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Separatist Movements in the North-East

This article attempts to present the real agenda of the various separatist projects that are at work in the north-east region of India. Though the discussion is essentially about the working of such projects in Assam, the general principles outlined are applicable, with suitable modifications, to other separatist movements in the region as well.


the political realism and the political sophistication of the Naga separatist leadership.

Separatist Movements

Such interface between sovereignty and territoriality impinges on all the states where these organisations are active, highlighting

in the North-East

Rhetoric and Reality

This article attempts to present the real agenda of the various separatist projects that are at work in the north-east region of India. Though the discussion is essentially about the working of such projects in Assam, the general principles outlined are applicable, with suitable modifications, to other separatist

movements in the region as well.


t the outset, a measure of scepticism is necessary in respect of both the stated objective of these separatist movements – nothing less than sovereignty and independence for the people they claim to represent – and the path they have chosen, as well as the complex strategy and tactics adopted by them to attain this objective, which is “armed struggle” in all its ramifications. Thus, in Assam, the leading separatist organisation, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), has as its objective the attainment of an independent, sovereign Assam – ‘Swadhin Asom’.

However, ULFA’s objective is not so much the attainment of sovereignty and independence of Assam (or Asom) as the restoration of that lost sovereignty following the annexation of the territory by the British in the wake of the defeat of the Burmese invasion of Assam and the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo on February 24, 1826. It is a fact of history that while in the case of the kingdoms of Manipur, Cachar and Jaintia, also invaded and occupied by the Burmese, Britain adopted the policy of rendition of these territories to the native rulers, in the case of Assam the British simply annexed the territory and brought it under direct British rule. In ULFA’s reading of history, this original act of injustice was compounded when Assam became a part of the Indian Union following the transfer of power in August 1947.

A corresponding perspective informs the Naga nationalist struggles across the political spectrum, from before Phizo to whatever formation may follow the Isaac Swu-Thuingaleng Muivah hyphenation. In this perspective, the Nagas were never part of “India”. Yes, the Naga people were undoubtedly defeated by the British forces and their territory was occupied. But they were never defeated by “India”, which at the point when the Nagas were defeated did not exist as a political entity. The fair thing would have been for the British to restore their sovereignty when relinquishing their Indian empire in August 1947 instead of leaving them as a part of India/ Assam – which they never were. As a matter of fact, the Naga nationalists maintain, the Naga people “declared their independence” on August 14, 1947, on the eve of India’s independence, and are fighting for a de jure acknowledgement of that fact by their powerful neighbour.

An ironic and not so unique dimension of the Naga nationalist struggle – for irredentism is inherent in all such nationalist or sub-nationalist assertions, in the NE region and even in movements for greater autonomy within the Indian union – is the aspiration for “integration of Naga inhabited areas into one political and administrative unit”, which in the present circumstances can only be attained through the applications of the provisions of the Indian Constitution, thus militating against the very rationale of Naga nationalist assertion. Such segmentation of the separatist agenda with territoriality taking precedence over sovereignty on which there seems to be a tacit acceptance of an incremental approach, even if only as a matter of tactics, underlines both some of the fundamental contradictions of these sovereignty struggles whose common adversary is the Indian state. This is especially so with the Naga sovereignty struggle which, were it to succeed in the way envisaged by the Naga nationalist organisations, would have the gravest implications for both Assam and Manipur as well as Arunachal Pradesh, as they presently exist and, potentially, to Myanmar as well.

Perhaps the oldest organisation of this kind engaged in armed struggle in Manipur is the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), though similar aspirations for the restoration or winning back through armed struggle of Manipur’s lost sovereignty (“the undemocratic and inequitable Merger Agreement of October 15, 1949”) are being actively canvassed through similar struggles by three or four other organisations. In Tripura, too, separatist agendas find a similar resonance in that very date when the kingdom merged into the Indian Union. One can only make inferences about the role and the influence, if any, that the “palace” and the old feudal order has and wielded in these projects, though there are significant differences in the way in which the old order has impinged on the new separatist consciousness in Manipur and Tripura. Thus, while in Manipur the old order is widely believed to be sympathetic to the Meitei (or Meetei) nationalist assertion, in Tripura it is the tribal nationalist assertion that has found favour with the old order.

