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Seven Sisters Militancy

The North East has been the most continuously militarized region in India after independence. The common problems of economic underdevelopment, exploitation of natural resources by ‘outsiders’ and environmental degradation in the seven states (now eight, including Sikkim, the latest entrant) ofthe North East have led to a perception of ‘backwardness’ among severely alienated people. This is fertile ground for local militancy which has at times turned into secessionism. In places, militants ran virtual parallel governments and collect contributions by way of ‘taxes’. They challenge State authority and this often exerts a dual pressure on the local people. Sustained militancy and violence has affected the civilian population in a number of ways.

The Seven Sisters of India are the seven relatively unexplored and isolated Indian states -- Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh -- which for many years was closed to foreigners. This land, better known to the world as the North-Eastern region of India, borders China, Tibet, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Interestingly, 99 percent of the Northeast’s boundaries is international and only one percent is domestic boundary.

India's remote northeast, the area comprising the seven states stretching from Tibet in the north to Myanmar (Burma) in the south, among them Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Assam. In this area, rarely visited by foreigners, peoples scarcely known to the Western world continued a way of life steeped in ancient ritual.

The Seven Sisters have been thought of by New Delhi as a region riddled with exceptions in three different areas - the people's racial and tribal difference, their geographic isolation which enabled a perceived non-participation in the national government and the spread of Christianity as the dominant religion in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland.

North East is ethnically, linguistically and culturally very distinct from the other states of India. Though cultural and ethnic diversity per se are not causes for conflict, but one of the major problem areas is that the Northeast is territorially organized in such a manner that ethnic and cultural specificities are accentuated, giving rise to discontentment and assertion of one’s identity.

The British colonial rulers took nearly a century to annex the entire region, and administered the hills as a loose ‘frontier area’, with the result, that large parts of the northeastern hill areas never came in touch with the principle of a central administration before Independence.

There are boundary disputes between some States like the ones between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Nagaland, Assam and Meghalaya, Assam and Mizoram, and between Tripura and Mizoram. Disputes started between Angamis of Nagaland and Mao tribals of Manipur regarding Dzukou valley. Many of the disputes are legacies of the past. Unfortunately such disputes, at times, tend to grow into serious tensions that occasionally erupt into violence and displacement of people.

Northeast India, home to some 40 million people, is surrounded by international boundaries with China, Bhutan, Burma and Bangladesh. The population of the Northeast is largely of East and Central Asian origin and is culturally quite distinct from the rest of South Asia; ethnically as well as geographically it is considered to be a gateway that links India to East and Southeast Asia. The region is connected to the rest of India by a narrow piece of land, the 21-kilometer "chicken's neck" between Bangladesh and Nepal, and comprises eight states - Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

Over 150 indigenous communities speaking more than 420 languages and dialects inhabit the area. While non-tribals dominate Assam and Tripura, over 60 per cent of the other states are populated by tribes scheduled in the Indian Constitution. Moreover, there are radical differences between the inhabitants of the hills and plains in the region, like the Meiteis and the Nagas of Manipur. Historically, some of these communities did have cultural and economic ties with the rest of India but politically they were never the subjects of the empires or kingdoms that ruled India prior to the advent of the British.

Annexation brought the Northeast into the fold of British India in the second half of the 19th century. Policies initiated then introduced changes that contributed to ethnic tensions in the region. The process of British rule in the North East began with the Battle of Yandaboo on 24th February 1826, when they drove out the Burmese from Assam. Initially, the British followed a policy of isolation and non-interference. However, the policy changed with the prospect for tea industry and oil in Assam.

Protection of economic interests was a key factor leading to the annexation of the hill tribes. Manipur and Tripura, which were princely states, were reduced to subordinate status. Political control over Nagaland was established in 1878. Meghalaya was annexed in 1872-73, and Mizoram was brought under control in 1889. Arunachal Pradesh was administered by an Assistant Political Officer posted at Sadiya in 1882.

