|Ethnic conflict and civil society in the Northeast|
Some years ago, I coined the phrase "One thousand years in a lifetime" to express the breakneck speed at which political, economic and social developments have swamped the Northeast of India and its people in the past half a century. I was reminded of that during a recent visit to Nagaland, where people spoke of the terrific pace of events and felt overwhelmed by despair at not being able to control them.
The Northeast is a magnificent and tragic tapestry of people, events and nature. You can be touched by its rivers, rain and mist, overwhelmed by its seeming gentleness and stirred by its powerful and evocative history. There is strength and fragility in its immense diversity — 350 communities in eight states with a population of about 35 million people. Communities with kin in neighbouring countries. Not less than four countries abut on its region, which juts out of the mainland of India towards Myanmar, with long borders with China, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Indeed, not less than 98 per cent of its land borders are with these nations. A bare two per cent is India’s share. Is it surprising, therefore, that people and communities there feel alienated and very distant, not just from Delhi, but the rest of the country?
There are many truths here, conflicting realities, especially in terms of perceptions. Indeed, it is these differing perceptions that lie at the root of most conflicts in the region, between India and its perceived Northeast as well as within the Northeast itself.
This is Asia in miniature, where the brown and yellow races meet and mingle, where communities and oral histories span national boundaries as seamlessly as the mountains and the forests run across them. The only land connection with India is a narrow corridor, the Chicken’s Neck, through which flow natural and finished resources such as oil, gas and tea in the out direction and consumer goods, food and other essential and non-essential items into the Northeast. There are sensitive and complex problems that have defied solution for as long as independent India has existed.
Our population of barely 35 million, about three per cent of the national figure, is just above one fourth of that of Bangladesh. It’s an anthropologist’s delight and an administrator’s nightmare. A settlement in one district that satisfies one group will alienate five communities in another part of the same district, not to speak of the state! There are special laws, constitutional provisions such as the Sixth Schedule and Article 371A, which seek to protect the traditions, lands and rights of various hill communities. In fact, no land can be bought by a non-tribal, even if he or she should live there. There can be no alienation of land.
The Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, when it was launched in the 1950s, was a path-breaking effort to give small tribal communities, disadvantaged by lack of opportunity — educational, political and numerical — extensive powers through the system of autonomous district councils and protect their traditions as well as their land. To a substantial degree, these laws have worked. But there have been other repercussions, including inadequate development, a multiplicity of authority and, in a number of cases, majoritarian groups in small states, such as Mizoram and Meghalaya, have applied pressure on small ethnic groups within their territories, depriving them of the very rights for which they fought against India or a larger state, such as Assam.
Laws such as the Sixth Schedule need substantial change to make them more representative, so that they reflect the interests of gender, non-tribal communities and small tribes. This process is under the consideration of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayeegovernment and should be speeded up. Democracy grows only through continuing democratic practice and what often passes superficially in the Northeast as ‘traditional’ democracy is nothing less than male-dominated fiefdoms and feudalism.
It also needs to be understood that the Northeast is not a tribal-majority region. Tribals hold a majority of the non-productive land in the hills, but two-thirds of the regional population lives on one-third of the land.
The conflicts between mainland India and its eastern periphery began before Independence and have continued since. One is not sure if many Indians are aware that one of the reasons that a state like Assam is in India today is due to the courageous stand of Gopinath Bardoloi, the first Chief Minister of Assam, who fought the Muslim League’s effort to include Assam and other parts of the North Eastern Region (NER) in East Pakistan. The Congress Party at the national level would have acquiesced to this had it not been for a revolt by Bardoloi, backed by the Assam unit of the Congress Party and supported by Mahatma Gandhi and the Assamese public.
We know so little about each other; no wonder there is so much misunderstanding.
First of all, it should be clarified that the conflicts in the Northeast, in terms of armed revolts, ethnic struggles or fights against the Indian State, no longer draw on the romanticism and idealism that sustained fighting groups and communities for decades. Dreams have degenerated into nightmares; the fighters have turned on each other and on the people in whose name they claim to speak. The entire network of cadres, recruits, informers and political leaders is based on extortion and extraction: extortion from business houses and petty traders, from professionals, contractors and politicians. Few are spared. The extraction process even involves government officials, especially in states like Nagaland and Manipur where officials (who do not pay income tax) hand over two to five per cent of their salary to various underground groups. No wonder corruption is a problem.
