Monday, October 27, 2014

Chp 534. Separatist movements of North East India


My answer to a Quora question:

What does the world think about the separatist movement by the indigenous tribe of Northeast India?


Thank you for the A2A, but I must admit, this is a very generic question so I don’t think I’ll be able to give you a satisfactory answer. You'll have to understand that there are over 300+ different ethnic tribes and communities in the North East, all speaking different languages or dialects, and most of them have their own issues which may or may not be similar to the issues of other ethnic groups.

India had been, on many occasions, governed by the same ruler - like the Mauryan empire, Gupta kingdom, Chola dynasty, Pala empire, Tughlaq sultanate, Mughal dynasty, Maratha empire etc who ruled vast areas of present day India.


But as far as my knowledge on history goes, what is now “the North East” was never occupied by any of the large empires and dynasties (other than the British) that had ruled over what is now India in the past. Do correct me if I’m mistaken though.

At the western frontier, the Ahom Kingdom of Assam had successfully resisted the mighty Mughal expansion for many generations. Likewise, the once powerful Twipra Kingdom of Tripura too fought Islamic conquests relentlessly. And on the eastern frontier, the Kingdom of Manipur waged many wars with the Burmese Kingdom. The Ahom dynasty finally ended with the Burmese invasion of Assam in 1817, which was then subsequently annexed by the British East India Company. After that, it wasn’t difficult for the British to conquer the other Kingdoms that had grown weaker due to consistent wars, and the other smaller fiefdoms and chieftains of different tribes and communities scattered all across the nearby hills and valleys too fell under the Union Jack.

However, I don’t want to go too much into history as I am not a history buff, and many of us cannot trace back our heritage that further back. Like I said, I may be mistaken about some of the historical facts I’ve mentioned earlier too. Let’s deal with the present situation because that is what matters. The question is about the separatist movement by the indigenous tribe of Northeast India, and I’ll get right to that.

First of all, every Northeastern State has their own story to tell. In the case of Mizoram, the reason for the rise of insurgency was because of neglect from the Indian Government. You can read more about this in my Quora answer: What do people of Mizoram think about the rest of India? To keep a long story short, here is a gist of our insurgent history - After the British left, a terrible famine hit the region and no assistance was given by the Indian Govt and a lot of Mizos died, so everybody said they didn't want to be under a country that didn't care about its people and the entire region under the MNF rebelled, beating back the Indian army, so Indira Gandhi ordered the Air Force to bomb residential areas and then fighting between the MNF and the Indian army continued until the Peace Accord was finally signed in 1986, bringing in permanent peace to the State (*gasps for air*). For a more detailed answer, please do click on the link mentioned above.

Having said that, that was just the case with Mizoram. Other states have different reasons for rebelling. For example, leaders of the Mizo Union political party of Mizoram (which was known as the Lushai Hills district back then) agreed to become a part of Assam rather than Myanmar when the British said they were leaving and the Mizo insurgency happened only after the famine in 1958, but in the case of Nagaland, Naga Nationalism had been popular and growing strong even while the British were there. Many researchers attributed the Second World War to having a significant impact on Naga Nationalism because as we all know, the war was fought right on the doorsteps of Kohima, hence affecting many Naga tribes. The war and rehabilitation process further united many Naga tribes, especially when they came to possess many weapons left behind by the defeated Japanese army. Hence Naga insurgent groups had been fighting for a sovereign country right from day 1 of India’s Independence. Likewise, other States have different backgrounds and causes.

But the BIGGEST misconception people have about the violence in the North East is that, most people think all these insurgent groups are fighting for separation from India.

No they’re actually not.

Sure, some of them do, like how the various factions of the NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) are fighting for a sovereign Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) consisting of areas inhabited by Naga tribes (this includes Nagaland and large regions of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and even Myanmar). Again it has to be mentioned that Naga insurgent groups are not only fighting against the Indian government but even among themselves due to different ideologies and at times because of inter-tribe/clan rivalry.

Also try to keep in mind that all the insurgent groups I’m mentioning here may claim to represent their particular community, but keep in mind that not every person from that particular community accepts it as their representative or believes in their ideologies. It is pretty much like the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS/ISIL) claiming to represent all Muslims when in fact many Muslims are against them.

