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Tectonic Zone: Northeast

The British drew the borders, and changed them several times according to their purely administrative and military convenience

Dr Hiren Gohain 28 Jul 2021

Assam- Mizo BorderImage Courtesy:yuvnews.com

Most people in India do not know that the majority of the states in Northeast India were once part of the undivided province of Assam during British colonial rule. Several of them also happen to be in the most earth-quake prone zone (zone 5) of the world. But the gruesome recent violence at Assam-Mizo border also forces us to recognise the region as politically quite unstable too. This however is not a natural phenomenon, but a legacy of long-lasting colonial manipulation of geography, ethnography and demography in the interest of the British colonial power. Does the successor government follow the same track, only deepening divisions and raising the level of damage to indigenes?       

States like Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram were districts in the province then and were respectively called Naga Hills, Khasi &Jaintia Hills, Garo Hills and Lushai Hills. They were mostly inhabited by hill tribes, with each district dominated by one major tribe but there were smaller tribes too in them. There were rules in place to strictly control travel and migration as well as interaction with people of the plains, (e.g. the Inner Line Permit) though traditionally the tribes periodically have been meeting people of the plains in designated trade fairs in the vague border areas. Because these were districts and the hill tribes had little interest in affairs of the plains, the borders were not sensitive. The British drew the borders, and changed them several times according to their purely administrative and military convenience.           

But unremarked by anyone, things were changing both in the plains and, a little slowly, even in the hills. Under the impact of the two World Wars, the freedom movement in the plains, (it had reached the Zeliyang Nagas in the south-eastern part of the Naga Hills district, but none of the other numerous Naga groups), spread of Christianity as well as modern roads and transport, rudimentary education and health-care, the hill tribes were awakening to a new sense of identity built on traditional bases of inclusion and exclusion, but also aspiring for development into some sort of a united modern communities with their own political agendas. But they were deeply suspicious of the plainsmen who might dominate them unless checked in time.         

This kind of incipient ethno-nationalism felt safer within the ambit of the British empire than in a unity with the plains. Arguably, this too was not a natural development but a consequence of longstanding British colonial policy adapting and guiding such changes to suit imperial mercantile, military and political interests. At the same time, the Assamese nationality of the plains which for historical reasons had travelled farther down the road, unconsciously cherished a hope of integrating these heterogenous tribes under its own umbrella, an ambition that had a touch of arrogance as well as insensitivity which rubbed conscious tribals the wrong way.         

The British officials too were reluctant to sever relationships with the tribes under their protection, and a section of the top officials in the administration of the province made plans to separate these areas from India after independence and maintain them as a 'Crown Colony'. The plans were meticulously prepared by an Oxford professor. But World War II had broken, the back of the empire and the authorities in London had no stomach for these imperial adventures.         

Independence of India found many of the tribes confronting a new set of conditions that were now to preside over their destinies. A few of them had come closer to the freedom movement and their leaders like Reverend J.J.M.Nichols Roy played a significant part in drafting the Indian Constitution, especially the chapter on the 6th Schedule. 

While the tribes were not yet in a position to claim statehoods, they bargained for some sort of autonomy and had to be content with such rules that left the state government in possession of power to take major decisions. For example, the budget of areas under the 6th Schedule was prepared by the state governments, and the autonomous councils had control over land, forests and primary education.            

These modest gains left them quite content for some time, and they tried to live with the increasingly domineering Assamese in peace. Probably the Centre allowed the Assamese some space to try out their experiment, but it flopped thanks to cultural arrogance. However, the Nagas demanded independence outright even then, and as is common knowledge now, fought a strenuous and uncompromising war with the Indian army to the bitter end of virtual devastation of ordinary life, horrifying casualties and losses on both sides and blood-spattered stand-still. The Mizos followed in the late sixties till the Mizoram Accord of 1986, as the Indian administration's lack of foresight and concern brought about a grim famine in 1959. They had the support of China and the Islamist sections of the elite of Bangladesh. (However, Bangladesh has actually shown little sympathy to its own indigenous hilltribes, as borne out by the mind-boggling pogroms it had organised against the Chakmas, the Hajongs and the Garos who fled to Assam in their thousands for shelter.) There were militant groups among the Khasis and the Garos too, but they did not seem to have enjoyed mass support among their compatriots. That did not prevent them in their heyday from atrocities like burning alive two visiting college-girls from Assam in Shillong in the nineties. Nepalis who had lived in Khasi Hills for more than half a century were periodically driven out by organised Khasi students as 'Dkhars' (outsiders). However, moderate groups who preferred some sort of a modus vivendi with the government of India have come to prevail politically by now in the hill-states. But they too come to terms with militants or former militants at some cost to their own exercise of power. For example, the Naga militants openly levy taxes on all outsiders in government employment and trade in Nagaland. This may also be some degraded form of assertion of pre-eminence in their own land.       

