Lack of development in the North-eastern part of India ― a historical legacy

By: Prapanna Lahiri

India’s northeast, now consisting of 8 (eight) states, Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim, is a fascinating region of this vast and varied country. Initially the region was known by the sobriquet ‘Land of Seven Sisters’ consisting of seven contiguous states as listed above barring Sikkim which began to be counted within North East India after the state was made part of India in May, 1975. The northeast has in store some real surprises for a visitor to this farthest brink of the country. Obscured from the greater world by ageless forests and formidable mountain range, it is in many ways a land of the greatest unknowns and remains one of the most unexplored regions of Asia. Liberally endowed with nature’s bounty, this region of the northeast boasts of breathtakingly scenic undulating hills and luxuriant green covered plains, hosting a wide variety of rare flora and fauna.

Historical perspective: Delving into the history of the region one comes to know that this is the only region, to come later under British rule, which never formed part of the Mughal Empire save the plains of the erstwhile princely state of Tripura. Assam the major state of the region had the distinction of being ruled by the longest ever running dynasty on Indian soil, the Ahom dynasty that reigned on for almost 600 years successfully resisting attempts at making Mughal inroads into Assam. The Ahom rulers ruled Assam and Manipur from 1228 A.D. till the first Burmese invasion of 1817 followed by two others that continued up to 1826 heralding Burmese rule of Assam and Manipur, a period of severe depredation of the region. The state was finally annexed into British India in 1826 following the First Anglo-Burmese war.

Fissiparous tendencies in the northeast: In a way most of northeast India forming part of Indian Union was accidental. Unlike in other parts of mainland India which were unified culturally and politically even in the pre-colonial era by a kind of homogeneity formed by caste dependent Hindu societal structures and the overall Hindu ethos, the society of the hill people of the multi-ethnic Northeast with their diverse social alignments and tribal identities presented a disjointed cultural milieu. For historical reasons, the cultural hue of the more Sanskritised Assamese community speaking an Indo-Aryan language and that of the Hindu Vaishnavite Meiteis of Manipur were different from the other north-eastern communities which were mostly tribes. With the kind of socio political integration existing in mainland India, the subjugation to colonial rule further unified the society for its emancipation. The situation in Assam was not quite the same, as simmering apprehension of extinction of Assamese nationalism built over centuries encouraged secessionist tendencies later exploited by movements like the ones started by ULFA. In Manipur too, despite existence of a Hindu Viashnavite tradition the Meitei community was suspicious of overall Hindu cultural imperialism.

Colonial Era: Moreover, the advent of the colonial rule in the region did not help the integration process either. The British after gaining control of the area embarked on a policy of isolating the hill people from the main-stream of Indian life by introducing Inner Line Permit system ostensibly to protect their culture and way of life from influence of the plains people. At the same time this inner line system successfully prevented cementing of any relationship between the hills people and the plainsmen in economic, social and cultural fields. Factually speaking, the inner line regulation marked the beginning of the isolation of the Northeast. After independence Nehru spoke of a policy of making the people of this region feel “…they have perfect freedom to lead their own lives and to develop according to their own wishes and genius…” He assured them that India besides being a protecting force shall also be a liberating one, in so far as customs and habits which they are unfamiliar with will not be imposed on them. The first Chief Minister of Assam Gopinath Bordoloi too ensured that special provisions related to the hill areas were included in the sixth schedule of the constitution of independent India. He also took measures for intermixing of the hills and the plains people through socio-cultural activities.

Insurgency: Despite these positive efforts and pronouncements, fissiparous tendencies continued to develop owing to factors ranging from desire for self expression, perception of injustice and discriminations, aspirations of small time politicians, unequal development of states and role of Christian evangelists. Nagas who are fiercely independent people were the first to raise the flag of revolt. This gave birth to South Asia’s longest running guerrilla campaign. The Naga National Council (NNC) formed in 1946 initially demanded autonomy within undivided Assam. But on the eve of Indian independence the NNC under A.Z. Phizo suddenly declared independence for the Nagas choosing a path of conflict with the Indian state. The NNC later split and the breakaway faction, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) emerged as the new spearhead for the rebel movement. Additionally, the demand of the Nagas for ‘Nagalim’ (Greater Nagaland) is a thorn in the solution of the vexed Naga imbroglio. The demand infringes on the territorial integrity of neighbouring states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal, as Nagas began claiming large areas these states inhabited by their tribes to be made part of the proposed entity of Nagalim.

