Insurgency In North East India Politics Essay

The ravishingly beautiful and picturesque landmass of our country, which adorns the mantle of the northeastern states, remains emotionally detached from the rest of India. The reasons are more than intriguing. The perceived distance has more to do with the mindset of the average Indian rather than the actual physical distance. [1]

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For a plethora of reasons, apparent or otherwise, peace and normalcy remain elusive. Terrorism and insurgency have yet to recede fully although life continues as if normal. Not that it is normal by any standards but whatever the ground realities, life does go on. Probably in concert with the worldwide phenomenon of rising aspirations of human beings, Human Rights and civilised societal ways have taken a front seat and their denial or absence creates upheaval and discord.

Northeastern India continues to be in the grip of terrorism and insurgency for the last 50 years. The intensity, type, and level are different in different states. The time has now come for an absolute integration of this region with the rest of India. The Government has made concerted efforts to address the problems at different levels and the efforts have already started showing results. Due to these efforts, the ties and links with the rest of India are growing every day. It would be unwise to assume that the Northeast is being neglected in any way.

Genesis of Insurgency

Before we try to understand the genesis of the insurgency in the northeastern states known as the Seven Sisters, it would be prudent to identify the reason and causes which engulfed the proud people of this region in a human conflict resulting in self denials. Some call it exploitation of the have not’s and a tampering with ethnicity. These are not the only reasons. These are certain irreversible causes, which have historical and geographical perspectives. In addition, political, economic, social, ethnic, and cultural reasons give a fillip to existing inadequacies, encouraging a movement to start and grow. [2]

Partition further accentuated the problem. A psychological and a physical barrier was created. The creation of East Pakistan deprived the region of geographical contiguity with the rest of India. North East India had a land link only through the Siliguri corridor, 200 km long and 21 to 65 km wide. All our communication lines pass through this corridor. The only port of Chittagong which hitherto serviced the entire Northeast also fell prey to the misdeeds of partition. The entire region had become virtually landlocked. The lifeline of the Northeast states was now extended to over 1,600 km. Earlier, the distance between Calcutta and Agartala (Tripura) was a little over 400 km – this is one single factor that has very seriously affected the economy.

Typical of the British policy of divide and rule, this was yet another master stroke by them. This time a divide was created by placing a physical landmass, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), between the people of India and the people of the Northeast. Compounding the problem further, British inner line policy created a rift between the people from the hills and the plains. The mistrust so created, fuelled discontent and human conflict. This coupled with mountainous jungle terrain and an unprotected International Border (IB) gave an ideal ground for insurgents to carry out their nefarious activities with impunity.

Thus, it would be seen that relative geographical location is one of the main causes of this unrest and instability. This region is surrounded on three sides by foreign countries – Bangladesh from the south and west, China (Tibet) and Bhutan from the north and Myanmar from the east.

External Support

The alienation of the Northeast has come about due to the failure to recognise the social and cultural factors of each area with the common effect of isolation. The situation is further accentuated by the influx of foreigners giving rise to ethnic parochialism and an identity crisis.

The 4,960 km long IB constitutes 99 per cent of the periphery of these states. One of the main reasons for any insurgency to be successful is to have ‘External Support’, and this is an ideally situated region for the purpose. This aspect was fully exploited by China in the ’50s through the ’60s. Even now, China is adopting a typical Mao Tse Tung style ‘Indirect Approach’. They have used the indirect approach remarkably well to keep us engaged on more than one front. As a matter of fact they have already achieved partial encirclement. We are fully engaged with Pakistan on our west. In the north the Maoist movement has created enough instability. The relevance of Nepal to the Northeastern states has increased over the recent years due to the recent upsurge in Maoist activities, the emergence of the Kamtapur movement in the Siliguri Corridor and the increased activities of the ISI in Nepal. The 1,800 km Indo-Nepal porous border is being extensively used by the ISI intelligence operations – this border needs to be sanitised.

