The eruption of violence in Assam and its nature and character consequent to passing of CAB is making waves in the media particularly the visual media further exacerbating the crisis.
However, violence eruption in other NE Hill States has not erupted even in Meghalaya and Sikkim.
In fact, Meghalaya Member of Parliament, Vincent H. Pala, Congress Party, demanded Inner Line Permit (ILP) to be included for Meghalaya too. The simple question is why did the Congress Party failed to introduce ILP for Meghalaya in the past.
So also, even the Sikkim Kranti Morcha (SKM) MP Indra Hang Subba, opposed the CAB but demanded that the State must be given exemptions on the lines of other NE States like the ILP.
So, ironic but true, media or political diatribe, particularly partisan reporting, covering the news as if the entire NE on flames showing violent incidents extending from Dibrugarh to Guwahati to Silchar and Karimganj mercilessly exposes intellectual bankruptcy and hypocrisy. Even they are mute over the nature and character of violence in each city and sub region. Realize all alike that even Assam, per se, is not NE; but only one among the 8-States what with 7-other States to include: Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
In reality, demographic transitions that have take place over the past 72-years are responsible for triggering identity crisis and the root cause for the ongoing violence escalation. Lesson of Assam demographics is simple. As per census data, the growth of population of Assam: 80.29 lakhs in 1951; 1.084 crores by 1961; 1.463 crores by 1971; 1.80 crores by 1981; 2.241 crores by 1991; 2.666 crores by 2011; 3.121 crores by 2011; and 3.55 crores by 2019. Population grew by just 55 % over a period of half a century between 1901 and 1951, but accelerated to 288 % between 1951 and 2001. Instead of estimated trend to reach 3.560 crores by 2026 by experts, it may be over 4 crores.
After the partition in 1947, as per 1951 census, Hindus constituted 72.1%; and Muslims 24.9% only. As per 2011 Census, Hindus constituted only 55% (down by 17.1%) what with 37% Assamese and 18% Bengalis; and Muslims constituted 34.22% (up by nearly 10%). In 1947 AD, partition riots triggered mass Bengali Hindu human migrations. After the Nehru-Liaqat Ali Pact of 1951 AD, there was an unending influx of Bengali Muslims into Assam. Even in 1971, there were mass human migrations. Subsequently also, there has been an unending illegal flow immigrants, both from Bangladesh and Nepal. Meanwhile, the Marwari’s, the Punjabis, and others also moved into the region for trade.
Next, after partition and in 1951, there were no districts with majority Muslims. But by 2001, there were 6 Muslim-majority districts By 2011, this number had increased to 9 (Barpeta - 70.74%; Bongaigaon - 50.22%; Darrang - 64.34%; Dhubri -79.67%; Goalpara - 57.52%; Hailakandi - 60.31%; Karimganj - 56.36%; Morigaon - 52.56%; and Nagaon - 55.36%). Other districts with a significant share of Muslims are Cachar 37.71%, Kamrup 39.66% and Nalbari 35.96%. Can anyone deny the Congress Party role in the above demographic transformation?
As per UN Data, there were 80 lakhs migrants due to the crackdown in East Pakistan in 1971. In 1990, according to data from UNDESA's Population Division, the number reduced to 43.75 lakh fom Bangladesh living in India. It reduced to 39 lakh migrants from Bangladesh living in India, according to the 2017 International Migration Report released here on Monday.
Assam is truly a multi-ethnic-cum-lingual-cum-religious state. And,everyone feels threatened: the Ahoms, the Bodos, the Kacharis, and the illegal immigrants. It is a fact that the whole Assamese middle class grew up under Bengali domination. The alienation got compounded due to anti-foreigners agitation. People felt cheated by the Centre’s passive attitude towards illegal immigration over the past 50-years.
Its economic fallout remains adverse. Outsiders have taken over tea gardens and forest industry. Oil is controlled by the Centre with pittance of excise and royalties given as Assam's share. Unemployment abounds. Development remains only on paper.
Assamese, mostly Ahoms, apprehend further balkanisation of their state. The State is reeling under multiple revolutionary crises. Factually, everyone feels threatened in Assam: Ahoms; Bodos; Kacharis; illegal immigrants to include Bengali’s, Bihari and Nepalese; and others from other states. The Assamese feel threatened that their size and status may be further reduced. In 1951, Devagiri in North Kamrupa district was ceded to Bhutan. In 1957, the Naga Hills district was administered by the Union Govt., and granted statehood in 1962. In 1972, Meghalaya was granted full statehood. Subsequently, Mizoram was granted statehood in 1986. Now, the Bodos are demanding a separate state. Similarly, the Bengalis in Barak valley want separate statehood. Thus, the Assamese central objective is the territorial protection of Assam and Assamese culture, and the economic opportunities that exist within the State.