Coming back to the topic of separation from India, if we take a look at Assam, we have ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) fighting for a sovereign Assam nation since the 70’s. But other groups in Assam are merely fighting for a separate State, like the KLO (Kamtapur Liberation Organisation) wants a separate State called Kamtapur carved out of regions in western Assam and northern West Bengal inhabited by the Koch Rajbongshi community, while the KLNLF (Karbi Longri NC Hills Liberation Front) wants self-rule imposed in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam inhabited by the Karbi people.

Sometimes, the demand changes with time. Some of those who had earlier demanded a sovereign region, now demands a State within India. The NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodoland) initially fought for a sovereign Bodoland but is now focused on a separate State of Bodoland at regions inhabited by the Bodo community. The GNLA (Garo National Liberation Army) initially pushed for a sovereign Garoland, now demands a separate Garoland State carved out of Meghalaya.

And sometimes, it is about demanding an autonomous region, like the HPC(D) (Hmar People’s Conference (Democratic)) demanding a separate administrative unit under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India (Articles 244(2) and 275(1) - Provisions for the administration of tribal areas) at regions largely populated by Hmars within Mizoram, Assam and Manipur.

Again, some of these insurgent groups were created not for the purpose of demanding a separate region, State or Country, but sometimes to protect or defend their respective communities. For example, in Tripura, the NLFT (National Liberation Front of Tripura) and ATTF (All Tripura Tiger Force) were formed by the indigenous tribes of Tripura to combat the growing Bengali population within the State. In retaliation, the UBLF (United Bengali Liberation Front) group was formed to strike back at the tribes. Similarly, in lower Assam, the ACF (Adivasi Cobra Force) and AANLA (All Adivasi National Liberation Army) too were formed for the sole purpose of protecting the tribal people and tribal culture and they did not have any agenda to separate from India, though they were active in attacking migrant workers. In Meghalaya, the LAEF (Liberation of Achik Elite Force) demanded a separate Garo state so the HNLC (Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council) was formed by the Khasi tribes to combat the LAEF and GNLA.

Similarly, in Manipur, it is not just about secession but also about protecting one’s ethnic group. Manipur is inhabited by a vast number of different ethnic groups - You have the Meiteis mainly in the plains, and around 30 major tribes in the hills. The Naga group consists of Zeliangrong, Tangkhul, Mao, Maram, Maring and Tarao while the Chin-Kuki group consists of Gangte, Hmar, Paite, Thadou, Vaiphei, Zou, Aimol, Chiru, Koireng, Kom (yes this is the tribe that Mary Kom belongs to), Chothe, Lamgang, Koirao, Anal, Thangal, Moyon and Monsang (Source: The People of Manipur). Again, there are many debates about which tribe belongs to which ethnic group and some may disagree with what I’ve written here. According to the United Naga Council (UNC), the Naga tribes of Manipur are Anal, Maring, Moyon, Monsang, Lamkang, Chothe, Tarao, Chiru, Kharam, Inpui, Tangkhul, Zeliangrong, Mao, Poumai, Maram and Thangal. I hope we can avoid having this particular discussion on this post. If you’re interested, you can read this article on why there is a debate on which tribe belongs to which ethnic group - Politics of Ethnic Conflict in Manipur.

Hence due to the vast number of different ethnic groups, Manipur is no stranger to inter-ethnic clashes, with some of the prominent ones in the recent past being the Meitei-Pangan clash, the Thadou-Maring clash that escalated into a larger Kuki-Naga clash, the Kuki-Paite clash and the Meitei-Tangkhul clash with some of these clashes even seeing casualties of more than a thousand. Hence some of these ethnic groups have their own insurgent groups that run parallel governments in their respective regions of dominion. 

