You are on page 1of 12

India's northeast, made up of seven states, is a mini-India in many respects.

It is home to several
religious communities and 200 of the 430 ethnic groups in the country A geographically and
politically isolated area, the Northeast is sandwiched by Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar
(formerly Burma) with only a narrow strip of land - likened to the chicken's neck - and two roads
linking it to the rest of the country. Once known simply as a collective; Assam, today the
northeast is divided into seven states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya,
Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. In contrast to the main body of India, much of the northeast is
sparsely populated but at the same time it is also ethnically more diverse with an estimated 25
percent of the northeast's 31 million inhabitants being members of aboriginal tribal groups as
compared with the rest of India, where this figure is about 7 percent.
Not only is the North-East a reflection of mini India it also mirrors nearly all the problems that
the rest of India suffers from including armed resistance, anti-immigrant movements and
secessionist movements . Armed resistance and secessionist movements in the highly sensitive
northeastern region of India have had a long and bitter history. Their origins can be traced to the
fact of a fiercely independent people suffering colonial exploitation firstly under the British Raj
and then having to suffer utter neglect by its successor, the Indian government. The history of the
northeast region of India is an extraordinary tale of a gentle, secular, tolerant people - multiracial,
multireligious, multi-ethnic, multicaste, multiclass and multilingual in composition - turning
completely distrustful of the proverbial "other", be he a foreigner or another local tribal or just a
resident of the plains.
What motivates these struggles in the North East region?
According to many scholars most of the struggles in the north-east are in reaction to the
homogenising trend of the dominant 'one state, one nation' thinking of the Indian state and the
prevailing tendency "to take the degree of Aryanization as the measure of Indianisation". In
attempting to turn itself into a “nation”, the Indian state has often failed to respect the cultural
and ethnic identities of different groups who are original residents of specific geographical areas
nor has it often recognized that the original residents could have a culture and a religion of their
own. Such an attitude on the part of the Indian state is what according to many has often resulted
in the original residents reacting and violently; to the effort by the state to homogenize cultures
and monopolize their livelihood. Thus unlike the conflicts that have characterized most other

also predominantly Bengali. support and vigor . rather than religion or caste. The fact has been that both politically and culturally. The movement in Assam differs very significantly from the secessionist movements in Nagaland with respect to the fact that historically the greater part of Naga inhabited territory had never been brought under British administrative control and thus the Naga’s. they should be given the choice to decide their future status. resulting in them asserting that since they were never a part of India. But the focus of this assignment is not on the separatist movement or ULFA. The same is not true for the state of Assam which has had centuries of socio-cultural links with the rest of the subcontinent and whose involvement in the freedom struggle has been of no small measure.that characterized the state. Assam thus borders a region with a huge Bengali population. after Chinese and Hindi speakers.Indian states. Rather the focus of this assignment is to understand the set of factors that gave rise to this militant separatism and motivated it to come about and sustains it. in effect this assignment seeks to trace the origins of today’s separatism to the anti-immigrant movement that gained much steam. has been the main factor in the ethnic conflicts that have plagued this part of the country. Assam’s western borders touch the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The great empires of the past never cultivated a more than nodding acquaintance with Assam.523 square kilometers of territory and is in both area and population among the smaller Indian states. Even in the . by virtue of their being relatively untouched by the freedom movement . from the late 1970’s onwards and preceded the secessionist struggle that one is more likely to associate the conflict in Assam with today . Assam is one of India's frontiers. Assam consists of nine districts containing 78. self-determination at various levels. consider themselves to be culturally and psychologically different from Indians . with the Bengalis constituting the third largest linguistic group in Asia. Militant separatism in the state of Assam has always presented a serious challenge to the nation building process and has always been a test case for Indian federalism. In the southwest is the small Indian state of Tripura. one that emerged in recent times. I in no way intend to reduce the prominence of the secessionist struggle in Assam or the ULFA but rather seek to give greater prominence to the sub nationalist struggle that characterized the state (revolving around the anti-migrant and antiforeigner issue) of which secessionism is only a more radical and militant form. barring Kashmir.

