Northeast Turmoil: Vital Determinants

Sreeradha Datta, Associate Fellow, IDSA


Northeast India comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura is most often in the news for widespread violence and insurgency. At the popular level, conflict is endemic to the region. There is, however, little awareness of the complex nature of the ethnic unrest and separatist movements in the region. Intense and bitter conflict in the region has been attributed to many factors.

In certain ways, the turmoil in the Northeast represents a clash between tradition and culture and forces of change. The geographical isolation of the region, absence of cultural and psychological integration with the mainstream and economic discontent are at the root of the unrest in the Northeast. The unchecked migration often becomes the prime reason for the woes of the region. A section of the population have even maintained that they are not part of India and that their struggle is for independence from the Indian Union. In short, various historical, geographical, cultural, economic and political factors have contributed to tension and conflict in the region.

This paper is an attempt to explore and analyse certain important factors that have led to the turmoil and the prolonged violent unrest plaguing the region. It has been argued that underdevelopment is an important factor in the sustenance of conflict in the region. It is submitted that historical, geographical and cultural factors are at the root of the myriad conflicts in the region and the political-security challenges in the Northeast derive from these factors.

The paper is organised in three sections. The first section discusses the geographical, historical and psychological factors and how they have influenced the making of the crises in the Northeast. The pressure of migration is the most important issue in the Northeast and there is a close relationship between migration and security. The population flow into the region and its role in fomenting unrest is analysed in the second section. The third section dwells upon the economic factors that are at the root of conflict as this aspect is closely related to migration pressures.


The Northeastern region of India covering a total areas of 255,037 sq. km, bordering China, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Bangladesh is a post-colonial region. Until the advent of the British, Northeast was not there as a concept. The geo-political contour of a Northeast frontier first emerged by the turn of the last century, during the eastward sweep of the British leading to the subjugation of the territories between Bengal and erstwhile Burma. The colonial rule rook a long time to consolidate and different units came under British rule at different times, Assam plains in 1826, Cachar in 1830, Khasi Hills in 1833, Naga Hills in 1835, Garo Hills in 1872-73 and Lushai hills in 1890.

If one studies the pre-independence writings, the expression, 'Northeast region' is seldom encountered. The construction of the region called Northeast is a post-1947 development. The partition aggravated its geo-political isolation as the region is linked with the rest of the country by a narrow land corridor and is surrounded on all sides by international borders. Earlier various tribal regions had closer ties with the adjoining areas of Bengal and Burma than with each other, but the partition all but physically separated the Northeast from the Indian heartland. This and the Chinese takeover of Tibet replaced the earlier soft territorial frontier. In other words, an area of more than a quarter of a million square kilometers bordering China, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh (erstwhile east Pakistan) now only has a tenuous connection with the rest of the country by the 21-km wide Siliguri corridor.1 Less than one per cent of the external boundaries of the region is contiguous with the rest of India. While the remaining ninety-nine percent form international borders.

The partition also caused the severance of the inland water, road and railway communications through East Pakistan/Bangladesh and access to the Chittagong port was lost. The Chinese takeover of Tibet and the virtual closure of the border with Burma/Myanmar added to the isolation of the region. All these factors had an effect on the traditional economic linkages with the neighbouring areas and Northeast India could never recover the consequences and trauma of partition.

Isolation and Separateness

Colonial interests dictated the political and administrative arrangements of the region. The prolonged colonial rule consolidated and accentuated separateness. Administrative convenience and strategic considerations led the British to group and regroup territories. Assam emerged as a nodal point in the British administration only after going through a long granulating period. The areas around Assam that were brought under colonial rule at different points of time were treated by the British administration on a separate footing. A series of legal and administrative decisions were taken between 1874 ad 1935 providing for separate and distinct identities of the different areas in the Northeast.

An Inner Line was drawn marking the extent of revenue administration beyond which the tribal people were left to manage their own affairs. Outsiders were prohibited from crossing the Inner Line without permission. According to Section 52A of the Government of India Act of 1919, the Governor-General in Council may declare any territory to be a backward tract and deny application of any Legislative Act in the areas so declared.2 Subsequently the Government of India Act of 1935 regrouped the backward tracts into two categories, namely, excluded and partially excluded areas in place of backward tracts.3

The Inner Line became a frontier within a frontier adding to the seclusion of the hills, enhancing the political and cultural distance between them and the plains.4 One of the important negative fallouts of the Inner Line system has been the perpetuation of the isolationist tendencies in the predominantly hill and mountainous areas of the region. The colonial policy aimed at preserving the separateness of the region continued when the region was reorganised in 1956. Even though most excluded areas became separate entities as union territories and subsequently as States, their integration into the rest of India has been partial and problematic. Therefore, despite conferment of autonomy and statehood, separateness nursed during the colonial period has survived and is frequently expressed through insurgency to bolster demands for autonomy, economic concessions, political representation, and even for independence from the Union.

