Sunday, July 12, 2009

North East: The victim of Homeland Politics

The North East India comprising formerly of the independent kingdoms of Assam (Ahom), Tripura (Tipperah) and Manipur before the British colonial period have been split into the existing seven states in the post merger era. The fractured legacy of colonial era is having a serious negative implications towards evolving a civic culture and nationalism among the Mongoloid people of so called India’s North East. The flawed policy of state and nation building initiated hastily by the ‘post-colonial’ India coupled with the colonial legacy of ethnicized polity has caused the region and its people dearly. Assam was the worst victim of New Delhi’s appeasement policy towards ethno-centric armed groups craving for ethnic based homelands or states. Several areas of Assam were dismembered to create the present states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. Leaving alone Meghalaya, the states of Nagaland and Mizoram were trophies won as response of the Government of India to bloody insurgency movements, the first under the banner of Naga National Council (NNC) and second Mizo National Front (MNF).
With the creation of Mizoram as a full fledged state, insurgency movement of the Mizo-Chin indigenous groups is believed to have been quelled. This is not the case in the Naga Hills or the present day Nagaland. Despite the claim of being an exclusive state of Nagas, a conglomerate of several sub-tribes, there exists internal contradictions and inter-tribal rivalry for dominance over resources and commercial centres. Notwithstanding the efforts of the major Naga insurgent groups to forge a compact cohesiveness amongst the Naga sub-tribes, there have been reports of factional fights and inter or intra-tribal clashes. This may be assumed as a result of parochial feelings and ethno-centrism followed wittingly or unwittingly by influential armed groups. Their policy of exclusivity was brought to the fore when Manipur witnessed disastrous ethnic clashes between tribes of Naga and Kuki in the early 1990s. The ethnic clash had all the characteristics of a ‘design’ to flush out scattered Kuki people from the Naga dominated areas.
Refreshing our mind with the upheaval of the early 1990s in the hills of Manipur, one would not find hard to grasp the politics of ethno-nationalism pursued by the protagonists of Greater Nagaland or Nagalim which is non-inclusive as Yenning pointed out in the previous article. On the other side of the Lim agenda, another parallel agenda of Kukigam or Zale’ngam is being pushed forward by Thadou-Chin-Kuki armed outfits, though not so vigorously or forcefully. These camps seems to harbor a preconceived notion that the territorial space of Manipur constitutes only the valley area, which comprises only one-tenth of the total area of the state. Moreover, they consider the hill areas of Manipur as never have been a part of the independent kingdom of Manipur. However, contrary to the notion, valley based insurgents appear to project an inclusive Manipur based on civic nationalism where plurality of identities, religions and ethnicity is accommodated within the Manipuri nation. In short, two forces, one centripetal and another centrifugal, are acting upon the existing politico-legal entity called Manipur. So far, the two forces are apparently in a state of equilibrium helping in maintaining the status quo. The demands for exclusive political space with an irredentist claim has created an atmosphere of fragmentation and potent hatred among symbiotically related communities and this has constructed a kind of psychological disposition of ‘we’ and ‘other’, hence becoming strangers to each other. Yenning believes, Manipur is too small a territorial space where strangers cannot avoid touching upon each others’ lives, and remain strangers.
Even after shelving off large chunks of geographical areas to create and realise the present day Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, Assam today continues to experience serious threats to its territorial integrity as a result of demands from various camps viz. the Nagalim, Bodo Homeland, Dimaraji and others. But what is enigmatic and taking a heavy toll on the social fabric is the concomitant killings on ethnic lines. The projected territories of these armed groups are often overlapping in many cases giving rise to confrontations in different forms. This is ostensibly visible in the ongoing ethnic violence between Dimasas and Zeme Nagas in North Cachar Hills district of Assam.
Identity Politics:
The existing socio-ethnic conflicts are deeply rooted in the politics of identity that took an ugly shape in the last three or four decades. Several tribal groups seeking separate identity on the ground of perceived socio-politico injustice due to short-sighted political tactics of regional and national political leaders cannot be outrightly dismissed as parochial or tribalism. Here, Yenning would frankly acknowledge the imminent threat felt by indigenous peoples of the entire North East region to their identities, cultural and traditional heritage which are marked by sharp differences from the culture, tradition and ethos of mainland India-a land of multiple races. With majority of leaders clinging to ethno-centrism, negating any chance for evolvement of inclusive civic nationalism, there is no solution in sight to the vexing problems of the region.
