Northeast States, The

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NORTHEAST STATES, THE India's northeastern corner faces insurgencies or separatist movements from over fifty groups. Although each conflict has its own roots and history, the issues they raise include language and ethnicity, tribal rivalry, migration, control over local resources, access to water, and a widespread sense of exploitation and alienation from the Indian state. From the Indian government's perspective, these movements represent not just domestic discontent, but the danger of destabilization and possible interference by Chinese or Pakistani intelligence activities. People from India's smaller northeastern neighbors, Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as economic migrants from the rest of India, have swelled the destabilizing migrations at the root of some of these insurgencies, and dissident groups have used these countries, as well as Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma), for sanctuary.

The seven states (also known as the Seven Sisters) that make up India's Northeast—Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh—cover a total area of 98,470 square miles (255,037 square kilometers) and are linked to the rest of India by a narrow arm (the 13 mile–wide [21 kilometer] Siliguri corridor). The region borders on China, Burma, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Except for Assam, which has substantial plains areas, this is a region of high mountains and dramatic rivers. It is home to over two hundred tribal groups and subgroups, many of whose historic rivalries continue today. Christianity is the majority religion in Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland, and there are substantial Christian minorities in the rest of the region.

The energy-rich Northeast has substantial oil, natural gas, and coal resources, much of it unexploited because of political violence. Its rivers move enormous amounts of water, and could generate far more electricity than they now do, but harnessing them raises environmental issues as well as political and international ones. The area also has abundant forest resources. It is nonetheless one of India's most economically backward areas. As is the case with many areas of entrenched instability, the insurgencies have spawned extortion and violence, as well as high unemployment in a rapidly growing population. Despite the announcement of development packages for the area by the central government, insurgency and trade in small arms and narcotics remain attractive options for young people.

The Northeast region has complex historical roots. The Ahoms, from whom the term "Assam" derives, were a people of Shan origin who came from Burma in the early thirteenth century but adopted Hinduism and the culture of the land they conquered. The Kingdom of Ahom, which included the entire present-day Northeast, remained independent of any Indian power, and withstood a dozen Mughal raids. An attack by another Burmese tribe in 1817 left it weakened, and the British were able to annex the kingdom in 1826. The Northeast has historically felt that modern India had no claim to its territories, and many of the tribes asserted their independence early on.

At various times since India's independence, the states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh were carved out of the territorial boundaries of the old Ahom kingdom to strengthen the administrative structure of the Indian state and to appease tribal demands for independence. During the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, parts of Assam, including the district of Sylhet, went to East Pakistan, present-day Bangladesh. These partitions did not pay sufficient attention to tribal groupings, with the result that considerable tribal populations were divided between states and nations. Assam remains the largest and most important state in the region.

The Principal Insurgencies

A complete account of the numerous insurgencies in the northeastern states is outside the scope of this entry. The most violent and destabilizing insurgencies in the region in the past few decades have been in Nagaland and Assam.


This area boasts the region's oldest insurgency, which served as a model for several of the others. The Naga tribes are divided by state and national boundaries. The principal Naga militant group today, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah; NSCN[I-M]), demands a united homeland, Nagalim, and claims a territory six times the size of present-day Nagaland, including most of Manipur, as well as parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Burma. Angami Phizo, the founder of the Naga insurgency, opened the Burma front to the insurgency in the 1950s. Phizo's group established links with Chinese leadership at the same time, and later with Pakistan. Tribal divisions within the Naga insurgency surfaced in the 1960s and continue to plague the movement today.

In 1997 the Indian government signed a cease-fire agreement with the NSCN (I-M), extending it in June 2001 to cover predominantly Naga areas outside Nagaland as well. The extension was greeted with widespread protests and rioting in the adjoining state of Manipur, which was put under president's rule. The northeastern states saw this action by the central government as the first step toward redefining state boundaries and threatening the political status quo. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Home Minister L. K. Advani somewhat belatedly announced that the central government would never consider changing state boundaries, and the cease-fire agreement was revised to apply only to Nagaland.


Assamese nationalism was first articulated in 1979 as a protest against the influx of large numbers of economic migrants from the state of West Bengal, as well as from Bangladesh and Nepal. The first non-Congress party to come to power in Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad, did so on the "foreign nationals" issue in 1985. The most prominent insurgent group in Assam has been the United Liberation Front for Asom (ULFA), which demands secession from the Indian state, citing the economic exploitation of Assam. It represents Assamesespeaking Hindu descendants of the Ahoms, but has also made overtures to other groups. At the height of its power, ULFA exercised complete control over parts of the state, running a parallel de facto government. In the initial stages of the insurgency, ULFA enjoyed widespread support in Assam, but the violence of their tactics and extortion of local businesses, notably the tea estates, have done more harm than good for the local population. While ULFA has lost much of its power and popularity, it continues to be a source of violence and instability. Bitter resentment of "outsiders," and of New Delhi, is keenly felt in Assam, and continues to be a useful rallying point for political parties as well. Attacks against minority migrant groups have persisted in the past two decades. As recently as November 2003, the state was rocked by attacks against Hindi-speaking settlers from Bihar. The Indian government's political efforts to settle the problem, notably the Assam Accord of 1985, have been unsuccessful, and the state governments have been ineffective in negotiating with insurgent groups.