More important than the geographical isolation and seeds of separateness during the colonial rule, it is the cultural chasm and lack of psychological integration with the rest of the country that makes for the distinctiveness of the region. The nationalist struggle for freedom which otherwise unified the diverse Indian population did not touch the Northeast. The region remained immune to the process of 'Indianness.' The tribal Northeast remained aloof to the unifying influence of the freedom struggle. In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru,

The essence of the struggle for freedom, which meant raising some kind of liberating force in India, did not reach these (tribal) areas, chiefly the frontier areas that are the most important tribal areas. The result is that those frontier areas were not (so) psychologically prepared. In fact, they were prepared the other way by British officers or sometimes by missionaries who were there.5

The profound economic and political changes in the wake of independence created a sense of unease among the tribal population of the region. Feelings grew that the tribal traditions would be submerged into the mainstream and a new sense of identity and political consciousness led the tribal communities to differentiate themselves from the heartlanders. The attitude of the heartland namely, the Hindu-Hindi belt, towards the region and its people have not helped the situation. There is complete lack of knowledge and awareness of the Northeast, its history, its diversity and its place in other parts of India, thereby reinforcing the psychological distance.

Migration and Economy

Beginning with the British rule, the region has been witnessing regular and at times accelerated phase of economic migration. This influx included migrants from within and outside India. The remoteness of the region, colonial history and the psychological gap are the main determinants of the turmoil in the Northeast. However, it is the demographic changes in the region, which often are the immediate source of conflict. The impact of demographic changes as an important conflict-generating cause has come to the limelight in the last two decades. However, resentment over the large-scale unchecked migration into the region, both from different parts of India as well as from Nepal and East Pakistan/Bangladesh, had been brewing much before the anti-foreigner agitation burst out in late 1970s and later on engulfed various parts of the region.6

Most of the population groups in the Northeast either have their roots outside India or have migrated to the region from different parts of the Indian heartland. In the pre-British era, major population flows were from east of the region, from Southwest China and Upper Burma. During and after the colonial rule, there was a large-scale influx of Bengali-speaking people, followed by Nepalese and the tribal people from central India. The British economic ventures absorbed Bengali clerks and officials and the central Indian tribal people and Bihari labourers were absorbed in tea gardens and oil fields. The Bengali migrants, particularly Muslim farmers made substantial contribution to the agricultural development of Assam.7 The Census of 1911 described these migrant farmers as "hardy and prolific cultivators working their way northwards. These people are accustomed to the risk arising from diluvian and devastating floods which other cultivators are unwilling to face." Likewise, the 1931 Census reported: "At first the local people did not accept them joyfully. But as they came to see their knowledge of agriculture, their contribution to the general prosperity of the district—the prejudices and dislikes are beginning to disappear."

Initially the settlement and development of the wasteland was considered a positive fallout of the migration. Gradually the influx began to undermine the economic interest of indigenous people. The new entrants created acute economic problems since the mid-thirties as they began to settle down in forestland, particularly in the tribal areas. Forceful occupation, purchase, mortgage etc. paved the way for the land alienation of the indigenous population. Increased population pressure on land aggravated the problem of landlessness among the indigenous people. Unplanned clearing of the forest led to the problem of soil erosion in the hills and consequent floods in the plains. Trade and commerce was monopolised by the more enterprising capital owning migrants and the migrants also cornered modern professions in large numbers.

The presence of a large number of migrants shook the foundation of the Assamese social structure and created a sons-of-the-soil solidarity among the Assamese. The percentage of the Assamese speaking population considerably declined while the share of the Bengali speaking population has risen considerably. Cleavages also developed between the indigenous Assamese and tribal population. In certain parts of the state, the immigrant population constitutes more than 70 per cent of the total population and in the Char (river island) area 90 per cent are immigrants.8 In tribal areas like Karbi Anglong district immigrants represent a substantial proportion of the population. Between 1910 and 1980, in terms of population growth Assam became the fastest growing region in the entire subcontinent. The demographic changes resulted in acute conflicts over language, education and employment policies, leading to the fear of being overwhelmed demographically, culturally, and economically by the migrants.