Conflicts Over Poor Resource Base
Few of these states have any resource base or generate new revenues; they are entirely dependent on the Government of India for their survival from month to month. There are warlords within and without the system. The NSCN’s budget for Nagaland in 2002 is placed at Rs 44 crore (Rs 440 million), nearly double of that for 2000-2001. It has a finely tuned taxation system which has every single business in the states where it is active on record and has a tax net for government employees as well. The actual figure for collections is said to be about Rs 105 crore (Rs 1050 million).
The Naga story goes back many years. Let us pick it up in August 14, 1947, the eve of Indian independence, when the Naga National Council declared independence for their people. The fact remains that the Nagas, who did not have a written history or a script until the 19th century, when the British colonial power arrived, followed by its missionaries and those from the United States and elsewhere, have always seen themselves as a separate people. It is not my place here to argue whether this perception is right or wrong — it is a conviction which is still deeply held by many people, who also want to live under one administrative roof as Nagas in a Naga homeland that would include parts of the hills of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. This is the oldest independence struggle that the subcontinent has seen, one of the oldest in Asia and as old as free India, although the armed revolt began in the 1950s. The underground fighters have been called many things in the past — hostiles, insurgents, rebels, militants, armed Naga gangs.
The early decades of the conflict were characterised by a certain dignity and honour. Civilian men and women from the rest of India were not targeted; security personnel, camps and convoys were attacked. That ethic hardly exists any longer. It is a matter of shame that during the armed conflict with the Nagas, security forces repeatedly went on the rampage, hurting, molesting, killing and violating basic rights with impunity. I am not a bleeding heart, but let us remember that in those days when villages were being burned and rebuilt, thousands of people lived in fear in the forests. This situation has begun to change for the better, thank God, in recent years, and there is a greater sensitivity to local concerns.
The Nagas received training and arms from the Chinese and Pakistanis, who saw the situation as a good chance to bleed and weaken India. Other insurgent groups were also supported by the Chinese and Pakistanis at the time: the Mizo National Front (MNF) of Laldenga in the Mizo Hills and the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) of Biseswar in Manipur. The latter was trained in urban warfare in Tibet. The support from China officially ended in 1976, when Delhi and Beijing resumed full diplomatic relations. In 1986, the MNF signed a peace accord with New Delhi and has never reneged on its word.
The PLA and other insurgent groups in Manipur, such as the United National Liberation Front continue to function and have carved out ‘liberated zones’ near the Myanmar border. Chinese weapons are still used, but these are sourced through commercial dealings with gun-runners from different parts of Southeast Asia. Plastic explosives are purchased in the open market along with weapons and ammunition and transported by ship to specific points in Bangladesh, and then sent to the Northeast or carried overland via Myanmar to Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland.
The Naga National Council (NNC) was the founder and leader of the Naga movement. But things changed after the Shillong Accord of 1975 between a section of the Naga underground and the Government of India. Under terrific pressure from the Indian army and exhausted by attrition of the civil population, this group accepted the Indian Constitution, agreed to lay down their arms and work for a final settlement. That agreement confused the Naga public and fractured both the mandate and the movement.
Within a few years, the NNC split with the formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN, now called Nagalim) led by Isak Swu, Th. Muivah and S.S. Khaplang. In 1988, Khaplang’s followers attacked Muivah’s camp in Myanmar, killing hundreds of his supporters. It is an event that Muivah has neither forgotten nor forgiven and his NSCN (I-M)’s relentless campaign against the ‘K’ group needs to be seen in this light.
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Sanjoy Hazarika is Research Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi,
and a former New York Times correspondent. An ex-member of the National
Security Advisory Board, he has helped set up the Centre for Northeast Studies and Policy Research. This essay is based on a talk delivered at a conference in Madras