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Community, Authenticity, and Autonomy: Insurgence and Institutional Development in India's Northeast

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Abstract

Reports from india's northeastern states—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura—rarely deal with the positive aspects of their institutional development processes. The national media mainly concentrates on the disquieting stories of unrest, insurgence, and violence. The negative portrait of this region offered by both the press and scholarly studies in India and abroad must be distressing for the people of the Northeastern region. This paper suggests that an excessive preoccupation with violence and a narrow reading of the implications of insurgent violence on the part of the observers are responsible for a substantial misunderstanding of the Northeastern political processes. As a result, the positive aspects of community formation, the linkage of communities in wider political institutions as parts of the Northeastern administration and representative systems, and the contribution of these processes to the national systems remain largely unexplored. The history of insurgence is rarely narrated in the context of an equally long history of peace, social collaboration, political reconciliation, democratic participation, and innovations in institution-building and sustenance. Even the received narrative of violence is deeply flawed due to its frequent inability to attend to the possible rationality of forced desperation, and its insensitivity to the long-term constructive implications of many anti-authority struggles.

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... Previous studies on autonomy and conflict management in Northeast India have focused on a set of analytical and descriptive single-case studies whereby insights from disparate case studies are used to either apply or build broader theoretical explanations. Baruah's (1999Baruah's ( , 2003Baruah's ( , 2005Baruah's ( , 2020 magisterial studies and the works by Chaube (1999), Barbora (2005), Dasgupta (1997), Lacina (2009), Mahanta (2013), Saikia et al. (2016), Samaddar (2005), Singh (2004), Sonntag (1999) and Stuligross (1999), inter alia, belong to this category. Unlike this category, the second category of works use paired-case analytical studies with an overarching theoretical framework to explain differential outcomes of autonomy. ...
... Interestingly, Bodo mobilization in the 1950s and 60s was confined to the elite segments and was never driven by an explicit and popular statehood demand. Like the past their mobilization for 'full autonomy within the Constitution of India' for the plain tribal areas of Assam in 1969 and subsequent demand for Union Territory in the 1970s was spearheaded by a loose umbrella organization called the Plains Tribals' Council of Assam (PTCA), a forum formed in 1967 (Dasgupta, 1997;Saikia et al., 2016). ...
... Unlike the Bodo, the tribal groups in these areas never embarked upon a powerful armed movement nor sustained popular mobilizations for Statehood or self-rule. But because the three Bodo Accords were signed exclusively with Bodo organizations and sidelined non-Bodo tribal/non-tribal majority groups in Bodoland means the three Accords entailed inconsequential power-sharing arrangements with the latter (Bhattacharyya, 2019;Bhattacharyya et al., 2017;Dasgupta, 1997;Mahanta, 2013;Saikia et al., 2016;Wilson, 2016). This has not only unleashed insecurity and fear among the non-Bodo groups but also instability and conflicts in Bodoland as non-Bodo groups began to politically assert and mobilize themselves. ...
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... Bodo generically designates the Boro-Kachari tribal people inhabiting the plains on the northern shores of the Brahmaputra river in the west of the Indian state of Assam (Dasgupta, 1997). 10 The Bodo tribes have felt discriminated and aggrieved by the Assamese state, as well as threatened by Muslim Bengali and tea-tribe 11 migrants. ...
... Thus, the agreement has been durable. Yet, in the years 1996 to 1998, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, not party to the agreement, as well as the newly created Bodoland Liberation Tiger Forces continued the armed struggle for full independence (Dasgupta, 1997;Bhaumik, 2000). This short overview leads to the analysis of the four favourable conditions in Bodoland. ...
... However, eventually the BAC comprises 38 percent of Bodo population, because many non-Bodo villages have been included in the BAC in order to create a contiguous entity (Chadha, 2005). In particular, the inclusion of tea plantations implies that tea-tribes, but also Bengali immigrants and Assamese form a large part of the BAC population (Dasgupta, 1997;Shimray, 2006). Exact figures cannot be provided for the operationalisation. ...
... The extension of autonomy provisions in the form of special constitutional rights has a long history in India. Scholarly studies have examined this within the broad literature of federalism (Dasgupta, 1997;Ghai, 2000;Hausing, 2014;Stepan, Linz, & Yadav, 2011;Tillin, 2013). Other studies have approached it within the rubric of subnational movements and hence examine it as a tension between pan-Indian nationalism and regionalism (Baruah, 1999;Guha, 1982;Phadnis, 1989). ...
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Chapter
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Chapter
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... The brave new world for many locals was Dimapur, Imphal, or Shillong rather than the distant mainland cities. As federal states were created in different phases (Dasgupta 1997), what Sanjib Baruah refers to as 'cosmetic federalism' (2003b), new jobs opened in towns and cities, especially in the civil service where reservations increased local employment in white collar jobs. Furthermore, as ethno-nationalism took hold in many Northeast polities, migrants from the merchant and working classes were chased out of towns and cities, opening space in the labour market for rural folk. ...