Similarly, those who believe in the supremacy of the Khasi kingships and durbars hold much the same or similar views. Indeed, there is a revival of interest in the history and the institution of deservedly obscure kings and kingships in the region, a field being trawled mainly by foreign scholars who have made a small industry of such research. For every one such historian, researcher, folklorist, NGO and their kind, August 14-15, 1947 constitutes a defining moment in the history of the people of the region, marking the beginning of their enslavement. It also serves to inspire memories that help to recall the

Economic and Political Weekly March 3, 2007

past glories of a people once sovereign and independent; and an equally inspiring guide in the struggle to restore that lost glory.

To sum up, about 30 organisations described variously as separatist or militant or terrorist or insurgent, are active in Assam and other states in north-east India. The South Asia Terrorism Portal [http://] actually identifies over a 100 “terrorist/insurgent groups” in the region.

Most of these are however little more than names and signboards with poorly written constitutions, manifestos and charters of demand, engaged principally in extortion and racketeering. Many of these are very nearly moribund. Others, rather more active with a little more substance to them and with a demonstrated capacity for violence, having a “greater autonomy” agenda that falls short of sovereignty assertion, are sporadically engaged in violent activities alternating with some kind of negotiations with the state/central governments.

However, about a dozen of the 30 odd “active” organisations, while engaged like the rest of the signboard organisations in extortion, are also engaged in “armed propaganda” that over the years has evolved into “armed struggle” against the Indian state, with a view to attaining or (in their perspective) securing the restoration of sovereignty that has been lost as part of the process of the transfer of power by Britain and the subsequent consolidation of the Indian state.

One may also note, if only as a matter of curiosity, that most of these organisations even when they are plainly revivalist also claim to be on the “left”. Thus, ULFA claims that its ideology is “scientific socialism”, while both the factions of the NSCN are guided by “national socialism”, a formulation that is incorporated into their very nomenclature, as well as by the slogan, Nagaland for Christ. However, even the most superficial acquaintance with the literature of these structures or the most casual conversation with their activists and ideologues would show that they have at best a very innocent understanding of the term, “scientific socialism”, or for that matter, “national socialism”.

Such aspirations and theoretical formulations may appear to belong to the cloud cuckoo land, though those who make them are desperately serious. It is easy to deplore and condemn the deeds and tactics of the separatist forces; however this in itself is of little help to understand the “why” of such separatism, that unique mindset that animates such ideas and ideologies.

On this question of “why”, much work, of a kind, has been done on the causes – the more modish expression is “factors”

–underlying such alienation and discontent. The usual suspects are well known: economic backwardness and disparities, neglect by the centre which practises “internal colonialism”, exploitation by “outsiders” who range all the way from those representing pan Indian capital to daily wage labourers providing essential goods and services, facts of history and geography, etc. Figures of central allocations, even given the anomalies of “unspent money” discussed in a recent article in this journal (‘Why Do the States Not Spend?’ EPW, December 2-8, 2006), however tell a different tale about the “centre’s neglect” of the region. Over and above all, there is the telling evidence of the increasingly larger enclaves of urban wealth splurging not very different from similar enclaves in other Indian cities.

Rather, a more interesting question about such separatist projects is: How? That is, how these separatist movements hope and expect to realise their objective, given the realities of the situation. In other words, how seriously do these organisations believe that they can attain sovereignty, considering that the adversary in their struggles is the Indian state that, despite its many infirmities and internal contradictions, is no pushover, and is certainly not ripe for disintegration?

Persistence of Insurgency

The leadership of these organisations, clever if not sophisticated, know full well that in the larger Indian context their “armed struggles” have had very little impact on Indian polity – except to enable the Indian state to further strengthen and refine its instrumentalities of coercion. Nearly half a century of “armed struggle” has not really advanced Naga aspirations for sovereignty. One may well ask whether six or seven years of talks of every variety; direct and indirect, through emissaries and interlocutors and face to face meetings with representatives of the government of India including three or four prime ministers, in Delhi and in foreign lands, has advanced these sovereignty aspirations either.