The Bodos

The Bodos are the largest plains tribe of Assam, and their movement is a quest for indigenous rights and tribal empowerment in a majority nontribal state. They mobilized in 1987 to demand the creation of a separate state of "Bodoland," based on the historical precedent of forming new states out of Assam. India's response to their insurgency has been predominantly military.

Indian military operations against insurgent groups in Assam resulted in the gradual move of the insurgents' military training bases to the neighboring kingdom of Bhutan. In December 2003 the Royal Bhutan Army and the Royal Bhutan Guards launched a military operation against ULFA, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, and the Kamatapur Liberation Organization training camps. Thirty such camps have been operating inside Bhutan since 1992. Press statements from Thimphu have stated that at the time its army launched the military offensive, the rebel strength was in excess of 3,000 heavily armed fighters. The military operations have been quick and successful, resulting in the dismantling of all thirty camps. Having confronted the militant groups, both Bhutan and India will need to remain vigilant against future infiltration along the thickly forested and highly porous borders between Assam and Bhutan.


Launched in 1966, the Mizo insurgency lasted for two decades of fighting from bases in Burma, and maintained active links with China and Pakistan. The leader of the Mizo insurgent group (the Mizo National Front), Laldenga, signed an accord with the central government in 1986, effectively ending the insurgency through dialogue and emerging as the chief minister in the newly pacified state. In the latest development package to the Northeast, Mizoram has been given a U.S.$38 million "peace bonus."

Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh

These areas have not been free from violence either. Manipur's insurgencies have focused on different issues at different times: an ideological struggle based on Marxism and Maoism, a campaign to protect Vaishnava Hindu rights, and an ethnic struggle launched by the Meiteis, plains dwellers from the Imphal Valley. Tripura, like the state of Sikkim, has seen a complete demographic transformation since the 1950s. The nineteen indigenous tribes of the state, a mixture of Christians, Buddhists, and nature worshipers, are now a minority in a state dominated by migrants from the plains of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The tribes of Tripura share ethnic linkages with those of Myanmar (Burma) and the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh, and tribal insurgents have based themselves out of the CHT. Soon after the Mizo peace accords, the leading Tripura insurgent group, the Tripura National Volunteers Force, also signed a peace agreement with the Indian government in 1988. While sporadic violence against Bengalis continues, the insurgency has lost its revolutionary force.

Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh are the only two states in the Northeast that have not seen a full-fledged insurgency. The state of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam to meet the political demands of the Khasi, Garo, and Jaintia tribes, who felt that the Assam government did not represent their needs. Despite periodic attacks against Bengalis and Nepalis that paralyze the capital of Shillong, it is relatively better off than its neighbors. Arunachal Pradesh, along with Mizoram, became a separate state from Assam in 1987. The most remote of the northeastern states, the area was known as the Tribal Areas and, later, the North East Frontier Agency until 1972. Much of Arunachal has been a contested area between India and China since independence, and the two share the longest disputed border in the world. Much of India's failed war against China in 1962 was fought in Arunachal, and China has had de facto control over parts of Arunachal's territory since then.

Motivated by a range of issues, such as anti-immigration, ethnic separatism, intertribe tensions, or Marxism and Maoism in the case of Manipur, violence has taken a heavy toll on these states, leaving them underdeveloped and socially fragmented. There is widespread unemployment across the northeastern states, with a rising number of social problems as a result of protracted conflict. The prevalence of drug use in this region is the highest in India. Insurgency has curtailed political development in the region, with many political leaders rendered either ineffective or complicit vis-à-vis the insurgent groups, and corruption is endemic.


While Sikkim is not one of the "Seven Sister" states that make up the Northeast, it is an integral part of the northeastern region, and serves as a cautionary tale to India's smaller neighbors such as Bhutan and Nepal. Sikkim was incorporated into the Indian state in 1975. India justified its action by citing misrule by the Chogyal (king) of Sikkim. However, the underlying cause of India's move was an influx of Nepali migrants, which changed the demographics of the country, outnumbering the native Sikkimese. The demographic change and the demands of the Nepali population posed an insurmountable challenge to the monarchy, and India stepped in. Ultimately, fear of compromising their sovereignty underlies the resentment smaller neighbors feel toward India.

