ISSUES IN GOVERNANCE AND POLITICS OF NORTH-EAST INDIA

The term ‘Northeast India’ refers to the seven contiguous states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura.  Colloquially referred to the ‘seven sister States’, they are now joined by an eighth members, Sikkim, since it joined the Indian Union in 1975, though it is geographically interspersed from the region by a part of West Bengal. A frontier region, it borders Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and is linked with the rest of India by a narrow 20 km. – wide corridor.   A complex mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups, the region harbors more than 166 tribes living in ecologically diverse hilly and forested tracts.  Often referred to as an ‘ethnic cauldron’, the region is characterized by marked cultural differences from the cultures of the mainland India in terms of linguistic, tribal, religious, and caste textures.  Among the four linguistic families of India, Northeastern languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman stock.

            In British India, Sikkim remained a protectorate and Manipur and Tripura princely states that merged with India in 1949, while the rest of the Northeast was amalgamated with Assam with incomplete integration, which is signaled by terms like ‘excluded’ or ‘partially excluded’ areas.  Fuller integration of these excluded areas was attempted only by the independent Indian state with asymmetrical federal arrangements like ‘Union Territories’ graduating to full ‘Statehood’ and special provisions for administration and control of ‘scheduled areas’ and ‘scheduled tribes’ under the 5th and 6th Schedules of the Constitution of India.  While the 5th Schedule is applicable to the scheduled tribal areas and scheduled tribes of the various States in India, the 6th Schedule is restricted to the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram.  Besides, Northeast region is probably the only political region in the country where every large State is a region unto itself within a sub-continental nation.  This uniqueness is signified by the facts of the legislations and institutions like the Northeastern Council Act, 1971, setting up a nodal agency for the economic development of the region, with a Secretariat of its own, and a separate Union Ministry of Development of Northeastern Region created since 2001.

            Ethnic identities with tribal linguistic and religious markers in the Northeast have been historically as well as presently undergoing complex processes of discoveries and ‘constructionism’ (to differentiate the term from ‘constructivism’ in international relations theories) especially during colonial and postcolonial periods.  Pre-existing discrete tribal self-perceptions have been undergoing a complex process of formation and reformation of identities indicated by Hinduiasation, conversion to Christianity, endemic demands for official recognition as Scheduled Tribes, and assumed and asserted affinity to the Naga tribe, which itself was a convenient British colonial way of labeling the tribes in Lushai Hills areas.  The closely related political phenomena are the endemic demands for separate Statehood, within and without India, with varying degrees of intensities and violent political mobilizations.  This is not limited to larger tribal groups as there has been a ‘proliferation of a particular kind of political mobilization in Assam by smaller groups, mostly tribal communities numbering in some cases just a few thousands, to demarcate territory and political space  for themselves and their kind to the exclusion of others living in that space’ (M.S. Prabhakara, ‘Invention, Reinvention Contestation: Politics of Identity in Assam’, in Sanjib Baruah, ed., Ethnonationalism in India: A Reader,  New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010: Chapter 8 ).

            The Northeast region has also been afflicted by persistent and vexatious illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in the whole region, especially in Assam, where there emerged a strong anti-foreigner’ movement in the late -1970s to the mid-1980s which was sought to be contained by the Assam Accord between the Assom Gan Parishad and the Union government under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985.  The implementation of the terms of the Accord remained problematic and the solution of the problem of infiltration persists.  The Supreme Court of India in the Sonowal case called it a ‘virtual demographic aggression’ but a political solution, despite the recent Indo-Bangladesh land transfer agreement, is yet to be seen.

            The Naga question has proved to be the stickiest problem in the Northeast. Naga insurgency is also metaphorically often said by the Northeasterners themselves as the ‘Mother of all Insurgencies’ in the region.   The combination of federal democratic deal and use of security forces to coercively reject any challenge   to the territorial national integrity of India, which has more or less worked in the rest of the region, gets bogged down in Nagaland.  For the ethnonational demand of Nagas makes territorial claims on territories in Naga- inhabited areas of Manipur hills and across the international border in Myanmar. After years of impasse, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra D. Modi were able to cut some ice and resume talks with the Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) but the splinter NSCN’s Khaplang faction with its base in Myanmar has not been a part of this move.  The outcome of the partial talks themselves suggest some preparedness of the Naga rebels to accept the sovereignties of India and Myanmar, but mutually agreed deals on all issues are still in the future.

            Though not exactly identical, there are some interesting parallels between the Northwest and the Northeast regions of India.  Both regions present mixes of British Indian  provinces  and princely states in the colonial period, processes of federalization through devolution or accession and/or merger, asymmetrical federal arrangements in the post-colonial Constitution via Articles 370, 371 and the 5th and 6th Schedules, post-independence re-organization of States, demands for a new federal deal in terms of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of the Shiromani Akali Dal (1973 and 1978) and J & K Autonomy Committee Report (1999), and insurgencies contained and accommodated in a number of cases (e.g. Punjab, Mizoram ,ULFA) or still awaiting resolution though works         in progress (e.g. Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland-Manipur conflict.)  A systematic comparative study of the two contexts and somewhat variable approaches of the Indian state in the two sectors is not available.  Such a study, if attempted, must also look into strategies of fiscal federalism (e.g.  ‘Special Category States’ of India’s Finance Commission dispensation, which covered all the 10 sub-Himalayan States spanning from the Northwest to the Northeast but now stands practically abandoned by the 14th Finance Commission Report (2015-2020).  The variable geopolitical contexts of the two regions must also be taken into account.  This comparative study will offer important lessons to be learnt and unlearnt in terms of strategies of civil society formation and strategies of economic development and state-capacity building in the two border regions.

Articles are welcome on any of the eight single states of the region or a comparative study of two or more States or any aspects of the phenomenon for this year’s Special Issue of the Indian Journal of Public Administration   in 5000 words or thereabout along with an abstract of around 250 words by 31st July, 2016.

A few topics those are illustrative rather than exhaustive for your convenience:

  1. The Northeast as a Region of the Union of India
  2. Issues and Institutions in Administration/Politics / and Governance of the       Northeast
  3. Social Formation in the Northeast
  4. State Formation in the Northeast
  5. Economic Development in the Northeast
  6. Northeastern States and Fiscal Federalism in India
  7. Asymmetrical Federal Arrangements in the Northeast
  8. The Northeastern Council
  9. The Problem of Illegal Migrants/Foreigners in the Northeast
  10. A comparative study of the Northeast and Northwest India:

Neo-federal experiments like non-territorial federalism (e.g. Belgium where the federal union is bi-focal – one territorial and one non-territorial among the three linguistic communities living across the three territorial units across the federal nation) and supranational cosmopolitan federalism (e.g. Sami Council comprising Samis living across international borders in Sweden, Finland, and Norway) and their applicability to Northeast India and Myanmar.

                                                                                    MAHENDRA PRASAD SINGH

                                                                                    EDITOR, IJPA