Economic Problems of Northeast India | IAS Target IAS Target

North East - India Challenges (Development, Alienation, Insurgency, Secessionism)

30 Jul 2020

Category : Security

Topic: North East - India Challenges (Development, Alienation, Insurgency, Secessionism)

Northeast India (officially North Eastern Region, NER) is the easternmost region of India representing both a geographic and political administrative division of the country. It comprises eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. The Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, with a width of 21 to 40 kms, connects the North Eastern Region with East India.

The region shares an international border of 5,182 kms (about 99 percent of its total geographical boundary) with several neighbouring countries:
1,395 kms with Tibet Autonomous Region, China in the north
1,640 kms with Myanmar in the east
1,596 kms with Bangladesh in the south-west
97 kms with Nepal in the west
455 kms with Bhutan in the north-west

The states of North Eastern Region are officially recognised under the North Eastern Council (NEC), constituted in 1971 as the acting agency for the development of the north eastern states. Long after induction of NEC, Sikkim formed part of the North Eastern Region as the eighth state in 2002. India's Look-East connectivity projects connect Northeast India to China and ASEAN. North eastern states, also known as Seven Sisters, are burdened by colonial legacy like rest of India. Since independence, there have been numerous secessionist movements and Indian state has repressed them every time. North east is as diverse as rest of India is but one distinguishing feature is that except state of Assam, other states have dominantly Tribal populations.
There have been continuous immigration stream from the time of colonial rule, especially from Bengal. States of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram were deliberately kept isolated by colonial government and only missionary activities were allowed. Actually this all started in early 19th century when Burmese King attacked and took area upto Assam under its rule. In 1824-26 under which Assam and Manipur became part of British India for the first time. There were two more Anglo Burmese wars, one in 1854 and other in 1885. British started tea plantations in Assam, and here too kept it largely aloof from mainland Indians.
NE was single entity in 1947(Assam), which later was divided in states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and North Eastern Frontier Agency, which later came to be known as Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur. Sikkim was not part of India until 1974 when it became a full-fledged state and was under Chogyal Dynasty. This balkanization was due to bewildering diversity, Worst is that this diversity is often at war with each other and this was there from pre-independence era. Claims over any area are not exclusive to any one tribe and are overlapping. This is quite evident from the fact that, after giving autonomy and dividing states, still there is ethnic violence.
After independence, government adopted a quite accommodative stance and most of them became loyal citizens of India. But some disgruntled elements, not relented and rebel against Indian Union and fight the state, they often targeted civilians of different ethnicity to eliminate ‘outsider’ from their area. They are different from Maoist, who mainly targets people associated with the state and only suspected informers and traitors are killed.
An insurgency is a rebellion against authority when those taking part in the rebellion are not recognized as belligerents (lawful combatants). An insurgency can be fought via counter-insurgency warfare, and may also be opposed by measures to protect the population, and by political and economic actions of various kinds and propaganda aimed at undermining the insurgents' claims against the incumbent regime. As a concept, insurgency's nature is ambiguous. Secessionism is the action of withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body, especially a political state.

NE-India's insurgency and secessionism problems

Insurgency in Northeast India involves multiple armed separatist factions operating in India's northeastern states, which are connected to the rest of India by the Siliguri Corridor, a strip of land as narrow as 23.00 km wide. Some factions favour a separate state while others seek regional autonomy. Some groups demand complete independence. Others wanted religious law. Northeastern India consists of seven states (also known as the Seven Sister States): Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland.
Tensions exist between these states and the central government as well as amongst their native tribal people and migrants from other parts of India. Regional tensions eased off in late 2013, with the Indian and state governments making a concerted effort to raise the living standards of people in these regions. However, in late 2014 tensions again rose as the Indian government launched an offensive, which led to a retaliatory attack on civilians by tribal guerrillas. As of 1 January 2015, major militant activities are being conducted in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura. The 2014 Indian general election had an 80% voter turnout in all northeastern states, the highest among all states of India. Indian authorities claim that this shows the faith of the northeastern people in Indian democracy. Despite this, a number of organizations listed as terrorist groups continue to promote an insurgency.

