Northeast” is a term used for convenience to refer to the eight states in India located to the east of the “Chicken Neck”, with many assuming that they have a common language, culture, traditions, and so on. However, the fact is, the northeast is comprised of eight fascinating states, each with very unique identities in terms of languages, food habits, culture, traditions, biodiversity, etc. A regular feature in many of the northeastern states is that the dialect of each village is different from the next, irrespective of distance. This is one indication of the unique identity. This is also an indication of the diverse identities in the northeast. We are all aware that more than 200 ethnic groups in the region have been recognized by the Government of India and many more are waiting to be officially recognized so that their identity is protected under the Constitution of India. Besides the larger interest to preserve and promote their history, such efforts to assert identity are also associated with empowerment, survival and progress of the group.
Therefore, identity, today, in the northeast is not about politics. It has become a question of survival of the people, the tribes, the groups, etc. People do not do politics for identity. Rather they do politics of identity. It is, therefore, imperative to understand what this identity is to different people of the northeast.
Identity in the northeast can be broadly classified into two: First, the identity of the larger groups based on history. For example, the matter of Naga identity as a whole voiced by separatist groups, that they were never part of India and it was the British that brought them together with India. Similarly, some Koch Rajbongshis are now claiming the same. Second, the identity of the smaller groups, tribes, castes, creeds, etc. Maintaining this identity has become more significant as a result of competition for survival. These smaller groups were educationally, culturally, and socially under the dominance of some majority group. For example in Assam, caste Assamese were the dominant group. Now other groups such as the Bodos, Karbis etc are trying to establish their identities. Similarly, in Manipur and other states such attempts by different groups to establish their identity by going into history is increasingly seen.
Now the question is why do they want to assert their identity? If identity is lost, what will be lost? Here, three factors come into play. First, their social survival itself will be affected. It depends on the status of their identity whether the social group will continue to exist or dissipate. We have seen this happen to many tribes in South America. Many tribes have disappeared. For example, the Mayan civilization remains only in books, the Mayan identity no longer exists. This is one fear that social groups have.
Secondly there’s the economic dimension. They will be deprived of economic benefits and hence be economically poor and this in turn would threaten their existence itself. Third is sheer demographics. Numerically they will be overwhelmed and will account for nothing which will have implications in the political arena. They will be denied any role in the deci- sion-making process. Ultimately, their voice will not be heard even when they put forth their gen- uine demands. This feeling of being ‘lesser’ in a country, state, district, or even amongst different communities or ethnic groups in terms of social, economic or political influence is the root cause of all forms of conflicts related to identity.
Therefore, whether the fear is real or just an apprehension, identity in the northeast is linked to need for protection. This is because groups know that unless they are protected, they will not survive.
Let us look at the northeast in general. Why are they going back on the issue of Inner Line Permit which the British had started? By now we should have been able to get rid of that but instead more states are demanding for it. For example, Meghalaya is now asking for ILP and so also Manipur. Though the situations may be very different in every state, the general psychology is that they want some sort of protection, whether justified or just born of apprehension. Consider the Assam Accord wherein the feeling of identity is strongly indicated. Such issues have to be tackled very sensitively and those at the Centre in Delhi might not be able to understand the psychology of the people of northeast and why such feelings exist.
Since the reason for such fear or apprehensions is not fully understood, the Government also appears to be toying with the Sixth Schedule area provision or other forms of territorial autonomy as conflict resolution strategies. In order to satisfy the demands of different groups, such provisions of territorial autonomy are extended wherever possible. Though such solutions satisfy the demand of the aggrieved group, they are not desirable in the long run. It would have negative impacts to the groups themselves due to isolation and social conflicts with other groups. Besides such short-sighted solutions inspire and instigate the less assertive and smaller communities to resort to similar demands and methods adopted by the larger communities. The long term solution perhaps lies in inclusive development which encompasses socio-economic and political aspects.
We also need to look at why different groups in the northeast are asking to protect their identity by way of demanding imposition of Inner Line Permit or extension of the Sixth Schedule to their areas. A close examination of the issue will reveal that the root cause of all such demands is linked to development. The dominant group, which is not permanent, invariably takes complete control over other smaller groups in all spheres. Under such circumstances, other larger minority groups in the population feel lack of justice in terms of development, education, opportunity, employment, and other areas. This brings about internal conflict with each smaller group having its own aspirations which results in dissents and disputes between different groups. Such conflicts ultimately lead to a demand for a separate status, a smaller state, a smaller autonomous district, etc. This is how the demand for a separate identity set off. It is, therefore, important to try to understand those aspirations and try to meet them in a constructive manner.