The only gain, a major gain, made in these long years of talks is the legitimacy that the de facto government of Nagalim has acquired, though the existence of such a government owes little to the protracted negotiations. It is true that the Naga nationalist rhetoric, across other differences, asserts that the Naga nationalist forces have fought India for over 50 years and have not been defeated; and can carry on the battle for another 50 years, or even over several generations, till “final victory will be ours”. However, in this kind of calculation, a structured entity like the Indian state, even with all its internal incoherence and contradictions, is rather more advantageously placed than small, or even much larger, separatist outfits.

But this does not mean the abandonment, or even any substantial dilution of the separatist agenda. For, behind what seems as an utterly unrealistic rhetoric – that is, attainment of sovereignty through armed struggle – is a more calculated assessment of what the separatists see as certain realities of the Indian state and its functioning, which, in their reading (one is not in a position to say if this reading is accurate), are bound to favour the separatists in the long run and enable them to gain their objective. In other words, while undoubtedly weak tactically vis-à-vis the might and material resources of the Indian state, the separatists see themselves as strategically much stronger.

Quite simply, in the separatist reading

– this despite other evidence like India’s economic growth – the Indian state is much too riven with internal contradictions and has indeed lost the will and the tenacity to defend itself. For guerrillas and insurgents, even of the kind that operate in this region, who as a rule are contemptuous of might in quantitative terms – so many branches of defence forces, so many hundred thousands of troops, so many armaments, rockets and nuclear weapons and so on – such demonstrative might appears as inherently clumsy. In this perception, to quote from a different context, “they make one think wistfully of dark nights and trip wires”.

Only this explains the persistence of terrorism/rebellion/militancy/insurgency/ in the region. Incidentally, the ambivalence and the confusion that characterise the reading of and approach to separatist movements by the Indian state and the Indian establishment – the latter term intended to include important non-government players outside formal political structures like the so-called civil society, including the media, perhaps the most important player, is that all these terms are used to describe the separatist movements and their personnel. This is so even in the case of the public broadcaster, whose reports

Economic and Political Weekly March 3, 2007 switch from terrorist to militant seamlessly, often in the same report.

The fact is that the defeat of the Indian state by the “armed struggles” being waged by the various separatist groups is not envisaged even by the most belligerent of these groups. And yet, they press on, unrelenting in their desire to secure their lost sovereignty. According to received wisdom, a nation state, even a very weak nation state, does not break up except under two conditions: defeat in war and occupation by a foreign enemy. There are numerous instances of extremely fragile nation states continuing to remain united despite serious dislocations of the coordinates of territory and nationhood, and even prolonged civil war. To take an instance close to home, but for Indian intervention, it is arguable whether the seemingly unviable state of Pakistan would have disintegrated, despite the intense internal contradictions exacerbated further by the lack of statesmanship of its leaders in both West and East Pakistan. India is simply too big and too powerful a country to be defeated in war, or allow for foreign occupation, the two historically acknowledged and demonstrated requirements, for a nation state to disintegrate. Such disintegration is a necessary precondition for any of the sovereignty struggles in the north-east region to succeed, since the defeat of India by any of the insurgent groups, or all of them acting unitedly, a most inconceivable scenario, in armed confrontation is simply not on the cards. And yet, the leaderships of these organisations persist in their “armed struggles”.

On the other hand, there is also the example of the Soviet Union, as strong and centralised a state as one can imagine, collapsing without foreign intervention, defeat in war and occupation by enemy forces. While the subsequent disintegration of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was considerably assisted by foreign intervention, even in this case developments internal to the country were in the final analysis the decisive factor that contributed to the destruction of the Federal Republic.

The modest and continuing gains being made by the Catalonian autonomy movement in Spain and the rather more dramatic developments in Montenegro which in May last year narrowly voted in a national referendum for secession and independence from Serbia hold promises for the separatist movements in the region.

