It is since 1950s that the northeast of India is reeling under the fire of armed revolt. This area is perhaps one region of South Asia, facing the most frequent and longest continuing incidences of insurgency. It is very rightly said by Subir Bhaumik in his Working Paper presented before East-West Center Washington, titled ‘Insurgencies in India’s Northeast: Conflict, Co-option & Changes’ that armed rebellion is the first resort for the ethnic minorities and other inhabitant groups of the region and not the last.
The article documents the different insurgency movements going on in the Northeast of India. The article discusses the rise of Naga movement, subsequent Assam Movement, rise of United Liberation Front of Asom and the gradual rise of the menace of terrorism in the whole north-eastern territory. While doing so, the article very closely ascertains the various reasons, which acted as catalysts behind the rise of this nuisance. In the conclusion the article highlights the various steps taken by the Indian government to deal with the menace.
The history of armed insurgency, in this region, is very deep rooted. In fact, to track the history we have to look into the British occupation of the region, near autonomy enjoyed by these tribes and the assimilationist efforts in independent India.
It was in 1830s and 1840s, when the British for the first time started interfering in the affairs of the region. Subsequently we would see annexation of territories by the British one by one. There are different stories of atrocities done by the British during the time and some local chieftains valiantly trying to defend their territories. Starting from the story of Maharaja Tirath Singh of the Khasis to the stories of forceful annexation of Longding district by the British and the consequent torture and abuse.
By the way, quite contrary to their forceful annexation. The British never fully integrated these territories with rest of India. Rather, they left these territories on their own, practically neglected but also in isolation and in a condition of semi-autonomy for that matter. These regions had been the bordering regions for the British, and they looked at these territories only as a buffer region between Bengal plains and Burmese & Chinese highlands. This isolationist policy of the British allowed the nationalists sentiment and a feeling of relative deprivation to grow among the people of the region. This would become evident subsequently.
Post-independence, taking lessons from the history of British colonialism, leadership in India started a nation-wide assimilation process. In contradiction with the isolationist policy followed by the British colonial masters, leaders of independent India tried to bind the whole country in one single thread. But, following the rise of sub-nationalist sentiment and the notion of relative deprivation, which by the time was rampant among the people of the North-eastern territory, they took this as an attack on their identity and culture.
It is in this backdrop, that we see the rise of insurgency movements, one after another, in the region. Of all these movements, the movement of the Nagas was the first one. Let’s start our discussion with the detailed analysis of Naga movement.
It was in 1920s, for the first time, we would see formation of Naga Club by a group of Naga leaders, who returned after serving in the French Labour Camps during World War I. This Naga Club would desist the effort of reforms as was being proposed during the visit of Simon Commission, and they would give a memorandum to this effect to Simon Commission which would suggest to keep the Naga Hill districts of Assam out of the scheme of reforms for rest of India. Later on, this Naga Club would be reorganised into Naga National Council (NNC). A section of members of the NNC under the leadership of Angami Zapi Phizo would go to Burma and join hands with the Japanese. They chose the Japanese over Indian National Army headed by Subhash Candra Bose. After the fall of Japan in World War II, Phizo was arrested by the British and sent to jail for seven months in Rangoon, the then Burma.
NNC on the other hand was taking a firm stand on the issue of separation from India and assertion of separate sovereign identity. But this was not to happen. NNC would even declare independence on 14th of August 1947, for the Naga inhabited region, as against 15th of August. This was done to dispute the sovereignty claims of India over the Naga inhabited region. By the time on 26th-28th June 1947, they had a meaningful meeting with the then governor of Assam Sir Syed Akbar Hydari. The agreement was about administration of the Naga inhabited region for the next ten years.
Phizo would dispute this agreement and would give a call for separation from India and would also form a ‘Naga Army’ to fight for independence. Phizo would also take help of the erstwhile East Pakistani administration to this effect and secure arms, ammunitions and funding. Subsequently, in 1956, Phizo would leave India and via Dhaka would go to London. He would live the rest of his life in exile in London only. It was in this backdrop only, ‘The Assam Disturbed Area Act, 1955’ would be imposed in the Naga Hill districts. Subsequently this will pave the way for implementation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA), for the first time anywhere in India.
By the time in July 1960, the Government of India (GoI) would sign a Sixteen Point agreement with the moderate section of NNC. These sixteen points would include formation of separate Naga State and a separate Naga Regiment in Indian Army. In the second half of 1960s the GoI would co-opt with the Sema Nagas against NNC. Finally weakened by continuous operation of state forces and defection, majority of the NNC leadership would sign an agreement with the Governor of Nagaland in Shillong, popularly known as Shillong Accord, in 1975.
Two China trained leaders, Isaac Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah termed this agreement of 1975 between the Governor of Nagaland and the majority leaders of NNC as a sell-out and would launch an organisation of their own by the name National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). Later, NSCN would also get divided into number of factions. Subsequently in 1997, NSCN (I-M) would sign a cease-fire agreement with the Government of India and in August 2015 they would sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to bring in peace in the region.
Naga insurgency is one of the major movements in the region. Let’s look into the other movements as well, one by one, and for that matter let’s start with rise of insurgency in Assam.