For example, the Bodos were a minority in Assam who successfully fought for their identity. But other minority groups in Bodoland have now come up fighting for their identity. This is because once the Bodos got their identity they dominated over other minority groups and did not cater to their needs. The dominant group initially was the Assamese and in the latter case it is the Bodos. Hence, this exertion and assertion for identity is not static but will remain a continuous process unless the root cause of their demand for identity is curbed. Similar demands are seen in other parts of the northeast. All such northeast have to be identified. For this, some of the existing schemes and policies for the northeast will have to be abolished or modified. It must be ensured that they do not lose financially on many central Government schemes including rural development and many other schemes which can have its serious implications. Because if such schemes are not implemented, people’s resentment will grow against the Government of India and even the mainstream politics could be impacted. Another matter of concern is that of utilization of funds. There are issues regarding the non-lapsable fund. Why different ministries have not been able to spend 10 percent of their demands seem to stem from a flawed development process with other shortcomings such as partiality or prejudices exhibited in the process of implementation. Prioritization of activities and strategic planning by involving all the stakeholders is the need of the hour. This will also strengthen the states economically and reduce the region’s dependency on the Centre for funds.
Since development is directly linked to identity, we need to look at it more closely. Avenues that will contribute in the development of the funds for the northeast as mandated needs to be looked into with seriousness. Instead of keeping it notionally it should be put to use in appropriate schemes.
People of the northeast have felt for ages that they are cut off from the rest of India and are economically imprisoned. The Look East policy and the Act East policy is expected to break this economic deprivation and bring some hope to the people of the region. However, these ambitious and much anticipated policies still appear to be more of hype than an immediate reality.
Though the government seems to have a strategy in place, comprehensive efforts that will truly benefit the people of northeast is still want- ing. For example, let us assume the northeast has connectivity tomorrow with Myanmar, Singapore and other places beyond, and they have trade flowing freely. What policy do we have for this? Will our goods flow out or will goods flow in? Besides other considerations regarding products flowing in, special care must be taken to ensure that the northeast does not turn out to be a destination for dumping which could have serious environmental implications because of its ecological sensitivity.
The future and prosperity of northeast is very uncertain unless we make “Make in the Northeast” a reality. Make in the Northeast is also important so as to come out with products which are competitive internationally. Although Make in the Northeast has not taken off as yet, it is not without prospects. In fact, there is a lot of scope especially so because people of the northeast are naturally skillful. Also, there are natural resources and other agro-products in abundance in the northeast. Optimal utilization of skills and the judicious use of the available resources should be the focus to make Make in the Northeast a success. Such initiatives will also be an attempt to create a self-sustaining system. This can be achieved in several ways.
First, we have petrochemicals and the downstream industries for polymers coming up in the northeast. Polymers, as we know, can give us extremely high value plastics from which we can make buckets, tubs, tubes, pipes, containers, etc.
Most of these items have been brought to the northeast from other states and neighbouring countries. The same products can be manufactured in the northeast by setting up plastic industries. Even big companies like Sony, Samsung, other big companies which need a lot of plastic components, high value plastic components for their technologies and various products can be roped in as part of the Make in the Northeast policy. These materials can be produced in the northeast from the raw materials that are available.
Another area where immediate interventions are required is that of setting up of cold chains in the northeast. A huge chunk of agriculture products such as fruits and vegetables are produced in the northeast. However due to lack of cold chains it is found that such products are exported for value additions and the processed foods are imported back. Such value additions have to be done in the northeast state where it is grown.
And the third relates to tourism, and ecotourism at that. Indeed the northeast with its enchanting landscapes, rich biodiversity, culture, tradition, etc. can attract a lot of tourists, both national and international. This will not only be a revenue generating avenue but will also promote mutual understanding between the people of the northeast region and those from outside of the region. However so much is talked about tourism but nothing much has happened. Much needs to be done in this sector. The quality of infrastructure including hotels is poor. Unless roads, connectivity, communication, safety, security and other facilities are taken care, tourism cannot grow, and hence it is also an issue that pertains to development. Besides, environmental considerations should form the basis for any de- velopmental task initiated related to tourism fail- ing which it will lead to its own death.
