The formation of a “Naga Club” by 20 young men of the French Labour Corps in 1918 initiated the longest insurgency in modern Indian history. With the formation of Naga National Council in 1946, the Shillong Accord of 1975 and subsequent periods of armed struggle, this quagmire sustained itself. Since the ceasefire announcement in 1997, more than 80 rounds of peace talks have been held. Scarred by the vicissitudes of history, the search for ethnic identity lives on across the Northeast.
India’s Northeast accounts for 8 per cent of its geographical area, home to over 200 ethnic tribes, while the 98 per cent of the region’s borders are shared with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Tibet. The region has little in terms of a network of roads or railways. Telecom connectivity and healthcare infrastructure is sporadic. Overcoming this locational disadvantage and aligning away from a Delhi-centric approach to issues has been challenging. Caution, over development, remains the mantra.
With few ethnic groups occupying a notional majority, the state has been involved in unending struggles for ethnic identity. Political discourse has suffered, with consent manufactured by insurgents through a cycle of demands, counter-demands, resolutions, non-violent agitations and violent attacks. Almost every Northeast state is witness to communities demanding greater autonomy or a separate state, in parallel with violent movements seeking independence.
The recent attacks in Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur by insurgents reflect the frustrating complexity of the region’s ethnic mosaic. While a police superintendent was recently shot dead by Karbi rebels in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, another fell to Bodo insurgents. The Garo National Liberation Army in Meghalaya, meanwhile, expands its orgy of gangland-style executions and rapes.
While peace efforts have brought the principal insurgents (Nagas, Assamese, Garos, Bodos, etc.) onto the negotiating table or in “designated camps”, further splintering by violent factions is making a complex mosaic murky. With increasing urbanisation, ethnic and religious conflicts are rising — the Bodo-Muslim riots of 2012, which displaced half a million people, offers a poignant example. Tensions over land issues have spilled into demographic livewires and revenge killings. India looks East, but stares blankly at murder and extortion.
This situation cannot be abided. All the state governments in the region should meet the murder of innocents, whatever their ethnicity, linguistic background or religion group, and the abuse of rights by local thugs, insurgents and security forces, by calibrated response aimed at pacifying the region.
The government’s recently signed Naga peace accord establishes a framework agreement for issue resolution, with a non-territorial alignment reflecting the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah)’s flexibility to achieve its demands under the Constitution, while signalling the acceptance of a peaceful and cooperative conflict resolution mechanism by Naga civil society.
This resolution represents a win-win scenario, providing greater autonomy to the Naga tribes, with a distinct recognition of their identity, history and culture, whilst maintaining the territorial integrity of neighbouring states. The road ahead should be challenging — disarming and rehabilitating the militia rebels will require political will, ground-level execution and economic development. Power sharing amongst local politicians and newer entrants from the NSCN(I-M) will also prove challenging, while internal factionalism within the Naga rebel groups will require redressal. The Meiteis of Manipur will warily watch for any signs of ethnic expansionism.
However, once established, the resolution of one of the oldest armed ethnic conflicts in Asia offers a template for others involving Kukis, Meiteis, Bodos, Dimasas, Hmars, and Karbis. While territorial reorganisation would risk the formation of ethnically slanted councils discriminating against minorities (a la Bodo violence in Assam), a non-territorial solution could be a feasible and acceptable outcome to ethnic violence in Northeast India. The peace accord demonstrates how similar deals should be conducted — away from the spotlight without raising unrealistic expectations, but in an environment that fosters trust and confidence among the stakeholders.
Southeast Asia begins in Northeast India. Myanmar’s traditional Burmese dress, its usage of chopsticks and its adoration for biryani (travelling there with the khansamas of Bahadur Shah Zafar) bears an uncanny cultural affinity with India’s Northeast. Yet, neglect prevails across the Northeast and Myanmar’s western regions (Chin, Sagaing and Kachin states), providing basing opportunities for insurgents.
While the entire region shares similar economic and business structures — agrarian economy based on exporting unprocessed primary commodities — there remains significant opportunity to step-up trade in services and tourism. With greater border control relaxation, increasing number of Burmese citizens are thronging the educational institutes and healthcare facilities in the Northeast. A highway network, secured by border controls and armed police, is required to implement projects in a collaborative effort. An old Manipuri folktale hopes for prosperity once “the eastern gates are opened”. Accessing Myanmar should be made easier.
Yunnan, located in China’s south-western region, was for long an impoverished landlocked region with an inhospitable terrain, peopled with 26 different ethnic minorities — a mirror to India’s Northeast. However, with greater infrastructure development and tourism, the average per capita income doubled to $1,000 in the last decade. With over 50 million tourists, the province now boasts a gross domestic product of $45 billion (tourism comprising 20 per cent), along with 11 airports, six lane highways and railroads. China’s underlying strategy of boosting the local economy through infrastructure development, cross-border diplomacy and tourism marketing has brought prosperity, while tying minority groups more tightly to its economy.
India’s Northeast has the same locational advantage as a gateway to the East. If direct overland routes between Northeast India and Yunnan are opened up, transport costs could reduce by 30 per cent, slashing transport times, while a railroad could cut the journey from Kolkata to Kunming to just 48 hours, transforming Northeast India into a tourist hub. Of the famed Stilwell Road, India’s section is barely passable during the rainy season. Yunnan’s section is a multi-lane highway.
The Northeast can become part of a Brahmaputra-Yangtze-Mekong economy. Applying the lessons of the Naga accord for dealing with other insurgencies could lead to a peaceful Northeast, resulting in development. Acting East requires opening up.