Living in a melting pot of races, religions and cultures, the inhabitants of Northeast India continue to struggle with an identity crisis while battling decades of ethnic conflict.
Northeastern India consists of the seven sister states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, and parts of North Bengal. This is a very diverse region and has strong ethnic and cultural ties with Southeast and East Asia while it is officially a part of India since 1947. These states constitute a special category which is officially recognized by the Indian government. The major religions practiced here include Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
Northeast India has seen a steady flow of immigrants throughout history, which accounts for its ethnic, linguistic cultural and religious diversity. Linguistically, the Bengali and Assamese speakers have been the most in numbers, as Subir Bhaumik pointed out in Ethnicity, Ideology and Religion: Separatist Movements in India’s Northeast, and the statistics regarding linguistic majority have been influenced by political affiliations e.g. in Assam, the migrant Muslims of Bengali origin registered as Assamese speakers between 1947 and 1982 to become part of the larger community, but after the 1983 riots, many of these Muslims began to register as Bengali speakers, changing the statistics about the number of Assamese speakers in the 1991 and 2001 Census.
There are three main groups inhabiting the Northeastern region which have been at odds with each other: the Assamese, the Bengalis and the tribal communities. Historically, wave after wave of migration towards the region was directed from the Eastern Asian countries like Tibet, Burma and Thailand, and the 1947 Partition led to increase of Bengali Hindu and Muslim refugees. As happens with demographic change and tipping of ethnic balance in any region when also accelerated by political maneuvering, a feeling of discrimination and deprivation slowly established itself and hatt has led to a constant sparking of ethnic violence for decades, uprooting families and claiming lives.
This sense of discrimination has been aggravated to a level that the resulting agitation has led to accusations of changed political loyalties of the Assamese towards the Indian government. This attitude of distrust has sustained in the minds of some politicians and policy makers and has prevented implementation of policies for social uplifting and effective conflict management. The fact that is conveniently ignored by politicians is that the historical differences and resulting conflict actually originate from the Colonial era discriminatory treatment of Assamese, and has continued due to mismanagement by the government and exploitation by political leaders.
Several reasons are acknowledged by economists and policy makers to be the cause of conflict in this region. One of them is the region’s geographical location as a poorly integrated remote corner of the country. Assam is landlocked by Bangladesh, Bhutan and Tibet and is joined by a narrow corridor with India through Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Some blame successive economic and political policies of the Indian government relying on use of force to suppress conflict rather than to manage and understanding it, and sometimes even just focusing on temporary political gains. Dr. Shakuntala Bora of Gauhati University finds in the course of her research that the reasons for the identity crisis of the ethnic groups in Assam include their awareness of being different from the majority group, a sense of being discriminated against and a strong desire for a significant share in political power – all of which are legitimate concerns for self-assertion. Dov Ronen, who has been affiliated with Harvard University’s Centre for International Affairs, also suggests that ethnic nationalism is just an expression of self determination and, “ethnicity is politicized into the ethnic factor when an ethnic group is in conflict with the political elite over such issues as the use of limited resources or the allocation of benefits.”
The Northeasterners also suffer discrimination due to their physical appearance. Racially, they are considered to be closer to Southeast Asia, and have trouble fitting in and being accepted by the larger Indian population. The discrimination has resulted in a steady increase over the years in trafficking of, and sexual violence against, women which is seen, based to a 2011 study of North-East Support Center and helpline (NESCH), by Madhu Chandra as “a reflection of India's caste practices and social system as majority of North-East Indians come from Scheduled Castes and Tribes and ethnically Mongoloid race, which falls out of caste hierarchy.” Though the Indian constitution protects right of minorities, practically, there has been little protection from hate crimes and exploitation for the Northeasterners even in the capital, Delhi. Northeasterners working or studying in Delhi have complained of having little support from the police or legal system. Hence, it is seen that most of the cases go unreported. Even when reported, however, they are often denied FIRs or their cases are delayed by the police and courts. According to the NESCH, of the cases studied less than half were taken up by police, out of which only 1% actually made it to court. Derogatory terms are also in common usage for referring to Northeastern men and women. To add to their misery, Northeast Indians face identity crisis not only in their own country, but due to their East Asian looks but Indian passports, they are also meted out the same treatment when they travel to adjoining Bhutan, Nepal, China and Myanmar. This discriminatory behavior often fuels anger and sense of deprivation among the inhabitants of this region and contributes to socio-political unrest and communal violence. It is no wonder that the Northeast has been India’s most insurgency affected region.
A crisis in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies may result from suppression or exploitation of any group. To prevent it from blowing into a full-fledged conflict, we need policies that prevent polarization and encourage integration. Politicization of ethnicity which turns it into ethnic conflict has to stop. Without effective solution, or continuance of discriminatory policies, the situation only leads to insurgency and militancy as observed in Northeast India for the last many decades.
Published : SouthAsia Magazine, as India: A Quest for Identity Dec, 2011