It is interesting that the recent campaign in Manipur (as always receiving very little notice nationally) for a plebiscite on the issue of Manipur’s independence, proposed initially by the UNLF and since then taken up enthusiastically by several “civil society” organisations followed closely, indeed almost conterminously, in the wake of the referendum in Montenegro. Among those who addressed such a plebiscite meeting in Imphal on June 6 last year was the so-called titular king of Manipur, apart from several other dignitaries like a formal Lok Sabha member, a former human rights commissioner, president of the Manipur Working Journalist’s Union, leaders of some political parties and several women leaders – always a potent force in Manipur.

ULFA too has sometimes challenged the union government to offer the option of a “free plebiscite” on Assam’s sovereignty and independence to the people of the state and was quite incensed when an organisation apparently supported by the government organised its own “plebiscite” and made the not unsurprising discovery that the people of the state rejected the idea of Swadhin Asom.

An old song had this refrain: ‘Tell Me What You Want and I’ll Tell You What You Get’. It would be tempting to see in these words a neat summary of the opacity that characterises the stated stands of these separatist organisations – and the government of India. However, an organisation like ULFA has never minced its words in saying what it wants. The only problem is that it is impossible to accept this stated


objective, the attainment of Swadhin Asom, as a realisable objective.

Indeed, it is arguable if even ULFA really believes that such an objective is attainable through armed struggle, unless the kind of extraordinary circumstances that prevailed in the instances cited above can be replicated in this country. This is not on the cards. Moreover, the sole superpower for the present would be loath to see India disintegrate in the present circumstances, unlike when the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke up.

However, the persistence in the face of “proven facts to the contrary” is not in the least irrational. Rather, such persistence can be understood if one realises that ULFA and, even more so, its ideologues within Asom, spread out in metropolitan centres in the rest of India and abroad. This most influential lobby of non-resident Asomiya who are not necessarily part of the organisation (a complex dynamic that will take too long to explain), and an even more amorphous “civil society” network entrenched for the most part in the developed countries of the west, are of the view that such conventional notions about the durability, indeed the very viability of the nation state, even of a nation state strong and internally coherent and fair and just in its governance, which is hardly the case with India, are no more valid in the brave new world of globalised and wired – or “wireless” – 21st century. Thus, notions of nation state, national sovereignty, citizenship rights derived from a country’s

Economic and Political Weekly March 3, 2007

constitution, indeed, the very distinction between a citizen and migrant who is not yet a citizen, securely demarcated borders and such things need to be turned upside down in this new dispensation of borderless territories and shared sovereignties.

Such ideas, never canvassed in respect of the nationality problems and struggles in first world countries, are bouncing around in every part of the region and animate every nationality struggle.

Seen in this perspective, the arguments about whether the separatist struggles, even when these become active insurgencies (till now only the Naga struggle and the resolved Mizo struggle attained the status of active insurgencies) can ever defeat the might of the Indian state are utterly irrelevant. Indeed, the never-ending talks and talks about talks, the unending hair-splitting over procedures and protocols, about whether the government of India should first release the five imprisoned ULFA leaders or whether ULFA should first give it in writing that it will attend the talks in the event of these leaders being released, are all sideshows, mere exercises in sleightof-hand and prestidigitation intended to obscure the real agenda, part of the games that people at the top play even when the issues are one of life and death for the ordinary people, mere objects of history.

The Indian state, in this perspective, is getting more and more enfeebled, unable to resolve the larger contradictions besetting it nationally. What the struggles of these marginalised nationalities in the marginal regions of the country need to do is to keep up the pressure, keep on chipping away, wait for the strategic moment when the push can be transformed into a shove. With the received ideas of the nation state themselves losing their legitimacy, such “unviable” entities like the Indian state are bound to crack up and collapse, even without external aggression, defeat in war and foreign occupation.

Such a reading of the realities of history and correlations of power in a so-called globalised world informs the resolve of the separate organisations to carry on their struggles over generations, the reality that underlies the rhetoric: “We have fought for 50 years; we are prepared to fight for 50 more years.”



[The article is based on a lecture delivered at the Agartala Press Club on January 30, 2007 on the occasion of the silver jubilee anniversary of the foundation of the club.]

Economic and Political Weekly March 3, 2007

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