Even though the presence of insurgent groups prevented ethnic clashes in some cases, in other cases, it was the rivalry between such insurgent groups that resulted in wide-scale ethnic conflict. For example, the KNF (Kuki National Front) and the KNO (Kuki National Organization) demanded a separate State of Kukiland to be carved out of the five hill districts of Manipur – Ukrul, Senapati, Churachandpur, Chandel and Tamenglong as there is a large Kuki population living in these districts. However, this sent out a direct challenge to the NSCN-IM (National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Isak-Muivah faction) who had plans of “Greater Nagaland” (mentioned earlier) whose proposed plan included the four districts of Ukrul, Senapati, Chandel and Tamenglong as they also have a large Naga population. This led to a long ethnic war between the NSCN-IM and KNF/KNO of Manipur.

And to make matters more complicated, the Meiteis of Manipur were dead set against the creation of either Kukiland or Nagalim from Manipur. UNLF (United National Liberation Front), the oldest and most prominent Meitei insurgent group in Manipur promised retaliation if NSCN-IM or KNF/KNO carried on with their agenda. Meanwhile, this situation became awkward for the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), another prominent Meitei insurgent group whose aim was to liberate Manipur by uniting the Meiteis, Kukis and Nagas of Manipur. PREPAK (People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak) is also another such muti-ethnic insurgent group of Manipur recruiting members from the Meitei, Naga and Kuki communities. Now you understand how complex the whole situation is. There had also been cases of the KNF clashing with the ZRO (Zomi Revolutionary Army) due to a dispute in taxation of their respective ethnic members, hence leading to the Kuki-Paite ethnic clash of 1997-98.

You’ll have to read a lot in order to understand or even know about the situations at these places, hence the reason why I initially mentioned that this is quite a generic Quora question. Plus it is not something even most of us Northeasterners ourselves have much of an in-depth knowledge on - we usually tend to know the history of our own respective State/community and the insurgent groups within that State only (like how I am well versed about Mizoram) and knowing about each and every ethnic group and conflict in the North East usually involves months or years of research and doctoral studies done by academicians, defense personnel and media groups. I won’t be surprised if I too am mistaken about some of the different ethnic clashes and insurgent groups I have mentioned in this answer because there are so many different sources of information.

I really hope I didn’t make this answer sound like the North East is a terrible and violent place to visit, especially after one of my recent Quora answers What are the things to remember before visiting the Northeastern States? started seeing a lot of traction and upvotes. It is not! The North East is a beautiful place to visit and most of the areas are extremely peaceful today. Many of the ethnic clashes I have mentioned in this answer happened years ago, and today, many ethnic groups co-exist peacefully. Yes, there may still be an occasional incident here and there, but I frankly believe it will not escalate like before because most of us are sick and tired of living in violence and apprehension.

Also remember that many of the insurgent groups I have mentioned are no longer active too, while some of them have just 10-50 active “soldiers”. Yes, there may still be districts and pockets here and there where some of the outfits run parallel government (taxation and protection) but it is definitely not as bad as it used to be.

To come together as one and co-exist peacefully, we usually don’t talk about our past. I am one of the elected representatives of our recently set up “North East Helpline Mumbai” here in Mumbai, and none of us (representatives from all eight States) talk about any of the past conflicts back home or publish posts on our forums that may cause division between different Northeastern communities. This was the banner we used at the recent NorthEast United FC versus Mumbai City FC match.


It’s like how I asked some of my friends from Rwanda who studied at my college (PSG Tech, Coimbatore) about the Tutsi-Hutu conflict. Their first reaction was, “How the hell do you know about that?” and I was like, “Hotel Rwanda is one of my all-time favorite movies and I have seen it more than 20 times”, and then they told me that they never discuss that incident among themselves, and even among their batch of around 80 exchange students, nobody identified himself as a Tutsi or a Hutu. I totally agree. The past is the past. We move past it.

If you really want to understand the complexity of the insurgency in the North East, it is pretty much like the current conflict in the Middle East.  Quoting from the source – “Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad! Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi. But Gulf states are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood! Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood! Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the U.S.! Gulf states are pro-U.S. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states! Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.”

Yup, sometimes it is more or less as complicated as that.



EDIT: Lolz, I thought this was an A2A, but I could not find it anywhere at the bottom (you usually see that “Asked to answer by xxx” at the end of an answer). So I went through my long list of old notifications and finally found this. Lolz, this was never an A2A, I’m such a Quora noobie!