Fortunately or unfortunately, every Prime Minister who comes to the northeast would announce that thousands of crores have been given to the northeast. However it is never known to the public how that money is being spent. In order to maintain transparency, the numerous schemes undertaken should be in the public domain with an independent monitoring body set up for each scheme. There must be systems whereby Government of India agencies must sit together and identify the status of implementation of the schemes. It would be advisable if such schemes are taken up as mission approach with clearly identified objectives, details of fund, agency responsible for the task, and occasional review of the schemes.
Identity issue of the northeast is also more pertinent from the country’s point of view because of the fact that northeast region shares about 5,500 km border with neighbouring countries and only 26 km with India.
The issue of identity, which especially relates to decades of struggle of larger groups, to a large extent, has been dealt with understanding between the rebel groups and the Government of India. We have seen the Assam Accord of 1985, the Mizo Accord of 1986 and more recently, the Naga Peace Accord of 2015. The Assam Accord and the Mizo Accord were significant for the people in the northeast. This is because peace is prerequisite to development. Where there is no peace, there can be no development. In other words, where there is conflict, there can be no development. We have seen the positive changes that took place in Mizoram subsequent to the Accord with its associated limitations, though. The same was observed in Assam.
People in the Naga inhabited areas are now looking forward to the much anticipated positive developments as the decades old Naga issue is being resolved by way of the Naga Peace Accord. The Government of India will have to be very cautious as the details of the Accord is being worked out so as to avoid any possible fallout if the aspirations of the people, small and large tribes, are not met which could lead to a more complex situations. Sensitivity toward the issue, respect for each other and progressive outlook alone can take us forward. How far back can we go to assert our identity? How far back can we go to redraw our boundaries? We can only move forward and not backward. However, this does not take away the fact that people have history and inspite of the integration and Accords people still feel threatened due to various factors. Such feeling exist amongst the larger as well as the smaller groups. Therefore, such factors have to be dealt with utmost sensitivity and sincerity.
It is no secret that Assam has problems related to infiltration from Bangladesh. In spite of this, Assam and Meghalaya borders have not been fenced as yet. Besides, a system still does not exist to stop the immigrants or the infiltrators from exploiting the electoral system. According to the policy of the Government of India, Hindus who have been afflicted in the neighbouring countries have the right to settle in India. However, besides giving them the right to settle in India, there is no policy in place that caters to their livelihood, employment, education, settlement, etc. Will they be a floating population? Since the largest migration is coming to West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, and other places in the northeast it will be appropriate to take up necessary measures so as to avoid conflicts arising out of land. We are already aware of the conflicts in Bodoland which is primarily because of land. The ongoing attempts to update the National Register of Citizens to separate ‘illegal’ immigrants from ‘legitimate’ residents in Assam may be considered the first step in the right direction.
We are also aware of a Bengali population in Assam that came along with the British starting from 1826. Now if doors are opened to the settlement of fresh Hindu refugees from Bangladesh, these numbers may increase. As a result of this there could be tension between the Assamese and the Bengalis. There could also be a tension between the Muslims who had emigrated earlier from Bangladesh and are now settled in Assam, and those Hindus coming from Bangladesh.
They could feel threatened by the Hindus which could lead to a law and order situation in the state.
Identity issue of the northeast is also more pertinent from the country’s point of view because of the fact that northeast region shares about 5,500 km border with neighbouring countries and only 26 km with India. The northeast is surrounded by China, Bangladesh and Myan- mar who are friendly today but may not be so tomorrow. It is also important that they do not harbor our extremist and this is extremely important for the identity of the northeast. Therefore, it is vital to include northeast while considering India’s national security.
Identity issue in the northeast has also brought about interstate problems. Such interstate problems should be left to be solved by the leaders of the northeast states. An institution called North Eastern Council (NEC) has been set up to tackle such issues. To resolve interstate conflicts the leaders from the northeast should sit together, discuss and develop strategies instead of decisions being taken at the capital in the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER).
The people of the northeast also relate their identity to their culture, traditions, and various other practices including food habits. They are sensitive to any kind of intolerance toward these. Besides, a huge population of the northeast celebrates and observes some important days in a calendar year. The sentiments of such people should be respected by recognizing and giving due importance to such days.
