Insurgencies of the North East: Introduction

Insurgencies of the North East: Introduction

Note: Beginning with this essay, The Dharma Dispatch will publish a series aimed at providing a comprehensive understanding of the burning problem of insurgencies and instability in the North Eastern region of India.

Northeast India is the easternmost region of India and comprises eight states:  Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, with a width of 21 to 40 kilometers (or 13 to 25 miles), connects the North Eastern Region with Mainland India. The region shares an international border of 5,182 kilometres, with the neighbouring countries, 1,395 kilometres, with Tibet Autonomous Region, China in the north, 1,643 kilometres, with Myanmar in the east, 1,596 kilometres with Bangladesh in the south-west, 97 kilometres with Nepal in the west and 455 kilometres with Bhutan in the north-west. It comprises an area measuring 262,230 square kilometres , almost eight percent of that of India.

The Northeast region is home to some of India’s last remaining rainforests, which support diverse flora and fauna and several crop species. Numerous reserves of petroleum and natural gas exist in the region and are estimated to constitute a fifth of India’s total potential. This region is covered by the mighty Brahmaputra-Barak river systems and their tributaries. Geographically, apart from the Brahmaputra, Barak and Imphal valleys and some flatlands in between the hills of Meghalaya and Tripura, the remaining two-thirds of the area is hilly terrain interspersed with valleys and plains.

The total population of Northeast India is approximately 46 million with 68 percent of that living in Assam alone. Assam also has a higher population density of 397 persons per km² than the national average of 382 persons per km². The literacy rates in the states of the Northeastern region, except those in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, are higher than the national average of 74 percent. As per 2011 census, Meghalaya recorded the highest population growth of 27.8 percent among all the states of the region, higher than the national average at 17.64 percent; while Nagaland recorded the lowest in the entire country with a negative 0.5 percent.

Northeast India has over 220 ethnic groups and equal number of dialects. The hill-states in the region like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland are predominantly inhabited by tribal people with a degree of diversity even within the tribal groups. The region’s population results from ancient and continuous flows of migrations from Tibet, Indo-Gangetic region, the Himalayas, present Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

What distinguishes these states from the rest of country is the sensitive geopolitical location with the existence of diverse ethnic groups with different historical backgrounds. The North East as a whole is not a single entity with a common political destiny; rather it comprises eight states. The Tribal communities in Northeast India are living on the fringe of three great political communities, India, China and Burma. Historically, some of them played roles of buffer communities, and others the roles of bridge communities between these three great political communities.

The NE region of India is of immense geo-political importance to the Indian sub-continent due to its terrain, location and peculiar demographic dynamics, and is one of the most challenging regions to govern. Its 40 million population accounts for only 3.1% of the Indian population.

Post-independence, the history of this region has been marred by bloodshed, tribal feuds and under-development. Protracted deployment and operations by the army and the Assam Rifles have been instrumental in the abatement of the levels of violence and restoring the security situation to ensure that civil governance elements can function. At present, a delicate, uneasy peace prevails in the region. Having realised the futility of violence, several insurgent groups have resorted to Suspension of Operations (SoO) or ceasefire, thus paving the way for negotiations and hopefully, a resolution of problems.

Genesis and Historical Perspective

North East India is home for more than 200 separate tribes speaking a wide range of languages. Some groups have migrated over the centuries from places as far as South East Asia; they retain their cultural traditions and values. Its jungles are dense, its rivers powerful and rain, and thunderstorms sweep across the hills, valleys and plains during the annual monsoons. The lushness of its landscape, the range of communities and geographical and ecological diversity makes the North East quite different from other parts of India.

Historical Perspective

Ancient History

The earliest known settlers of the NE were Austro-Asiatic speakers, followed by Tibeto-Burmese. For most part of the first millennium, the region was broadly known as Kamarupa.

Medieval History

The Shans established the Ahom Kingdom in most part of the Brahmaputra Valley in the first half of the 13th century. Other princely dynasties of the region constituted the areas of Manipur and Tripura. The entire region was inhabited by tribes and sub-tribes with distinct cultures and dialects.  

Advent of the British

The British began establishing themselves from 1818 onwards. In the ensuing First Anglo Burmese War of 1824, the Burmese were defeated and the Treaty of Yandaboo was signed. Consequently the Burmese withdrew to Myanmar and the Ahom king ceded part of its territory to the British East India Company.

The advent of British rendered the Ahom Kingdom extinct by 1838. From 1839 to 1873, the region was administered by the British as part of the Bengal Province. The plan to use NE India as a cushion from Myanmar/China was mooted under the Coupland Plan by earmarking the region as Crown Colony. The British could not exercise direct colonial control over several parts of the region. Thus, Christian Missionaries were deployed to penetrate deep into the remote areas. As history shows, the Christian Missionaries were hugely successful to the extent that almost 97 percent of Nagaland is fully Christianised: that is, successive generations of tribals have been completely cut off from their original roots.

Parts of the NE region were classified as ‘Excluded Area’ or ‘Partially Excluded Area’ and brought under the ambit of the ‘Inner Line Regulation’ thus serving ulterior British interests of preventing access to the so-called outsiders.

This isolation and separation denied the national mainstream to the tribals and inhibited their exposure to modern developments in various spheres. The people in the plains considered the hill tribes as uncivilized while the hill tribes considered them outsiders and looked upon them with distrust thus laying the foundation for hostility in the region.

To be continued

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