Regional Issues

The Indian approach

Indian scholars cite Mizoram as the model for a successful anti-insurgency policy, and attribute its good results to the Indian government's willingness to allow an insurgent leader to emerge as an officially recognized leader within the political system. The Indian government appears to be trying the same approach in Nagaland, and has been willing to accept the NSCN (I-M) as its exclusive negotiating partner there. The Nagas' territorial ambitions have complicated the picture, however, as has the fact that the NSCN (I-M) does not represent all the Naga tribes. Over time, the development of other entrenched interests makes it difficult to put together a "Mizo solution." New Delhi's intensive counterinsurgency operations and the militarization of daily life in the region have compounded the problem. The local population is trapped between a coercive government and intolerant militants, and the democratic process is in shambles. Governors appointed by Delhi in the Northeast play a dominant role in local political life, further fueling local leaders' alienation from Delhi.

Agreements to resolve political unrest in tribal areas often restrict land ownership to local citizens and limit movement of people into the area. However, population growth in the nearby Indian, Nepali, and Bangladeshi plains continues to push people off the land, generating a continuing source of conflict and difficulty in maintaining this type of restriction. Political parties, most notably the Congress Party, exacerbated the problem in earlier decades by actively assisting illegal Hindu and Muslim migrants from Bangladesh and the Indian plains in an effort to cultivate critical pools of voters in the states.

"The foreign hand."

The Indian government has always been quick to see Pakistani and Chinese intelligence activities, with the goal of encircling and destabilizing India, at the root of insurgencies in the Northeast. Many insurgent groups, including ULFA and the Nagas, have traveled to training camps in China and in Pakistan, and this connection has exacerbated New Delhi's suspicions. The Indian government believes that the Northeast is a hotbed of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) activity, and that ISI also uses Nepalese soil for activities directed against India. This attention to foreign intervention tends to ignore the domestic realities in which the insurgencies are grounded.

The northeastern neighbors

One of the main difficulties in understanding unrest in the Northeast is the fact that insurgencies overrun not just state, but national boundaries. Thus, any discussion of the northeastern states must factor in India's northeastern neighbors. Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh all share porous borders with India and will be part of the solution or the exacerbation of the problems facing the region. India's relationship with Myanmar (Burma) was nonexistent since the 1960s, but has undergone a dramatic change since 2000. India is acutely sensitive to any indication of Pakistani or Chinese intelligence activity in these countries. In an attempt to keep China out of its "sphere of influence," India poured development and infrastructure aid into Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim (prior to its incorporation into the Indian state). Illegal migration is a recurring bilateral problem with Nepal and Bangladesh, as is the insurgent groups' use of territories of the three nations. The importance of India's northeastern states in larger geopolitical calculations concerning China and regional security has influenced Indian response to the politics of the region. This geopolitical insecurity has encouraged military intervention in the region rather than more measured political initiatives. In fact, for some decades since independence, India's policy for the Northeast states was formulated by the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, not the Home Ministry.

Myanmar (Burma)

After a quarter century of little political contact, India has reestablished a relationship with Myanmar, motivated primarily by security considerations. Myanmar borders four of India's northeastern states (Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh), and the border between the two countries is a gateway for insurgents trying to destabilize both. A nexus between Naga and ULFA militants operating in India, and Chin and Karen rebels operating in Myanmar, has proved to be a challenge that the two nations can curb only through bilateral counterinsurgency measures. Indian fears of a growing Chinese naval presence in Myanmar, with dire implications for the security of the Bay of Bengal, was a further catalyst for building ties with its military junta, in spite of considerable domestic opposition. India also sees Myanmar as its gateway to Southeast Asia, which has become a major priority in India's "looking East" foreign policy. During a February 2001 trip to Myanmar, then Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh inaugurated a highway connecting Manipur and Myanmar, a road that is expected to strengthen economic and security links between the two countries.


Bhutan's basic relationship with India is set by the India-Bhutan Treaty of 1949, which commits Bhutan to taking India's advice on defense and foreign affairs. Within these limits, India has respected Bhutan's sovereignty and has not meddled in its internal affairs. In return, Bhutan has steered clear of China, and has limited its foreign relations to avoid raising suspicions in New Delhi. The presence of ULFA and Bodo militants in Bhutan's densely forested foothills raised fears that India would upset the agreed balance of Indo-Bhutan relations and compromise Bhutan's sovereignty and strong national pride, which could in turn affect the institution of the monarchy. Successful operations to oust the insurgents from Bhutanese soil have stabilized the issue, but there is a real fear that this could unleash a backlash from the insurgent groups, embroiling Bhutan in a protracted conflict.