Migration between states also exists and this has also made the local population feel threatened not only in terms of identity but also in terms of economy. For example, the Semas welcome the workforce from other states. Biharis, Santhals and others form very important work-force in the northeastern states. If the people of the northeast feel insecure due to their presence, then they need to introspect and find out where they went wrong. There are also many migrant businessmen running most of the important trades. The local populace need to ask themselves why they allowed the trade and public distribution system to be monopolized by people from outside. They will then realize that instead of learning the skill to take up such responsibilities, they have been satisfied with the monthly rent they collect from the immigrants. They did not realize that as they enhance the rent periodically, the businessmen simultaneously enhance the prices of the commodity subjecting every common man to high price level.
Therefore, it is high time people in the northeast learn the necessary skills in order to avoid dependency on the workforce and businessman coming from other states. But so long they can- not do without people from other states, it will only be appropriate for them to treat immigrants with respect and not as aliens. A symbiotic relationship has to be maintained so that they can co-exist in harmony benefiting from each other. Such ideas also need to be publicized.
The issue of identity is not restricted to geographic northeast. In fact, people from the northeast have no identity in metropolitan cities. They feel ignored, excluded and subjected to various kinds of discrimination in these cities. Attitudinal problem of the mainstream people (even in reputed offices) towards the people of northeast is still a matter of serious concern even today. Some of the feelings may be questioned but there were unfortunate and unquestionable incidents because of which the Bezbaruah Committee was set up to look into the issues facing the people of northeast in the metros. The committee had come up with several recommendations. How successfully the recommendations are being implemented is yet to be seen. The basis of the recommendations was integration and not segregation.
Addressing the concerns of the Bezbaruah recommendations in the metros will have a long term positive impacts not only in the metros but in the northeast as well. This is because increasing number of people from the northeast are moving to the metros and at the same time a sizable number of people are going back with negative impressions as a result of discrimination associated with their unique identity. If such trend continues, it will further widen the gap between northeast people and those from other states and at the same time dissent against the central government will increase. Therefore, the Government needs to make every effort to sincerely implement the recommendations and the monitoring committee set up for this task needs to strictly and regularly monitor and review the initiatives and ensure its effective implementation.
While integration and development is the need of the hour, isolation cannot be encouraged at any cost. Several groups have attempted to remain isolated in order to protect their identity.
Such efforts have brought more harm than good to the people. We therefore need to understand the adverse consequences of isolation. The worst impact of isolation is that it will force the group to remain static, and we have witnessed such stagnation on several occasions. It has led to lack of development of infrastructure which in turn impacts other avenues of development. Even in nature, anything that gets isolated becomes extinct in due course of time, deteriorates, or becomes obsolete. Therefore, everything has to move with time which is the law of nature. Nobody can fight with nature. We just have to be in tune with it. The more backward we are, the faster we have to move. This is one thing we must all aim at. Unless different groups move with time, they will continue to remain backward and continue to hold on to their apprehensions. Besides, the world has become one village with better communication, both physically as well as through communication of ideas. It is not only undesirable but it is no longer possible to remain totally isolated. Intermixing and intermingling has become inevitable. The more the interaction, the more is the mixing, resulting in dissolution of barriers. It is such interactions with the world outside the northeast that have built leaders from the northeast. All the leaders from Nagaland, Arunachal, Meghalaya and others have had interactions with people from other states through which they have gained knowledge and skill and eventually became leaders.
Unfortunately, sometimes such leaders encourage isolation so as to prevent the common man, lowest of the low, in the society from rising so as to preserve their leadership. It is important to identify the causal factors for isolation and then suggest remedies. Publicity and making the public aware is in itself a remedy because common man will begin to think. This will make the literate become educated. Enlightening the student community in this regard will also pervade the entire community.
Having said these, it is to be kept in mind that problems of each northeast state, tribe, etc. are unique. So the solutions have to be modulated. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the whole northeast.
Finally, the people of northeast also need to understand each other better. Interstate conflicts are on the rise and the divides are escalating. It is only when people go to the metros that they realize their proximity not only in terms of race but also in terms of geography, food, culture, etc. While in the northeast they do not feel the same closeness. Therefore, besides the leaders of the northeast people meeting to resolve the issues, different kinds of platforms must also be provided and programmes undertaken to bring people from all parts of the northeast together. Such efforts will contribute in tackling the existing interstate conflicts.
By Dr. Alana Golmei, General Secretary, Northeast Support Centre & Helpline and co-authored by Dr. Chong Shimray, Associate Professor, Department of Education in Science and Mathematics, National Council of Educational Research and Training, New Delhi.