the British also encouraged them to gather wood and graze their cattle in what were common lands of the indigenous population creating tensions . Central India. ultimately resulting in Assam geographically being the easternmost limit of this process and historically the last to enter it. the continuous process of nation building that united the rest of the country under the banner of India and indianness was severely hampered by British subversion in Assam. The province included Sylhet district. With the independence movement catching steam throughout the rest of the country. Though previously Assam had successfully resisted Moghul domination nonetheless. The beginnings of the Assam problem can be traced to 1826 when the British conquered Assam. Orissa. Bihar. ending about four hundred years of independence. gradually extended its control over the entire northeast region and in 1838 Assam was incorporated into the Bengal Presidency. the economy of Assam was considered too poor and primitive to yield enough revenue even to garrison it. Even within Assam the process of Assamese nation building that went on under colonial and semi-colonial conditions began with historically determined weaknesses that were economical as well as cultural. Throughout the history of Assam this lack of political integration was the result of profound economic and social causes and whatever internalization of super-structural forms was attempted could never wholly transcend specific tribal and territorial qualities prevalent there. In 1874 the British separated Assam from Bengal and placed it under the control of a Chief Commissioner with its capital at Shillong. Not only were these workers segregated from the indigenous population. The British East India Company. a predominantly Bengali Muslim area most of which is now in Bangladesh.late Mughal period. Specifically the fusion of various tribes into one composite. These demographic changes brought about by the British are particularly important in understanding the state of conflict that today prevails in Assam as among these policies were (1) the British through various policies arrested or reversed the historical process through which the tribes In Assam were getting assimilated into the Assamese nation (2) the British imported lakhs of tribal workers from Bengal. in language and religion Assam was distinctly Indian with Assamese itself being an Indo-Aryan language. with its center in Calcutta. Sanskritised nation was very far from complete and imperialist agrarian policy and many important demographic changes brought about by the British exacerbated these weaknesses. the Madras Presidency and even the Bombay Presidency to work in the tea plantations set up by the British. Thus Assam was never politically integrated with the great north Indian empires prior to the advent of the British.

But the fact remained that despite all attempts by the British to the contradictory until about 1947. the British policy of importation of lakhs of Bengali peasants (mostly Muslims) to settle in the un-cultivated riverine tracts along the Brahmaputra resulted in the rise of severe tensions between the settlers and the indigenous population. and occupied flooded lowlands all along the river.that their own people would be turned into a minority in their home-land unless the Bengali Muslim peasants' incessant influx into the Brahmaputra Valley was checked.between the Assamese and the plantation workers and (3) Finally. on the fact that the Asamiyas were under-represented and Bengalis overrepresented in the services and professions in the province. They proudly recalled the sphinx like reappearance of their language after prolonged suppression during 1837-73. This resulted in the development of a strong Assamese intellectual tendency which saw the imperialists as saviors or at least as friends in the struggle against other Indians even as the British carried through policies which were either not helpful or positively harmful to the development of the Assamese nation. The Asamiya middle class believed . cleared vast tracts of dense jungle along the south bank of the Brahmaputra. Asamiya little nationalism was not a cudgel and there were no language or racial riots as there would be in the near future. The result of this was a problem of land.Soon the British were able to perceive the contradictory Anti-Imperialist and anti-non-Assamese aspects of Assamese nationalism and they naturally tried to destroy the former and encourage the latter. while at the same time also finding it convenient to identify the Bengali as the stumbling block in their way to progress and cultivating a sense of grievance against him. it was only when the Asamiya middle class emerged stronger and more ambitious than ever after Sylhet was shaken off its back during partition that the little nationalism that existed started degenerating into chauvinism and minority-baiting Subsequently the situation started to worsen when the demography of Assam further got skewed at the time of partition when large numbers of non-Assamese moved into and settled down in . Assam being more sparsely populated than East Bengal these Bengali Muslims reclaimed thousands of acres of land. this new influx rapidly changed the religious as well as linguistic composition of the state.and British civil servants encouraged them to do so . Though some Muslims had settled in Assam as early as the thirteenth century. Ultimately the Asamiya (indigenous Assamese) raised the cry of the Asamiya nationality and their cultural foothold being in danger with a view to mobilizing the peasant masses behind them. This grievance was based. In the next two decades the Muslim migrants moved further up the Brahmaputra valley. amongst others.

