The North-Eastern States in India struggle with a very disturbing apathy from the rest of the nation and conflict from within itself. Wedged between international borders and linked to the Indian ‘mainland’ by a mere 21-km wide Siliguri Corridor, the area isn’t just isolated geographically. The years of negligence has turned the region into a separatist hotbed often starved of any attention from those in power or the mainstream media. The people struggle with poverty and violence, and yet, we barely read or hear anything about it even when there is a major crisis looming as in the case of devastating floods in Assam earlier this year. Their history or culture barely finds any place in the centrally-approved textbooks and the story of their glorious past remains virtually unheard by the majority in the country. Not just on a systematic level, North-Eastern people are often subjected to discrimination because of their racial distinctiveness making them feel alienated in their own country, the same country that incidentally takes a lot of pride in celebrating its ‘diversity’ but curiously struggles with accepting it.
Mainstream Political Reluctance towards North-East
Let’s try and make sense of the political reluctance to address or rally for the causes of the north-eastern people, shall we?
- It’s all about the numbers: Considering the thin population density in the region, the representation of the states in the parliament is far less significant. This sparse representation is not a motivation enough for the political parties to pay attention and rally for these causes. The people do not make a very meaty vote-bank and sadly the political interest ends there. Out of 543 constituencies, the eight states in North-Eastern India make up for only about 26 of them which is hardly a significant fraction to act as a stimulant for the mainstream political parties in the country.
- Ideological Misfits: The North-Eastern Region is very uniquely an ideological misfit in the traditionally centrist or the right-wing politics in India. Christianity being the major religion among the tribes, it somehow fails to align with the right-wing saffron crusade or traditionally Muslim-appeasing political style of operating of the Congress Party. However, CPI(Communist Party Of India) has had a major influence in the area but even that has failed to gain the trust of the people and is now mainly catering to the immigrant Bengali population which has been their traditional electoral base. These parties do get elected in the region with the backing from influential tribal leaders but they still refrain from rallying for these causes on a national level.
Rise of the Separatist Rhetoric
Historical Roots: The separatist sentiment in the region has historical roots. The merger of the kingdom of Tripura and Manipur into the Indian mainland right after the Independence had evoked a sense of loss and marginalization in the community. The migration of Bengali population from the then East Pakistan projected a threat to the indigenous tribes. After the formation of Bangladesh, the threat became real as the unrest grew leading to the rise of various militant groups with a secessionist agenda.
Neighborhood Notoriety: The area is notoriously sandwiched between lots of foreign influences. Bangladesh in the south and west and often hostile China in the north. According to the report by BBC’s East India Correspondent Subir Bhaumik, “Since the 1980’s, it has been suspected that Pakistan’s intelligence agency used Bangladesh to establish contact with North-Eastern rebels providing them weapons and specialized training. Surrendered insurgents have said the ISI has encouraged them to take on economic targets such as oil refineries and depots, gas pipelines, rail tracks and road bridges. Burma and Bhutan have also been used as sanctuaries by some of these rebel groups but there is little evidence of official patronage from governments of those countries. There are some unconfirmed reports of Chinese assistance to the NSCN(Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland), the Meitei rebel groups and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA)”. Read the report here.
Addressing the elephant in the room: AFSPA(Armed Forces Special Powers Act)
I think the arguably draconian nature of AFSPA in highly-sensitive regions warrants an article of its own. However, no conversation about North-East is complete without objectively looking at AFSPA and the continuous demands to repeal it.
On the morning of November 2, 2000, innocent civilians were shot dead by the Assam Rifles in Malom region near Imphal, Manipur while they waited at a bus stop. The act was a retaliation against the attack by insurgents. However, the people who died in the aftermath were regular people caught in a relentless battle between these groups. This massacre as it was rightfully called later gave rise to an iconic movement by Irom Sharmila, then 28 who went on a continuous hunger-strike for 16 long years in the prime of her life. The protest gained a lot of attention from national and international organizations like Amnesty International and United Nations Human Rights Commission. This is only one of the many protests staged for repealing this law. The armed forces and right-wing extremists continue to defend the law in the region citing its easily-flared ethnic sensibilities.
However, in a historic judgment on a plea filed by the families of the whopping 1,528 fake encounters in Manipur asking for a thorough probe, the Supreme Court said in July 2016- “It does not matter whether the victim was a common person or a militant or a terrorist, nor does it matter whether the aggressor was a common person or the state. The law is the same for both and is equally applicable to both… This is the requirement of a democracy and the requirement of preservation of the rule of law and the preservation of individual liberties.” It heavily discouraged the use of excessive force against civilians and required any act of oppression by the military under AFSPA to go through a detailed investigation. It recognized the dehumanizing affect that the law can have on a citizen who lives under the fear of state aggression constantly.
The need to give this law a more humane form is often met by resistance by Army and the central government who fear the dilution may lead to worsening of the situation and the lack of immunity from prosecution can demoralize the armed forces in the region. However, the need to repeal and reform has been acknowledged time and again by both national and international platforms. The Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee formed to look into the matter has very strongly recommended the repeal of the act in the area calling it “a symbol of hate, oppression and instrument of high handedness” but we are yet to see any relevant results.
Cold Shoulder from the Media
North-Eastern issues continually fail to get adequate column inches and TV minutes. This is especially important because the media holds the power to sway political interest and also get the people to actively acknowledge and inform about the realities in the area. The lack of objective journalism, save a few occasions often triggered by foreign activities in the area, is disappointing to say the least.
The reasons could be many, from political sullenness towards the area and an absence of a mainstream media personality to represent the region and champion their causes. This isn’t just the case for news media, there is barely any representation from the north-east in the movies, to an extent where ironically Priyanka Chopra was picked to play the role of Mary Kom, the celebrated sportswoman with facial prosthetic. That is just one instance and even if they do get any sort of opportunities there, it is often riddled with a very stereotypical portrayal.
There is something almost sinister about our neglect and discrimination against the north-eastern people. We turn a blind eye to a resourceful and beautiful part of the Indian mainland and yet are very territorial about it. We somehow simply cannot come to terms with these differences to reach and accept and make them a part of the nation’s development story.
Author: Priyanshi Goyal
Graphics: Himali Tripathi