To the southwest of the Northeastern states, Bangladesh has been propped up as yet another ‘Terrorism Support and Export Centre’ patterned after Pakistan. Bangladesh is believed to have 145 training camps of terrorist groups belonging to some of the Seven Sisters States on its soil, which is an ominous development. Their intentions are suspect and very evident from the fact that they have a serious objection to our fencing of the IB. Meghalaya, Cachar (South Assam) and Tripura have an IB with Bangladesh with the terrain and people being most inhospitable and hostile. The cruelty and barbarism practiced by Bangladesh has few parallels. This, however, should not deter us from countering this menace.

Tripura is yet another very vulnerable state. 7/8th of Tripura’s boundary abuts Bangladesh and 1/8th with Cachar (South Assam). Due to unfortunate geographical circumstances, its security considerations should never be neglected, delayed, postponed or pushed under the carpet.

Arunachal has an IB with Tibet and Myanmar. Nagaland and Mizoram have an IB with Myanmar. Apparently, we have no problems with Tibet but China refuses to recognize the McMahon Line, so the stalemate continues. Also, critical differences remain over the 90,000 sq km area of Arunachal Pradesh, though after death of Mao Tse Tung the Chinese involvement and support to militant groups has considerably reduced. In any case, Arunachal is not known to have any effective indigenous insurgent group, although the people of Arunachal Pradesh are vulnerable to exploitation by NSCN groups using the lower slopes as safe havens. Myanmar has always been a friend to India but unfortunately, the writ of Burmese insurgent groups runs in the region bordering the Indian states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The terrain is ideally suited for infiltration and exfiltration by insurgent groups. We have the best of relations with the Burmese Army. Arunachal, more or less, kept itself away from any type of insurgency movement but any form of political machination can push this state also towards extremism.

Northwest Assam has a common border with Bhutan, which is a landlocked country. It also has border with Tibet. Presently, we have the best of relations with Bhutan. Joint operations against the ULFA and other insurgent groups located in Southern Bhutan are a testimony of regional cooperation against terrorism.

Mizoram has an IB with Myanmar and Bangladesh. It had the fiercest insurgency in this region under the militant leader, Laldenga, who later on became the first Chief Minister of Mizoram. Mizoram has been the most pragmatic state of our country. It realised the futility of continued unrest and opted out of insurgency and has been nurtured into a very dynamic, mature and buoyant democracy, especially so under the leadership of the present Chief Minister, Zoramthanga, a graduate of Imphal University. Incidentally, Zoramthanga was No 2 to Laldenga while in the Mizo National Front when it was an underground organisation. Mizoram, to a great extent, has resolved its problems with Myanmar by having a free trading zone of 20 km but it has to guard against the drug menace from the east and the creeping invasion from the west. Cachar District (Assam), which is to its west has been flooded with migrants and they are inching forward towards the less populated zone i.e. Mizoram. the demographic pattern of the state has already been affected. Today Mizoram is the most peaceful state of our country but it is better to avoid complacency.

Assam, the mother of all Northeastern states, is today in turmoil. The main reasons are basically two i.e. carving out of six states out of one and secondly its border with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). It has common boundaries with all the six states. Assam was sparsely populated and this void was filled by a mass scale influx of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan. This not only disturbed the demographic balance but in a number of districts resulted in demographic inversion. This has facilitated the emergence of a large number of insurgent groups including Muslim Fundamentalist Militia backed by the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Currently, there are as many as 34 insurgent groups who have been identified, though the ULFA is the main player.

The ominous part of this development is the post 1990 mushrooming of insurgent groups along tribal, religious and cultural lines. We need to put a stop on further migration and de-recognise the status accorded to a segment of refugees who have migrated after a particular agreed upon date. Political expediency needs to be shown. To stop further influx of refugees, the border with Bangladesh is required to be very effectively policed. Notwithstanding the above, peace in Assam will always be contingent upon stability in the other six states.

Meghalaya faces a major problem due to the illegal migration of Bangladesh Muslims into the state, in particular into the Garo Hills. The anti outsider feeling amongst the local populace often leads to violence. The aspirations of Garo, Jantia and Khasi hill tribes are soaring high with increased economic activity, due to large scale tapping of natural resources. These aspirations if not met adequately can lead to insurgency. It will be pertinent to mention here that the state is surrounded on all sides by active insurgencies. The thick forests of the state provide an ideal transit route for the underground groups. Meghalaya should be considered as a ‘mountain of peace’ and should be used as a platform for sending out peaceful vibes in all directions.

