India’s Northeast: How a Troubled Region May Be a Global Flashpoint

In the world's largest democracy, recent fears of pogroms and ethnic violence have highlighted just how fractious and febrile India's social makeup is.

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Anupam Nath / AP

Migrants from the northeastern Indian states disembark from a train departing from the southern Indian city of Bangalore after arriving in Guwahati, in Assam state, on Aug. 18, 2012

In the world’s largest democracy, recent fears of pogroms and ethnic violence have highlighted just how fractious and febrile India’s social makeup is. Rumors circulating last week of planned attacks on migrants from the Indian Northeast saw tens of thousands of Northeasterners in some of India’s main cities cram onto trains bound for their remote homelands. The “exodus” — as it was branded in bold block letters by the Indian media — followed earlier incidents of ethnic strife in the northeastern state of Assam, where members of the indigenous Bodo tribe clashed with Bengali Muslim settlers, driving hundreds of thousands of Muslims out of their homes. Mass SMSes, emails and posts over Facebook and Twitter warned of (and, in some cases, encouraged) Muslim reprisal attacks on Northeasterners in cities like India’s tech capital, Bangalore, as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan drew to a close, sparking a nationwide panic.

The threat, it seems, has subsided in the past few days, with many of those who fled now returning to their livelihoods in Bangalore and elsewhere. The government, even backed by the Opposition, has made the right noises, appealing to national solidarity, condemning attacks on all sides and assuring minorities of their safety. Officials predictably pointed the finger at internet troublemakers across the border in Pakistan; the Indian media is now wringing its hands over the pernicious effects of social media and the threat of further “cyber terror.”

(MORE: Fearing Attacks, Thousands Continue to Flee Bangalore)

But as the hysteria ebbs, serious challenges remain. The seven states of the Indian Northeast, a vast, rugged appendage off the Indian mainland suspended between China, Bhutan, Burma and Bangladesh, are among the country’s most impoverished and least developed, and are still beset by myriad ethnic insurgencies. Elsewhere in India, Northeasterners, many of whom look closer in appearance to neighboring populations in China and Southeast Asia, face daily, casual racism. The success of Northeastern athletes such as the Olympic medal winning boxer Mary Kom offers small moments of acceptance for a region that is often met by the rest of India with blithe ignorance. “It is not so much about whether I feel Indian or not, but whether people feel I am Indian or not. I constantly have to prove my Indian-ness,” says Yengkhom Jilangamba, an academic based in New Delhi who hails from Manipur, a state on the border with Burma. “It is traumatic, it makes you angry and sometimes you just shrug it off, but it is always there with you.”

The alienation felt by many Northeasterners is in part a consequence of the region’s distance — both geographic and cultural — from the rest of the country. The lands that it comprises fell under British colonial rule in the mid-19th century and eventually were amalgamated into a pluralist, polyglot newly independent Indian republic. “It’s the most complex place in Asia,” says Sanjoy Hazarika, chairman and director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research in New Delhi. “You have 220 ethnic groups packed into a triangular shape of land linked to India by just a tiny corridor.” But, says Hazarika, a legacy of poor governance, weak local leadership and volatile, violent politics has seen it lag drastically behind the rest of the country. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the same draconian military law that New Delhi has in place over restive Kashmir, is in effect over stretches of the seven northeastern states where numerous fractured, armed, anti-government movements still operate. A climate of apprehension and insecurity has stymied development, prompting hundreds of thousands to seek employment in India’s main cities.

(MORE: India Continues to Grapple with Fallout from Assam Violence)

“The complexity of the region continues to confound the bureaucrats and politicians in Delhi,” says Hazarika. This year’s violence in Assam between the indigenous Bodos and Bengali Muslims was hardly anything new. Similar clashes have taken place for decades; for some Muslim communities in Assam, a whole generation has grown up in refugee camps. The Bodos and other groups in the region — as well as the main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, in New Delhi — complain of illegal immigration of Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh, which, they say, has been encouraged by various governments to create blocs of voters permanently in their debt. Yet like the Bengali-speaking Muslim Rohingyas facing persecution in nearby Burma, many of these Muslims know no other home than Assam and India. “It’s more difficult to actually resolve issues related to land resources and ethnic tensions than it is to make a hue and cry about illegal immigration,” says Hazarika.

For some Northeasterners, disillusionment has set in. “The authorities are to blame here. They failed to learn a lesson from previous incidences of violence,” says Ritupan Goswami, a researcher at the Council for Social Development, a New Delhi-based NGO, who is originally from the Assamese capital, Guwahati. “Given the current situation I think secession from India is better for the people. I for one do not consider myself an Indian national—rather an Assamese national.” Secession, though long the rallying call for an array of distinct separatist groups, each championing their own ethnic fief, is not in the cards, nor necessarily a popular aspiration.

(MORE: Million Rupee Baby: India’s Mary Kom Could Be the Olympics’ Most Unlikely Champion)

Ninong Ering, a Member of Parliament from the ruling Congress party, serving a constituency in the mountainous state of Arunachal Pradesh, insists most of what ails the Northeast and its over 40 million people can be solved with concerted plans for developing industries and the region’s currently woeful infrastructure. “Our boys don’t really go into [insurgent groups] because they want sovereignty or something like that,” says Ering. “It’s because of poverty. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing for them to do here.”

The region’s geo-political relevance cannot be understated. The shadow of China looms large — Beijing still claims much of the territory of Arunachal Pradesh as its own and has ramped up its investment and infrastructure along the contested border with India, while nationalist Chinese websites routinely urge China’s leadership to stealthily wrest the Northeast away from India. Various insurgent groups — from Assam’s ULFA to separatist factions in the state of Nagaland — have ties to a host of regional actors, ranging from sympathetic rebel ethnic militias in Burma to both Pakistan and Bangladesh’s military intelligence agencies. Though far from New Delhi’s corridors of power, the Northeast ought to increasingly preoccupy the concerns of its strategists.

Ering says the central government is on the right track to bringing stability to the region, albeit belatedly. Its potential for hydropower could go a long way in addressing India’s longstanding energy shortfalls. New planned roads and rail lines could restore colonial-era trade links that once threaded India together with Southeast Asia, turning a remote backwater into a continental crossroads. But beyond development, Ering says, other steps can be taken to better integrate the Northeast with the rest of India. “We all go to school and learn about the Indus Valley and the Mahabharata,” he says, referring to South Asia’s first urban civilization and the ancient Hindu epic. “But there should be something more in our education that makes people understand that, OK, the people of the Northeast may look Chinese or Korean or whatever, but they are Indians. And their stories are India’s also.”

with reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick/New Delhi