and pressed for the use of Assamese as the medium of instruction in schools. established a policy of giving preference to "sons of the soil" (i. won control over the government of the newly formed state of independent India. the All Assam Students Union (AASU) launched a movement to make the Asamiya language as the medium of instruction up to graduate level in addition to existing English language. There was even a point where immediately after gaining independence in the period of partition Nehru had to hold out the threat of cutting off financial aid to Assam to force the Congress government in power there to accept hundreds and thousands of Bengali Hindu refugees from the newly created East Pakistan . . The few Asamiyas who died in the violence were elevated to the status of 'martyrs’ even as the violence and its consequent displacement of Bengali Hindus were ignored silently. Assamese) in employment in the state administrative services. particularly the Assamese Hindu middle class. For the first time in a hundred and fifty years the Assamese were back in power. In 1947 the Assamese. But this violence did not succeed in stemming the inflow of immigrants. Subsequently the Assamese-dominated government of Assam made Assamese the official language of the state. The situation was compounded in 1947 and after. They used that control to assert the supremacy of Assamese cultural identity and to seek economic and social equality in relation to the Bengali Hindu middle classes-their rivals for jobs in the administrative services. and universities. even the Hindu Bengalis were not spared in this onslaught of violence and terror that engulfed the Brahmaputra Valley.. state boundaries were moved. The supremacy of the Assamese also found expression in another way with riots soon breaking out all over the state against Bengalis with the rioters demanding that Assamese be made the sole medium of education in schools and colleges. colleges. appointed Assamese teachers in the schools. in the professions. In these struggles ethnic coalitions were formed and dissolved. Not only the Muslim Bengalis. and in the private sector.e.Assam particularly from East Pakistan. and the central government was called upon by various groups within Assam for support or protection. Worst hit at these times were the Bengali Muslims many of whom were deported as Pakistani infiltrators or had to vote for Assamese as their native tongue – a census enumerator. In 1972.With partition and independence Assamese Hindus became the sole majority in most regions of Assam though not the absolute majority. The victims of displacement remained virtually 'invisible' whereas the victory of the emerging Asamiya nationalism was highlighted visibly in the Asamiya press.

especially the rich. implicitly agreeing to the deportation of all immigrants since then. of a huge influx of Bangladeshis and their assorted crimes.1 During the many meetings held between the Assamese leaders and the Government of India in New Delhi in the following years. While detailing how the indigenous people of Tripura and Sikkim had been overwhelmed by a flood of outsiders . particularly through the press. . and the situation started to worsen with increasing instances of conflict between the indigenous population and the immigrants and increasing instances of such continuing conflicts that reached very violent proportions. Two political groups. The reality is a section of the population in Assam. would in effect confer citizenship upon them and that was the very issue that was in dispute between the Assamese and India's central government. declared they would boycott the elections since the electoral lists contained the names of large numbers of people who had entered the country illegally.7 million in 1979. In fact they had nothing to do with the threat posed to the country from “foreigners”. to depict to the people of indigenous people of Assam that they are in danger from “outsiders” . the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP). Despite this one can say that the true circumstances that accelerated the rise of anti immigrant tendencies on previously unprecedented scales in Assam can be traced to a set of events that happened from 1979 onwards. Allowing these people to vote. trying desperately to assert their hegemony by whipping up traditional fears. But they rejected the demand that those who entered between 1961 and 1971 be deported or dispersed to other states. What particularly alarmed the Assamese was the growth in the number of registered voters-from 6. The immediate circumstances for the violence of 1979 were as follows: The Government of India announced that elections would be held from 14 to 21 February for the Assam state legislative assembly and for 12 unfilled parliamentary seats.Over the next few years more and more people started to move into settle down in Assam particularly as a result of riots against Hindus in East Pakistan . The Assamese demanded that all who entered the state from Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) after 1961 be expelled from the state and that their names be expunged from the electoral rolls. Though many scholars would refuse to admit it the factors responsible for the demands that were placed above were multifold. the central government agreed to a March 1971 cutoff date to determine de facto citizenship.3 million in 1972 to 8. they said.

