In a flux: Diversity and contestations in north-east India

North-east India is one of the most diverse regions in Asia.[1] This diversity has found mention in the writings of various scholars. However, this diversity is not bereft of the socio-political churnings that have plagued the region from time to time. From the perspective of so-called ‘mainland’ India, this part of the country has remained isolated and pushed to the periphery. Besides, at times, there is also a focus on the ‘north-east’ identity by the people from the north-east itself. This article points out the immense diversity of the region, while also cautioning against any attempts at romanticisation of this diversity. It attempts to see the north-east in a state of flux as reflected in various contestations within the region. The article is a modest attempt to briefly outline the complexities and contradictions that exemplify the north-eastern states defying the romanticisation of an ‘undifferentiated and homogenous’ north-east identity. This article is based on the authors’ preliminary readings on the north-east and travels in the region over the last few years.

Diverse North-east

The overarching focus on the ‘north-east’ identity, by the people from the so-called Indian mainland as well as at times by the people from this region, often shades the immense diversity of the north-east states. Different shades of this diversity are exhibited in many aspects of the social, political and economic life of the region. The presence of different ethnic groups, various tribes as well as non-tribes, their histories and cultures as seen in different languages, food habits, festivals, etc are one of the strongest reflections of the diversity of the region. While states like Assam had a brush with the colonial rule, Manipur saw both monarchy and colonial rule (in the nineteenth century), and Tripura was a monarchy till it became a part of the Indian Union in October 1949. In the post-independence period, most of the states in the region were, however, not formed on linguistic basis (unlike those in the mainland), but administrative convenience and to placate threats of insurgency and secession. From subsistence jhum (slash and burn or shifting cultivation) in parts of Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya to capitalist tea plantation economy of Assam and rubber plantations of Tripura, the region presents varied economic formations.

While this diversity calls for a certain celebration of the rich socio-political and cultural milieu of the region, at the same time one needs to be wary of the overt romanticisation of the same for various reasons.ne_region

Firstly, a difficult terrain, lack of good transport and communication, lack of basic infrastructure, largely agrarian economy, dependence on the Union government, insensitivity by several Union governments to the aspirations of the people of the region, etc have been some of the tough realities of the states of the north-east. The history of the merger of states like Nagaland and Mizoram into the Indian Union also in some ways left painful memories for people of these states. In the period after independence, socio-political unrest marked by secessionist tendencies and violent insurgency in Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Assam and Tripura and the resultant counter-strategies by Indian security forces made life difficult for the people and also built an image of the region as a ‘conflict zone’ in the minds of people. Lack of genuine attempts to bridge the socio-political and cultural differences between the north-east and the rest of the country or even to understand these did not help either.

Secondly, popular discourses on the north-east often project the region as a homogenous socio-political entity undermining the internal contestations of the region. Some hold the State as the main reference point of the socio-political churnings that plague the region. However, a look at contemporary history of these states and the unrest therein shows the dynamic nature of the region which abounds with contestations, namely between tribes, tribes and non-tribes, and over religious identities. Along with the more visible ethnic dimension, conflicting interests over resources like land, and political and economic power are also present in these contestations.

Contestations within north-east

Between tribes

One of the important contestations in the region is the one that exists between tribes, especially between the numerically larger and the smaller ones. This can be seen in the struggle of Chakmas and Hajongs for citizenship in Arunachal Pradesh, struggle of Brus (Reangs), Lais, Maras and Chakmas in Mizoram and struggle of various tribal groups for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status in Assam. The 1990s also saw violent clashes between Kukis and Nagas in Manipur; the Kukis demanded a separate ‘Kukiland’ that would include the Kuki tribes of Myanmar. All these struggles by the smaller tribal groups have been in some ways resisted by the dominant and numerically larger tribal groups.

Displaced from Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh due to religious persecution and construction of Kaptai dam, Chakmas and Hajongs have been living in states like Arunachal Pradesh since the 1960s and many of their children have been born in India. But they have not been accorded the status of Indian citizens. In fact, throughout 1980s and 1990s, groups like All Arunachal Pradesh Student’s Union (AAPSU) were in the forefront of movements against the settlement and citizenship rights of Chakmas and Hajongs, in order to protect the ‘rights of ethnic Arunachalis’. In 1994, AAPSU issued notices to Chakmas to leave the state as they were ‘foreigners’. Despite the Supreme Court’s order in 1996 that citizenship must be given to Chakmas and Hajongs, Arunachal Pradesh government and groups like AAPSU continue to regard Chakmas and Hajongs as ‘foreigners’. In September 2015, the Supreme Court reiterated its 1996 order and directed the Centre and state government to take necessary action within three months in recognizing the citizenship rights of Chakmas and Hajongs. However, the deadline could not be met and hence the struggle of Chakmas and Hajongs for Indian citizenship still continues.