Various measures adopted by the British sowed the seeds for the feeling of isolation and exclusion among the North East tribals. The most obvious of these was the Inner Line Regulation. (The Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation introduced in 1873 was extended to NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) and the Naga Hills. The Inner Line Regulation was enforced in the Lushai Hills in 1896.) The Regulations restricted contact between the hill tribes and the plainsmen, and also aimed to curb clashes between the British subjects and the tribals. This marked the beginning of isolation of the North East tribes. They became effectively cut off from the political, economic and social development in the rest of the country, including most importantly, the National Freedom Movement.

(This policy of exclusion was followed by the Government of India Act 1919, which gave the Governor General-in-Council the authority to declare any British territory as “Backward Tract”, No Act of Indian legislature would apply to these territories, which covered the Lushai Hills, the Naga Hills and the North Cachar Hills. Regional sentiments were reinforced, and the situation was exacerbated by the creation of “Excluded Areas” by the Act of 1935.)

Coming to the 20th century, the region witnessed the start of conflict in the form of Insurgency. Political consciousness among the Nagas began with the participation of a few Nagas in World War I. As early as in 1918, the Naga Club was formed. By 1929, the Naga leaders had submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission asserting self-determination of their own future. This was carried forward by the educated elites, and eventually the Naga National Council declared Independence on 14th August 1947, under the leadership of Phizo.

With independence in 1947, the Indian ruling elite tried to integrate the Northeast into the Indian state with a carrot and stick policy. But from the 1950s onwards, this was met with resistance by the Naga insurgency. In subsequent decades, other communities also took to arms and the scale of conflict prevalent in the region has ebbed and flowed, but has frequently been akin to low intensity warfare. The partition of India was disastrous for the Northeast since the creation of East Pakistan resulted in severance of inland waterways, roads and railways, access to Chittagong port and vital economic linkages. Partition also brought waves of unwanted migration that upset the demographic equations in the region. There was no economic development to match the new needs of the region, and the backwardness heightened the people's feeling of isolation and alienation vis-`-vis "mainland" India.

There were something like 13 Peace Accords which were signed between 1949 and 2005 in the North East. Out of these, the Mizo Accord of 1986 is the outstanding success story.

For a long period the Northeast remained largely excluded from India's process of nation-building and modernization. Development funds for the states have often fallen into corrupt hands and leaked into the coffers of insurgent groups. The complete failure of the political leadership of the region enabled the ethnic groups to aggressively voice their sub-national aspirations and the easy availability of arms led to further deterioration in the security situation. For most of its history the GOI conceived the region as a strategic area where military strength should be concentrated to maintain order, a view that was strongly reinforced by the Sino-Indian War in 1962. At the same time, the government's management of porous international borders remained ineffective.

Northeast conflicts are broadly perceived as ethnic identities confronting the mainstream Indian state. However, a closer look reveals a greater complexity. Confrontations may be categorized as a) indigenous group versus state; b) tribe versus tribe; and c) tribal versus non-tribal. In any particular conflict, more than one of these elements may overlap.

The objectives of the various movements have included complete secession and independence, state formation, regional autonomy, a right to self-determination, and eviction of outsiders. Some of the groups have largey lost touch wit their ideological roots and are essentially maitaining a livelihood through politically justified banditry. Each state has specific concerns and each people their particular grievances. Although rebel alliances exist, each group has its own agenda that often does not accommodate the aspirations of other groups. For instance, the ULFA does not approve of the NSCN-IM's goal of Greater Nagaland, since it would incorporate parts of Assam. Overall, the primary battle of each group is for territorial supremacy over areas they claim to represent. For this reason, the Nagas are in conflict with Manipuris and Kukis, and the Bodos have killed Santhals.

Extensive, complex patterns of violence continue in the seven states of northeastern India. The main insurgent groups in the northeast include two factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in Nagaland; Meitei extremists in Manipur; and the all Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) in Tripura. The proclaimed object of many of these groups is to break out of the Indian union, creating new, independent nations.

Their stated grievances against the Indian Government range from charges of neglect and indifference to the endemic poverty of the region, to allegations of active discrimination against the tribal and non-tribal peoples of the region by the center. The oldest of these conflicts, involving the Nagas, started with India's independence in 1947. The insurgency was eventually quelled in the early 1980s through a mixture of repression and cooptation.

