Instead of pursuing its more exacerbating policies, keeping the Northeast region in ferment to serve its myopic goals, the Indian state should attempt a more beneficial long-term engagement with Assam
Since the formation of the Indian State in 1947, the Northeast region of the country has seen numerous violent conflicts of varying intensity. As a region where the perception of ‘colonial’ exploitation is still alive in certain pockets despite significant assimilation into the ‘national’ mainstream, the nature of these conflicts have ranged from mass civil disobedience movements engendered by long-standing grievances against the Indian State, to armed militancy aimed at secession from the State.
Instead of addressing the underlying causes of these conflicts, the State has often responded to them with large scale militarization and a strategy of co-option of the ethnic elites within the conflict parties. This has led to the manifestation of new conflicts and exacerbation of old ones rather than to their resolution or transformation. These new conflicts have been directed not just against the State and its various agencies and actors, but have also led to violence between the numerous communities that constitute the multi-cultural, poly-ethnic mosaic of the region.
It would however be naïve to attribute the entire burden of responsibility for the ethnic conflicts in the Northeast to the State – or its policies towards the region. The complex nature of the ethno-national conflicts that have ravaged the region during its ‘post’-colonial career has another significant historical dimension: namely that the various communities that live here have traditionally had many fissures between, and within, them. They readily lent themselves to being exploited, especially by the State’s policy of co-option. As a result, many latent conflicts have become manifest.
There is of course a third dimension to the long drawn out conflicts in the region, and this is due its significant, strategic, geo-political position. The Northeast shares international boundaries with politically volatile countries like Bangladesh and Burma, in addition to an increasingly ambitious China. These countries have, at various times and in keeping with the changing geo-political equations, provided shelter and logistical and/or ideological support to the insurgent groups of the region. Even the peaceful neighbor, Bhutan, had been a safe haven for many secessionist groups till a few years back, when India forced the mountain kingdom to push out the rebels. Operation All Clear (2003) was the turning point when one of the most powerful rebel groups of Northeast India, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), was badly hit and it has not quite regained since.
The ULFA is the biggest and longest standing insurgent group of Assam, one of the seven states of the Northeast, situated in the heart of the region. The history of ‘post’-colonial Assam is one littered with many conflicts – linguistic, political and economic – between the autochthons and the many settler communities that came to the Northeast Indian state following colonial rule. Secessionist movements in this state of India did not surface immediately. The Axamiyā (Assamese) people had begun to assert their nationalistic aspirations in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Assam began to be considered as an integral part of the Indian nation. After 1947 though, grievances began to surface against the perceived ‘step-motherly’ treatment of the State. From stipulating that Assam share India’s refugee burden, to denying it economic development while exploiting its rich oil, coal reserves, and significant tea produce, the Indian State was seen as indulging in ‘colonial exploitation’ of the region.
The grievances peaked in the 1970s when Bangladesh came into being and the Indian State did nothing to stop the flow of refugees into Assam. Continued illegal influx of populations from the neighbouring country raised fears of demographic swamping and loss of identity among all indigenous peoples of Assam. Finally, their resentment found expression in a mass civil disobedience movement in 1979. The Assam Movement as it was called, ended in 1985 but in the intervening years, the Axamiyā-speaking Hindu middle class had hijacked the political agenda. It had traditionally assumed an attitude of cultural superiority and social dominance over the other ethnic/autochthonous groups. The Movement, finally, became the breaking point when the smaller ethnic groups began to assert their own distinctive identities, and demand their own homelands outside Assam.
Around the same time as the Assam Movement began forming, the resentment against the Indian State also led to the birth of the ULFA, which wanted an independent sovereign Assam but claimed Assam was never a part of India historically and hence, the question of ‘secession’ did not arise. It continues its armed movement based on the idea of an independent federal Assam where all ethnic communities of Assam – and even the settler communities – can co-exist.
However, the ULFA has been factionalised with a major section of its former leadership entering into peace talks with the Indian government. Such factionalism has also reared its head among the other autochthonous groups of Assam, some of which also have insurgent armies with a secessionist agenda. Of these, Bodo militant factions have confronted each other in fratricidal feuds. The Bodos are one of the largest ethnic tribes of Assam and their feuds have been frequent, intense and bloody. In the case of the ULFA, however, factional clashes have not as yet attained the same frequency or level of violence as that among the Bodo militants. One can only imagine the extent of violence that will be unleashed if the ULFA factions also resorted to such armed in-fighting. This has not transpired despite the fact that the Chairperson of the group has ‘joined the mainstream’ and is engaged in peace talks with the Indian government.
The other highest functionary of the group, Army Chief Paresh Barua, has been reported to be currently enjoying Chinese patronage. A Chinese hand in propping up many Northeast Indian rebel groups has long been an established fact. It is definitely in the interest of some of the neighbouring countries to have India’s borderlands in turmoil. And to counter the threats from such neighbours, India would naturally have to have a strong military presence in the border areas.
The problem in Assam and the rest of the Northeast, however, has been that the Indian armed forces – meant to counter hostilities from across the borders – have been used to counter domestic insurgencies as well, often victimising civilians in the process. Indeed, the first response of the State to most of the political unrest in the region has been militarization. Attempts at empathetic understanding have been patently absent. This has set in motion a vicious cycle – apathy towards peaceful demand has given birth to violent protests; these violent protests have been met with more violence and state‐sanctioned terror; and this in turn has engendered an utter disregard for peaceful alternatives.
Given the strategic location of the Northeast and the realities of a geo-politically volatile international neighbourhood, the State must amend its policies and approaches to the region. Only then can it turn its geo-political vulnerability here into a strategic and economic advantage for the country as a whole, and for the region in particular. Many of the major secessionist organizations of the region have by this time come to terms with a peaceful co-existence with and within India – the best instance of this is that a large faction of the ULFA has come to the negotiating table.
The State’s conflict management policies – however inadequate – have borne some fruit. However, instead of pursuing its more exacerbating policies, keeping the region in ferment in order to serve its myopic goals, the State should now attempt a more beneficial long-term engagement with it. Proper handling of the multi-ethnic dynamics of the region will only indicate that India is not just the biggest democracy in the world, but also a mature one. And as the state at the heart of the region, it is imperative that Assam’s ethnic problems are addressed with empathy and an eye for positive change.
This article draws from Uddipana’s forthcoming book, Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam.
Image from: http://www.asiafinest.com/forum/lofiversion/index.php/t71469-150.html
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