North East India: Hotbed of Diversity, Insurgency and Identity Crisis

The article examines the peculiar case of North-East India as a region much different from the rest of India and explores the issue of ethnic diversity and insurgency from a historical perspective. It gives an overview of the problems persistent in this region. It concludes with some recommendations and suggestions.


North-East India comprises mainly of the seven states of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya while sometime the eastern state of Sikkim is also included.

These seven states of India have always been collectively tagged as the North-East because of several factors. The entire region is geographically separated from mainland India and is surrounded more by international borders (99% of the borders is international) and is narrowly connected to the rest of India through a tiny corridor (of width of 23 km) called the "Siliguri Corridor" or "chicken's neck."

The history of this region is much different from the rest of the country. Also, the ethnicity in terms of race, creed, language, customs etc. is extremely diverse and hence, the area is markedly different from the rest of the country.

The ethnic diversity, geo-political aspect and the history of the area are the main reasons behind the insurgency that is prevalent till this date in this region.

Historical Background along with Current Scenario

The North-East comprises of plainsmen and tribals whose origins are Tibeto-Burman and Mongoloid. The region is a home to more than 220 ethnic groups who are linguistically and culturally distinct.

Unlike the rest of India, North-East came under the influence of the British much later. It was through the Treaty of Yandaboo (1826) between the Burmese and the British that the province of Assam became a part of British India where after the Burmese were driven out of Assam. Even under the British rule, the area was loosely administered and the tribals retained their traditional practices. However, when the British developed interest in tea industries, the tribals perceived this as a threat to them. The British began intruding into the hilly areas for economic interests.

They there upon adopted a number of policies that sowed the seeds of the origins of the present-day insurgencies. One amongst them was the Inner Line Permit Regulation that was adopted by the British through the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873 to safeguard their commercial interests and to restrict movements and contacts of the "British subjects" in these "protected areas." These went on to mark the beginning of the isolation of the North-East and sowed the feelings of separatism amidst the tribals who continued (even more than before) to perceive them as different from the rest of the country.

The region hardly felt the rising wave of nationalism in the 20th century and continued to view itself as culturally distinct and did not identify with the cause of independence.

The tribals were of the view that they would be granted independence post the exit of the British. However, they were shocked when this strip of territory was made a part of India. This marked the beginning of the present-day insurgency in the region.

The Nagas were the first to raise the demand of self-determination under the banner of the Naga Nationalist Council (NNC) that declared independence on August 14, 1947 under the leadership of Phizo. In 1951, a plebiscite held in Kohima by Nagas supported this view.

But, as already mentioned, States Reorganization Commission in 1951 integrated North-East to mainland India and authority was vested upon the Assam Government. Also, Assamese was made the official language in 1960. This irked the tribal communities. Post independence saw the emergence of an educated class of tribal elites who were conscious of their fading identities and started demanding autonomy for the preservation of tribal heritage.

Via the 6th Schedule, autonomy in the form of District Councils was given to the Nagas, Mizos, Khasis, Jaintias, Garos, Karbis, Dimasas, Kacharis in their internal matters.

But the region witnessed the formation of many more groups demanding regional autonomy and even secession owing to the threat they perceived from the rest of the country.

Nagaland, that was initially a district of Assam and became a full-fledged state in 1963 saw the formation of The Naga National Socialist Council (NSCN, the successor of NNC) in 1980 that got split in 1988 into two factions NSCN (Isak Muivah ) and NSCN (Khaplang). Their objective is the creation of a sovereign state by the name of "Nagalim." NSCN, today, is a terrorist organization. They have largely had clashes with the Kukis who they view as foreigners. The latter is a group of people having Burmese origins.

Assam saw the anti-foreigner movement in the years 1979-1986 that was a violent reaction to the illegal immigration of Bangladeshis to the state through its porous international borders in search of employment opportunities.

Prior to this, under the British rule, the state also witnessed the influx of Hindu Bengalis from Bengal who were more educated, so much so, that the latter held important jobs and Assamese was replaced by Bengali as a medium of instruction in schools and offices. The Assamese perceived this as a threat to their identity and clashed arose between the two groups.
The threat of identity is felt even today with the unabated influx of Bangladeshis who have encroached large amounts of land of the state and is posing a demographic threat along with the import of Islamic fundamentalism that has threatened the security of not just Assam but the rest of India. The Assam agitation gave birth to the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a separatist outfit with the aim of establishing a sovereign Assam through armed struggle. ULFA, too has been condemned as a terrorist organization.

