Integration of Northeast India into mainstream Indian life has been on the national agenda from the very start of India’s journey as an independent nation. The region was always seen as somewhat alien, needing assimilation, and this found reflections in administrative terms too. Two such measures on opposite ends of a spectrum should characterise this predicament – the 6th Schedule of the Constitution introduced in 1949 and the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, promulgated in 1958. As India touches 75 years of independence, the question is, how successful has this integration been.
The British had also considered leaving this “Mongolian Fringe” – a term British India foreign secretary, Olaf Caroe, coined in a paper in 1940 – as a Crown Colony. This entity was to be a combine of hill regions of Northeast and Upper Burma. Governor of Assam, Robert Reid, flagged this in a 22-page note in 1937 titled: A Note on the Future of the Present Excluded, Partially Excluded and Tribal Areas of Assam, saying people here “neither racially, historically, culturally, nor linguistically” had any affinity with the rest of India. There were other similar thoughts too as David R. Syiemlieh documents in his: On the Edge of Empire: Four British Plans for North East India 1941-1947.
These “Excluded” and “Partially Excluded” areas Reid mentions, constituted largely of unadministered hills of Assam separated from its revenue plains by an “Inner Line” created by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873, a year before Assam was separated from Bengal and made a chief commissioner’s province. Earlier, Assam was annexed into British Bengal after the First Anglo Burmese War 1824-26 and signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo.
British Assam was virtually the entire Northeast of today excluding two kingdoms – Tripura and Manipur. In these two kingdoms too, though no Inner Line was introduced, the British brought in similar administrative mechanisms separating “excluded” hills from the revenue plains. In Tripura, the plains of Chakla Roshanabad were annexed to British Bengal and Tripura kings were allowed to be land owners there but not claim sovereignty over them. In Manipur, the hills and the central revenue plains of Imphal valley came to be treated as separate administrative regions in 1907.
The Crown Colony plan was ultimately dropped on grounds of administrative feasibility. Reid’s idea probably was also influenced by a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 by a nascent Naga nationalist body, Naga Club, which argued Nagas were not Indians. Interestingly the Crown Colony bears resemblance to the notion of “Zomia”, conceived by Willem van Schendel and popularised by James Scott in: Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland South East Asia. This complex mosaic of ethnicities was what India inherited.
The 6th Schedule was Independent India’s first administrative instrument for undivided Assam’s tribal belt. Works of Verrier Elwin, British-born Indian anthropologist, who advocated for tribals to be encouraged to live by their own geniuses was its inspiration. The Schedules mandate formation of Autonomous District Councils, ADC, in which, among others, tribal customary laws are given legitimacy.
Naga Hills, refused the 6th Schedule and would have nothing less than sovereignty. A powerful insurgency resulted, and in its wake came the AFSPA, with sweeping powers given to the armed forces. As a pacification overture, Naga Hills district was merged with adjacent Mon and Tuensang subdivision of North Eastern Frontier Agency, NEFA, (today’s Arunachal Pradesh), to form a separate Nagaland state in 1963. Naga insurgency however raged on in different avatars. A peace negotiation is in progress for the last 25 years, and hopes are this would culminate in a lasting settlement.
In 1972, most of these autonomous regions were bifurcated from Assam. Meghalaya became a state, while Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram were made Union Territories. The latter two were upgraded to states in 1987. Tripura and Manipur, which were made Part-C states after merger with India in 1949, were also upgraded to states in 1972.
Amidst these, the national identity question remained incompletely resolved, and insurgencies spawned and spread even in states like Assam and Manipur where the emotional gulf with mainstream India had seemingly narrowed. The hegemonic suspicion of the Indian State of the “Mongolian Fringe” and reciprocal fear of the latter of being forced out of their traditional worlds to be overwhelmed by a cultural and population deluge from the mainstream, persisted. Every deviation from national norms in the region came to be attributed to machinations by unseen “foreign hands”, likewise every nationalizing project tended to seen on the other side as insidious cultural aggression.
But as India gained confidence and shed its insecurities of further balkanization after its traumatic Partition experience, the outlook to national identity and nationalism underwent moderations, coming to incline towards a constitutional definition of these understandings rather than cultural. National integration also came to be more about the mainstream broadening to accommodate all other streams within the national territory, rather than require the latter to leave their streams to join the mainstream.
Changes the North Eastern Council, NEC, went through can be read as a demonstration of this. This institution was founded in 1971 as an advisory body. Its members initially were Governors of Northeast states, thereby remaining as ear and eye of the Centre. Its original pledge too made security the primary concern. In 2002, the act which brought NEC to life was amended. From an advisory role, it became an infrastructure planning body for the region. Sikkim was also brought into its fold. Significantly, its executive structure expanded to include chief ministers of these states, linking it to the aspirations of local electorates.
Likewise, Department of North East Region, DoNER, was created in the Union Government in 2001, and in 2004 it was upgraded to a full-fledged ministry. The paranoic suspicion of “foreign hand” too all but disappeared, and in 1991 India’s Look East Policy was born with the stated objective of linking Northeast with the vibrant economies of South East Asia. In 2010, a protected area regime which strictly restricted visits to Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram by foreigners was relaxed. Although unsuccessful, there was even a judicial commission constituted in 2004 to recommend a way to repeal or else “humanize” AFSPA. The new optimism was palpable. Indeed, it would not be unreasonable to presume this was the “moral imagination” of John Paul Lederach at work, resulting in the visible ebbs in many insurgencies in the region today.
But the idea of India is transforming again under the BJP government in New Delhi, indicating a return to a rigid understanding of Indian mainstream. The unsettling question is, would this mean a return to the mainstream versus sub-stream friction? True, BJP, today has a strong presence in Northeast. The party is in power in Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh but it needs to be remembered electoral politics in the region has been less about ideology and more about aligning with the party in power at the Centre. Grassroots sentiments also do not always reflect in it. Two examples should indicate this. Assam vehemently opposed the BJP sponsored Citizen Amendment Act, CAA, yet the electorate returned BJP. In Manipur AFSPA remains an emotive issue, yet BJP which did not even mention AFSPA in its election manifesto was voted back to power. This disconnect between grassroots and electoral politics being what it is, there is no guarantee BJP’s party ideology has harnessed or sublimated the undercurrents of gut politics in the region. If unmindful, the trouble potentials of CAA, AFSPA or other counter cultures the region is known for, can flare up again regardless of which party is in power.
This article was first published in The Hindu on August 16
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author