Insurgency in Assam
While all the above-mentioned events were taking place in Naga Hill Districts (Autonomous), condition in the plains of Assam was also getting heated up. In March 1946, the Cabinet Mission came to India to finalise a plan to transfer power to the Indians. According to Cabinet Mission plan, which was initially accepted by the leadership of Congress under Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Assam was to be placed in Group C along with Bengal, where Muslim League was supposed to form Government, in spite of the Muslims being a minority community in Assam. The Congress leadership of Assam, under Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi resisted this and subsequently pulled Assam out of Group C. Similarly, it was noticed that during the census of 1931, merely 31% of population in Assam recorded Assamese as their mother-tongue. During 1946, Assam Congress election, the leadership of Congress in Assam decided that if they do not organise the State of Assam in line with Assamese language and culture, the survival of Assamese identity would be at threat. Hence in 1948, post formation of government, the Revenue Department issued a circular stating – “accept Assamese as your mother tongue and we will give you land”. This initiative acted like magic. In the census of 1951 56.7% people declared Assamese as their mother tongue. Even the Bodos or other ethnic groups, who inhabit the land even earlier than the Assamese people, declared Assamese language as their mother tongue to protect their property.
Later, Assam movement would consolidate under the leadership of All Assam Students Union (AASU). During Assam Movement in 1973/74 it would be decided to make Assamese Language compulsory in school education. Subsequently, during the government of Asom Gana Parishod (AGP) in 1985, Assamese as a language would be made mandatory even in Public Service Commission examinations. It would be during this time, in 1979 United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) would be formed under the trio of Arabindo Rajkhowa, Paresh Barua & Anup Chetiya. ULFA, with the help of ISI, would make Bangladesh, their primary operating base and would also procure arms & ammunitions and funding.
In Other States
By this time, in 1958, the tribal leaders of Mizo Hills of Assam state would give a warning to the Assam State Government about flowering of bamboo tree, which was predicted in to happen the very next year. Traditionally it is believed that flowering of Bamboo brings in bad luck as it is a bad omen. The state administration in Assam, did not pay much heed to this warning. Next year, in 1959, the flowering of Bamboo tree happened. With the flowering of Bamboo, the rat population increased exponentially. Given the flowering of bamboo tree, there is a sudden influx of food for rats, which provoke this behaviour among the rodent population. And once the seeds of bamboo were exhausted as food, these rats start eating crops of the people. Given this tendency in early 1960s, there was a famine (Mautam). This phenomenon happens in a cyclical way, once in every 48/50 years. In fact, recently in 2006, the recent ‘Mautam’ happened.
When the famine occurred, the Mizo tribes took it as an offence. Initially they formed the Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF) to help people out. Later on, under the leadership of Laldenga, a former soldier of Indian Army, MNFF would convert into Mizo National Front (MNF) and on 28th February 1966, they would organise ‘Operation Jericho’, under which they would seize nine towns of Mizo hills. Even Indian Army would take quite a few months to re-establish control over the territory. Thus, would start the insurgency movements in the Mizo hills, which would come to an end only in 1986, through a peace accord between MNF and GoI. Subsequently, one year later, to fulfil the demands of the peace accord between MNF and GoI, Mizoram would be formed into a full-fledged state.
Similar stories can be seen nearly everywhere whether Tripura, or among the Bodos, Karbis, Kukis or Meiteis of Manipur. Say for example, Tripura has been one of the last Princely states to join Indian Union along with Manipur in 1949. The Manikya Kings of Tripura tried to maintain their cultural pride as much as they can. However, post partition of India, there have been an influx of Bengali refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan. This threatened the tribal indigenous population as it would make them minority in their own land. Resultant, in 1967, started the ‘Sengkrak’ or clenched fist movement. However, Sengkrak would come to an end in 1971 with the formation of Bangladesh, only to be replaced by Tribal National Volunteers (TNV) in 1978. Even TNV would surrender in 1988. But in early 1990s two new organisations, namely All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) were formed.
Similarly, in the Manipuri plains, Meitei youths tried to revive the lost heritage of ‘Kangleipak’. Kangleipak is the ancient name of Manipur. The name was used to start a movement to recover the lost heritage of the Manipur princely state.
In conclusion, we must look at the way the Government of India reacted and the present situation in the region. The Government of India used all the measures that are present in a textbook scenario. Initially, the government implemented the draconian laws and used the armed forces, to quash down the armed insurgency in the region. Subsequently, the government also went for co-options, for example becoming sensitive to their issues, which ultimately led to the various accords and agreements such as the various agreements with the Nagas, the Bru Accord, Mizo Accord or the most recent, the Bodo Accord. Simultaneously the government took development initiatives and huge amount of money was pumped in the region for development. Lastly the government promoted democratic traditions in this region by either including them in Schedule 6 of the Constitution or creating Inner Line Permits. Today, we can say that the fire of insurgency has started to die down. This becomes evident from the recent Bodo Accord where one of the parties which was anti-talk, NDFB, also participated. The long negotiations between NSCN-IM and Government of India also indicates towards normalcy returning to the region. In the future, the North East of India is looking towards growth and development.
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