Similarly, the ongoing Bodo crisis is basically due to the feeling that their interests are not safe in the hands of Assamese. There have also been demands for separation of Cachar and Karimganj from Assam on the plea that those (Bengalis) in Barak Valley have nothing in common with the Assamese. And, the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC) wants the two hill districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills to be made an Autonomous State within Assam.
The “foreigners issue" is quite complicated in Assam. In 1979, the All Assam Students Union (ASSU) spearheaded the agitation on illegal immigrant’s issue. They apprehended that the illegal immigrants not only had taken over agriculture but wield political clout due to mala fide creation of powerful vote banks by the Congress party. The 3-D objective included: detection; disenfranchisement; and deportment.
Initially, the agitationists had grouped those under three categories. Illegal immigrants who entered between 1 January 1951 and 31 December 1960 fall in the first category. In the second category are placed people who entered Assam between 1 January 1961 and 1 January 1971. Finally, all those who entered after 1 January 1971 are to be placed under the third category, which will be arrested and expatriated. On 15 Aug 1985, the AASU/AGP leaders, Central and the Assam Government officials in the presence of Rajiv Gandhi signed the Assam Accord. The Central Government agreed to disenfranchise those who came into Assam between 1 January 1966 and 24 March 1971. The names of this lot are to be removed from the rolls for a period of 10 years, whilst those who entered Assam on or after 24 March 1971, are sought to be expelled.
But, the AGP failed to redress the contentious issues. After all, it is not easy to screen millions of people. Naturally, it made a mockery of agitationists 3-D objective, meanwhile, the determination of "foreign nationals" became a controversial and highly sensitive issue. Initially, the AGP/AASU favoured the Tribunals under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act 1983, which was applicable to Assam only. But, when they found the process ineffective, the AGP favoured its abrogation.
Add to it, the ULFA claim "Assam was never a part of India". Nor shall she ever be". And, the ULFA's definition of Assamese identity is wider in scope. For them, the term “people of Assam" does not represent those who speak Assamese only, but all those who live in Assam - Bihari, South Indians and everyone else. The most notable feature is its insistence that it stands for the people of Assam and not merely for Assamese people. It seeks to build an Assamese nation that is inclusive of all smaller communities and minorities of Assam. It is opposed to anti-foreigners’ movement. Local intellectuals want the introduction of ‘right to secede’ in the Constitution to neutralise the ULFA theme.
Nowadays, Muslims political clout frightens all others. But, the extended honeymoon of Assamese Hindus and Bengali Muslims cannot last for long. Trans-national Islamic threat of greater Islamic nation of areas of Bangladesh-Assam-Burma and the national Muslim angle may also assert itself on such emotive issue. What is vital to realise is that it may be possible to resolve amicably Assamese-Bodo-Hindu problems?
The causes for frustrations are, therefore, myriad. Identity crisis may appear to be the prime cause. But, land alienation is real. In fact, it is the lack of economic and political opportunities for locals or fair and just share in developmental processes, which are the root cause – power sharing. The Assam Accord's 3-Ds, detection, disenfranchisement and deportation, was their only hope.
Be that as it may, other NE states growth processes must also be considered to gain a balanced perspective. Today, the population of NE is over 45 million, which is 3.76 % of India’s population. The overall density of population is 159 persons/km2, with Assam having a population density of 397 persons to a km2. In contrast, the state of Arunachal Pradesh has an average density of 17 persons to a km2. During the period between 1951 and 2001, the population of NE region as a whole grew four and a half times showing an increase of 350 %. The highest decadal growth rate was between 1971 and 1981, but it has come down to 1.7 % in 2011, a figure that corresponds to the population growth rate for India.
Most important, there are over 220 ethnic groups each with varying cultures and an equal number of dialects. As of 2005m the percentages of the population of indigenous people include: Mizoram: 94.75%; Nagaland: 87.70%; Meghalaya: 85.53%; Arunachal Pradesh: 63.66%; Manipur: 34.41%; Tripura: 30.94%; Assam: 12.69%. The Bodo-Kacharis, a third of the indigenous people in the Northeast, is only 3.7% of Assam’s 20 million populations. In Tripura, the indigenous people have declined from 56% in the 1950’s to 30% today. There are 45 Lakhs of Adivasis of Jharkhand working in the Tea Gardens brought by the British - 19th century.