So, the presence of militants is a major factor in these states, and politicians of ruling parties use them to overawe their opponents and stake the claims of their power against outsiders and neighbouring states.         

It must be added at this juncture that the award of sumptuous scholarships for education and reservation in jobs for Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution, further aided by the encouragement of the Church, created within a couple of decades a class of highly educated, skilled and dynamic leadership who rebelled against plainsmen's patronising attitude, and helped fuel the movement for separate tribal states in former districts of Assam. The final result however has been the steep rise of social inequality and oblivion of the original tribal equality and solidarity, which have been replaced by chauvinism.         

Coming back to the border problem, it is quite common for these tribes to make some sort of revanchist demands on the territory of Assam, the state out of which these states have been carved. They cite district borders as demarcated by colonial rulers at different times as proof that the borders conceding the largest territory to them had been the 'original boundaries' of the land of their forefathers. The simple answer to that is that the British had been least bothered by the question of the 'original homeland' of those tribes in demarcating district borders, but were solely guided by administrative convenience. But these are simply bargaining chips for expansion of territory. The major blame for these conflicts must be laid at the door of successive governments in Delhi who granted statehood as political bounty without caring to fix the borders. The parliament too has not bothered to raise the question. Media in Assam have often bewailed the purblind character of such carelessness, but to no avail.         

Unlike clashes between two neighbouring countries which assert their respective sovereign power and prestige, these border clashes have a much more immediate material end in sight. The hill tribes were traditionally used to a slash-and-burn type of rice cultivation conventionally called 'Jhum' culture. There was no need for use of the bullocks and the plough. And swathes of forests were regularly burned down to make room for 'Jhum', which however regained the green cover a couple of years later if left fallow. But with the increase of population there was growing pressure on, and hunger for, land. Besides affluent sections hankered after fertile land of the plains for raising crops with modern technology so as to accumulate more wealth.       

The border 'clashes' have been mostly one-sided with firearms used against helpless common farmers of the plains who lacked any kind of protection from their own government. It can be fairly presumed that militants who had turned lumpen (as it happened in Assam at a time) when shorn of any serious ideological purpose and end, frequently serve as the muscle for the lumpen capitalists too.           

A series of murderous attacks on dirt-poor Assamese small farmers in areas adjacent to the undecided borders has over the years left a toll of nearly two hundred dead and injured in the Nagaland-Assam border, not to speak of houses razed and cropland destroyed. The victims are poor Assamese, Bodo, Gurkha farmers and indigent tea-tribals lacking employment. 

The Assam police are no match for the ex-militants who had undergone military training and often have much better fire-power too. The worst atrocity so far was the massacre at Merapani in Golaghat district of Assam in June 1985, where forty-one people from Assam including policemen lost their lives. That the Nagaland government is somehow complicit or at least conniving, is proved by the fact that soon after such incidents it rushes to establish police outposts and administrative offices in such areas, forming subdivisions with telltale names like 'Newland'! Even Arunachal Pradesh, home to divergent tribes, nowadays seems to follow the now familiar route. Only about ten years or so back, Assamese and Nepali villagers came under attack from armed gangs from Arunachal Pradesh in a similar territorial aggression in Shonitpur district of Assam. 51 people on the Assam side sustained grave injuries and some later succumbed. Many chose to shift to less exposed areas. However, it has got to be said that the heavily armed encroachers are usually strangers from interior areas and local neighbours of these states are often not involved in such vicious attacks.         