... The extension of autonomy provisions in the form of special constitutional rights has a long history in India. Scholarly studies have examined this within the broad literature of federalism (Dasgupta, 1997;Ghai, 2000;Hausing, 2014;Stepan, Linz, & Yadav, 2011;Tillin, 2013). Other studies have approached it within the rubric of subnational movements and hence examine it as a tension between pan-Indian nationalism and regionalism (Baruah, 1999;Guha, 1982;Phadnis, 1989). ...
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... Linguistic differences were cited as the reason to divide greater Punjab in 1966 into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. 6 During the years of 1969-1987 the northeastern region was divided into six states: Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh (DasGupta 1998;Baruah 1999). In May 1987, the former Union Territory of Goa was granted state standing (Rubinoff 1992). ...
... Owing to its strategic location, the region is viewed as a buffer zone and represents a national security concern. The last few decades have witnessed the progressive multiplication of armed insurgent groups in Northeast India (Dasgupta, 1997;Lacina, 2009). Escalating conflict combined with the distrust engendered by the Sino-Indian border war in 1962 amplified the Indian government's security concerns. ...
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... In both European-settler and non-European democratic states, the concept of indigenousness can often be rendered problematic by the notion of "local community" that also claims distinctive cultural traditions and longstanding attachment to place (cf. Dasgupta 1997;Fortmann 1990;Katzenstein 1979;Kingsbury 1998). Although these discursive strategies neither guarantee entry into nor ensure active involvement in the policy process, they do have the effect of making the exercise of state control over resource allocation and management more complicated and fraught with political tension. ...
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... British administrator-ethnographer John Henry Hutton collected the following tale from a storyteller of the Angami Naga ª tribeº in about 1914. The Nagas live in mountainous northeastern India on the Myanmar (Burma) border, far removed from the locales of the preceding legends; the Indian Government created a separate state named ª Nagalandº in 1963 (Dasgupta 1997, 347± 9 and 357± 8). ª Nagaº was adopted as a group self-identity by these diverse peoples, ® rst to organise resistance against the British and later to resist the independent Indian and Burmese states (van Schendel 1995, 422 note 63). ...
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... Although Bodos wish to have a separate autonomous province of their own they are nevertheless 'positively interested in Indian national cohesion'. 38 The non-Bodo majority Ahom in Assam, however, oppose such a move. 39 If the Indian state gives into the demands of the Bodos then it risks terrible backlash from the feared ultra-Assamese nationalist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which has extensive links with India's unfriendly neighbours and receives their support. ...
... The BLT and the already existing militant Bodo Security Force (later called the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB)) both tried to force more internal cohesion through violence and this erupted into open conflict between the two groups. The mid-1990s saw an increase in violence associated with autonomy demands and a general escalation of demands in the face of the impotent BAC (Dasgupta 1997). The BLT sought the creation of a state within India, while the NDFB advocated for total independence. ...
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Chapter
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This paper deals with a number of questions relating to politics based on “ethnicity” or community belonging among “tribal” or indigenous peoples in India's northeastern region. In particular, I probe the complex question of indigenous peoples’ right to self‐determination, a right that most indigenous organizations in the world regard as crucial and that is central to the UN draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Autonomy or self‐determination, in one form or another, is on the agenda of more or less all mobilized communities in Northeast India. In multi‐ethnic contexts, however, it is not easy to translate such demands into viable political solutions. By discussing several different cases, the contemporary Bodoland movement, the Naga struggle for sovereignty, and the mobilization of the Rabha people, the paper brings the issue of indigenous politics in India into focus.
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Insurgency in Northeast India has long been explained as an outcome of poverty and isolation that in turn produces further poverty and militancy. In order to break this cycle and achieve ‘peace and prosperity’, the Indian Government released North Eastern Region Vision 2020 in July 2008 – a comprehensive policy agenda to achieve ‘peace and prosperity’ in the Northeast. This is to be realised through deeper economic and political engagement with neighbouring countries and a ‘paradigm shift in development strategy’ that will be simultaneously more participatory and more infrastructure intensive. This paper argues that in practice the political manifestations of increased regional engagement are contradictory. Each measure designed to break the region's isolation is countered by measures to maintain control of borders, trade, and the movement of people. At the heart of this new development vision is a re-visioning of counter-insurgency underpinned by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). Far from signalling a new era in the region, the measures contained in this new development vision appear more likely to exacerbate the grievances of people in the region and reinforce the ways the region has been governed through five decades of counter-insurgency.