Likewise, as per the 1991 census, the tribes in Tripura constitute only 28 per cent of the state's population but three decades earlier they comprised two-third of its population.9 As Sanjoy Hazarika notes: "Mass movement in a traditionally insular area invites linguistic, ethnic and religious strife. Settlement of an alien population leads to battle over resources, particularly land."10

This influx of the economic migrants and consequent undermining of the economic interests of the native population changed the demographic composition of the region, eventually leading to political tension. This tension manifested in different forms ranging from political agitations, violent struggle, militant activities and insurgencies. Consequently, the agitation over the presence and domination of the foreigners and the 'outsiders' has fuelled conflict throughout the region. Insurgents of various hues have cited unchecked migration as the prime reason for their 'struggle' against the established order.

Until recently, migration and security were considered distinct subjects of academic studies and political discourse. Analysts focused mostly on defence strategy and power relations between states. Preserving the territorial integrity of the state and the stability of the government in the face of the external or internal military threat were considered a matter of 'high politics' while migration was considered 'low politics'. However, in recent years there is a growing recognition that migration does not involve only human and personal security and human rights issues but also has internal and international security implications.11 Migration is now considered one of the 'new security threats' and Myron Weiner has treated population flows as an independent rather than as a dependent variable in his security analysis. He identified five categories of situations where migrants or refugees may be perceived as a security threat.12 The large-scale migration into the Northeast region fits very well into the category of 'unwanted migrants.'

Several of the Northeast states witnessed violent movements rooted in the foreigners' issue. The Chakmas are the "foreigners" in Arunachal Pradesh, Bengalis in Tripura, Chin refugees (from Myanmar) in Mizoram and Manipur and Bengalis and other non-Assamese in Assam. A strong 'anti-foreigner movement' against the Chakma residents of Arunachal Pradesh has rocked the state. Chakma refugees were settled in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) region (now Arunachal Pradesh) in the 1960s and since 1994, Chakmas and Hajongs have been facing deportation threats and discrimination.13 All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) has issued an ultimatum aimed at evicting Chakmas, Hajongs and Tibetans from the state. The issue of granting citizenship to the Chakmas is still hanging in balance in spite of the recommendation of a Parliamentary Committee.

The Chin refugees from Myanmar are no longer welcome in Mizoram. The resentment over the increase in the number of Chakmas in the state is another cause for worry. Mizos allege that a large number of Chakmas from Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region of Bangladesh have settled in the Chakma Autonomous District Council in the state. The tribal-outsider dichotomy has generated violence in Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam, thus leading to a silent out-migration of the non-tribal population from these states. However, the most widely known anti-foreign agitation took place in Assam when it became an election issue in 1978. The success of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in coming to power on the anti-foreigners' platform induced some of the other political parties to pursue similar postures.

The economic and security implications of the mass migration into the region have not been addressed properly. Measures to check infiltration from across the borders have not been successful.14 Refugee flows into the region have only compounded the picture.

Economic Resources

The Northeast is endowed with an abundance of natural resources but the region continues to remain backward. It is endowed with numerous natural resources such as oil reserves, tropical forests, hydro-electricity potentials of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, tea, coal, timber, silk and jute. Some of these resources have been exploited while others remain under-utilised. Many analysts have reasoned that the lack of economic development is the most important cause of conflict in the region. High rates of population growth, a restricted range of resources, labour immobility, restricted land market, volatile and uncertain political and social environment and largely subsistence economies are the defining characteristics of the region. Sluggish economic growth, poor infrastructure, lack of market accessibility and under utilisation of the natural resources of the region have plagued the economies of the states of the region. As a result, the economic development has been lop-sided.