Reasons for conflict in North East India:

Historical Reasons loosely administered under British India.
Centralisation Tensions between these states and the central government.
Migration from other parts of India Tensions between tribal people, who are natives of these states, and migrant peoples from other parts of India.
Geographical Reasons not well connected with present Indian mainland.
Developmental Reasons Poorly developed due to lack of fund from Center/States and Environmental reasons.
Military Reasons AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Power Act).
Foreign Policy Look easy policy and market changes bought.
External Support China and Myanmar

The historical connections among the traditional tribes in the Northeast are largely of Tibeto-Burman/Mongoloid stock and closer to Southeast Asia than to South Asia. It is ethnically, linguistically and culturally very distinct from the other states of India. Though cultural and ethnic diversity per say are not causes for conflict, but one of the major problem areas is that the Northeast is territorially organized in such a manner that ethnic and cultural specificities were ignored during the process of delineation of state boundaries in the 1950s, giving rise to discontentment and assertion of one’s identity. Whereas, the colonial rulers administered the hills as a loose ‘frontier area’, with the result, that large parts of the northeastern hill areas never came in touch with the principle of a central administration before. Hence, their allegiance to the newly formed Indian nation-state was lacking from the beginning – accentuated by the creation of East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) – which meant the loss of a major chunk of the physical connection between mainland India and Northeast India. Interestingly, 99 percent of the Northeast’s boundaries is international and only one percent is domestic boundary.
The Indian government’s past and ongoing processes of national integration, state-building and democratic consolidation have further aggravated the conflict scenario in the region. For instance, the eight states comprising the Northeast is populated by nearly 40 million inhabitants who vary in language, race, tribe, caste, religion, and regional heritage. Therefore, most often, the clubbing of all these states under the tag of ‘northeast’ has tended to have a homogenizing effect with its own set of implications for policy formulation and implementation; not to mention local aversion to such a construct.
The politico-administrative arrangements made by the Centre have also been lacking. For instance, the introduction of the Sixth Schedule Autonomous Councils (currently there are ten such Councils in the region and many more demanding such status) ended up creating multiple power centers instead of bringing in a genuine process of democratization or autonomy in the region. Moreover, Para 12 (A) of the Sixth Schedule clearly states that, whenever there is a conflict of interest between the District Councils and the state legislature, the latter would prevail. It is even alleged that it is “a mere platform for aspiring politicians who nurture ambitions to contest assembly polls in the future”. The AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Power Act) for instance, shows the inability and reluctance of the government to solve the conflict with adequate political measures.

AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act)

The AFSPA was passed on 18 August, 1958, as a short-term measure to allow deployment of the army to counter an armed separatist movement in the Naga Hills, has been in place for the last five decades and was extended to all the seven states of the Northeast region in 1972 (with the exception of Mizoram). It was part of a bundle of provisions, passed by the central government, to retain control over the Naga areas, in which the Naga National Council (NNC) demanded further autonomous rights.
The AFSPA became a powerful measure for the central and the state government to act against actors challenging the political and territorial integrity of India. As a result, the Indian army for the first time since its independence was deployed to manage an internal conflict. But, instead of resolving the problem, it led to an ongoing escalation of the conflict by bringing it on a military level. The allegation of regular violations of human rights has led to a radicalization and militarization of the region and weakened also the supporters of a political solution.

Insurgency in Manipur

The Insurgency in Manipur is an ongoing armed conflict between between India and a number of separatist rebel groups, taking place in the region of Manipur. The Insurgency in Manipur is part of the wider Insurgency in Northeast India, it combines elements of a national liberation war as well as an ethnic conflict. Manipur's long tradition of independence can be traced to the foundation of the Kangleipak State in 1110. The Manipur became a part of the Indian Union on 15 October 1949. Manipur's incorporation into the Indian state soon led to the formation of a number of insurgent organisations, seeking the creation of an independent state within the borders of Manipur, and dismissing the merger with India as involuntary.
The first separatist faction known as United National Liberation Front (UNLF), was founded on 24 November 1964. Between 1977 and 1980, the People's Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA), People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), were formed, immediately joining the war. Despite the fact that Manipur became a separate state of the Indian Union on 21 January 1972, the insurgency continued. On 8 September 1980, Manipur was declared an area of disturbance, when the Indian government imposed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 on the region, the act currently remains in force.
The parallel rise of Naga nationalism in neighbouring Nagaland led to the emergence of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) activities in Manipur. Clashes between the Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions of NSCN further aggravated tensions, as Kuki tribals began creating their own guerrilla groups in order to protect their interests from alleged Naga violations. Extortion remains the main source of funding for militant groups, temples, educational institutions and businesses are known to have been targeted with illegal taxation.