Population inflows into the NE are not only taking place from hinterland states, but also from Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar dramatically altering the demographic equilibrium of the region. Indigenous communities fear deprivation, dispossession, displacement and submersion on their own soil. Thus, the catchy slogan "Foreigners Go Home or Indian Bastards go home".
Least realized is four-way psychological divide: plains people (Assamese and Bodos) and indigenous communities consider others as outsiders; Bodos detest Ahoms cultural arrogance; divide between plain and hill indigenous communities of other 7-states; and outsiders cherish their exclusivity as outsiders (reflected by their common refrain ‘returning to India’). And, it is not easy to overcome the psychological estrangement bred by customs and traditions over many centuries. Each community feels threatened by the others and by aliens. People are alienated from the rest of India. Local, regional and national integration is an uphill challenge.
However, it is the ubiquitous external factor, which is dangerous. Pakistan's hand in J & K may appear awesome due to geo-historical reasons. By contrast, the external hand in the NE region is far more sinister. The ISI involvement and encirclement is almost complete. In post-1990 period, many Muslim militant organisations have sprung-up. Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal are supporting insurgencies - some actively and others passively.
In retrospect, strategic neglect, lack of historical awareness, social diversity, peculiar indigenous peoples customs and cultures, economic stagnation and contemporary political developments particularly policies of divide and rule over the past 70-years are the root causes for the present anarchy in Assam.
Strategic neglect is due to Delhi-centric Western frontier strategic syndrome, remoteness and insularity. Geographic remoteness and hostility continues to keep mainland politicians, strategic analysts and national media away from the NE except for occasional forays. Two successive Prime Ministers were on record admitting ignorance of NE affairs after their visits - out of sight, out of mind.
Less known is the fact that the National Anthem does not contain a reference to the NE. The Brahmaputra River does not have the same reverential status as the sacred Ganges River. The first sunrise in the new millennium was in Arunachal Pradesh, whereas the event was celebrated with a glare of media publicity in the Andaman’s. Such is the profound intellectual absurdity.
The history of Assam is well chronicled. The Negritos are said to be the earliest inhabitants. In the great epics, the people of Assam are referred to as Mleechas, Kiratas and Cinas (Chinese) as non-Aryan barbarians. The legendary period mentions non-Aryan figures like Narakasur, Ghatakasur, Bhagadatta, Bana and Bhismak.
The name of Assam varied from age to age: Pragjyotispura mentioned in the Epics and Puranas, meaning "Centre of the study of astrology in the East"; Kamrupa during the Gupta dynasty around 4th Century A.D; Acham during the Ahom period after 13th Century; and Acham gradually altered to Asom. Finally, the British gave the modern twist to the name as Assam.
Next, NE historians have traced waves after waves of Mongoloid migrations from Tibet in the North, China in the East, SE Asia and Northern Burma in the South since 2000 BC, who occupied vast empty hill tracts during different periods of history by driving their predecessors deeper inside. The great Bodo race with Kacharis, the Kochs and the Meches as its main sub tribes, whose original home is said to be between the upper reaches of the Yang-Tse-Kiang and Howangho rivers in China, ruled over the Northern and Southern Banks of River Brahmaputra until displaced by the Ahoms by 1536 AD. There are others like the Lalungs, Rabhas, Dimasas and other tribes like the Garos, who also belong to the Bodo race.
The Ahoms, a Thai group, entered the NE through the Pangshau Pass, in early 12th century AD and drove the Bodos out. The ‘Buranjis’ narrate their history in detail. The Khasis, the Jaintias, the Mikirs, the Nagas, the Mizos, the Dimasas-Kacharis, the Kukis and the Zemi Nagas are the other major migratory waves.
In the Upper tracts of Arunachal Pradesh, the Tibetan Buddhist groups, the Mompas, are living in splendid isolation from the rest in the past. The Bhutias, the Akas, the Daflas, the Abhors and the Miris inhabit the foothills region towards the Brahmaputra valley. The Tagins, the Galongs, the Sherdukpens, the Apatanis, the Akams and the Padmas are interspersed in the middle ranges between them. The Khamptis, the Singphos and the Mishmis live in the hills separating India, China and Myanmar. Towards North of Patkoi watershed in the Kaunsa and Chandel districts, the Tangsas, the Tutsas, the Noktes, the Wanchoos (known as Konyaks in Mon in Nagaland and Hemis in Myanmar), the Layos, the Tai Shans, the Lisus, the Muras, the Pemakos and the Chakmas constitute the other groups.
From the West, which is, Bengal and Bihar, there were frequent human migrations and close contacts, which existed from ancient times. The latest is the large influx of illegal migrants - mostly Bangladeshi Muslims. Even the insidious Nepalese illegal immigration in the form of labour is real.