The Case of Assam:
With Bangladeshi immigrants making huge inroads into Assam since the mid 1970s with tacit support of political leaders (as vote banks), their population in Assam stands at two to three millions today. The result is that ethnic tension is building up in Barpeta, Kokrajhar and Nalbari between Bangladeshi settlers and Bodos who are also demanding an autonomous Bodoland. There are other parallel demands for Karbi Anglong, Udyachal and Dimaraji. The pursuit of exclusive ethnic homeland by carving out an imagined territorial space in an otherwise plural context has led to the killings among the kindred ethnic groups of the region.
The latest casualty of homeland politics in Assam is North Cachar Hills where more than 60 people have been slaughtered in ethnic conflict in addition to burning down of hundreds of houses in the last four months. This time Dimaraji, the dream homeland of Dimasas as espoused by the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) or Dimasa National Defence Force is the underlying cause that is bleeding NC Hills. Though Dimasas constitute the majority community, there is considerable presence of other tribes, most notable being Zeme Nagas. The Hmars, Kukis, Baites, Hrangkhols, Khelmas, Jaintias and Karbis, too, have sizeable population in addition to non-tribal communities such as Assamese, Bengalis and Nepalese. It is not only the DHD or Dimasas but other tribes inhabiting the district have also been afflicted by identity politics and ethno-centrism as elsewhere in the whole North East region.
As we mentioned earlier, projected geographical territories of ‘homelands’ are often overlapping or should we say encroach upon each other. For instance, the Dimasas are clamouring for Dimapur. The projected territory of Dimaraji encompasses Dimapur and adjoining areas presently within Nagaland. The Dimasas have been claiming that Dimapur and surrounding areas were part of the erstwhile Dimasa kingdom. Dimapur, however, is an integral part of the so called Nagalim. Theoretically, creation of Dimaraji would mean ‘dismembering’ Nagaland just as the pursuit of Nagalim evokes similar questions to the territorial integrity of Manipur, Assam and to some extent Arunachal Pradesh. Given trajectories of claims and counter claims over land as witnessed in the NC Hills, today, ‘dismemberment’ carries the potential of violence and counter violence, which can put the entire region into endless flames.
Skipping the question of the possibility or impossibility of realising such ‘homelands’ or ‘greater lands’, let us first interrogate the politics and implications of such demands for Balkanisation (or sub-Balkanization as Yenning prefers to call) of the existing political territories. One may say that marginalization, (read indigenous population of the region), threat to identity, culture and ethno-centric ambitions are the principal driving forces behind the suicidal agenda of ‘homelands’ and ‘greater lands’. The demand for homelands is compelled, in some cases, by the urgency to overcome marginalization in the form of economic deprivation and political muffling. The other cause is the growing threat to their ethnic identity for which it is believed that separate homeland is a viable remedy. But Yenning cannot subscribe to these lines of thinking for the so called majority communities like the Assamese in Assam and the Meiteis in Manipur are also under serious threat to their own culture, tradition and identity from multiple factors.
The demand for ‘greater land’ is more dangerous. It smacks of a hard-line, militaristic ambition based on racial supremacy theory that spelled doom in the 19th and early 20th century witnessed in the form of colonisation of African and Asian countries by European powers before plunging the whole world in two disastrous wars of colossal magnitude.
Manipur already has the bitter experience of ethnic clashes. Several parts of Assam are also caught in internal ethnic strife, intermittently marked by killings and revenge killings. But this ethnic or communal tension transcends across several states for most of the ethnic tribes of the region are trans-border communities. This implies that the whole region is caught in a turmoil fuelled by homeland politics. One ethnic group or community cannot extricate themselves from the turmoil alone. The issue should be tackled collectively. Here, it is crucial to underscore the reality that threat to identity is not only to any particular group from groups having primordial connectivity and similarity in the region, but all the indigenous peoples of the region, and that homeland is not a solution. One must have the ability to see the plethora of factors that can have negative impacts upon the identity, culture, polity and economy of the region. Instead of embracing ethno-nationalism, leaders of all ethnic groups and communities should work towards cultivating and promoting civic nationalism where pluralism, secularism and multiplicity of identity are given due accommodation. Civic nationalism, if allowed to grow, can definitely redress the ills of the region and put it on a progressive trajectory.
(Posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday July 12, 2009

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