Insurgency in Nagaland and framework agreement

The people of Nagaland are demanding for Nagalim i.e. Greater Nagaland. Their demand is very complex because the Naga tribe is dispersed all across the North East states. The people of Nagaland demand for a separate, sovereign state for all the Naga invaded areas in the North East.

How did it begin?

In 1918, the Naga movement started with the formation of the Naga Club by 20 Naga members. These members had served in the World War I and this aroused a feeling of nationalism amongst them which shaped the idea of a Naga Nation. The Naga Club submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 which demanded a separate, autonomous state for the Nagas. Subsequently in 1946, Dr. Phizo, a Naga nationalist leader, popularly known as the “Father of the Nagas” formed Naga National Council. In 1947, the Akbar Hydari Agreement was signed between the then Governor of Assam and the Naga National Council but it eventually failed. In 1952, Dr. Phizo formed the NFA (Naga Federal Army) and the NFG (Naga Federal Government) to start an armed move. The NNC involved in violent activities which forced the Indian security forces to come up with counter insurgency operations.
The government of India enacted the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) in 1958 to tackle the insurgency problems in Nagaland. Due to the continued insurgency, the Shillong accord was signed in 1975 in which the NNC agreed to give up violence. The government got a section of NSC leaders to sign the Shillong Accord but a group of about 140 members who were at that time in China refused to accept the Accord and formed the NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) in 1980. The NSCN split into two divisions in 1988- NSCN (I-M) (National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Isaac Muivah) and NSCN (K). The NSCN (I-M) faction led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, believes in talks with the government regarding the formation of the separate Naga Nation. The other Khaplang faction, headed by S.S Khaplang reside out of India and are responsible for violent bombings. Eventually the NSCN (I-M) was seen as the mother if all insurgencies in that region. The NSCN (I-M) signed an agreement with the government of India in 2015 to solve the problems.

The Naga Peace Accord

The Government of India and the NSCN signed a historic peace accord, thus bringing an end to one of India’s oldest insurgencies. Naga interlocutor Mr. R. N Ravi, on behalf of the Union Government, signed a framework agreement with the NSCN (I-M) to end the Naga insurgency. There are six insurgency groups in that region. NSCN (I-M) has been fighting for Greater Nagaland or Nagalim to extend Nagaland’s borders by including Naga dominated areas in Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh to unite the 1.2 million Nagas. The Naga framework agreement was signed in 2015 at the Prime Minister’s residence.
But the Centre has not yet revealed the details of the agreement. This is because there has been a decade long insurgency in the North East region. So if the government tries to pacify one insurgent group, it would offend the other groups thus preventing from arriving to a consensus. If the details of the deal were made public, it would lead to increase in tensions between the insurgent groups. NSCN (I-M) was the most dominant insurgent group so it was important to sign an agreement with them for the restoration of peace and security in Nagaland.

The Mizoram Insurgency

The March 1966 Mizo National Front uprising was a revolt against the Government of India, aimed at establishing a sovereign state for the Mizos. On 1 March 1966, the Mizo National Front (MNF) made a declaration of independence, after launching coordinated attacks on the Government offices and security forces post in different parts of the Mizo district in Assam. The Government suppressed the uprising and recaptured all the places seized by the MNF by 25 March 1966. Counter-insurgency operations continued over the next few years, although the intensity of the rebellion diminished over time progressively till its complete resolution in the 1986 peace talks. During the Government operations to suppress the rebellion, the Indian Air Force carried out airstrikes in Aizawl; this remains the only instance of India carrying out an airstrike in its own civilian territory.

The Mizo peace accord

The Mizoram Peace Accord, 1986 was an official agreement between the Government of India and the Mizo National Front (MNF) to end insurgency and violence in Mizoram, India. The Mizo National Front was an organisation of Mizo secessionists led by Laldenga to fight for independence from India. The movement was basically due to lack of support from the government during the great famine (called Mautam) in Mizoram in the late 1950s. Political insurgency and social unrest ensued in the next decades. After a number of negotiations, the document titled Mizoram Accord, 1986: Memorandum of Settlement was finally signed on 30 June 1986. It was signed by Laldenga for MNF, R.D. Pradhan, Home Secretary, Government of India, and Lalkhama, Chief Secretary, Government of Mizoram. It is remarked as the most and only successful peace agreement in India after its independence from British Empire in 1947.