Only after Independence and re-organisation of the States was a semblance of real Government authority and administration brought into these far-flung areas. This was strongly resented by the newly educated elite of the tribal societies, who construed the efforts of the Government as an encroachment on their tribal way of life and freedom. Thus, on the basis of racial, cultural and religious differences from the majority stock of the plains, insurgency in the NE India came into being.

There is also a view that politico-administrative arrangements made by the Centre have also been lacking. For instance, the introduction of the Sixth Schedule Autonomous Councils ended up creating multiple power centers instead of bringing in a genuine process of democratization or autonomy in the region. Consequently, by 2015 there were ten such Councils in the region and many more demanding such status.

Issues of ideology were by and large irrelevant to the insurgency movements of the NE region. The single predominant factor that has withstood the test of time in this regard is either ethnic (such as in Assam and Tripura) or tribal as in Nagaland. It has also been seen that, within a particular State, insurgency by one set of tribals raises its head, finds roots and spreads and then dies with an agreement with the Government. Thereafter, in the same geographical area, another lesser tribe/sub tribe undergoes the same cycle.

Thus in Mizoram, once Lushai insurgency came to an end, the Hmars were up in arms. In the same manner, the Naga insurgency once spearheaded by the Semas passed into the hands of the Konyaks in Northern Nagaland and the Tangkhuls in Southern Nagaland and NE Manipur with the once dominant Semas and Angamis relegated largely to the side lines. Similar to the Bodos, the Karbi Anglongs of Assam are showing all the signs of the itch to raise yet another movement. Thus it is evident that even if, at the point of origin ideology had any role to play, in the long run it is the ethnic and tribal perceptions that truly matter.

The insurgency in the NE states first manifested itself in Nagaland and thereafter mushroomed to other areas. The insurgency in Nagaland has thus, in a sense, been an umbrella for all other insurgencies in the region. It is essential to know the historical context leading to these insurgencies. The map of the NE has been altered with new lines drawn to recognise new political and administrative realities. The names of these entities have changed; the Naga Hills has become Nagaland, the Lushai Hills has changed to Mizoram and the North Eastern Frontier Agency, still known to many simply as NEFA, has become Arunachal Pradesh.

The jungles of SE Asia sweep down from Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh across seven other nations - Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Kampuchea, Malaysia and Vietnam-spanning political boundaries regardless of physical frontiers. Ethnic coalitions, oral traditions and lifestyles based on respect for nature have mattered more in these regions than frontiers. Here men and women, with common origins but different nationalities, share a racial, historic, anthropological and linguistic kinship with each other that is more vital than their links with the mainstream political centers, especially at Delhi, Dhaka and Rangoon, or Yangon, as it is known today.

It is this affinity that has played a role in the unrest and insurgencies that have long troubled the NE of India. Affinity and Identity; these, more than any other factors, have represented the principal compulsions that triggered the Naga, Mizo, Meitei, Tripuri and Assamese affirmation of separateness from the non-Mongolian communities that dominate the India subcontinent.

India's NE is a misshapen strip of land, linked to the rest of the country by a narrow corridor just 20 kms wide at its slimmest, which is referred to as the "Siliguri Corridor". This region has been the battle ground for generations of sub-national identities. The anthropological composition of the inhabitants of North Eastern India presents a kaleidoscopic variety. Descendants of Aryan and Dravidian stocks co-mingle with the Indo-Burmese and Indo-Tibetan strains. Owing to its geographical isolation from the rest of India and the relative primitiveness of the tribal societies existing here, the region remained virtually cut off from the rest of India. From time immemorial till the near eclipse of the British Raj, and even to this day, this situation of isolation has continued in one form or the other.

To give a fair account of the feeling of non-"Indianness" of the tribal peoples, it is essential to understand that the phenomenon is more or less reciprocal with the rest of India being largely ignorant of the problems and privations of the peoples of NE India. One striking example of the psychological aloofness of the Indian people from this region is the massacre at Nellie in 1976. This incident in which over 3000 men, women and children were slaughtered in one go, could engage Indian media attention for barely two weeks.