it will be impossible for the latter to retain the lion's share of the loot from the state. tribals. supporters of the pro-poll Plains Tribal Council of Assam. sticks. On 14 February Boro tribals. Leaders of the AASU and the AAGSP who had taken part in negotiations with the central government were also arrested. containing thousands of Muslim migrants from Mymensingh district in Bangladesh. It was evidently this stalemate that led Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to call elections in Assam in the hope that a new political leadership would emerge with which she could negotiate. government offices. and guns. . and even police stations. The central government's decision to call elections polarized Assam. The elections were supported by the two major Bengali speaking communities . immigrants who have come from Bangladesh (East Pakistan) since 1947 and many who came from that area earlier. The elections were also supported by the Plains Tribal Council of Assam (PTCA) consisting of indigenous tribals known as Boro. At first there were attacks by Assamese against bridges. Thousands of state government employees who boycotted the elections and refused to obey government orders were arrested. Mobs of Lalung tribals.these vested interests are attempting to hide the fact that the real secret behind such mindless ecstasies on their part is really in fact the fear that if the Muslims and other groups team up and reduce the Assamese Hindu legislators to a minority in the Assembly. and the descendants of Bengalis who have been entering Assam since the middle of the nineteenth century and earlier. and polling agents had to be brought in from other states. Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims. attacked Assamese villages at Gohpur in Darrang district inciting retaliatory Assamese attacks against Boro villages that quickly followed. especially the Lalung. who resented the encroachment of Bengali immigrants into tribal tracts along the southern bank of the Brahmaputra river. and retaliation by the police. and Bengalis. The Assamese opposed the elections. What thus began as an issue of illegal immigration soon grew to a broader conflict among Assamese. swords. But the worst killings took place in Nellie. who advocate the creation of an autonomous territory in the Boro populated regions of the state in order to resist what they describe as the Assamization policy of the state government. a region along the southern bank of the Brahmaputra. 45 kilometers from Gauhati. attacked the village of Nellie and several nearby villages with spears. Both communities contain migrants from the Indian state of West Bengal. So did some of the indigenous tribal groups. along with some Assamese.

mostly women and children. and thousands more fled to West Bengal. Though Mrs. Elections could not be completed for seven of the 12 parliamentary seats. The voter turnout was well above 50 percent in pre-dominantly Bengali speaking constituencies and as high as 70 percent in several Boro populated constituencies. left over 1. 1983. and in one constituency the election had to be countermanded because a candidate was murdered. The focus of most of the Assamese parties that boycotted the elections was simply with reducing the number of Bengali voters. Officials estimate the death toll at Nellie. This was followed by another massacre that took place at Silapathar in Lakhimpur district. Gohpur.000 people were in refugee camps. Another 280. All the victims were Non Asamiya Muslims. The implications for Bengalis of Indian citizenship of scrutinizing the electoral rolls did not trouble these Assamese. believing that elimination of Bengali competitors and non-Assamese settlers from the fertile Brahmaputra . Subsequently with the governments resigning. and other affected areas at more than 4.000. But in the Assamese-populated constituencies the turnout was low: in some 25 constituencies less than 5 percent of the electorate voted and in another 20 constituencies the turnout was between 5 and 20 percent. Gandhi's Congress Party won (90 out of 108 declared seats). it was followed by the massacre at Choulkhowa Chapori in Darrang district where the victims belonged to the same group as that of Nellie. and therefore they advocated measures that did not distinguish carefully between Bengalis from West Bengal and Bengalis from Bangladesh. Undoubtedly. In this atmosphere of violence the state elections could not be completed in 16 out of the 126 constituencies. Nellie was not the end. who were depressed with economic stagnation in the state . Simultaneously the bourgeois-landlord chauvinists of Assam. the boycott successfully prevented the emergence of a popularly elected Congress government that could negotiate with the center on behalf of the Assamese. butchered to death.200 people. the reelection in 1983 and the period of the Hiteshwar Saikia government that followed. Assam saw a radical transformation in the movement with the rise of the demand for secessionism and the call for the establishment of an independent Assam by more militant elements who had started to come to the forefront.The attacks carried out On February 12. accompanied by rapid inroads being made by the ULFA. the Nellie massacre is considered to be one of the single largest and severest pogroms that the postsecond world war history has witnessed.