British had separate policies for two parts of Assam. For Uplands it maintained policy of relative isolation and here population was ethnic Assamese, they classified this as tribal area. In contrast, Low lands were largely Hindi speaking; this was non-tribal area and was fully exploited by British. In these areas their bureaucracy relied completely on Bengali immigrants. For labor there were migrants which were Bengalis, Biharis, and Non Bengali Muslims. After independence there was continuous stream of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This overtime gave Assamese population a diverse character like any other big cities of India.
First time violence spiraled in 1970’s when it appeared that illegal migrants have entered into electoral rolls and Native parties will from now on loose elections. This led to creation of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and some other similar groups. Then this followed counter insurgency and finally Assam accord was reached in 1985 between different parties and government. ULFA kept out of this accord. But this time there emerged nexus between ruling party and ULFA which alienated migrants. Ruling party was not accommodative of migrants and they treated illegal and legal migrants alike.
This caused counter mobilization of another Assamese Ethnic group, Bodos. They formed All Bodo Student Union and escalated violence against ethnic Assamese people. They also raised demand for separate state Bodoland. This demand could not be met because no ethnic group is in outright majority in a particular area. Later in negotiations government offered a Bodo Territorial Council, but his was rejected by Bodos.

Insurgency in Tripura

The insurgency in Tripura was an armed conflict which took place in the state of Tripura between India and several separatist rebel organisations. It was a part of the wider insurgency in Northeast India and was fueled by Tripuris who had became a minority in their own state because of unchecked immigration of Bangladeshi people.

Current situation in North-east India

Insurgency & Ceasefire
  • Popular support for the insurgent group is drying up in the region. Insurgency is active only in Manipur.
  • Ceasefire and Suspension of Operations with militant groups allows them to indulge in extortion and kidnapping, which in turn help them in maintaining their clout over the people of the region.
  • There exists deep nexus between all the insurgent groups in the Northeast and links with CPI (M)
  • The biggest challenge to the North East is extortion carried out by various insurgent groups. Extortion has become meticulously organised activity in the region and is one of the major sources of funds for the militants.
  • It is important to understand the culture and psyche of the people of North East while framing policy alternatives.
  • The perceived threat to the political identity of the Assamese people from the illegal migrants from Bangladesh lies at the core of the Assam problem. The indigenous people of Assam feel that in future the illegal migrants will become the majority population and they will lose political power.
  • The ceasefire agreements and peace negotiations have resulted in reducing the violence levels and given the civil societies of the region space to talk.
  • One of the ways to contain insurgency in the region is to delegate powers to the ethnic minorities through the Autonomous District Councils so that they can fashion their own development.
  • The implementation of Sixth Schedule in Assam has not benefited the tribal communities of the state. Following the 73rd and 74th amendments, the Central and state governments are providing huge amounts of financial resources to the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) and municipalities. Since, the scheduled areas do not fall under the purview of the PRI and municipalities, they do not receive any share of these funds and as a result they lose out.
  • Security situation in the region has improved considerably in Assam and Meghalaya in particular facilitating conducive atmosphere for investment and development. The Northeast Industrial Policy initiated by the Government of India further contributed in encouraging investment and industries in the region.
  • However, the Northeast will not attract big industries because the region is resource deficit, and does not have economies of scale to match. Moreover, the security situation in the whole of the region has not improved uniformly.
  • The North East Council (NEC) and the Ministry for the Development of the North East Region (DoNER) have become fund disbursing agencies instead of strategic planning agencies.
China’s role in North-East India's problems After, 1962 indo-china war, China became quite hostile to India in all the matters. This directly meant that it accommodated all Anti India elements. It also gave them moral, material and monetary support. Naga National Council fighter travelled all the way to Yunnan Province of China to get guerilla training there. That time India allied with Myanmar and this cooperation blocked movement on Nagas until 1980 when Junta dictatorship came in power in Myanmar. With this it tilted heavily towards China and they both allowed their territories to be used against India. It was only after Chinese economic reforms, China’s outlook changed. From active hostile it became passively hostile.
Pakistan active support to NE-India militant group NE problem is aggravated due to Pakistan active involvement when Bangladesh was not yet an independent country. Former Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto expressed that Pakistan, like Kashmir, also have claims on some districts of Assam. His claim was on back of ‘growing’ Muslim population in Assam. It is said that it was his policy to push as many as possible Muslims illegally into Assam and then to claim/annex entire state. Pakistan open heartedly hosted Indian Rebels, mainly Nagas and Mizos. Pakistan went to the extent of seeking International support for naga cause by sending their leader to London with its diplomats. Similar support was provided to Mizos leader.