The incident in the Hailakandi sub-division of the Cachar district of Assam on July 26, ended in the death on the spot of six policemen from Assam, and a total of sixty-five policemen injured, including the gravely injured District Superintendent. According to the press release of the Assam Government, the members of the Assam Police had gone to enquire about a reported encroachment on Assam's territory from the Mizoram side. The strength of the contingent indicates they were prepared for some trouble. Initially the SP from Assam engaged in discussions with the SP from Mizoram and requested him to persuade the attacking Mizo mob, and the latter went to meet the mob leaders and returned to express regret that he had failed to dissuade them. The press release went on to say that soon after, the Assam Police contingent came under a hail of bullets without any provocation. If true, this is gravely disquieting. For it means the police in Mizoram have confessed their inability to control lawless elements in their state. The merciless attack was obviously meant to teach Assam Police a lesson not to be forgotten.        

The mystery is deepened by the fact that barely two days before the incident Home Minister Amit Shah had flown in from Delhi on receipt of news of simmering inter-state border tensions and met the Chief Ministers of the region in a conclave to restore peace. Does it mean a loss of grip of the powerful Central Home Minister, or something more mysterious like a possible diversion from an even greater threat to his government? Speculations are rife, but the secret lies deeply buried along with the mystery of leaving inter-state borders undefined for decades together. A journalist friend has remarked that such tensions within the Northeast do not result in any damage to the Centre, which prefers a state of simmering tension here among member-states rather than peace and neighbourliness.

*The author is a highly respected Assamese intellectual, a literary critic and social-scientist from Assam. Views expressed are the author's own. 


Other pieces by Dr. Hiren Gohain:  

Mumbo-Jumbo will Voodoo you! 

The Spectre of Opposition Unity 

The UAPA noose 

The riddle of ‘Elected Autocracy’ 

Riddle of Assam elections 

Tectonic Zone: Northeast

The British drew the borders, and changed them several times according to their purely administrative and military convenience

Assam- Mizo BorderImage Courtesy:yuvnews.com

Most people in India do not know that the majority of the states in Northeast India were once part of the undivided province of Assam during British colonial rule. Several of them also happen to be in the most earth-quake prone zone (zone 5) of the world. But the gruesome recent violence at Assam-Mizo border also forces us to recognise the region as politically quite unstable too. This however is not a natural phenomenon, but a legacy of long-lasting colonial manipulation of geography, ethnography and demography in the interest of the British colonial power. Does the successor government follow the same track, only deepening divisions and raising the level of damage to indigenes?       

States like Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram were districts in the province then and were respectively called Naga Hills, Khasi &Jaintia Hills, Garo Hills and Lushai Hills. They were mostly inhabited by hill tribes, with each district dominated by one major tribe but there were smaller tribes too in them. There were rules in place to strictly control travel and migration as well as interaction with people of the plains, (e.g. the Inner Line Permit) though traditionally the tribes periodically have been meeting people of the plains in designated trade fairs in the vague border areas. Because these were districts and the hill tribes had little interest in affairs of the plains, the borders were not sensitive. The British drew the borders, and changed them several times according to their purely administrative and military convenience.           

But unremarked by anyone, things were changing both in the plains and, a little slowly, even in the hills. Under the impact of the two World Wars, the freedom movement in the plains, (it had reached the Zeliyang Nagas in the south-eastern part of the Naga Hills district, but none of the other numerous Naga groups), spread of Christianity as well as modern roads and transport, rudimentary education and health-care, the hill tribes were awakening to a new sense of identity built on traditional bases of inclusion and exclusion, but also aspiring for development into some sort of a united modern communities with their own political agendas. But they were deeply suspicious of the plainsmen who might dominate them unless checked in time.         

This kind of incipient ethno-nationalism felt safer within the ambit of the British empire than in a unity with the plains. Arguably, this too was not a natural development but a consequence of longstanding British colonial policy adapting and guiding such changes to suit imperial mercantile, military and political interests. At the same time, the Assamese nationality of the plains which for historical reasons had travelled farther down the road, unconsciously cherished a hope of integrating these heterogenous tribes under its own umbrella, an ambition that had a touch of arrogance as well as insensitivity which rubbed conscious tribals the wrong way.         

