My Space and Yours: Debating Nationalism and Sub-nationalism in India’s Northeast

Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi


It happened during a trip in 2003 to the Tamulpur area, then in Assam’s Nalbari district. As our survey team entered into the premises of an old man living with his wife, son and daughter-in-law, I came to know that the man had lost two of his sons in peculiar circumstances. His eldest son, an army personnel, was killed while fighting militancy in distant Jammu & Kashmir. On the other hand, the youngest son, a cadre of the erstwhile Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) had been killed during a shootout with security forces in Assam. The old man’s reply to my rather innocuous question “Which of the sons are you proud of?” provided a rather chilling answer. “Both”, said the old man in a calm tone, “One died for our country and the other died for our cause.” The answer continues to reverberate till today, when I think of the visibly conflicting issues of sub-nationalism and nationalism. As it appeared for the old man, it is possible to harmonise both, and indeed, nationalism could actually be strengthened and possibly even flourish with the continuance of sub-nationalism.

Assertion of one’s identity would appear quite natural, especially in societies where primordial loyalties have dominant say over one’s world view. Movements for identity are often the product of the absence of due recognition that tribes/group of people demand in a potentially competitive social and political set up and these do not always end up in becoming insurgency movements. For example, the Deprivation Theory argues that social movements have their foundations among people who feel deprived of some good(s) or resource(s). Individuals lacking some good, service, or comfort are more likely to organize a social movement to improve (or defend) their conditions. Thus, while Assam agitation would be understood as a sub-nationalist movement within the Indian context, the Bodo movement for greater rights, would be a sub-national movement within Assam.

Sub-nationalism that is centripetal, rather than centrifugal, however, is a rare commodity. Assertion of one’s identity is losing its innocence and displaying all facets of militant nationalism. This is largely because these identities have been expressed in opposition to the other. The concept of the ‘other’ has always had a different meaning in regions, which are alienated from the mainstream and this is not certainly unique to the Northeast. For example, many tribes in the region have their own names for the plains people, “the Mizos called them vais, the Khasis dkhar, the Garos aching, the Meitheis mayang, the Minyangs ayeng, the Gallongs nipak, and the Ao Nagas thumar.” The inward-looking self definition of identity as an ethno-national entity now not only affects the tribes’ relations with “the outsiders”, but also the inter-ethnic groups’ relations within the region. The expectations to achieve economic and political liberation on the basis of ethnic groups have led to feuds between the tribes within the region. The Naga-Kuki clashes in Manipur and the Khasi and Garo acrimony in Meghalaya are examples of this trend. The clashes between the Karbis and the Dimasas, the Karbis and the Kukis in Assam are more recent examples. We have also had the Bengalis versus the Khasis and outsiders versus the Mizos riots in the Northeast.

Although a common enemy is still strongly felt to be the ‘outsiders’, in the attempts to define one's ethno-nationality, and in the struggle for ‘autonomy’ and liberation, the more powerful neighbouring ethnic groups came to be identified as obstacles. At some time, the ‘other’ even does not have to be too powerful or its presence too overbearing. The experience of the Reangs (Brus) in Mizoram is a case to site. The continuing proselytisation campaign of the NSCN-IM in the N C Hills district of Assam and the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh is another such example.

It is critical to look at the issue of sub-nationalism in the context of the larger livelihood issues. Competition over available resources has been a major source of acrimony between the Khasis and the Garos in Meghalaya. Similar concerns have fuelled poor state of economies in majority of the northeastern states and this is one of the reasons why the governments have allowed the state of inequity to persist, thus aggravating the sense of alienation among the aggrieved lot. Thus, decreasing political opportunity and existing mobilization mechanisms violent repertoires and effective framing of the opposition are some of the factors that have transformed the essentially socio-political identity movements to violent campaigns or insurgency movements.

The transformation of the character of the sub-nationalist movements into insurgency has also a lot to do with the way regimes have either tended to neglect issues that at some point of time have appeared trivial or are in conflict with their own world views. The tribal insurgencies in Tripura emerged as challenges to the domination of the migrant Bengalis and continue till date, notwithstanding the criminalisation that has transformed these insurgencies. Interestingly, a counter-movement by the Bengalis against the tribal identity movements, albeit at a lower scale, made its present felt in Tripura.

Successive regimes in New Delhi have tended to handle the region in a blatantly brazen manner. Be it the military means through which such movements have been tried to be crushed or the financial largesse through which these have been attempted to be co-opted, New Delhi’s role has been a matter of intense debate among analysts. The way the regimes have handled the insurgencies or have taken steps to prevent a movement from assuming violent overtones, has actually encouraged the birth of a number of similar movements. For example, Assam government appears to have taken an extremely liberal stand on granting Autonomous District Councils (ADC) to the tribes in Assam, without ascertaining the rationale behind such demands. This has been repeated in spite of the fact that the ADC experiment has been one of the most colossal failures in the Northeast.

Seen from the other side, there is a proliferation of a particular kind of political mobilisation by mostly tribal communities, to demarcate an exclusivist territory and political space for themselves, to the exclusion of the others living in that space. Related to this is the mobilisation through agitation and other methods by those who fear such exclusion, the `non-tribal' people historically sharing the same social and political space, for securing recognition as Scheduled Tribes (ST) to pre-empt such possible exclusion. Thus, the continuing process of reinvention by various communities by seeking a change of official status—the STs seeking territorial councils and the non-STs seeking reclassification as ST, as part of a strategy of political survival and advancement.

Indeed, the debate over one’s rights to the exclusion of others have entered critical phases and seem to be in complete disharmony, mostly due to several past mistakes. Author and analyst Udayon Misra points out, “Whatever the limitations of India’s experiment with representative democracy, the fact remains that the struggle of the small nationalities has led to the expanding of the parameters of the Indian nation-state and a refining of the concept of Indian nationalism itself.” We need to broaden the way we have looked at these concepts and perhaps that would provide a solution to what presently appears to be insurmountable problems in the region.