No wonder, the diversity and complexity of demographics of the NE is unique. It is the real melting pot of races, cultures and civilisations - Negro, Mongoloid, Aryan, Dravidian and Negro races; Animist, Hindu, Buddhist, Meitei, and Christian religions; pre-historic, medieval and modern civilisations co-exist along-side each other in an atmosphere of distrust and hatred. The indigenous communities constitute a majority of population in Meghalaya (80.58%), Nagaland (83.99%), Mizoram (93.82%) and Arunachal Pradesh (69.82%). The tribal’s are a minority in Manipur (27.3%) and Assam (11%).
Next, the British forays in the NE were largely for commercial exploitation - salt and cloth trade. And, their interventions include: in Assam valley on invitation by Ahom princes to quell Moamarias rebellion; on invitation by an Ahom Prince to deter Burmese intervention in 1824 and cleared the Burmese from the region in Feb 1826; and concluded the Treaty of Yandabo - Assam valley, Manipur and Tripura became British protectorates. In 1832 AD, they annexed Cachar after its ruler was assassinated and left no heir. By 1832 AD, the Khasis were subdued. In 1835 AD, Jaintias was annexed when its Raja occupied land of Nowgong belonging to the Ahoms in the aftermath of the Yandabo Treaty. In 1839, Assam was placed under Bengal Presidency. In the East, the Khamptis and Singphos opposed the British up to 1843 and finally submitted to them. In 1854 AD, North Cachar was annexed.
By 1873 AD, the British declared hill tracts as "excluded areas", "partially excluded areas", and "un-administered areas" under the Inner Line Regulation Act with a view to prevent the influx of plains people. Its strategic fallout on integration after gaining Independence has been negative. With monotonous and monumental stupidity, successive governments have persisted with it. Now, it is too late to renege it - a good example of missed opportunity. Its fallout is simple - hindrance to integration.
In 1874 AD, the British carved out Assam from Bengal as a separate province. It was given full statehood in the last quarter of 19th century. However in 1905 AD, under the infamous Bengal Partition Plan, Assam was merged with the Muslim majority part of East Bengal. Tripura became part of East Bengal during the infamous Bengal Partition plan. In 1912 AD, when the Bengal Partition Plan was annulled, Assam was restored to chief commissionership and the Muslim majority district of Sylhet was added to it. In 1921, a governorship was created. Manipur and Tripura were allowed to remain independent, but under British hegemony. The British placed the entire NE region under the Bengal Presidency.
Finally, the British divided the Naga tribes between undivided Assam and Manipur. They shifted traditional Ahom-Naga border to foothills and Naga Bunds. The British promoted Naga-Kuki clashes to protect their commercial interests. Thus, the British had never promoted unification and integration processes. In reality, the British exercised political control mainly in Assam.
Ipso facto, indigenous people’s cultural heritage and wide variety of contrasts are truly complex. Nature, geography and history have significantly influenced their unique insularity and isolation. Spatial isolationism bred egotistical individualism over many centuries and a unique sense of clannish identity.
There are many diverse indigenous customs like ‘village/clan democracy’, castelessness and boundary principle. In Meghalaya, matriarchal system governs society. In Nagaland, Konyaks follow the “Angship" akin to Kingship whereas others follow hereditary village council-cum-clanship. They do not believe in caste system. Tribal customs, mostly democratic in nature, govern their lives in villages. There is no commonality of dialects, which is a major problem. Therefore, Assamese or Nagamese, corrupted forms of Assamese, are the main language mediums. The official language in the hill states remains English. The Christians comprise 80% of the populations in Meghalaya; 85% of Nagaland; and 96% of Mizoram.
Distrust and hatred is endemic. Hostile environments conditioned their psyche to be fiercely independent, aggressive and adventurous. Inter clan co-operation was by exception. They jealously guarded their lands and fiercely resisted intrusion by neighbouring clans and villages. During the migratory course of history, each clan drove its rival clan towards the plains of Assam. They still cling to their traditional ways and mores fondly and proudly. It maintains a stranglehold on their psyche.
Historic-traditionally, indigenous people always fiercely opposed all external invasions and interventions. If they view today with apprehension influx of outsiders in the name of promotion of development and integration, it is but natural. The plainsmen or outsiders threat prospects have become the common rallying point for warring clans. They are attempting to sink their exclusive identities and differences and forging unity based on ethnic homogeneity under community labels. Ethnocentrism, supra-tribalism, religious extremism and supra regionalism are, therefore, contemporary developments.