In Mizoram, tribal groups like Brus (Reangs), Lais, Maras and Chakmas have faced hostility from the dominant Mizos. In 1997, violent attacks by Mizos forced about 30,000 Bru tribals of Mizoram to take refuge in makeshift camps in Kanchanpur division of North Tripura. The Mizoram government initially did not take them back and it was only after the push from the Centre that the Mizoram government prepared a plan in 2015 for repatriation of Brus back to Mizoram. It has also been reported that the above violence on Brus was a reaction to their demand for Autonomous District Council (ADC) in Mizoram. As the Mizoram government has always ruled out the possibility of a tribal council for the Brus, they do not have an ADC like the Lais, Maras and Chakmas. However, it has not been easy for Lais, Maras and Chakmas either. Attempts, though unsuccessful, have also been made by Mizo legislators to repeal the tribal council for Chakmas and delete the names of Chakmas (including some of their legislators) from the voters’ list.

In Assam, there has been an ongoing struggle by six tribal communities for ST status. The six communities: the tea-tribes, Morans, Muttocks, Koch Rajbangshis, Chutiyas and Tai Ahoms currently come under Other Backward Classes (OBCs) or Most Other Backward Classes (MOBCs) in the state. Among these, the tea-tribes form the largest group. The ancestors of these tea-tribes were brought to tea plantations in Assam from the Chhota Nagpur plateau called the ‘labour-catchment area’ three to four generations back and today they form the backbone of the state’s tea plantation economy; they speak Assamese and identify themselves as ‘Assamese’. Despite tall promises of successive governments both, at the Centre and the state, these six communities are still battling for their rightful status. Besides the fight for citizenship rights, tea-tribes have over the years also faced extreme physical hostility, particularly from the dominant tribal groups in the state.

The contestation between tribes in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Assam reflects a fear of numbers in the minds of the larger and dominant groups. Any increase in the demography of the smaller groups is likely to alter the political and economic power dynamics in the respective states. While at the outset, it often takes an ‘ethnic’ form, it also has strong political-economy dimensions which should be taken into account by scholars.

Between tribes and non-tribes

Another important contestation in the north-east is between tribes and non-tribes and is reflected from the states of Tripura and Manipur. Tripura merged with India in 1949. From the 1940s onwards, the state saw large scale immigration of refugees (mainly Bengali Hindus) from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) which changed the demographic character of the state. From being a majority till 1941, tribals were gradually reduced to a minority. This immigration has been seen to be one of the root causes of tribal land alienation and later insurgency, and it threatened the very existence of tribal people of the state. However, with the capture of state power by the Left Front in 1977-78, a proactive state took significant steps related to land reforms and tribal land restoration, political autonomy by forming Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), recognition of tribal language- Kokborok- as the official state language, human development aspects and to contain violent insurgency in the state. Along with protecting the rights of tribals, the Left was able to build a unity between tribals and non-tribals, not generally seen elsewhere in the north-east.

In Manipur, there has been a contestation between the valley-dwelling majority Meiteis (indigenous but non-tribals) and the tribals (dwelling in the Valley as well as hills). The Valley (consisting of four districts) has only 10 per cent of the state’s geographical area, but supports almost 60 per cent of the state population. In 2015, the Manipur Assembly, dominated by the majority Meiteis, passed three controversial bills: Protection of Manipur People’s Bill 2015, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill 2015 and the Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill 2015. The first bill raised question about the Manipuri identity as it kept 1951 as the cut-off year to define the domicile. The overall agenda of the state government through these bills was to start Inner Line Permit and to check influx of migrants, especially in the Valley. The bills led to clashes involving the Meiteis and the tribals groups like the Nagas and Kukis in Valley and some hill areas. It created a fear among the tribals of hill districts like Churachandpur that the state government was trying to ‘snatch away’ lands of tribals. The above contestation can be said to the result of conflicting interests between the Meiteis and the tribal groups. However, the insecurities of the Meiteis can be said to be at its core: the Meiteis, being largely Hindus, are confined to the Valley, cannot legally move to tribal areas and cannot avail reservation benefits. Many among them are also renouncing Hindusim and there is a growing demand among a section of them to be recognised as STs.