Even after liberation of Bangladesh, these leaders travelled mainland Pakistan and made connections of supplies through Rangoon, Myanmar. Later ISI became supporter of these outfits and it synergized its own terror outfits. There are a number of Islamic terror outfits operating in Assam which have their roots in Pakistan or Bangladesh.
Bangladesh role in our NE region After Liberation of Bangladesh, Government under Sheikh Mujibur Rehman remained cordial with India. But, soon he was murdered by Islamic fundamentalists and Bangladesh was taken over by Pakistan type mentality. They again revived Anti India and Anti Hindu rhetoric and embraced terrorism. After this again active support and allowing Indian rebels to build base in Bangladesh started. All this happened under nose of Bangladesh government and ISI was an active party. Further typical anti India terror outfits came to existence under Bangladesh Nationalist Party. It has been well known that Bangladesh has been used by rebels for quite long. Bangladesh has big network of Small Arms supply. But Awami League government headed by Sheikh Hasina is keen to have friendly relations with India and also has Secular Character. But illegal migration and cross border smuggling stills continues.

Similarly Myanmar has allowed bases in past for rebels, but now due to political reforms it has pulled the plug. Further, Bhutan has supportively dismantled almost all Anti India elements on its soil. Nepal in past has acted meeting ground of extremism emerging from Pakistan and that from North east. Again in recent past, Indo Nepal Cooperation has improved resulting in many wanted criminals being caught. But the problem remains is of Small Arms Corridor which stretches from south east Asia to frontiers of India through Thailand.
Inner line controversy
  • ILP is an official travel document issued by the Government of India to grant inward travel of an Indian citizen into a protected area for a limited period. Visitors are not allowed to purchase property in these regions.
  • Manipur Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill 2015 was withdrawn after it earned the wrath of the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit, who felt the bill failed to safeguard the interests of the indigenous people.

Recommendations to solve North East India Problems

Insurgency Thorough background check of all insurgent groups should be carried out before the central government enters into any Ceasefire or Suspension of Operations Agreements with the insurgents.
Political Political solutions to the Assam problem should be discussed openly as widely as possible to avoid backlash from the tribal and the minority population of the state. A system of work permit should be issued so that the illegal Bangladeshi migrants do not end up as Indian citizens. The Autonomous District Councils should be empowered. Governance should be improved in a step by step manner. Strict supervision by senior officials should be initiated to improve the delivery system of the government.
Development The Ministry of the Development of the North East region (DoNER) be merged with the North East Council (NEC) for better strategic planning and coordination of various developmental projects in the region. Focus of the Ministry f DoNER and NEC should be on investment in mega-projects which will make big difference to the development of the region. Institutional capacities in the North east should be developed urgently. Pragmatic land use policy should be formulated for attracting industries in the region. Micro, small and medium enterprises should be ncouraged. Local tourism should be promoted. Tourists residing in the eight North Eastern states should be encouraged to travel within the region. The North east should become a single economic unit without disturbing the political boundaries of the states. No internal traffic barriers in the region. Exclusive five year plan for the North east focusing on development of infrastructure.
Look East Policy and now act policy Greater awareness about the Look East Policy and its benefits to the North East should be generated among the policymakers and the intelligentsia of the region. Ties with Myanmar should be deepened by exploiting Myanmar’s anxieties about China as well as existing deep civilization and spiritual ties. The North East region must be included in the India-ASEAN Vision for trade and cooperation. Development Plan for the North East should factor India-ASEAN strategic cooperation. Integrated and bottoms up approaches are required for integration of the North east in the Look East Policy. The North East should formulate plans as to how it can engage with the ASEAN. Better coordination of efforts by all the Northeastern states should be ensured. Visa offices of Bangladesh and Myanmar should be located in the North East. Centres/Departments for the studies of neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal in Universities should be set up in universities to understand India’s neighbours better.
Border issues Special economic zones along India-Bangladesh border, especially in Meghalaya and Assam should be set up. States should focus more on the development and security of the border areas. Sentiments of the people of Arunachal Pradesh should be taken into consideration by the central government while discussing the frameworks for resolution of the border dispute with China. Matching infrastructure and military capability should be build to ensure peace and enable negotiations from a position of strength.