The British officials too were reluctant to sever relationships with the tribes under their protection, and a section of the top officials in the administration of the province made plans to separate these areas from India after independence and maintain them as a 'Crown Colony'. The plans were meticulously prepared by an Oxford professor. But World War II had broken, the back of the empire and the authorities in London had no stomach for these imperial adventures.         

Independence of India found many of the tribes confronting a new set of conditions that were now to preside over their destinies. A few of them had come closer to the freedom movement and their leaders like Reverend J.J.M.Nichols Roy played a significant part in drafting the Indian Constitution, especially the chapter on the 6th Schedule. 

While the tribes were not yet in a position to claim statehoods, they bargained for some sort of autonomy and had to be content with such rules that left the state government in possession of power to take major decisions. For example, the budget of areas under the 6th Schedule was prepared by the state governments, and the autonomous councils had control over land, forests and primary education.            

These modest gains left them quite content for some time, and they tried to live with the increasingly domineering Assamese in peace. Probably the Centre allowed the Assamese some space to try out their experiment, but it flopped thanks to cultural arrogance. However, the Nagas demanded independence outright even then, and as is common knowledge now, fought a strenuous and uncompromising war with the Indian army to the bitter end of virtual devastation of ordinary life, horrifying casualties and losses on both sides and blood-spattered stand-still. The Mizos followed in the late sixties till the Mizoram Accord of 1986, as the Indian administration's lack of foresight and concern brought about a grim famine in 1959. They had the support of China and the Islamist sections of the elite of Bangladesh. (However, Bangladesh has actually shown little sympathy to its own indigenous hilltribes, as borne out by the mind-boggling pogroms it had organised against the Chakmas, the Hajongs and the Garos who fled to Assam in their thousands for shelter.) There were militant groups among the Khasis and the Garos too, but they did not seem to have enjoyed mass support among their compatriots. That did not prevent them in their heyday from atrocities like burning alive two visiting college-girls from Assam in Shillong in the nineties. Nepalis who had lived in Khasi Hills for more than half a century were periodically driven out by organised Khasi students as 'Dkhars' (outsiders). However, moderate groups who preferred some sort of a modus vivendi with the government of India have come to prevail politically by now in the hill-states. But they too come to terms with militants or former militants at some cost to their own exercise of power. For example, the Naga militants openly levy taxes on all outsiders in government employment and trade in Nagaland. This may also be some degraded form of assertion of pre-eminence in their own land.       

So, the presence of militants is a major factor in these states, and politicians of ruling parties use them to overawe their opponents and stake the claims of their power against outsiders and neighbouring states.         

It must be added at this juncture that the award of sumptuous scholarships for education and reservation in jobs for Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution, further aided by the encouragement of the Church, created within a couple of decades a class of highly educated, skilled and dynamic leadership who rebelled against plainsmen's patronising attitude, and helped fuel the movement for separate tribal states in former districts of Assam. The final result however has been the steep rise of social inequality and oblivion of the original tribal equality and solidarity, which have been replaced by chauvinism.         

Coming back to the border problem, it is quite common for these tribes to make some sort of revanchist demands on the territory of Assam, the state out of which these states have been carved. They cite district borders as demarcated by colonial rulers at different times as proof that the borders conceding the largest territory to them had been the 'original boundaries' of the land of their forefathers. The simple answer to that is that the British had been least bothered by the question of the 'original homeland' of those tribes in demarcating district borders, but were solely guided by administrative convenience. But these are simply bargaining chips for expansion of territory. The major blame for these conflicts must be laid at the door of successive governments in Delhi who granted statehood as political bounty without caring to fix the borders. The parliament too has not bothered to raise the question. Media in Assam have often bewailed the purblind character of such carelessness, but to no avail.         