lent all-out support to the movement and braved the police lathis and bullets. further aggravating the anti-immigrant violence that already characterized the state at his time. in general. But the Assamese people in Brahmaputra valley. A government that had come to power on the foreigners issue found itself unable to find many foreigners whom it could deport and soon faced confrontations from within the Assamese communities and groups that had previously constituted its support base. it is also necessary to understand that the solution that is being demanded by the movement is politically unrealistic.valley was crucial to maintaining their continued monopoly over the lower classes. . a political party floated by the leaders of Assam agitation. While the People's demand that Assam should not be burdened with further immigration from foreign lands and that all genuine foreigners. a mere agency of Bengali expansionism in eastern India. who really believed that their identity was at stake due to large scale migration from Bangladesh. are opposed to the aspirations of the Asamiyas. the Assamese found their hopes shattered. justifying it on grounds of nationality. skillfully used the press and other communication media to create an impression amongst the politically backward sections of the people that the Bengalis. The AGP government could not solve any of the basic problems of the people of Assam but the new leaders proved that they were as inefficient and corrupt as their predecessors had been. Conclusion: Though the fact cannot be denied that there has been significant degrees of immigration into Assam from India and from outside India over the years since independence that has brought about significant demographic and other changes within the state. federalism and internal colonialism. as a community. who do not substantively qualify for citizenship in terms of law and Constitution. At the same time it was apparent that the Bangladeshis were not the only targets of the agitators. The agitation continued for about five years and came to an end with the Assam Accord in 1985. Many Assamese intellectuals too at this time lent support to the movement. hence ratifying some of the concerns posed by the Assam Movement. the parliament' passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) for detection of the foreigners settled in Assam. came to power in the elections in 1986. Subsequently the Assam Gana Parishad (AGP). But within a few years. that they are all leftists and that all leftists in Assam are. it appeared as if the Assamese had won the battle. After an all party agreement. With the Assam Accord and the victory of AGP.

should be detected and removed is legitimate (It was accepted in principle by the Central government and all major Indian political parties by September 1979 and has been an acceptance they have reiterated again and again ) Yet the dispute lingers on because the movement refuses to admit even those immigrants who have stayed for. Secondly from the time the Assam government attempted to impose the Assamese language.and whose parents or grandparents were born in undivided India thus substantively qualifying themselves for naturalized citizenship as provided for by our Constitution. the much claimed struggle against exploitative Indian state or indifferent central government ends up as fratricidal conflicts with other communities living in the state. Finally the movement has resulted in the rise of militancy by provoking national and ethnic identities. the experience of Assam shows that identity politics need not necessarily be progressive or a radical politics of the marginalized communities against the domination of hegemonizing forces. Far from supporting the so called anti-foreigners movement. the Bengali citizens in the Barak valley started looking at every move of the people in Brahmaputra valley with suspicion and caution. it pits one community against the other and mobilizes the people along ethnic lines. . fighting imaginary enemies. Therefore Contrary to what the postmodernists would make us believe. the leaders in the Barak valley criticized the ongoing attacks on the Bengali students and their agitation took the form of a student’s agitation for a separate central university in the Barak valley. ten years or more in India or are born in India . These militants are responsible for wanton and gruesome acts of murder and destruction and through their actions have not only forced the state to clamp down upon them with significant force but also alienated the public against them and their cause. if unchecked. Hence it is more apt to say that the politics of identity in Assam is basically the politics of philistines. The attacks on the Bengalis during the Assam agitation has only helped in further widening the gulf between the people of Brahmaputra valley and the Barak valley. could lead to the disintegration of the state as it exists today itself. It draws its strength from prejudices and misconceptions of groups about themselves and others . Thirdly the movement has resulted in the reassertion of ethnic identities that have aggravated intra ethnic fears and prejudices resulting in exasperated inter and intra ethnic tensions in the state that.Its ideology masquerades class exploitation and ignores the material structures and forces responsible for their problems. trapped in the world of appearances. which subsequently 'materialized in the year 1994. More often than not. Feeding on the fear of the 'other'.