In neighbouring Manipur too, there were revolutionary movements which opposed Manipur’s merger with India. Particularly, the youth of Manipur resented the way Manipur, a princely state with a constitution and an elected Assembly of its own, was annexed into the Indian Union. Disgruntlement with this merger on allegedly derogatory terms gave birth to several separatist groups that led to a fierce spell of urban and semi–urban guerrilla warfare in the Imphal valley. Insurgency continued for over four decades from the eighties making Manipur even today the most insurgency ridden violent state in India’s northeast.

The demand of the inhabitants of the Mizo district of erstwhile Assam state for a separate entity led by organisations like ‘Mizo Union’ later turned into armed uprising for a sovereign state driven by a more radical outfit the Mizo National Front. The rebellion was suppressed by Military operation in the sixties. Finally the Union Territory of Mizoram was curved out from Assam in 1972 and later given statehood in 1987 after a peace accord with rebels was signed in 1986. Here it is important to mention that the hilly state of Sikkim though included in the northeast has been free from insurgency and its resulting ills.

Immigration: Another important factor that triggered conflict in the northeast is unbridled immigration into the region from densely populated East Bengal (now Bangladesh). This gave rise to fears of minoritization amongst the region’s indigenous ethnic groups. A classic instance this fear emanated from the situation obtaining in Tripura where demography got changed within two decades making Bengalis a powerful majority, enabling them to assume political power. Other North-eastern states going the Tripura way is a fear that haunts minds of the indigenous people.

The role of the Christian Missionaries: Christianity started spreading among the hill population of the region, mainly concentrated in the three Christian majority states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. With British rule establishing itself in the hills of the Northeast, spread of Christianity also took off. British rule did not happen at one go and it took time to consolidate. Likewise, Christianity too spread among hill tribes in phases starting with the tribes of Meghalaya, the Nagas and Mizos in 1830s, 1872 and 1894 respectively. From the arrival of British rule to the onset of insurgency in these areas, the existing religions i.e. Animism among the hill tribes and primarily Hinduism of the plainsmen of the region, failed to foster the desired unity and co-operation among these two types of population. Barring the Meiteis of Manipur who converted to Hinduism in the 18th century under a local ruler, religions and culture of India failed to influence the inhabitants of the northeast. Circumventing of Indian culture among the hill tribes was to an extent instrumental for the lack of brotherly feelings between the people of hills of the region and the rest of the country. What political rule of the British could not deliver to the hill people was delivered much more by the Christian missionaries. They transformed basic lives of the hill folks by improving their community health, hygiene and education. Greatest impact was felt in the field of education by introduction of Roman script in Nagaland and Mizoram, since the Nagas and the Mizos did not have a script of their own. Christianity proved to be a unifying force to bind people together. The flip side to all this was that Christianity moulded the population towards a culture alien to India’s own, by opening their eyes towards western civilization. There were allegations, not without reason though, that Christian missionaries sought to instil a fear in the minds of the tribals that the Hindus of India are out to destroy their age old customs and traditions, obliterate their separate identity and thereby dominate them. By imparting English education in convents and missionary colleges, they tried to allure them towards materialistic western culture and wean them away from the national mainstream, encouraging demands for a separate nationhood. These allegations were bolstered by the fact that the areas where the missionaries carried out their work, insurgency got a boost like in Naga Hills, Mizo Hills, hilly parts of Assam, and Tripura.