Article
Bodoland, located in western Assam, has been a theatre for insurgencies since the mid 1980s. Too often, migration has been the paradigmatic framework to analyse not only this, but most conflicts, raging in Assam. In this article we argue that migration in itself is insufficient to understand the problems in Bodoland. Instead, we focus on forestry and tea estates, and contend that they, forming important restrictive structures, caused tribal entrapment, finally leading to violence. Moreover, we claim that during the conflict a shift in control over these structures occurred, changing the livelihood arithmetic of the involved communities. Finally, we discuss both the restraints and opportunities of the BTC/BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Council/Bodoland Territorial Administrative District)—the result of the peace process—and warn that the escape from entrapment for the Bodo could lead to the entrapment of other communities in the area.
Article
Since the 1990s, the upsurge of multiple “sons-of-the-soil” conflicts all over the world has reopened academic debate about the rise of nativism, the role of ethnicity, and the alleged crisis of citizenship within the postcolonial state. Often the renewed claim for belonging versus exclusion under the vernacular of “autochthony” is seen as a reactionary attempt to counter the de-rooting of identity within the neoliberal globalizing context. This article makes the case that at the base of many homeland disputes lie too powerfully territorialized (ethnic) identities and the enduring but highly selective reaffirmation of such “natural” geo-cultural links —by both local political agents and state. In the Indian state of Assam, the struggle over indigenous homelands has not been a cry for closure within the engulfing globalizing world, but the result of sustained, yet ambivalent politics of identification, classification, and ethnographic mapping through which the colony and post-colony have sought to reshape the political landscape of India's Northeast. This selective but highly mobilizing politics of autochthony has not only extolled fierce struggle between “indigenous” and “fake autochthon” communities over the protection and demarcation of indigenous homeland, it has also engendered fierce conflict amongst autochthon groups about the degree of indigeneity required to claim a separate homeland of their own.
Article
Journal of Democracy 9.3 (1998) 21-35 To understand how India's democracy works, and how it manages demands from social groups for greater power, resources, autonomy, and respect, it is essential to understand Indian federalism. That, in turn, requires us to address two questions. First, why have relations between New Delhi and the various state governments (there are at present 25) usually remained manageable? Second, why have things gone so spectacularly wrong in a few states, with "normal" democratic politics breaking down and violent separatist movements appearing? Compared to the United States or most other countries with federal systems, India has a highly centralized arrangement. The authorities in New Delhi possess very considerable powers over the day-to-day workings of state government. They can also impose "president's rule" on any state, suspending or dissolving the Westminster-style cabinet government in that state and replacing it with direct rule by New Delhi. Direct presidential rule is supposed to be invoked only in grave crises, but national-level leaders have sometimes abused it, using it to oust state governments headed by rival parties. When those in charge of the central government have dealt with the states in a spirit of accommodation -- as they mostly did from 1947 to 1970 and also have done since the era of hung federal Parliaments began in 1989 -- relations between the center and the states have tended to be fairly smooth. By "quarantining" most conflicts within individual regions, federalism helps the political system cope with strife. The rough congruence between most state boundaries and those of linguistic regions (and hence distinctive social systems) mightily assists this process, as does the strong tendency of Indian voters in the 1990s to support parties that are preoccupied with regional concerns. Yet attempts by national leaders to apply commandist or homogenizing approaches to the diverse states can still throw the federal system into crisis. This point is especially worth noting now that the first government led by Hindu nationalists -- whom many suspect of commandist and homogenizing inclinations -- has come to power in New Delhi. Today, such inclinations are more dangerous than ever. The increasingly regional focus of voters makes them more sensitive to intrusions from New Delhi. And any attempt to reverse the recent dispersals of political power -- among various institutions (formal and informal), and from New Delhi to state governments -- is likely to provoke fierce reactions in the regions. Finally, it is worth noting that since 1991 the federal system has often aided the cause of economic reform by enabling New Delhi to "off-load" some of the pain associated with liberalization to state-level arenas, where the resulting tensions are largely quarantined. Many state-level politicians have proven themselves highly adroit at the political management of reform, and some state governments have developed imaginative innovations in economic policy. All of this, combined with the generally cautious and limited nature of the reforms, has helped to make them more politically sustainable. Relations between New Delhi and the states have tended to remain manageable, though not trouble-free, for four main reasons. First, powerful group demands seldom are aimed squarely at New Delhi, but instead usually grow out of conflicts within states. Second, most states contain so much sociocultural complexity and heterogeneity that there is little prospect for the kind of state-wide solidarity that secessionism requires. Third, Indians can and often do shift their preoccupations rather fluidly among the many identities available to them. Depending upon circumstances, they may fix for a time on any one of three different caste identities; on local, subregional, or national identities; or on class, linguistic, or religious identities. But they seldom seize tenaciously on any one distinct characteristic, as people in Sri Lanka, for example, have done. This is discouraging both to leftists, who advocate a politics based on class affiliations, and to pan-Hindu rightists, who seek to make religious identities preeminent. The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fared well in the 1998 elections because it made alliances with nonsectarian parties and because its rivals behaved self-destructively, not because most voters embraced Hindu identity politics. Amid India's welter...
