Updated: January 5, 2010 13:38 IST

Conflicts in northeast India

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In her introduction, Archana Upadhyay says the purpose of the book is to throw light on “political terrorism” which would mean the “systematic use of murder and destruction, and the threat of murder and destruction to terrorise individuals, groups, communities or governments into conceding to the terrorists’ political aims.” It is this premise that creates plenty of problems in understanding the different insurgent movements of the north-eastern part of the country.


Terrorism, as defined by her, may be an offshoot of the different militant struggles against the Indian state. It can also be seen as an index of the growing desperation of these militant outfits in the face of state terror at different levels and in different degrees as well as the overall shortcomings in distributive justice and the rule of law. But to begin and end one’s analysis with looking at them through the lens of terrorism alone and to suggest that, with most insurgent groups “adopting terrorist techniques, the fine line dividing insurgency and terrorism stands erased” will be to project a somewhat incomplete and distorted picture.

For, in doing so, one will be tempted to overlook the basic issues the various militant movements have thrown up affecting the character and future status of the Indian nation-state. Such an approach also will not help in understanding the complexities of the inter- and intra-ethnic conflicts that have claimed thousands of lives in the region and led to massive displacement of population.

Starting off, in a rather pedestrian way, with a theoretic enunciation of terrorism, the book proceeds to describe the geography and politics of the north-eastern region and narrate how, as a consequence of British colonial policies, the historical linkage of the region was systematically eroded. One could notice a tendency to oversimplify the rather complex nature of ethnic nationalist demands by clubbing them under the umbrella of “ethnic terrorism”.

While discussing the nature of terrorism in the north-east, the author almost totally overlooks the fact that this region has been witness to several prolonged non-violent struggles, not to mention the agitations in the Brahmaputra Valley over industrialisation, language, and demographic change. Even the Naga movement was non-violent until the insensitive handling of the Indian state pushed it into militant ways.


Upadhyay seems to suggest that the abandoned World War II weapons and the “basic hunting skills” of the Nagas “equipped them for a long drawn guerilla war against the India state.” This is to brush aside the collective will of the Nagas that has sustained the struggle. Of course, one does not expect the author to cover the Naga struggle in detail in her brief analysis; but to completely ignore the role of ideas and of socio-historical factors in ethno-nationalist struggles is to certainly miss a central point.

In the brief “overviews” of conflicts in the different northeastern States, the aim seems to be to present a quick take on the northeast, without entering into the cardinal factors that have sustained the militant movements over several decades. One is left with the impression that the people of the northeastern region are especially prone to xenophobic and exclusivist tendencies, which invariably find expression in violence. But the fact is that the region has had, for centuries, a wonderful mix of peoples and civilisations. Today, if the people are caught in a seemingly endless violence, then there is something seriously wrong with the workings of the Indian state and its quasi-federal set-up.

Towards the end, Upadhyay discusses the peace processes involving the different militant groups and the state’s response to terrorism in the region. She calls for a comprehensive regional security network and refers to the stated objective of the United States of combating terrorism in South Asia and of the need to adopt mechanisms like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Clearly, the answer to militant violence in this region lies not in the number of arrangements worked out with neighbouring SAARC countries to counter terrorism, but in India’s own genuine efforts towards ensuring inclusive governance and democratic growth in the northeastern States. The exhaustive notes and appendices provided in the book should be of great help to students and researchers.

INDIA’S FRAGILE BORDERLANDS — The Dynamics of Terrorism in North-east India: Archana Upadhyay; I.B.Tauris, London. Distributed by Viva Books Pvt. Ltd., 4737/23, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 895.

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