Unlike clashes between two neighbouring countries which assert their respective sovereign power and prestige, these border clashes have a much more immediate material end in sight. The hill tribes were traditionally used to a slash-and-burn type of rice cultivation conventionally called 'Jhum' culture. There was no need for use of the bullocks and the plough. And swathes of forests were regularly burned down to make room for 'Jhum', which however regained the green cover a couple of years later if left fallow. But with the increase of population there was growing pressure on, and hunger for, land. Besides affluent sections hankered after fertile land of the plains for raising crops with modern technology so as to accumulate more wealth.       

The border 'clashes' have been mostly one-sided with firearms used against helpless common farmers of the plains who lacked any kind of protection from their own government. It can be fairly presumed that militants who had turned lumpen (as it happened in Assam at a time) when shorn of any serious ideological purpose and end, frequently serve as the muscle for the lumpen capitalists too.           

A series of murderous attacks on dirt-poor Assamese small farmers in areas adjacent to the undecided borders has over the years left a toll of nearly two hundred dead and injured in the Nagaland-Assam border, not to speak of houses razed and cropland destroyed. The victims are poor Assamese, Bodo, Gurkha farmers and indigent tea-tribals lacking employment. 

The Assam police are no match for the ex-militants who had undergone military training and often have much better fire-power too. The worst atrocity so far was the massacre at Merapani in Golaghat district of Assam in June 1985, where forty-one people from Assam including policemen lost their lives. That the Nagaland government is somehow complicit or at least conniving, is proved by the fact that soon after such incidents it rushes to establish police outposts and administrative offices in such areas, forming subdivisions with telltale names like 'Newland'! Even Arunachal Pradesh, home to divergent tribes, nowadays seems to follow the now familiar route. Only about ten years or so back, Assamese and Nepali villagers came under attack from armed gangs from Arunachal Pradesh in a similar territorial aggression in Shonitpur district of Assam. 51 people on the Assam side sustained grave injuries and some later succumbed. Many chose to shift to less exposed areas. However, it has got to be said that the heavily armed encroachers are usually strangers from interior areas and local neighbours of these states are often not involved in such vicious attacks.         

The incident in the Hailakandi sub-division of the Cachar district of Assam on July 26, ended in the death on the spot of six policemen from Assam, and a total of sixty-five policemen injured, including the gravely injured District Superintendent. According to the press release of the Assam Government, the members of the Assam Police had gone to enquire about a reported encroachment on Assam's territory from the Mizoram side. The strength of the contingent indicates they were prepared for some trouble. Initially the SP from Assam engaged in discussions with the SP from Mizoram and requested him to persuade the attacking Mizo mob, and the latter went to meet the mob leaders and returned to express regret that he had failed to dissuade them. The press release went on to say that soon after, the Assam Police contingent came under a hail of bullets without any provocation. If true, this is gravely disquieting. For it means the police in Mizoram have confessed their inability to control lawless elements in their state. The merciless attack was obviously meant to teach Assam Police a lesson not to be forgotten.        

The mystery is deepened by the fact that barely two days before the incident Home Minister Amit Shah had flown in from Delhi on receipt of news of simmering inter-state border tensions and met the Chief Ministers of the region in a conclave to restore peace. Does it mean a loss of grip of the powerful Central Home Minister, or something more mysterious like a possible diversion from an even greater threat to his government? Speculations are rife, but the secret lies deeply buried along with the mystery of leaving inter-state borders undefined for decades together. A journalist friend has remarked that such tensions within the Northeast do not result in any damage to the Centre, which prefers a state of simmering tension here among member-states rather than peace and neighbourliness.

*The author is a highly respected Assamese intellectual, a literary critic and social-scientist from Assam. Views expressed are the author's own. 


Other pieces by Dr. Hiren Gohain:  

Mumbo-Jumbo will Voodoo you! 

The Spectre of Opposition Unity 

The UAPA noose 

The riddle of ‘Elected Autocracy’ 

Riddle of Assam elections 

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In the year devastated by the Covid 19 Pandemic, India witnessed apathy against some of its most marginalised people and vilification of dissenters by powerful state and non state actors. As 2020 draws to a close, and hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers continue their protest in the bitter North Indian cold. Read how Indians resisted all attempts to snatch away fundamental and constitutional freedoms.
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Archives