Manipur has an IB with Myanmar, the interstate boundary with Nagaland to its north, Assam to its west and Mizoram to its southwest. The state has no major problem from Myanmar except that it has become the biggest transit hub for drugs. The main bone of contention of Manipur insurgent groups is the demand for a Greater Nagaland (Nagalim) by NSCN (IM) that includes Manipur’s Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Senapati and Chandel districts. Redrawing of interstate boundaries at this juncture will only lead to further unrest and instability. In a coalition era, such an initiative will always be opposed from one quarter or the other. This is a typical problem of clash of ethnic interests. In a democratic and secular state there is need to shun caste and creed based politics.The fallout is evident in these states. Although the Prime Minister has assured the Manipur Government that its state boundaries will not be redrawn, such ethnic and tribal contiguity will continue to be the bone of contention between Nagaland and Manipur. In case adequate statecraft is not exercised by the two states, a reverse flow of insurgency is very much on the cards.

Nagaland to its east has Myanmar, Manipur to its south, Arunachal Pradesh to its northeast, and Assam to its northwest. The Naga insurgency is the mother of all insurgencies in Independent India. It started in the mid fifties and continues till date, although in a state of suspended animation, with a ceasefire accepted by both sides and extended from time to time. The ethnic conflict between two rival factions of the NSCN remains one of the most intractable problems of Naga Insurgency and sporadic internecine conflicts between the two groups continue. The insurgency in Nagaland continues to thrive through safe-havens provided by Bangladesh and Myanmar to NSCN (IM). The key player to fuel insurgency in Nagaland was China till the late sixties and thereafter the indirect approach through East Pakistan was extensively used. The Naga people in general want their state to remain peaceful.It is high time both NSCN groups reconcile. It is better to shun extra territorial demands. Another important reason was the lack of political imagination, which has been reasonably addressed, in the recent past. The Prime Minister has even offered to talk to any terrorist / insurgent group without any precognition. Unimaginative policies, indifferent attitude, ignorance and not respecting tribal ethos and customs by successive governments, in particular and the Indian people in general, have created a cultural divide between the Northeastern states and the rest of India.

Another glaring problem has been that the political boundaries do not coincide with the existing ethnic and social boundaries. If we take a look at the demographic mosaic of Northeast India it shows that this region is a meeting point of various races; Mongoloids, Aryans and Austeric ethnic races. The Northeast states have not been able to cater to the demands of all the ethnic categories clamouring for recognition of their distinctive identity. That the region has been split into seven states already since independence bears testimony to the fact that the Central Government is not wholly unaware of this fact and yet it has not come to terms with it, which led to the mushrooming of insurgency in the area.

The alienation of the Northeast has come about due to the failure to recognise the peculiar historical, social and cultural factors of each area with the common effect of isolation. The situation is further accentuated by the influx of foreigners giving rise to ethnic parochialism and an identity crisis, which is fomented by fear of cultural submergence, economic deprivation and social insecurity. Attempts to create ethnic identity in the region have suffered, making the people susceptible to insurgents’ adaptations. The government, while showing excessive concern for the sensitivities of many ethnic and religious grouping, failed to bring them into the national mainstream. An unfortunate conciliatory approach adopted towards separatists was perceived as a sign of weakness and gave a fillip to secessionist and fissiparous trends.

A special service known as the Indian Frontier Administrative Service was established in 1957, to administer the Northeastern states. This service was doing a commendable job of adequately administering the Northeastern states with due regard to cultural and tribal sensitivities of the people. For reasons best known to the government, the Indian Frontier Administrative Service was abolished in the later half of the sixties and replaced by a top-heavy Indian Administiative Service (IAS).

