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The Fragility of the Northeast’s Integration

Context

The concept of India is changing once more, and any return to “mainstream versus sub-stream friction” signals danger.

Relevance

GS Paper 2: Functions and responsibilities of the Union and the States, issues and challenges pertaining to the federal structure, devolution of powers and finances up to local levels and challenges therein.  pressure groups and formal/informal associations and their role in the Polity.

GS Paper 3 : Challenges to internal security (external state and non-state actors), Linkages between development and spread of extremism

Mains Question

Why is India’s northeast such a difficult regional challenge for the Indian government? Analyse. (250 Words)


The Scenario

  • The integration of Northeast India into mainstream Indian life has been on the national agenda since India’s independence in 1947.
  • The region has always been perceived as foreign and in need of assimilation, which has found (and continues to find) reflection in administrative terms.
  • The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, enacted in 1949, and the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), enacted in 1958, should characterise this situation. How successful has this integration been seventy-five years after independence?

‘Excluded’ zones

  • The British had also considered making this “Mongolian Fringe” — a term coined in a paper by British India Foreign Secretary Olaf Caroe in 1940 — a Crown Colony.
  • This entity was to be a hybrid of Northeast hill regions and Upper Burma. In a 22-page note titled ‘A Note on the Future of the Present Excluded, Partially Excluded, and Tribal Areas of Assam,’ the Governor of Assam, Robert Reid, stated that people in Assam had “neither racially, historically, culturally, nor linguistically” any affinity with the rest of India.
  • As David R. Syiemlieh documents in his book On the Edge of Empire: Four British Plans for North East India 1941-1947, there were other similar thoughts.
  • These “Excluded” and “Partially Excluded” areas Reid mentions were largely made up of unadministered Assam hills separated from its revenue plains by a “Inner Line” established by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation 1873, a year before Assam was separated from Bengal and made a Chief Commissioner’s Province.
  • Previously, Assam was annexed into British Bengal following the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) and the Treaty of Yandabo.

The Sixth Schedule

  • Except for two kingdoms, Tripura and Manipur, British Assam encompassed virtually the entire Northeast of today.
  • Though no Inner Line was introduced in these kingdoms, the British introduced similar administrative mechanisms separating “excluded” hills from revenue plains.
  • The plains of Chakla Roshanabad in Tripura were annexed to British Bengal, and the Tripura kings were permitted to be landowners but not to claim sovereignty over them.
  • In 1907, the hills and central revenue plains of the Imphal valley in Manipur were designated as separate administrative regions.
  • The Crown Colony plan was eventually abandoned due to administrative feasibility concerns. Reid’s idea was most likely influenced by a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 by the Naga Club, a nascent Naga nationalist organisation that argued that Nagas were not Indians. Interestingly, the Crown Colony is similar to Willem van Schendel’s concept of “Zomia,” which was popularised by James C. Scott in ‘The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.’ India inherited this complex mosaic of ethnicities.
  • The Sixth Schedule was independent India’s first administrative instrument for the tribal belt of undivided Assam.
  • It was inspired by the works of Verrier Elwin, a British-born Indian anthropologist who advocated for tribals to be encouraged to live by their own geniuses.
  • The Schedules required the formation of Autonomous District Councils, which legitimised tribal customary laws, among other things.
  • The Naga Hills refused the Sixth Schedule and demanded complete sovereignty.
  • A powerful insurgency ensued, followed by AFSPA, which granted the armed forces broad powers. In 1963, 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 as a pacification gesture.
  • However, the Naga insurgency continued in various avatars. For the past 25 years, peace talks have been ongoing, with the hope that they will result in a permanent settlement.

The Later Case

  • The majority of these autonomous regions were separated from Assam in 1972. Meghalaya was created as a state, while Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram were designated as union territories.
  • In 1987, the latter two were elevated to the status of states. Tripura and Manipur, which were made Part-C States after India’s merger in 1949, were also elevated to the status of states in 1972.
  • Among these, the national identity question remained unresolved, and insurgencies spawned and spread even in states like Assam and Manipur, where the emotional divide with mainstream India appeared to have narrowed.
  • The Indian state’s hegemonic suspicion of the “Mongolian Fringe,” and the latter’s reciprocal fear of being forced out of their traditional worlds and overwhelmed by a cultural and population deluge from the mainstream, persisted.
  • Every deviation from national norms in the region came to be attributed to unseen “foreign hands,” and every nationalising project came to be viewed as insidious cultural aggression on the other side.

Accommodation for inclusion

  • However, as India gained confidence and shed its fears of further balkanisation following the traumatic Partition experience, the outlook on national identity and nationalism shifted toward a constitutional definition rather than a cultural one.
  • National integration also came to mean broadening the mainstream to include all other streams within the national territory, rather than requiring the latter to leave their streams to join the mainstream
  • This can be seen in the changes that the North Eastern Council (NEC) underwent. This institution was established in 1971 as a consultative body. Initially, its members were Governors of Northeast States, serving as the Centre’s ears and eyes. Its original pledge, too, prioritised security. The act that gave birth to the NEC was amended in 2002. It evolved from an advisory role to a regional infrastructure planning body.
  • Sikkim was also welcomed into the fold. Significantly, its executive structure grew to include the Chief Ministers of these states, connecting it to the aspirations of local electorates.

New Optimism

  • Similarly, DoNER was established in the Union Government in 2001 and was upgraded to a full-fledged Ministry in 2004.
  • The paranoid fear of a “foreign hand” has all but vanished, and earlier, in 1991, India’s Look East Policy was established with the stated goal of connecting the Northeast with the vibrant economies of South East Asia.
  • A protected area regime that had restricted foreign visitors to Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram was relaxed in 2010.
  • Despite its failure, a judicial commission was formed in 2004 to recommend a way to repeal or “humanise” AFSPA.
  • The renewed hope was palpable. Indeed, it would not be unreasonable to assume that this was John Paul Lederach’s “moral imagination” at work, resulting in the visible waning of many insurgencies in the region today.

The unsettling question

  • However, under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi, the concept of India is changing again, indicating a return to a rigid understanding by the Indian mainstream.
  • The party is in power in Assam, Tripura, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh, but it is important to remember that electoral politics in the region have been less about ideology and more about aligning with the party in power at the Center.
  • Two examples show that grassroots sentiments are not always reflected in this.
  • Despite the fact that Assam strongly opposed the BJP-sponsored Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the electorate returned the BJP to power.
  • AFSPA remains an emotional issue in Manipur, despite the fact that the BJP did not even mention it in its election manifesto.
  • Given the disconnect between grassroots and electoral politics, there is no guarantee that the BJP’s party ideology has harnessed or sublimated the region’s undercurrents of gut politics.
  • If not careful, the potential for trouble in the CAA, AFSPA, or other counter-cultures that the region is known for can resurface, regardless of which party is in power.

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September 2022
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