Article
Since the 1990s, the upsurge of multiple “sons-of-the-soil” conflicts all over the world has reopened academic debate about the rise of nativism, the role of ethnicity, and the alleged crisis of citizenship within the postcolonial state. Often the renewed claim for belonging versus exclusion under the vernacular of “autochthony” is seen as a reactionary attempt to counter the de-rooting of identity within the neoliberal globalizing context. This article makes the case that at the base of many homeland disputes lie too powerfully territorialized (ethnic) identities and the enduring but highly selective reaffirmation of such “natural” geo-cultural links —by both local political agents and state. In the Indian state of Assam, the struggle over indigenous homelands has not been a cry for closure within the engulfing globalizing world, but the result of sustained, yet ambivalent politics of identification, classification, and ethnographic mapping through which the colony and post-colony have sought to reshape the political landscape of India's Northeast. This selective but highly mobilizing politics of autochthony has not only extolled fierce struggle between “indigenous” and “fake autochthon” communities over the protection and demarcation of indigenous homeland, it has also engendered fierce conflict amongst autochthon groups about the degree of indigeneity required to claim a separate homeland of their own.
Article
The code of citizenship marks out the “other,” continually reproducing and re-inscribing it through legal and judicial pronouncement in a relationship of contradictory cohabitation. The relationship is, however, not one of exclusion or simple opposition, but rather that of forclusion, where the outsider is present discursively and constitutively in delineations of citizenship. This article examines the manner in which the process of forclusion unfolded in the delineation of citizenship in Assam, in northeastern India, in particular in the contests around the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal Act [IMDT] of 1983, and the complex reconfiguration of political forces and power relations between the Center and the state of Assam on the question of definition and identification of illegal migrants. The authors examine the contests over the IMDT Act, in the context of the elections in Assam in 19831. Assam: What kind of election? . 1983 . Editorial . Economic and Political Weekly , 18 ( 3 ) : 42 – 43 . View all references, the Assam Accord of 1985, and the Supreme Court Judgment in August 2005 striking it down. They show how the illegality/alien-ness of the migrant became central to the construction of the Assamese identity in the 1980s and how the illegal migrant and the IMDT Act figured in precarious relationships of consensus and antagonism depending on the nature of political/electoral contests between the Center and state governments.
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Smita G. Sabhlok examines the role played by civil society organizations (CSO) in fulfilling the democratic and development aspirations of the people of the area. Smita focuses on how development organizations have to contend with a wide variety of social and political issues, and whether they can be considered to be constitutive and representative of civil society. The main role of CSOs is to contribute to social and economic change by building social capital. There are two core features of the social space that constitute civil society. Firstly, it occupies a middle ground between the individual and the state. Secondly, civil society is connected with civility, moderation, and toleration. The differences within civil society have to be overcome to bring about peace. This has been made difficult because of the lack of social and political cohesiveness and strong-arm methods used by both the government and the insurgents.
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Myanmar is embarking on political reforms that could prove to be the first stage of a gradual transition to democracy. However, critical problems of ethnic discord remain to be resolved. This article draws on the literature on multiculturalism to examine ways forward. First it considers how other democratic states have sought to manage ethnic relations, and constructs a matrix of four ideal types: multiculturalism; ethnic enclaves; assimilation; and marginalization. Next it demonstrates just how difficult matters of ethnicity and identity were in the development of modern Burma. Then it surveys possibilities for ethnic relations in contemporary Myanmar. Finally it sketches future pathways. A brief conclusion reinforces the core argument. Ethnic enclaves and assimilation are the major contenders for ethnic policy in Myanmar. Their relative merits will need to be debated as openly as possible during any future democratization process.
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In this paper, which sets the scene for new research, Apurba Baruah points to the need for close examination of the workings of traditional institutions of tribal communities in order to understand the conflict between traditional values and those of modern democracies. Such comprehension can help to resolve the conflict of values, that otherwise may create a major crisis of governance and may well be the cause of current violence in the North East India region.
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Many studies highlight constitutional asymmetry as a desirable feature of federal systems in multinational countries. This article looks at India which, mainly because of the special provisions for Kashmir in the 1950 constitution and the status of newer small states in the north-east, is generally described as asymmetrically federal. I show that, while India exhibits considerable de facto asymmetry, asymmetry in the constitutional powers granted to individual states has (i) not been important for India's ability to ‘hold together’ as often assumed and (ii) not entailed special protection of cultural or national minorities. I thus cast doubt on the normative political philosophy, particularly informed by Canadian and Spanish debates, that advances the idea of asymmetrical federalism as a model of governance in potentially divided societies.
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