It has long been understood that any goal of strengthening federalism in India by utilising the existing state boundaries will create fissures between communities and ethnic groups. Stronger federalism, after all, involves effective devolution of powers and a greater say for the federal units in the allocation and management of resources, and any perception of injustice in that process can quickly create divisive tensions. More effective federalism allows India to evolve as a democracy – but this does not mean that one can ignore the very real challenges the process will present.
Although the world largely sees a ‘New Delhi vs Northeast’ dichotomy, the seven states of the Northeast are a simmering cauldron of inter-community and inter-state issues. The creation of several states on the basis of ethnicity has papered over the existing cross-border spread of communities. The fragility of such an arrangement has been starkly exposed over the last two months, as communal fissures have come to the surface due to the matter of ‘territoriality’. Longstanding resentments between the largely Meitei inhabitants of the Imphal Valley and the population of the surrounding hills, consisting of various ethnic groups such as the Naga, Kuki and others, have boiled over. The Naga, who constitute the majority of Manipur’s hills-people, have allied themselves with the demand for a Greater Nagaland (Nagalim), which would include parts of Manipur, as well as areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and even Burma. Further to the west, Meghalaya and Assam are locked in a tussle over the village of Langpih, where several Assam-supported Nepali-speaking villagers were killed in late May, allegedly by the Khasi of Meghalaya.
The way out of this complex tangle cannot be found by burying one’s head in the sands on the banks of the Brahmaputra. New Delhi, which has in the past fanned and exploited such ethnic tensions to its advantage, can at best be expected to come and try to douse the fire – which, to its credit, it has been trying to do. But any longer-term resolution must have the local parties to the conflict come together to talk and find amicable solutions. This is certainly easier said than done, but it is nevertheless the only real solution. The reliance on New Delhi’s intervention as the regional overlord is hardly the sustainable solution. Civil-rights groups, the media and the intelligentsia in the Northeast are already working with the political parties and the insurgent groups to address root problems and find a middle path on ethnicity and territoriality. With the impetus of recent events, this process now needs to be strengthened.
We need to be clear that the redrawing of state boundaries is a drastic action bound to lead to violence, and in the current situation would clearly create more problems than it would solve between the states of the Northeast, as with the nation state. But doing nothing would only allow wounds – including the new ones, in Manipur, Nagaland and elsewhere – to fester; eventually, those fissures would widen to swallow all prospects for peace in the foreseeable future, and the current suspended animation would seem like a blessed period in comparison. There is now a hiatus among Northeast commentators in the barrage of criticism against New Delhi, and this should be taken as a positive turn of events, to the extent that it indicates that lasting resolutions need to be sought within the Northeast itself. But rather than looking to mediation focused on immediate issues, we believe the civil society in the Northeast must prioritise seeking to develop empathetic inter-connections between the area’s states and communities. There are many ongoing efforts towards this, with the Naga Hoho and other civil-society groups having held talks with Meitei groups over the past decade and a half. But this has not yet proven sufficient to bridge the divide between communities.
A common feeling of distrust towards New Delhi was never a sufficient condition for building solidarity among the Northeast communities, which is why genuine concord has not flowered in the six decades since Independence. What is required is to strengthen existing and create new efforts to develop an intellectual ‘counterculture’ in the Northeast, which seeks unique and homegrown solutions. Models must be sought to ensure that relations between the Seven Sisters never get to a point where their borders are allowed to mean as much as the frontiers between nation states; and that the rights, duties and economic advances of the various federal units, and the communities within them, take place at a more or less unified pace, through coordination of plans and programmes.
Amidst the debates over ethnicity and community, we cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of the other important issues in the region. While ethnic aspirations are often a driving force, there are still more vital issues of resource utilisation, development, unequal power-sharing and inequitable disbursement of funds received from the Centre, favouring certain communities and sidelining others. There are also important environmental concerns, related to development in an ecologically fragile region. The equitable distribution of resources between the Manipuri hill and valley communities, or the planned Tipaimukh dam that would displace Naga and other hill-dwellers, are issues that have only provided fuel to the inter-ethnic disagreements.
Once the Northeast finds the strength and confidence to speak to and for itself, it might well come up with some significant answers for the rest of India and Southasia. It might be able to warn those who are keen to develop federalism along ethnic lines – like the Nepali proponents of such a model, in a country where, unlike in the Northeast, the population is completely mixed right down to the village level – about the dangerous fires that they are stoking. The Northeast might even provide answers to activists of Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and Pakhtunkhwa-Khyber, about resolving conflicts of overlapping ethnicity vis-a-vis territoriality. At the same time, of course, it could be that there are lessons from other parts of Southasia for the intelligentsia of the Northeast to consider, as they seek to take their region forward in harmony.