Despite 75 years of independence, we have struggled to cultivate an inclusive and harmonious society in the Northeastern region despite its rich diversity. The divisions have become more pronounced in certain instances, such as Manipur. While there has been notable progress in recent years, the achievement of enduring stability still eludes us, and the anticipated future of sustained tranquillity remains uncertain.
The North Eastern region is a vital part of India as it connects South Asia to the South East and also symbolises the multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious diversity that defines India. Peace, prosperity, and stability in this region are thus critical for the very idea of India.
Regrettably, since Independence, this area has not been fully integrated with the national mainstream, and its vast potential has yet to be realised for a variety of reasons. The North East has yet to emerge as one entity, even as a region. Not only have many insurgent groups representing various communities been waging war against the Indian Union, but also internal strife and communal differences have not been reconciled.
Traditionally, the conflict in the North East has been fuelled by a lack of identity with the Indian mainland, the role of external powers like China, Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, tribal/communal differences amongst its inhabitants, and fault lines in the subdivision of Assam which led to the creation of the North Eastern states.
Over a period of time and after having gone through a prolonged conflict, most of the North Easterners have reconciled to their long-term future with India and have willingly or reluctantly realised the futility of armed struggle. Also, foreign powers have almost lost interest in the region. They are not providing much support to anti-India groups, most of which are either on a ceasefire or suspension of operations (SOO) mode. Very few of them now operate from their bases abroad. The signing of the peace agreement between the Government of India and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) in November 2023, the first valley-based Meiti insurgent group to come to the negotiation table, is an indicator of this positive trend.
As a result, most states, other than Manipur, are relatively peaceful and look forward to an earlier onset of peace and prosperity. The current government has also done well to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region, which has hastened economic development and assimilation with the national mainstream. Steps are also being taken to address the issue of unemployment and economic disparity.
However, two major causes of concern remain which need to be addressed to ensure the region remains stable for times to come.
Inter-Tribal and Communal Conflicts
North East India is home to a multitude of ethnic groups and tribes, each with its own distinct language, culture, and traditions. Some of them have historical rivalries that have not been reconciled till now and stand exacerbated as competition due to land, resources, and electoral politics growing. The Manipur conflict manifests this rivalry between the Naga, Meiti and Zomi; similar hostility is visible amongst other communities such as Karbi, Dimasa, Hmar, Garo, Bodo, Bru, etc. These conflicts are the biggest impediments to peace and development and must be resolved on priority. The following considerations merit the attention of the government:
Political Empowerment: Currently, there are ten autonomous councils under Schedule 6 in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram and six autonomous councils under Schedule 5 in Manipur. These autonomous councils have not lived up to people’s expectations as they struggle to perform due to lack of resources, internal dissensions, rampant corruption and interference from the state governments. While the Modi government introduced reforms in 2019 to improve their functioning, there is a requirement for further capacity building and making them financially viable. The autonomous councils of Manipur should also be brought under Schedule 6 as it provides more powers and autonomy in functioning. This step will reassure the Naga and Kuki communities of the central government’s intent to protect their interests.
Dialogue and Reconciliation: The North Eastern communities are inherently compassionate and tolerant but are not displaying these qualities due to the prevailing environment of distrust and animosity. The central government needs to create an effective system wherein the communities can engage each other and reconcile their differences along the lines of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” of South Africa. It requires active engagement from all stakeholders, including civil society, religious leaders, and community elders. The “Peace Committee” formed in Manipur in June 2023 has been a non-starter due to its composition.
Managing the Insurgent Groups: The North East India landscape is dotted with a multitude of insurgent groups, both active and dormant, engaged in varying degrees of dialogue and agreements with the government. Even those housed in designated camps retain considerable influence, often fuelling inter-tribal violence, as seen in Manipur. To mitigate this, the government must prioritise expediting negotiations with all groups, demobilising insurgents, and facilitating their seamless reintegration into civil society.
Securing the Fragile Indo-Myanmar Border
The 1,600-kilometer Indo-Myanmar border presents a unique challenge for security as it runs along rugged, densely forested terrain, defying conventional border management strategies like border fencing with observation outposts. This complexity is further compounded by the presence of insurgent groups in the hinterlands on both sides of the border, which has necessitated the placing of border guarding battalions of Assam Rifles under the operational control of the Army.
Historically, the border has been porous, allowing for the movement of people and goods. Many tribes, especially among the Naga people, have deep cross-border economic and cultural ties. Recognising this, post-independence, both sides established a 15-kilometre free movement regime to preserve these historical connections. However, this very porosity has been exploited by anti-India insurgent groups who utilise the ease of movement to move insurgents, weapons, and contraband, adversely impacting the security environment of the entire North East region.
Securing this fragile frontier requires a multi-pronged approach wherein improved surveillance and intelligence sharing between India and Myanmar becomes crucial to track insurgent movements and disrupt their activities. In addition, while large-scale fencing may not be feasible, capability building of the border guarding force must be enhanced in terms of numbers, advanced technology systems and strategic infrastructure development. The free movement regime also needs to be improved further to ensure that permanent population ingress does not occur.
The current situation in India’s North East region is an outcome of deep-rooted disputes with complex historical issues. Addressing its lingering complications demands a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach encompassing political empowerment, economic development, social justice, effective border management and robust conflict resolution. With his strong mandate and widespread acceptance in the Northeast, Prime Minister Modi holds a unique opportunity to usher in a long-awaited era of peace. The time is ripe for bold action. We must seize the initiative and prioritise actions that nurture a cohesive and prosperous Northeast.
Major General (Dr) Gajinder Singh