The British encouraged the growth of tea plantations at the cost of other industries. The partition dealt a severe blow to the economic prospects of the region by cutting off the existing transport and communication routes. Chittagong port and the CHT area were awarded to Pakistan against the wishes of the overwhelming section of the local populace. The region is yet to recover from the aftereffects of the partition. As B.G. Verghese observes:

The physical and psychological severity of the blow was not fully appreciated elsewhere in the country and the disruption in communications and markets was not repaired soon enough, nor infrastructure developed to match the new needs completed as expeditiously necessary. Isolated and traumatised, the Northeast turned inward, succession of insurgencies and movements to seek separation or autonomy, assert identity or exclude foreigners and outsiders aggravated the hiatus, with the rest of the country coming to think of the Northeast with disinterest as a far-away place, perpetually troubled. Beset with its own internal problems and complexes, the Northeast fell behind economically and despite its inherent wealth remains at the bottom of the heap as a conglomeration of seemingly impecunious special category states.15

After independence, some efforts were made at industrial diversification, but industries that came up were concentrated in certain pockets of Assam. The region continues to remain mainly agricultural and less than forty per cent of the geographical area is under cultivation. The prospects for modern industries are not bright, as there is a lack of local or regional markets. It is a possible to suggest that one of the important reasons for the economic stagnation of the Northeast is the socio-economic resistance of the people to change and the structural rigidity of a traditional social structure. The resentment and movements against the outsiders have robbed the region of investments, which could have given a fillip to economic development.

Out-migration of people from business class and professions has sent a wrong signal to the investors. Development has been a major casualty of insurgency and rampant violence; and at times the insurgents have disrupted economic development projects either to protest against the perceived extractive and exploitative nature of such projects and/or for keeping out outsiders. Examples are galore: stopping oil exploration and production in Nagaland, preventing railway extension in Khasi Hills, regular and systematic disruption of oil supply and railway lines in Assam.

A closer examination of the turbulence and unrest in the region would reveal a number of underlying economic factors. The lack of economic development "breeds the discontents that feed insurgency."16 There is a deep sense of economic neglect of the region by the Centre. It is true that the various central governments have been generous towards the region in terms of extending aid and assistance and the central allocations for the states of the region are higher in comparison with other parts of the country. Northeast has the highest per capita investment in the country. In a significant move, in 1996 Prime Minister Deve Gowda had announced a special economic assistance package for the region amounting to Rs. 61 billion.17 Northeast states enjoy special category status for the development of backward areas.

Modernisation theorists would argue that insurgency and violence are transient pheonomenon that would decline in proportion to economic development. However, massive subsidies, grants and special allocations for the region which are supposed to contain insurgency and propel the region to prosperity, may indeed have exacerbated the problem.18 The nexus between the politicians, bureaucrats and contractors is responsible for the siphoning off of government funds and a part of this fund finds its way to the underground and finances their violent campaign against the authorities.

It is widely believed that the political discontent in the region has been fuelled by the unemployment problem. Rampant presence of small arms in the region is attributed to this factor. The literacy rate in the region is quite high in comparison to the rest of the country but in the absence of industries and business opportunities, employment prospects for the youth are dim. The resultant discontent and frustration is exploited by the militants to swell their ranks.


The psychological distance from the rest of India, limited economic development and the problems associated with the economic migrants from outside the region have culminated in a number of conflicts in the Northeast. The tribes and various other sections of society have frequently revolted against the established order and have waged armed struggle for secession as well as to bolster various other sets of demands. The proximity of international borders has facilitated external support for various insurgent groups to be active in the region.19 The demographic changes brought about by the continuous influx of outsiders both from across the borders as well as from different parts of the country have sharpened divisions and 'anti foreigner' sentiment has spawned dozens of movements and agitations. A number of groups and organisations have sought to press for their demands for autonomy, economic concessions and political representation through violent means. The state and the security forces have launched counter offensive and anti-insurgency operations to contain the secessionist forces and their terror tactics.

Several of the insurgent movements have accepted the various packages offered by the government or sought political accommodation with the Centre. However, in spite of the numerous 'peace accords', the region is infested with militants and rebels who are carrying out low intensity conflict in various forms. Each of the states has been rocked by extremist violence in varying degrees.20 The tribal-outsider dichotomy has the potential to generate violence.



1. In December 1998, Bangladesh agreed to extend facilities to use its port, road and railway links to transport goods and passengers to the Northeast.

2. The foothills around the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys marked the outer limits of regular administration. Following territories in the Assam province were declared as backward tracts; a) the Garo Hills districts, b) the British portion of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills Districts, c) the Mikir Hills, d) the North Cachar Hills, e) the Naga Hills Districts, f) the Lushai Hills Districts, g) the Sadiya Frontier Tract, h) the Balipara Frontier Tract and I) the Lakhimpur Frontier Tract.

