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India at 75 | Looking back, looking ahead...

India at 75 | The fragility of the Northeast’s integration

The idea of India is in transformation again, and any return to ‘mainstream versus sub-stream friction’ spells danger

August 16, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 12:06 pm IST

A Tiwa tribal woman

A Tiwa tribal woman | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The 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 has always been seen to be somewhat alien and needing assimilation, which found (and finds) reflection in administrative terms too. Two such measures, on opposite ends of the spectrum, should characterise this predicament: the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution introduced in 1949 and the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), promulgated in 1958. Seventy-five years after Independence, the question is how successful has this integration been?

‘Excluded’ areas

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 combination of hill regions of the Northeast and Upper Burma. The 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’, by 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, were constituted largely of the unadministered hills of Assam separated from its revenue plains by an “Inner Line” created by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873, and this was 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 the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo.

The Sixth Schedule

British Assam was virtually the entire Northeast of today, excluding two kingdoms, Tripura and Manipur. In these 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 the Tripura kings were allowed to be landowners there but not claim sovereignty over them. In Manipur, the hills and the central revenue plains of the 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 that Nagas were not Indians. Interestingly, the Crown Colony bears resemblance to the notion of “Zomia”, conceived by Willem van Schendel and popularised by James C. Scott in ‘The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia’. This complex mosaic of ethnicities was what India inherited.

The Sixth Schedule was independent India’s first administrative instrument for undivided Assam’s tribal belt. The works of Verrier Elwin, British-born Indian anthropologist, who advocated for tribals to be encouraged to live by their own geniuses, were its inspiration. The Schedules mandated the formation of Autonomous District Councils in which, among others, tribal customary laws were given legitimacy.

The Naga Hills refused the Sixth Schedule and would have nothing less than sovereignty. A powerful insurgency resulted, and in its wake, AFSPA, with sweeping powers given to the armed forces. As an overture of pacification, the Naga Hills district was merged with the adjacent Mon and Tuensang subdivision of the North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA), or today’s Arunachal Pradesh, to form a separate Nagaland State in 1963. Naga insurgency, however, raged on in different avatars. A peace negotiation has been in progress for the last 25 years, and the hope is that 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 such as 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 nationalising project tended to seen on the other side as insidious cultural aggression.

Inclusion by accommodation

But as India gained confidence and shed its insecurities of further balkanisation after its traumatic Partition experience, the outlook towards national identity and nationalism underwent moderations, inclining towards a constitutional definition of these understandings rather than it being cultural. National integration also came to be more about the mainstream broadening to accommodate all other streams within the national territory, rather than requiring the latter to leave their streams to join the mainstream.

The 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. Initially, its members were Governors of the Northeast States, thereby remaining as the ears and eyes of the Centre. Its original pledge too made security the primary concern. In 2002, the act that 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, DoNER was created in the Union Government in 2001, and in 2004 it was upgraded to a full-fledged Ministry. The paranoid suspicion of a “foreign hand” too has all but disappeared, and, earlier, in 1991, India’s Look East Policy was born with the stated objective of linking the Northeast with the vibrant economies of South East Asia. In 2010, a protected area regime that had 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 “humanise” 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 ebbing of many insurgencies in the region today.

Now, an unsettling question

But the idea of India is transforming again under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi, indicating a return to a rigid understanding by the Indian mainstream. The unsettling question is would this mean a return to the mainstream versus sub-stream friction? The BJP, today has a strong presence in the Northeast. The party is in power in Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh but what needs to be remembered is that electoral politics in the region has been less about ideology and more about aligning with the party in power at the Centre. Grass-root sentiments do not always reflect in this, and are supported by two examples. Assam vehemently opposed the BJP-sponsored Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), yet the electorate returned the BJP to power. In Manipur, AFSPA remains an emotive issue, yet the BJP which did not even mention AFSPA in its election manifesto was voted back. This disconnect between the grassroots and electoral politics being what it is, there is no guarantee that the BJP’s party ideology has harnessed or sublimated the undercurrents of gut politics in the region. If unmindful, the potential for trouble in the CAA, AFSPA or other counter-cultures the region is known for, can flare up again regardless of the party in power.

Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor, FPSJ Review of Arts and Politics

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