Constraints of development of infrastructure and connectivity: The most critical element of the northeast is its connectivity with mainland India. What connects the North-eastern states with mainland India is the chicken’s neck also called the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow stretch of land situated in the state of West Bengal. This slender link-corridor sandwiched between Nepal and Bangladesh is about 21 km wide. Sikkim and Bhutan are to the north of this strategic corridor. The geographical location of the northeast is equally strategic as it borders on four countries, namely, China and Bhutan on its North; Myanmar on its East; and Bangladesh on its South and West.

There are serious challenges for Infrastructure development of the North-eastern Region:

  1. Poor connectivity with the rest of the country is a challenge. Difficult terrain within the region makes maintenance of road connectivity arduous. Development of transportation and communication linkages is lopsided being concentrated in the upper Brahmaputra valley only.
  2. Small and widely dispersed habitations make connectivity and delivery of services difficult.
  3. Railway network is very thin owing to geographical and sometimes, strategic reasons. However, projects are underway for extension of railway tracks to all the state capitals or to points nearest to the state capitals by 2020.
  4. Bilateral arrangement with Bangladesh is yet to be worked out for the proposed Agartala-Kolkata rail link through Akhaura and Dhaka (in Bangladesh) which will shorten the distance by nearly 1100 Km. Similar inland waterway links are also possible through that country but are yet to be implemented.
  5. There are security concerns with India’s international neighbours that hinder extension of telecom and other infrastructure facilities to the International border.

Socio-Political and economic factors of underdevelopment: Besides the prevalence of factors affecting growth of the national economy there are some unique features to this region that have stifled economic well-being of specifically this region. These unique features, primarily related to the long standing socio-political unrest prevailing in this area are: ―

  1. Economic activities got concentrated in select pockets. This resulted in vast areas remaining inaccessible and backward even to this day.
  2. Revenue from tea and oil made urban centres prosperous while the rural hinterland being overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture remained poor.
  3. Lack of infrastructure has impeded industrialisation while industrialisation could not materialise owing to poor infrastructure. It is a vicious circle.
  4. Widespread and prolonged socio-political conflict situation resulted in economic destruction and social disorganisation.
  5. Steady flow of central funds into the hands of the local elite including local political leadership has indirectly discouraged local initiatives to raise funds for economic rejuvenation of the region.
  6. Inadequate economic infrastructure like transportation, communications and market accessibility stood in the way of industrialisation, even in the small scale sector.
  7. Insurgency, in more ways than one, has become the easiest, sustainable less risky and expanding industry of the entire northeast barring Sikkim.
  8. Large quantities of development funds landed in the kitty of the insurgents as they cornered most of the contracts and supply orders.
  9. Primitive farming like slash and burn (jhum cultivation) is still being practised in the hilly areas of the region. Single cropping pattern in the plains failed to produce enough food grain for even for local consumption.
  10. Elected representatives of the people are not responsible and accountable to the electorates but are answerable to the insurgents, who manage their winning.
  11. Food stuff and essential supplies from government are siphoned off by the insurgents and the poor people suffer.
  12. Despite business summits very few investors are willing to invest in the given disturbed scenario and employment opportunities for the youth are not created.
  13. Businesses and enterprises fail because of frequent extortions by insurgents.
  14. There is heavy exodus of students from this region for education in other parts of India resulting in big outflow of funds.

Considering all the above aspects of insurgency in the region the truth that comes out is ― insurgency as a consequence of poor developmental performance of local and central governance has now become the cause of the economic backwardness of the region. To break this vicious cycle of violence and to provide a semblance of good governance in the region, it is worth considering the prescription given in a research essay ‘Rethinking Delhi’s Northeast India Policy’ written by a research associate, Bethany Lacina of International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. It says “Only concerted efforts to establish the rule of law, a system of accountability and faith in the formal institutions of governance can break the cycle of violence.” This is of utmost importance as it concerns the destiny of the GenNext of Northeast India and the security of the Nation. The true potential of the northeast may be fully realised if it becomes the eastern gateway for meaningful implementation of the Government of India’s “Look East policy’ that envisages efforts to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia and China.




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