3. Excluded areas included a) Northern Frontier (Sadiya, Balipara and Lakhimpur) Tract, b) the Naga Hills District, c) the Lushai Hills District, and d) the North Cachar Hills Subdivision of Cachar District. The partially excluded areas comprised a) the Garo Hills District, b) the Mikir Hills in Nowgong and Sibsagar Districts, and c) the British portion of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills District. The powers of the provincial legislature were not to extend to these areas. The Governor was empowered to administer the excluded areas in his discretion and partially excluded areas were to be his special responsibility.

4. B.G. Verghese, India and Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development, (New Delhi: Konark, 1996), Second edition, p. 21.

5. Cited in Ibid., p. 34.

6. Sanjoy Hazarika, Strangers in the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India's Northeast, (New Delhi: Viking, 1994), p.

7. Sabari Bandopadhyay and Debesh Chakraborty, "Migration to the Northeastern region and problems of security" in Sanjukta Bhattacharya and Rochana Das (ed.), Perspectives on India's Northeast, (Calcutta: Bibhasa, 1998), pp. 94-116.

8. A. Goswami and T K Gogoi, "Immigration and demographic transformation of Assam, 1901-1971", in B.L. Adbi, (ed.), Northeast Region: Problems and Prospects of Development, (Chandigarh: CRRID, 1984).

9. Chandrika Basu (Majumdar), "Tribal insurgency in Tripura: Perspectives and issues", B. Pakem (ed.), Insurgency in North-East India, (New Delhi: Omsons, 1997), pp. 352-68. See also Bhabani Sen Gupta, India: Problems of Governance, (New Delhi: Konark, 1996), p. 284.

10. Sanjoy Hazarika, "Insurgency in Northeast India", in Paken, n. 10, p. 118.

11. On September 20, 1999 the Supreme Court expressed its concerns about unabated migration of Bangladeshi refugees to the Northeast and asked the Union Government to make "honest and serious" attempts to stop the influx. The Assam government affidavit presented to the Court maintained that 405.267 illegal migrants were detected between 1952 and 1999 and out of them 347,689 were deported. In the recent past, the affidavit maintained, that there appears to be a close nexus between the illegal migrants and fundamental organisations on the one hand and between fundamental organisations and Pakistan's ISI on the other. The Tripura government told the court that it had pushed back 143,188 illegal migrants since 1971. The Times of India, September 21, 1999 and The Hindu, September 21, 1999.

12. Myron Weiner, "Security, stability and international migration", International Security, vol. 17, no. 3, winter 1992/93, pp. 91-126.

13. Omprakash Mishra, "Forced displacement in India's Northeast", in Bhattacharya and Das, n. 8, p. 117-32.

14. In December 1988 Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad said that his government is opposed to any Indian move to fence the borders and added: "It is not in the interest of the improvement of bilateral ties between the two neighbours. …It is not a good omen for bilateral ties and also not conducive to present initiatives on the creation of a South Asia Free Trade Area." Asian Recorder, January 22, 1999, p. 27856.

15. Verghese, n. 4, p. 336-37.

16. Ibid., p. 339.

17. This package was to strengthen infrastructure, especially power and communication. In Guwahati, he said. "We would take steps to repeal the ineffective laws and strengthen legal and administrative measures for dealing with foreigners in consultations with the states." The Hindu, October 28, 1996.

18. Samir Kumar Das, "Ethnic insurgencies in Northern India: A framework for analysis" in Pakistan, n. 10, pp. 37-59.

19. During the visit of Prime Minister Deve Gowda to Bangladesh in January 1997, an agreement was signed to activate a joint working group to combat insurgency in Northeast and Chittagong Hill Tracts. In November 1998, India and Bangladesh agreed to enforce a 1991 agreement on illegal immigration and the latter agreed that no one would be allowed to use its soil for anti-Indian activities. The Times of India, November 23, 1998.

20. In recent years Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh are relatively peaceful. However, the Mizo hills witnessed a prolonged phase of secessionist violence from the 1960's as the Mizo National Front (MNF) waged a secessionist war with the backing of Pakistan and China. A political settlement with the MNF in 1996 paved the way for normalcy. Meghalaya has been afflicted by extremist violence but this is no longer a major threat, yet a number of problem areas remain including the use of Meghalaya territory by the insurgents groups of the region for purpose of transit.