Relations between India and Bangladesh have been fairly good on the surface, but Bangladesh is suspicious of India's overweening presence in the region. Cordial Bangladeshi political and defense ties with China and Myanmar have also aroused Indian suspicions. Illegal Bangladeshi immigration into India is a leading cause of insurgencies in the Northeast, as is the somewhat paradoxical fact that some of these insurgent groups have taken refuge in Bangladesh.

With India's cooperation, Bangladesh signed an agreement settling its tribal insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in 1997. Implementation has been somewhat uncertain, however, and the basic population pressures at the root of the insurgency remain strong. This dispute is intertwined with several of those in northeastern India. The Chakmas, the principal indigenous tribe of the CHT, are Buddhists of Tibeto-Burmese origin. The Bangladeshi government for years encouraged Muslim migration to the relatively sparsely populated CHT, as the Indian government had done in Assam. The Chakmas mobilized in 1972 and attacked Bangladeshi installations under their armed wing, the Shanti Bahini. Army operations against the Shanti Bahini and displacement of people after the construction of a major dam led some 250,000 Chakmas to settle in nearby areas of India, including Tripura, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh.


Millions of illegal migrants from Nepal have contributed to the insurgencies in the Northeast. Bhutan too alleges that illegal Nepalese immigration is widespread, and the two countries are in a deadlock over Bhutan's decision to repatriate 100,000 illegal Nepali immigrants from Bhutan. The immigrants themselves claim Bhutanese citizenship and accuse Bhutan of deporting them for ethnic reasons, citing Bhutan's fear that its Drukpa national identity would be threatened and would be unable to cope with the impact of the Nepali minority on its system of government and sovereignty. Nepal's political instability, and the violent Maoist insurgency that it is struggling to deal with, will continue to be a problem for the region. Nepal's economy is in disarray, and its growing population pressures make migration a natural choice for some of its people.

India has intermittently tried to redress the imbalance in its bilateral relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal by finding areas of common interest and mutual cooperation. The only forum for multilateral cooperation in the region, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, is at best a weak organization whose mandate explicitly excludes any role in bilateral disputes, and which has been further debilitated by the conflict between India and Pakistan. Partly as a result, India has focused more on bilateral or other subregional mechanisms for cooperation. India has a hefty trade surplus with each of these neighbors. Energy trade could shift this balance and benefit everyone. Bhutan already exports hydropower to India and will be expanding this trade. A similar agreement with Nepal has been under discussion for decades, but faces both political and environmental obstacles. The export of natural gas from Bangladesh could also be beneficial to both states, but has been political dynamite within Bangladesh.


China is at the root of India's security concerns about the Northeast. The established Chinese relationship with Pakistan is already a major concern for India, as is the newer Chinese link to the military government in Myanmar. Any indication of active Chinese involvement in India's insurgencies or a serious move to undermine India's primacy in Nepal and Bhutan could send the uneasy relationship between the two dominant regional powers into a sharp decline.

The two countries have strikingly similar concerns about one another's roles in their Himalayan border region. In China's case, the issue is Tibet, two of whose most prominent leaders, the Dalai Lama and the Karmappa, have taken asylum in India. In addition, China has always challenged India's sovereignty over Sikkim, as well as over parts of Arunachal Pradesh. India claims the Chinese-controlled area of Aksai Chin in Kashmir. The two countries have, however, reactivated their border talks and are trying to put their relations on a friendlier and firmer footing. The most positive sign of change in entrenched attitudes, and one that holds a key to addressing change in the Northeast, is the July 2003 bilateral decision to institute a border trade regime in Sikkim, creating a vital economic hub for the landlocked Northeast.

Creating a more stable future

India's preoccupation with the law-and-order aspects of its troubles in the northeastern states has tended to deepen those states' alienation from Delhi. The key to a more stable future lies in a better mix of Indian policies. The key ingredients in future stability are economic development, focusing especially on the region's energy resources; greater tolerance for local control; willingness to work with local leaders; and strengthening democracy and civil society.

Similarly, India's stress on maintaining and expanding its current primacy with its smaller northeastern neighbors has amplified their sensitivity about dealing with an overbearing India. Some adjustments in Delhi's operating style could ease this problem, and could lead to more cooperative policies to address both domestic problems in the Northeast, as well as bilateral issues in the region. Dealing with the problems of the northeastern states requires a twofold approach—one that addresses the domestic causes and consequences of the insurgencies, and another that works toward an integrated solution that involves the Northeast's surrounding states, creating opportunities for all.

Mandavi Mehta

See alsoArunachal Pradesh ; Assam ; Bangladesh ; Burma ; China, Relations with ; Ethnic Conflict ; Geography ; Insurgency and Terrorism ; Manipur ; Meghalaya ; Mizoram ; Nagas and Nagaland ; Nepal, Relations with ; Pakistan and India ; Paramilitary Forces and Internal Security


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