There is now a perceptible change in attitudes. The sheer scale and intensity of the ongoing political violence in Assam and the resultant continuous media coverage has brought about a situation where the rest of India is now aware of the existence of the region. Similarly, the opening of roads and related means of communication in the region has served, in conjunction with the spread of education, to bring about an awareness of the rest of India. The veritable flood of Hindi movies and their popularity in the region have also assisted in no small measure in this slow but sure process of absorption in the Indian mainstream.

In October 2002 a dozen underground organizations of the North East India constituted a platform to carry forward their armed struggle together. The organizations had consolidated their bases in a common area of Burma -- which they call "Liberated Burma" -- with the help of Kachin Independence Army (KIA). An area of Burma bordering Nagaland of the North East India has been occupied by the militants, in which they have reportedly set up as many as 20 camps to provide training to their cadres. A stretch of Burma opposite of Mon District of Nagaland in the North East has been occupied by the militant groups, but the Burmese government cannot take action against them.

Bhutan on 15 December 2003 launched a military crackdown on three Indian separatist groups - the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamatapur Liberation Organization (KLO). The three groups, fighting for independent homelands, had set up well-entrenched bases inside the dense jungles in southern Bhutan. The ULFA and the NDFB are rebel groups from the border state of Assam, while the KLO is from West Bengal. Bhutan claimed it had smashed all the 30 rebel camps, but admitted the militants were still holed up inside the kingdom.

The responsibility of dealing with law and order problems as per the provisions of extant laws rests primarily with the respective State Governments. However, the Union of India assists the Governments of North Eastern States including Meghalaya in a variety of ways like sharing of intelligence, sending advance alert messages and advisories, deployment of Central Armed Police Forces including Rapid Action Force on specific requests, modernization of State Police Foreces, re-imbursement of Security related expenditures, sanction of India Reserve Battalion and declaring the insurgent groups/outfits as Unlawful association.

The Government has shown its willingness to enter into peace dialogue with insurgent groups which abjure violence. In north eastern States, peace talks with various insuregent groups are continuing. In Assam, United Liberation Front of Assam [ULFA/Pro-talk], National Democratic Front of Bodoland/Progressive {NDFB/P}, NDFB/Ranjan Diamary [NDFB/RD], Karbi Longri NC Hills Liberation Front [KLNLF] have signed Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreements. In Nagaland, National Socialist Council of Nagaland/Isak Muivah [NSCN/IM] has signed a framework agreement and NSCN/Khole Kitovi and NSCN/Reformation of Nagaland have signed ceasefire agreement with the Government. In Manipur, a total of 25 UG outfits, under two conglomerates (United Progressive Front[UPF] – 8, Kuki National Organisation [KNO – 17] have also signed Suspension of Operation with the Government.

Pursuant to the policy of talks, various insurgent outfits viz. United People’s Democratic Solidarity [UPDS], Dima Halam Daogah [DHD] of Assam and Achik National Volunteer Council [ANVC] and ANVC/B of Meghalaya have signed Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) with the Government and dissolved themselves. As a result, a number of cadres of insurgent outfits have surrendered after laying down arms and joined the mainstream of society. Other insurgent groups who are still indulging in violent/unlawful activities are being dealt with by the Central Armed Police Forces and the State Police through Counter-Insurgency Operations.

The debate on the politics of the northeast has rested on the region's alienation and marginalisation from mainstream politics. The astounding number of organised insurgencies, in the region, party politics notwithstanding, gives credence to the idea that the northeast has substantial grievances against the Indian state: Yet, in 2013 assembly elections in the insurgency-hit States of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Triputa, the incumbents were voted back into power and voter turnout was unprecedentedly high - Tripura had a voter turnout of 93 percent, followed by Meghalaya at 88 percent and Nagaland at 83,2 percent.

By 2015 the overall level of insurgency was at all-time low. Mizoram, Tripura, large parts of Assam and Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh except its three eastern districts, were almost free of insurgency. There was a strong popular desire for peace in Nagaland and Manipur too. According to the government records, there were no extremist incidents in Mizoram and Tripura in the first quarter of 2017, with declining trends also seen in Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland.

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Page last modified: 25-02-2018 16:48:30 ZULU