Thus, in Tripura and Manipur, concerns of tribal and non-tribal groups respectively over demography, control of resources and identity have been crucial.

Over religious identity

The third important contestation in the north-east can be said to be over religious identity. In Assam, Muslims have been targeted since the days of Assam Agitation of 1979 of which the Nellie massacre of 1983 was the flashpoint. Throughout the 1990s, armed Bodo outfits have been engaged in violent attacks against the Muslims, Adivasis, Nepalis and Hindus of East Bengali decent. However, with the inception of the Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD) in 2003, routine attacks against Muslims of East Bengali decent have been increasing at an alarming rate in the name of ‘illegal Bangladeshis migrants’. Worst among all was the so-called riots of 2012 where more than hundred people were killed. However, it is important to note that the political discourse of ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’ is not as simple as it is stated. Apart from having a religious dimension, these attacks have also taken a strong political and economic turn. The eruption of such violence is always justified as the ‘genuine’ fear of the Bodos being outnumbered in their own ‘homeland’ and losing their lands to the ‘Bangladeshi migrants’ as a result of what they see as ‘demographic invasion’. However, one needs to understand that majority of these Muslims are either agricultural labourers or sharecroppers with marginal or no land of their own. It is in fact their abysmal socio-economic condition that has necessitated their migration from the rural hinterlands of the state in search of livelihood and increased their visibility in the urban centres. The simplistic proposition of ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’ being the root cause of the problem precludes us from understanding the complex reality of the situation in its totality.

In Nagaland, non-Christian groups have looked at the larger Christian identity of the state with suspicion. In fact, activists like Rani Gaidinliu questioned the Naga National Council’s (NNC) slogan of “Nagaland for Christ”. In Arunachal Pradesh where nature worshippers/animists and Christians form a majority, especially among tribes, the issue of citizenship of Chakmas and Hajongs also seems to have a religious angle: Chakmas are mainly Buddhists, while Hajongs identify themselves as Hindus. In Manipur, the majority Meiteis are largely Hindus, while the hill-tribes are Christians.


This article attempted to highlight the immense diversity of the north-east states. Notwithstanding a common ‘north-east’ identity as understood by many, the states show diverse socio-economic and cultural formations. However, celebration of this diversity must not overlook the historical and contemporary grievances of the people of the region. It should also critically look at any attempt to see the region in an undifferentiated and homogenous manner. An important feature of north-east’s diversity has been the contestations within the region as seen between tribes, between tribes and non-tribes, and over religious identity. In these, conflicting interests over resources, concerns over changes in demography of groups, and political and economic power are present. The contestations also underscore the point that just like other parts of the country, the north-east, too is in a state of flux. And any attempt to understand the region will have to take account of this flux where diversity and contestations within the region play a crucial role.


[1] Officially, North-east or north-east India refers to the seven states of north-eastern India- Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura- and the Himalayan state of Sikkim. In this article, however, the authors have only written about the seven states.


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PhD students, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

One Comment

  1. Apao
    September 19, 2016

    I must congratulate the authors for doing a wonderful job in identifying the huge diversity existing in the north east on India. Apart from some academicians the majority of the so called ‘mainand indians’ still looks at the NE as a homogeneous socio-political entity is well pointed out. I hope the article will make more people aware of the many diversities existing in the region.

    The three contestations viz, between tribes, between tribes and non tribes and inlines of religious identity is a good attempt though could have done better. I feel the contestations over religious identities could have been expanded more.

    The developmental, educational and socioeconomic divide between the tribes and non tribes could find a mention.

    The porous international borders in all the NE states leading to contestations can be expanded.

    Romanticizing the work done by the left party in Tripura was a little uncalled for. No doubt, the left in Tripura has done a tremendous job in developing the state to what it is today. But claiming the left has done good enough to address differences between the tribes and non tribes is countered by the recent protest of the indigenous Tripuris. The divide, differences and fears of the indigenous Tripuris is overlooked.

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