest of young people, killings and forced disappearances. Inspired by civil disobedience, another group of widowed women created the Execution Victim Families’ Association of Manipur (EEVFAM), which denounced to the Supreme Court the 1,528 extrajudicial executions on record between 1979 and 2012. In 2017, the Court ordered the National Intelligence Centre to set up a team to investigate 90 of those cases. Pending completion of the investigations, EEVFAM speaks of increasing threats to the organization.

Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, economic development on minority lands

The Mizo people’s history is one of changing roles. In the decades following independence, the Mizo went from rising up against Delhi and the Assam government, of which their territory was a part, to having their own state. The minority became a majority group within their newly created state, with minority groups in the Mizo Hills region pointing out that the former oppressed were now oppressors. For years, there were tensions between the Mizo and the Chakma, a minority recognised as a Scheduled Tribe —a constitutional recognition that guarantees them some level of representation in public bodies— from which the new Mizo majority demanded the dissolution of its political council.

During the 1990s, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl student organization launched an anti-foreigner campaign that, similar to the one in Assam but with less media coverage, resulted in physical violence against the Reang and Chakma tribes, the burning of houses, and the displacement of those communities. In today’s Mizoram, violence has given way to discriminatory policies. The Chakma Autonomous District Council denounces that the funding available to them is much lower than that received by similar bodies in the state, and gives rise to alarming situations: the maternal mortality rate among the Chakma and the Lai is three times higher than in the rest of Mizoram.

“The issue of the Chakma in Arunachal Pradesh is different because they are not indigenous, but were resettled there by the Indian government from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh,” explains Suhas Chakma, while commenting how anti-Chakma agitation is both used and exaggerated for political gain: “The Chakma population has increased by 220% in the last 50 years while other communities have increased by 1,000%, but the narrative focuses only on the Chakma. An amendment to the citizenship law that Modi’s party passed in 2016 was met with strong opposition by Mizoram’s Mizo majority, who was opposed to the fact that the law granted citizenship to the Chakma, the Hajong and Tibetan refugees too.

The conflicts in Arunachal Pradesh are not only identity-related, but are also linked to the acquisition of land by state development projects and the construction of hydroelectric power plants. The loss of ancestral lands crosses regional borders and also affects the indigenous communities of Tripura, where 60% of tribal lands were acquired by refugees from East Pakistan during the partition of India, partly due to the lack of possession of documents proving indigenous ownership. Widespread impoverishment, and demands for land as the centre of tribal culture and identity, creates unrest in a state where the insurgency seemed to be controlled.