Mazumder. 5. “The state and separatist militancy in Assam:Winning a battle and losing the war”. Feb 2001. No 47. Sourced from: http://www. Vol 15.jstor. P4: 1533.org/stable/2644966 6.http://www. 3. Nov 2000.org/stable/4408734 10. Pp : 4117-4119+4121.Bibliography: 1. Hiren. Srikanth. Vol 15.org/stable/4375330 . Vol 20. Economic and political weekly. Sourced from: http://www. Lily. Pp:863-877. H. Amalendu. Vol 35. Vol 21.No 30. Vol 60. Sourced from : http://www. “ conflict in northeast: a historical perspective”. Oct 1994. No 32.org/stable/4377333 4.org/stable/4374698. “Militancy and identity politics in Assam”. Pp:13691370. Economic and political weekly. No 51. No 41/43. P 1246. Oct 1980. Economic and political weekly. Economic and Political weekly. Christophe. Baruah.org/stable/4409978. Pp 282-284. Sourced from: Http://www. Sanjib. Economic and political weekly.jstor. “Assam accord”. Feb 1986. Vol 22. “Assam and underdevelopment”. March 1980.jstor. Vol 34. No 37. “Little Nationalism Turned Chauvinist: Assam's Anti-Foreigner Upsurge. Vol 15. Gauhati. Baruah. Aug 1987.org/stable/4368418 7. “Lessons of Assam”. Sourced from: http://www. “tribal movement for autonomous state in Assam”.jstor. Sep 1980. “Assam: turn for worse”. Pp 3579-3582. Prasanta. 1979-80”. Sourced from: http://www.jstor. Sanjib. Pp255-256.jstor. Pp:1329-1332. Sourced from: http://www.org/stable/4369155 2. Economic and political weekly. No 10. Vol 15. Hussain. Bara. Sourced from: http://www. “Assam movement”. Review of “India against itself: Assam and the politics of nationality by Sanjib Baruah”. Walter.jstor. Sourced from: http://www.No 9. P:453. July 1980.org/stable/2659568 11. No 33. Aug 1985. Dec 1999. Vol 34. Sourced from: http://www.4124. Asian Survey. Economic and political weekly.org/stable/4368884 9.jstor. No 7. Monirul. The journal of Asian studies. Economic and political weekly. Guha.org/stable/4369062 8. Fernandes.No 1.jstor.jstor. Jafrelot. Sourced from .jstor. Economic and political weekly.

Nag. Nov 2000. Pp 1521-1532. sajal.12. No 29/30. Pp58-62.org/stable/3516861 14.org/stable/4368937 . Sharma K . “militancy and identity politics in Assam”. Srikanth. Nov 1982.M. Economic and political weekly. Sourced from: http://www. Pp4117-4119+4121-4124. Sourced from : http://www. “Multiplication of nations: political economy of subnationalism in India”. No 4. Vol 28.No 11. Vol 10. Sourced from: http://www. Jul 1993. Vol 35. H. “once more on the Assam movement”.”The Assam question: a historical perspective”.org/stable/4399965 15. Sourced from http://www. Pp 1321-1324.org/stable/4409978 13. Aug 1980.jstor. Economic and political weekly.jstor. Economic and political weekly. Hiren .jstor.jstor. Gohain. Vol 15.No 31. Social scientist.