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Identity-spurred Turf Wars Keeps India’s
Northeast On The Boil


Director, Centre for Development and Peace Studies, Guwahati


he latest ethnic group to have started an uprising in India’s Northeast is the Adivasis in Assam, most of whom are tea plantation workers in the region’s largest State, that also produces more than 50 per cent of the country’s tea produce of 900 million kilograms. The Adivasis had migrated to Assam more than 150 years ago from the present Jharkhand region, in eastern India, brought in as indentured labourers by the British to work in the tea plantations. Beginning November 2007, the Adivasis in the State have upped their ante by intensifying their agitation for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status that would bring them reservation in jobs and educational institutions like their kinfolk in states like Jharkhand.

Like most other agitations or rebellions in the region, the stir by the Adivasis is essentially an identity movement by which the community, that considers itself deprived by the government, wants to assert their rights and secure maximum benefits for their people. As of now, the Adivasis are pushing for ST status, the movement being led by mainstream community-based groups like the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA).

What however cannot be taken lightly is the emergence of a rag-tag militant group seeking to fight for the community’s interest. This group, called the Adivasi National Liberation Army (ANLA), has stepped up violence, attacking the super-fast Dibrugarh-New Delhi Rajdhani Express with explosives on 13 December 2007. Five passengers were killed and nine others injured. If groups like the ANLA—formed in 2004 to fight for the interests of the Adivasis in Assam—tastes success with more violence, it could well expand its demand by seeking different forms of autonomy for the Adivasis in Assam.

India ’s Northeast is an ethnic minefield, as it comprises of around 160 Scheduled Tribes, besides an estimated 400 other tribal or sub-tribal communities and groups. Turbulence in the region is, therefore, not caused just by armed separatist groups representing different ethnic communities fighting the central or the local governments or their symbols to press for either total independence or autonomy, but also by the recurring battles for territorial supremacy among the different ethnic groups themselves.

If the National Socialist Council of Nagaland faction headed by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah (NSCN-IM) has been pushing ahead with its demand for an independent Naga homeland to be carved out of India, the Naga and the Kuki ethnic groups in the state of Manipur, or the Bodo and Adivasis in western Assam, have had a history of bitter conflict to retain control of as much land as possible and thereby preserve their identity and rights.

The region has actually been kept on the boil by the essentially ethno-national movements by these groups to further their sub-national aspirations, often triggered by the fear of losing their distinct identity. For instance, the movement for maximum autonomy by the Bodos, Assam’s largest plains tribal community, has succeeded in the group securing a new politico-administrative structure within the existing State of Assam following a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Government of India on 10 February, 2003. The Bodo-majority areas have now come under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), a 40-member elective body that runs the day-to-day administration of the areas with specially earmarked funds. The BTC Accord is seen as a fulfillment of the sub-national aspirations of the Bodos of Assam.

In fact, a few other ethnic groups, who cohabit with the Bodos in western Assam, had raised the issue of more powers for them during the run-up to the signing of the BTC Accord. The Koch-Rajbongshi community was one of them. Today, the Koch Rajbongshis, who have a sizeable presence in western Assam as well as the adjoining Cooch Behar district in West Bengal, are among the six ethnic groups in the State, including the Adivasis, demanding ST status for themselves. It can be concluded safely that the autonomy granted to the Bodos was seen as a threat by communities living in the area like the Koch Rajbongshis and the Adivasis. This may have actually spurred them to intensify their demand for ST status.

In the same way, the six-year-long anti-foreigner uprising spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the State’s apex student group, from 1979 to 1985, had been a movement triggered off by the fear within the indigenous Assamese community of being overwhelmed by the unabated influx of illegal Bangladeshi migrants from across the porous border. The anti-foreigner stir, among the biggest mass uprising in India since the country’s freedom struggle, ended with the signing of an agreement, popularly called the Assam Accord, between the central and state governments and the AASU on 15 August 1985. The Accord fixed 25 March 1971 as the cut-off date for detection and expulsion of the illegal foreign migrants from the State of Assam.

The region has been caught in a vicious cycle of lack of economic development and opportunities causing unrest and militancy, and then militancy and the resultant violence retarding economic growth. For instance, the plan for industrial investment in the region between August 1991 to December 1994, under the post-liberalization Indian economy, was a mere Rs 2,224 crore, whereas in a single State like Maharashtra, the figure, during the corresponding period, stood at Rs 67,978 crore. Under the circumstances, it is natural to find the people of the region harbouring a great sense of alienation and a feeling that they are unique and different from the ‘Indian mainstream’.

The result is that both armed and unarmed organizations, representing the region’s various ethnic groups and communities, often finding it rather easy to push ahead with their respective demands through either violent or non-violent forms of movements. To say it simply, these groups often have aggrieved constituencies to bank on to pursue their respective agenda. Another dimension to the problem in the region is that underground armed insurgent groups, over ground socio-political groupings representing respective ethnic communities, and influential students’ outfits whose members are drawn from these communities, often strive to achieve the same goal, that of protecting or pushing for the rights of the communities whose interests they seek to represent. Only the methods used are different.

The question that arises at the end is whether identity-spurred movements in India’s Northeast would ever end. The answer is a definite no. That is because the region and its 40 million people are caught in a vicious cycle. It all begins with groups agitating against the Centre and the state government, accusing them of neglect and not doing enough for the community they represent. Then, they get some form of autonomy or self-rule and come to be governed by their own community leaders. Still, they are anguished because their own leaders have failed to deliver. Therefore, the State is once again forced to intervene and the cycle goes on.

What happens in the meantime is that newer radical groups representing the same communities appear on the scene and start a campaign both against their own community leaders in power as well as the State. The turf war then takes a new turn. Instead of a community battling the State, one gets to see a new group from within the community trying to corner the older community leadership or formations. That’s why I believe that this demand for more powers, autonomy, and whatever one may chose to call it, is bound to go on and on. India’s Northeast seems set to live with people’s changing aspirations and hopes. That in itself is no mean challenge for those administering this far-eastern frontier.

(Feedback: director@cdpsindia.org)