Why Are Communal Fires In The Northeast Raging?
The Nehru-Verrier Elwin five-point formula
The unrest in Manipur is on the boil with more than 50 deaths reported in clashes between the Caste Hindu Meiteis and the Christian tribal Kukis over reservation for jobs. Troops have been called out with shoot-at-sight orders.
In Sikkim, there is a renewed feeling of hostility towards immigrants stemming from a fear of being swamped by outsiders.
In Assam, there is a movement to stall the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which, the locals fear, would facilitate the influx of Bengali Hindus even as it stops the influx of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh.
Paradoxically, these demands are being made by people who had voted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in Manipur and Assam and allowed it to be a partner in the government in Sikkim.
The resurgence of tribal/community interests in the North Eastern States suggests that the BJP’s bid to transform the region to fit its worldview has suffered a serious setback. Due to its preoccupation with an overarching all-India agenda, the BJP leaderships in these States (and the Center) have been insensitive to local sectional aspirations. And to boot, the region has a plethora of tribes and communities often at odds with each other.
The North-East had been a hotbed of insurgencies since the 1960s and Assam saw major unrest in the 1970s. Therefore, the region cannot be treated in a cavalier fashion as the over-confident Modi-led BJP tends to do.
The mostly Christian Kuki tribals of Manipur were enraged when the Manipur High Court directed the State government to pursue a 10-year-old recommendation to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the non-tribal (Caste Hindu) Meitei community, which is the majority in the State. The Kuki tribals, who had enjoyed reservations in jobs and progressed as a result of that, did not want to share the cake with the Meiteis who were already advanced. The Meiteis’ demand for Scheduled Tribe status was deemed untenable by all tribes.
When the tribes’ demand to withdraw the grant of ST status to the Meiteis was rejected, unprecedented violence ensued. The BJP government was seen to be backing the majority Meitei caste Hindus for political and ideological reasons. Unnerved, the Center took control of law and order in the State and pressed its troops into action.
The Kukis had other grievances too. In recent times, because of the military atrocities against Christian tribes in neighbouring Myanmar, the Kukis of Manipur have been giving shelter to kindred tribes fleeing Myanmar. But the Central government viewed this as a security threat. Its harsh drug control actions also interfered with normal life.
In Sikkim, the influx of non-Sikkimese after the Protectorate was absorbed by India in 1975 has been a source of tension. Writing in “The Sikkim Chronicle”, Amit Sharma, recalls that in return for Sikkim’s surrendering its Protectorate status in favour of merger, India put in the Indian Constitution safeguards for Sikkim’s autonomy in the form of Article 371 F.
As per Article 317 F, only descendants of Sikkim “subjects” (people who had been living in the State before its merger with India) are to be considered “Sikkimese” and entitled to benefits such as the right to own land, get state government jobs and secure exemption from income tax.
But this distinction was done away with in 2023. The Supreme Court ruled that those Indians living in Sikkim before the merger of the State with India in 1975 were as Sikkimese as the original Sikkimese and are entitled to the same benefits. This angered the indigenous Sikkimese.
The court’s ruling angered Nepali Sikkimese also, because the court described them as being of “foreign origin” when the Nepali Sikkimese have been native to Sikkim historically as the Lepchas and Bhutias. The denial of ‘Sikkimeseness’ to the Nepalis reflected New Delhi’s narrow definition of the “native”. This clashed with local ideas about who is a native and who is not.
Earlier, in 1979, the Nepalis had lost reservation of seats in the State Assembly. According to Sharma, this was a violation of the original understanding that the old Laws of Sikkim could be amended or repealed only till 1977 and not after.
The rapid development of Sikkim after the merger with India brought about a huge influx of non-Sikkimese. These came as traders, entrepreneurs and service providers. The application of the Inner Line Permit (IPL), meant for foreigners and non-Sikkimese Indians, was liberalised to promote tourism. The tourism boom gave a further boost to inward migration triggering a fear of being swamped by outsiders.
Further, the Old Laws had clearly stated that only Sikkim subjects could stand for and vote in elections. But successive Sikkim governments never adhered to this provision due to vote bank politics, says Sharma.
“This is becoming a huge threat for the political rights of ethnic Sikkimese and the day is not far when outsiders will determine the political agendas of the State and the Sikkimese will have no say in their own political future. We have already had a Non-Sikkimese Mayor in Gangtok, it is just a matter of time before we have a Non-Sikkimese Chief Minister in Sikkim,” he warns.
In 2019, mass protests erupted in large parts of Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and other states over the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA was meant to fast track the grant of Indian citizenship to Hindus,Christians, Buddhists,Sikhs and Jains, who are subjected to persecution in neighbouring Islamic countries Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
It was clear that one of the motives was to keep Muslims out even if they were persecuted (as Ahmadis and even Shias are). The people of the North Eastern States saw the CAA as a means to open the floodgates to Hindus from Bangladesh and swamp them.
There is also a demand for an Inner Line Permit system (ILP) in all the North Eastern States. The ILP was introduced earlier to stem the influx of outsiders into the sensitive tribal areas adjacent to international borders. The ILP regime requires all outsiders, including Indian citizens from other States, intending to visit or stay there to obtain permits that mention their duration of stay and places of visit.
Manipur came under an ILP regime after Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. Assam and Meghalaya have been asking for it. The Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad had said: “If the state government is serious about protecting indigenous people of Assam, it should implement ILP". The Assam Sahitya Sabha, the premier literary organisation in Assam, also demanded that the government "immediately" bring Assam under ILP.
But the BJP Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is hell bent on implementing the CAA as he is wedded to the policies of the BJP’s top leadership in New Delhi.
If the BJP is to continue to be a political force in the complicated socio-political and cultural mosaic of the North East, it has to radically modify its brand of policies and predilections based on Hindu nationalism, majoritrianism.It has to shed its top-down and kinetic approach. It has to be cognizant of local variations and sensitivities.
The Nehru-Verrier Elwin five-point formula evolved in the 1960s is ideal for the North East. The five principles are:
1. People should be allowed to develop along the lines of their own genius. Government should avoid imposing anything on them. Government should try to encourage in every way their own traditional arts and culture.
2. Tribal rights in land and forests should be protected.
3. Government should try to train and build up a team of tribals to do the work of administration and development. Some technical personnel from outside, will no doubt, be needed, especially in the beginning. But government should avoid introducing too many outsiders into tribal territory.
4.Government should not over-administer these areas or overwhelm them with a multiplicity of schemes. We should rather work through, and not in rivalry to, their own social and cultural institutions.
5. Government should judge results, not by statistics or the amount of money spent, but by the quality of life that is evolved in these areas.
Is it in the character of the BJP to follow this sane approach?