The British first attempted to integrate hill regions with India. The Tribal Chiefs rallied to protect their identity. Now, information revolution is promoting growing awareness among people regarding their historical linkages and heritage. Having practised village democracy – almost similar to Greek city-state democracy - over many millenniums, the sudden shift to nation-state democracy status is alien to them. They do not want interference of the State in traditional tribal customs and traditions. If the newly educated indigenous people want to protect their identity, protect their natural resources and traditional ways of economic usage, they are fair and just in their expectations and aspirations. They are promoting merger or integration of different clans based on common heritage like the Nagas and the Mizos cutting across provincial and international borders.
If indigenous communities are rallying under various traditional labels, it should be viewed as an essential direction towards unity at local and regional levels. In fact, they must be encouraged as first steps in the process of demassification of democracy, which is a futuristic imperative. Indigenous and backward communities must be made to feel that they can live with dignity and respect. If the state is earnest in consolidating national integration, it must first encourage and nurture local and regional integration in a live-and-let live or give-and-take atmosphere. If so, replication of archaic British ‘policy of divide and rule’ cannot promote unity essential for national integration. Local aspirations for autonomy and empowerment need to be viewed as part of evolutionary processes of transitory societies.
The inconsequential weightage of the NE in national political affairs is also a reality. Total MPs include 14 from Assam and 11 from 7 other states – total 18 out of 540 MP's). Surely, they do not constitute political clout vital to safeguard their interests. And, the credibility of national political parties is very poor. Tribal’s resent non-tribal domination. “Good Governance” has been by exception. The region is a hotbed for violence. The ‘Occupation Army’ status is real. If any, the situation has deteriorated only, which is classified as the "ballooning effect - press the balloon at one end, the other end bulges;" or the "multi-headed mythological Ravan phenomena - severe one head, another crops up". The opprobrium’s "Boiling Cauldron or conflictual mess” aptly describes societal churning in the NE. Up to mid-1970s, the Christian missionaries and China were blamed for fomenting insurgency. Subsequently, almost everyone associated with the NE was held responsible for perpetuating insurgency in the NE: political leaders, intelligence agencies, drug cartels, bureaucracy, businessmen and even security forces. Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, has invoked the ISI threat for the growth and consolidation of insurgency in the NE during the North-eastern Zone Council meeting held in January 2000.
Nature is bountiful. Yet, economic stagnation is real. Locals resent economic domination by outsiders. Corruption and unemployment are rampant. The infrastructure development is unsatisfactory. And, the flaming of gas wealth in thousands of oil wells goes on with utter disregard for wastage. The rain forests almost stand denuded. The Centre allocates a large share of finances for the states for development purposes. Almost every Prime Minister has announced financial packages after their forays into the NE. Rajiv Gandhi announced special grants in 1980s. During 1996, Deve Gowda announced the mega Rs.6, 100 crore economic package. His successor, IK Gujral, announced an Rs.7, 000 crore package. Now, Vajpayee has announced a special millennium package of Rs.10, 271 crores. What each one has done is to repackage earlier awards and re-announce them during their visits to the region. “During the 13th finance commission, the Congress government had given Rs 87,000 crores for the NE states. During 14th finance commission, Modi government has given Rs 3,13,375 crores which is 258 per cent higher than what Congress government gave earlier.
Capital flight is the real cause. During my interaction with PA Sangma in 1989 at Shillong, as former Chief Minister of Meghalaya, he stated that 85% of funds get converted as profits and revert to Delhi and other places, besides funding militants – capital flight. So, the region is in a perpetual financial crisis state.
Thus, the challenges to integration are quite perplexing which includes: stopping of illegal immigrations from neighbouring nations; identity crises due to flow of outsiders; alienation of tribal lands; and unemployment. But the hidden causes affecting their psyche should also be given due consideration. They are deeply concerned with the ongoing neo-colonial economic exploitation and widening economic disparities. Finally, they understand their political irrelevance or insignificance at the national level due to insignificant numbers of MPs. Neutrality of the State is, therefore, most vital to promote cohesion in the NE region.
In sum, how the course of events in NE will descend to future generations will ultimately depend on leadership’s sagacity to manage its crises and transformations competently at various points of time. After all, it is not easy to manage transformation of a tribal society to a modern society and integrate it with the rest in a short period of history. It depends on how well politico-socio-economic-aspirations are fulfilled whilst promoting constructive nationalism and co-operative federalism. Time is still on Indian side to tide over crises notwithstanding seething discontentment and what may appear as irretrievable psychological alienation.
Granting of ILP to Meghalaya and Sikkim is worthy of consideration and inclusion. Similarly, other demands must be given sympathetic consideration and incorporation in CAB.