The strategic importance of the northeast to India’s ruling elite

Kranti Kumar, India

Northeast India currently comprises seven states—Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura were all formed from areas carved out of post-1947 Assam.

The pristine forests, mountains and valleys in this region have given rise to the most varied ethno-cultural groups with distinct cultural imprints. The northeast is also rich in minerals, forest resources and biodiversity. The region receives high rainfall from both the southwest and the returning northeast monsoon rains, resulting in a lush flora and fauna with many unique medicinal plants.

As a region, the northeast is demarcated by India’s international boundaries with China, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Bhutan and Bangladesh, and internally by the boundary between Assam and a very narrow strip of northern West Bengal known as the “chicken’s neck.” The 1947 communal partition of British India thus further enhanced the region’s relative isolation from the rest of India and created new barriers to the free movement of its many peoples, who historically have interacted with China, southeast Asia and the Indian core, absorbing and in turn influencing their respective cultural traditions.

Considered among the least developed of India’s regions, the northeast is inhabited by both tribal and non-tribal people, with the tribes generally inhabiting the mountainous regions and the non-tribal people inhabiting the valleys.

Within the limits of the validity of ethnic classification, three main ethnic groups can be distinguished in Manipur: the Meitei, the Kuki and the Nagas. Historically, the Kukis and the Nagas have inhabited the mountains and the forests, whereas the Meitei are valley-dwellers. While the tribes communicate amongst themselves in their own dialects, Meitei, is the official language of the state and is spoken by a majority of its people.

Historically, one of the most distinguishing characteristic of tribes is that they form local self-contained economic units. Goods that are not indigenously produced are acquired from neighbouring tribes through barter exchange. Though tribal economies in the northeast previously displayed this characteristic, this is no longer the case due to the penetration of capitalist relations into the region, a process that began under British rule but which has advanced rapidly since 1947. Today, the northeastern tribes deal in cash and purchase many modern conveniences such as televisions.

The disruption of the economic base of tribal society under conditions of growing economic insecurity and social inequality has undoubtedly fuelled national-ethnic resentments and conflicts. The rise to political prominence of the Hindu-chauvinist BJP since the mid-1980s has also further exacerbated ethnic tensions, since many of the tribal peoples in the northeast are Christians.

The varied natural resources of this region such as coal, forests, minerals and petroleum are of great economic importance to the Indian ruling elite. For example, Assam accounts for at least 15 percent of domestic petroleum and 50 percent of tea production.

The Indian ruling elite, largely ignorant of both the history and cultures of the northeast, has treated the region with contempt. The central government has allocated meagre resources to it in successive five-year plans. The region is far less industrialised than other parts of India and suffers widespread poverty and unemployment. When the masses have attempted to protest, the Indian government has reacted with military repression.

Manipur acquired statehood in 1972, but has been under martial law since 1980. Many of the unemployed and student youth, having no political outlet for their grievances, have become ready recruits to the various insurgent groups, which advocate ethnic nationalism and separatism as the solution to the inequities produced by the rule of the Indian bourgeoisie.

Although many insurgent groups in Manipur identify with or spring from a particular ethnic group, it would be incorrect to characterise them along purely ethnic lines as is frequently done by the Indian media. Some insurgent groups profess to “unite” several or all of the peoples of the northeast into a separate state, whereas others recruit on an exclusively ethnic basis and demand the denial of basic rights or even the expulsion of others whom they deem to be outsiders. Some of the more prominent insurgent groups in Manipur are the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK).

The alliances that these groups form are ever-shifting, and many have undertaken ethnic cleansing. None of them reach out for unity with the working class and oppressed masses of the subcontinent. While some use socialist phraseology, all advocate a variant of petit-bourgeois nationalism based upon ethnic, national and linguistic identities, and seek nothing more than a reshuffling of the reactionary, capitalist, nation-state system in South Asia.

The Indian elite has reacted to these insurgencies by giving its security forces unrestricted power. As a result, these forces essentially function as a terrorist state-sponsored gang. Over the decades, they have committed murders and rapes, destroyed dwellings, subjected people to arbitrary arrest, and humiliated people.

The victims have no recourse to courts or any other remedial measure unless prior permission has been obtained from the central government, which is next to impossible. This has created mass resentment and anger against both the security forces and the government authorities.

Traditionally, India’s mainstream media has neglected to cover the struggle for basic human rights in the northeast. Most of the press coverage has been confined to reporting encounters between insurgents and the security forces, thus painting a picture of this region as one racked by insurgency and violence. Lost in all this has been people’s day-to-day struggle for existence and dignity and the repressive character of the Indian state.

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