The genesis of the problem has been made amply clear and transparent. The need of the hour is to address the problems and reasons identified in a logical, compassionate and systematic manner. Prosperity and peace in neighbouring countries will automatically curb the menace. Sanitisation of the IB is a must by physical means and the creation of artificial obstacles wherever possible. Expediency and urgency needs to be shown to stop Islamisation emanating from Bangladesh in all directions. The Northeast should become a hub for a Look east policy. It should become a gateway for ASEAN countries. Good governance coupled with doing away with the notified area clause and extension of transfer subsidies by yet another five years is recommended. Tourism, health, and IT should be included in the concessional package.

Ethnic Identity

Anthropologically the tribes of the Northeast are the descendants of the five groups ,namely the Austrics, Negroids, the Kiratas , Dravidians and the Aryans; Khasis and Jaintias of Meghalaya belong to the AustroAsiatics ; Nagas of Nagaland are of Mongoloid origin ; Bodos who live in Assam , Meghalaya and Tripura trace their origins to the Kiratas ; Meitis are believed to Mongoloids with close affinity to the Aryans; and a sizeable number of Dravidians have also migrated to the region from South and Eastern India [3] .

Ethnicity has been the dominant factor in and even the raison d’etre of the Northeast unrest. The reawakening of ethnic and tribal identities and roots have contributed to the growth of modernization and political awakening. The reorganistion of the Northeast and formation of separate states were the outcome of this ethnic conscience. At the same time, the political rearrangements, which were meant to address ethnic demands, did not lead to formation of homogeneous units. The newly formed states and autonomous councils either did not include all areas inhabited by that specific ethnic group or contained substantial minorities. This lack of homogeneity often led to violent confrontation between various ethnic militant outfits. Thus, the region was plunged into an ethnic turnmoil, which often has extra-regional implications. The response of the Centre to the emergence of ethnic and sub-national conscience has not been uniform. Besides the delays in granting statehood , its acceptance of demands for autonomous councils has not been uniform.

Despite official efforts at policy formulation to cater to the development needs of the Northeastern states, nothing significant has yet come out during the last several years. In fact, the steady flow of central funds into the hands of the local elite has indirectly discouraged local initiatives, which could have been otherwise harnessed to raise the financial resources of the different states in the region . Moreover in many cases it has given rise to a political leadership more interested in grabbing funds coming from the centre than in actually using them to uplift the economy of the states. The prevailing economy also, in many ways through its backdoor channels make the insurgencies possible and infact sustains them. Many would say that for all practical purposes inspite of the elaborate anti insurgency political establishment running the state administration, it is the insurgents that run the local economy. In such a case it is well imaginable how the entire politico economic setup is lopsided in favour of insurgencies. As has been argued above , in the absence of any healthy sustainable economic activity in the region , the expanding class of neoliterates feel it immensely remunerative to join the insurgent movement because it offers them material prospects.

Insurgency has become in many ways the only sustainable, expanding industry in the whole of the North East. An industry with great promise and less risk. As a consequence of poor developmental performance of local and central governance, insurgency has now become the cause of the economic backwardness of the region. Infact no entrepreneur, whether local or from outside would like to invest in the region home to such firmy rooted insurgency. It is as such unwise to approach the problem in the North East as a sheer law and order problem nor it can be handled as a political one. The roots lie deep in the fundamental economic dynamics of the insurgency movement. Any solution to the crisis in the north East has to begin with an effort to draw the insurgent leadership into the political mainstream . If they have determined the course of economy of the region and have a stake in the economic backwardness of the region, they have to be made accountable to the people. In a high security atmosphere , these elements find an occasion to be irresponsible and they thrive on the sense of insecurity that accompanies such an environment. Only by giving them an opportunity to participate in the political process can one hope to put a lid on the current turmoil. It is a tall order but since the central government has started expressing its readiness to have a open talk with the insurgents, the journey in the right direction might have just begun [4] .


In certain ways , the turmoil in the north east represents a clash between tradition and culture and forces a change. The geographical isolation of the region , absence of cultural and psychological integration with the mainstream and the economic discontent are at the root of the unrest. Agitators and leaders of the separatist group have cited unchecked migration as the prime reason for the woos of the region. A section of them have even maintained that they are not part of India and that their struggle is for independence from the Indian union. In short various historical geographical , cultural economic and political factors have contributed to tension and conflict in the region.