Bodos, the numerically largest tribal group in the North-East clashed with Bengali Muslims in Assam in 2012. The main cause was the unchecked illegal immigration of the latter that has threatened the tribal's land resources. In this regard, the Bodos continue, till date, demanding a separate state of Bodoland for the purpose of which groups like National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), 1989 has surfaced. NDFB has seen clashes with the "Muslim settlers" starting from the 1990s. A peace accord was signed by the Centre with Bodo Liberation Tigers in 2003 that resulted in the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD), governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), a semi-autonomous body.

Likewise, the states of Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya too witness clashes between different groups.

It can be observed that at the root of all these conflicts is the problem of "identity crisis". Right from the British period till now, the region has witnessed clashes among different tribal groups mainly to preserve their unique identities.

Apart from the issue of identity crisis, the area has largely failed in the development sector. Lack of a credible leadership has hindered any development and progress. North-East is abundantly supplied with natural resources, however, governments in all the states has failed to utilize the same for the growth of the economy of the region. Corruption in political circles is a huge problem. Poor governance has obstructed the people from achieving long-due benefits.

The porous international borders has fuelled discontentment amongst the people.. It is also the factor behind the easy and smooth flow of arms and weapons and even narcotic substances. External support is received in this regard from neighboring states like China and Pakistan and some safe areas in Myanmar.

Human lives are at threat especially in insurgency-hit areas. Prevalence of draconian laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) that was initially introduced as a short-term measure to contain the insurgency has been in use for more than five decades now with no signs of repeal of the same. The Act provides immunity to soldiers who can shoot anyone they suspect and cannot be prosecuted for the same. Massive violations of human rights have ensued on account of this Act.


It is thus seen that North-East is mired with a host of problems that is connected with the common thread of "threat to identity". The Government has by and large failed to resolve the identity crisis posed to the indigenous people in the different states.

Although, steps like update of the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) have been initiated, they are moving at a snail's pace. Moreover, poor leadership has strapped the region of its valuable resources and made it a hotbed of conflicts.

Annual floods in Assam kill lakhs of people every year, yet successive governments have utterly failed in resolving the woes of the people. Poor infrastructure has deprived them of education, health and medical facilities and all other benefits that they are entitled too. Vast potential of tourism continue to remain untapped.

It can be safely deduced that faulty politics has failed to resolve the insurgency problem in the North-East.

The Naga insurgency is one of the world's oldest unresolved conflicts. Culture of conflict continues to flourish in the region. For several decades now, the Assam Government has been unable to completely fence the Indo-Bangla border. Vote-bank politics of the previous Congress-led Government in the state allowed many outsiders to establish their bases here through underhand means. Lack of proper data has hampered proper survey in this regard.

The regime of the current NDA Government who has initiated measures like "Act East Policy" seem promising in the deeper integration of this region with the rest of India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dubbed the North-East as the "gateway to Asia."

The previous Governments approach of viewing the region from the lens of "territorial security" must be replaced with "development." AFSPA, the symbol of oppression must not be misused and as and when possible, must be relaxed in areas that have witnessed peace for a considerable duration.

Most importantly, inclusion of all stakeholders in the decision-making process that forms the core of good governance (the mandate on which the NDA Government rose to power) must be implemented to ensure the development of all ethnic groups.

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Author: K Mohan28 Nov 2016 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 4

Passionate appeal from the author over the problems faced by the common man in the North East Region as it is always dodged with the insurgency crisis and most vulnerable to even nature fury too. Over the years the Central governments neglected the seven states and the development process in the region has slowed down because of political compulsions. Nevertheless the main land people are having less awareness of the daily life in North East region and we get the news of destruction or insurgency only and nothing more. So a comprehensive planning must be mooted so that even in the NITI Ayog, the problems of North East region are brought in and addressed too.

Guest Author: Bipasha28 Nov 2016

Thank you for the response!
That is the sad reality. Many mainstream Indians are not really well-informed about this place. It is sad that despite being abundant with natural beauty and natural resources, the region and its people have not been able to reap fruits of the same. Insurgency and poor political leadership has hampered the well-deserved development of the place.
However, it is a relief to note that with certain schemes like "Act East Policy", the government has attempted to integrate this place with mainstream India. At the same time, culture and sports have brought this region into focus.

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