Indigenous Peoples, Cultural Survival and Minority Policy in Northeast India

In June 1986 an accord between the government of India and the Mizo National Front ended a 20-year-old insurgency by the Mizos, an indigenous minority group in northeast India that wanted to secede from India. In the following weeks Mizo guerrillas trekked down the hills of neighboring Bangladesh and Burma and surrendered their weapons to the Indian authorities. As part of the accord, Laldenga, the legendary leader of the insurgents, became the chief minister of the state of Mizoram; within a few months an election gave him the mandate to continue in that position.

In two years, however, Laldenga's political party, the Mizo National Front, lost the state election. Laldenga himself was defeated in one of the two constituencies that he had contested. Apparently the goodwill be had garnered had given way to an unfavorable judgment by the voters on his government's performance. Even though Laldenga claimed that the election was rigged - a charge not uncommon in Indian elections, and one promptly refuted by the Indian authorities - no one suggested that electoral defeat might push the one-time rebel leader and his supporters back to the Jungles.

There are two aspects to the Mizo story. On the one hand, the armed rebellion meant that Mizo guerrillas faced the military strength of the Indian state, and Mizo civilians suffered serious human rights, violations as Mizoram came under military rule On the other hand, the formation of Mizoram - the land of the Mizos - first as a Union Territory in 1972 and later as a full-fledged state in 1987, permitted the resolution of the Mizo conflict and the incorporation of the once disaffected Mizos into the Indian political process. The Mizo story is emblematic of the two aspects of the Indian government's policy vis-a-vis indigenous minorities in northeast India.

The successful political incorporation of dissenting minority groups by giving them significant levels of political autonomy and a major say in determining public policy is an important but relatively unrecognized part of the Indian government's minority policy in the northeast. This aspect of Indian record, however, is not necessarily the result of an enlightened policy. It is partly the result of the somewhat reluctant continuation of colonial policy, which emphasized the protection of vulnerable indigenous peoples from their more crafty neighbors - a policy that became popular among indigenous minorities even though it was out of favor in Indian nationalist circles.

The government's minority policy is also partly the result of the diffusion of a model of political autonomy through culturally defined states that was developed mainly with respect to peninsular India. Even though the model was thought to bear little relevance to northeast India it has nonetheless shaped the political imagination of that region's indigenous minorities, as it did in the case of larger ethnic groups in the rest of the country. It has proven to be an effective way or granting political autonomy to minority groups within the framework of the Indian polity.

The results of this minority policy in northeast India contrast sharply with the condition of most indigenous peoples in peninsular India and elsewhere in southern Asia. This point was underlined recently when the leader of the Chin tribal insurgents in Burma - a group that is culturally contiguous with the Mizos of India - declared to the embarrassment of the Indian authorities that the Chin National Front was "exploring possibilities of a merger with India." He called for Indian assistance toward Chin liberation, and said we will secede from Burma and join India, where minorities are assured of greater rights." The government of India, not surprisingly, completely disassociated itself from such sentiments.

Northeast India: The Setting

Northeast India is on India's cultural periphery, an area where India begins to look less and less like the rest of southern Asia and more and more like the Southeast Asian cultural region. A major, two-volume work published in 1967 on Southeast Asia included a chapter on Assam, whose boundaries then were more or less synonymous with what is called northeast India today. As Kunstadter, the editor of the volume, put it:

The population of eastern India [northeast India in our vocabulary] includes a large population of tribal and minority people who speak languages closely related to languages of Southeast Asia rather than to the languages of India proper, and their cultures in many ways resemble the cultures of neighboring Southeast Asian peoples. Just as the southern boundary of China does not make a cultural or linguistic division, the eastern border of India does not mark off a cultural or linguistic area. Eastern India thus is an area where Southeast Asian highlanders come in contact with a highly stratified lowland society based on caste.

The tribal-non-tribal cleavage in northeast India resembles that of many Southeast Asian countries. As Burling has said:

[L]ike the nations of Southeast Asia, Assam [northeast India in today's terms] has a minority of tribal mountaineers who differ in many ways from the lowland majority. As in much of the Southeast Asia proper, the hill men live largely be swidden agriculture; they are fragmented into dozens of linguistic groups, and until the colonial period no political system based in the plains was able to extend its control consistently into the hills. Except for recent converts to Christianity the hill men (like most of their cousins to the east) fall under the vague rubric of "animism" and are thus sat off from their Hindu neighbors in the valley. And as in other parts of Southeast Asia, lowlanders tend to look upon the hill people as naive and primitive rustics, while they are often seen in return as wily, sophisticated scoundrels.

Christian missionaries were very effective in the hills of northeast India in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: as many as 86 percent of the population of Mizoram, 67 percent of Nagaland and 47 percent of the population of Meghalaya are now Christians.

As Table 1 indicates, "scheduled tribes" constitute a major segment of the population of the northeast, representing a majority in four of the seven states. The term scheduled tribes in Indian policy discourse refers to a list that includes the names of groups entitled to affirmative action programs for tribals. The term tribal, however needs some qualification. Analytically, the term refers to people who live on the periphery of dominant social formations: forests and hills are their traditional habitat. Most scheduled tribes of northeast India today, however, do not conform to the traditional stereotypes associated with the term. The Mizos, for instance, have a literacy rate of 60 percent - one of the highest in India.

The tribals are among he indigenous inhabitants of the area However, the indigenous-non-indigenous distinction may not be as easy to sustain in distinguishing between ethnic groups in the northeast. The tension between indigenous groups and outsiders is an important theme in the politics of the area. The issue has acquired political saliency largely due to the fact that as southern Asia's last land frontier, the northeast has seen an extremely high influx of immigrants during the past century.

In dealing with India's minority policy in the northeast, this essay is not concerned only with tribal groups. It will on occasion refer to the non-tribal Assamese of the Brahmaputra Valley and the Meiteis of Manipur, both numerically small ethnic groups that have in recent years asserted their rights as indigenous peoples (not unlike the Bhumiputra [sons of the soil] of Malaysia) against immigrant groups. In the last couple of years the Assamese have confronted powerful political opposition from the Bodos, a scheduled tribe whose members claim to be the original inhabitants of Assam. By contrast, say the more extremist Bodo activists, the more Hinduized Assamese, whose folklore emphasizes descent from immigrants from peninsular India rather than ethnic contiguity with the indigenous tribal population, are outsiders who exploit them.

The Exclusionary Legacy of Colonial Policy

One element of policy toward tribals that the post-colonial Indian state inherited in northeast India was the status of many parts of the region as excluded and partially excluded areas. The Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873 allowed the government to prescribe, and from time to time alter by notification, a line to be called the Inner Line and to prohibit any subject living outside the area from living or moving therein". The areas beyond the Inner Line were supposed to be outside the active control of the colonial administration.

Beyond this line the tribes are left to manage their own affairs with only such interference on the part of the frontier officers in their political capacity as may be considered advisable with the view to establishing a personal influence for good among the chiefs and the tribes. Over time administrative control was extended beyond the Inner Line; but the movement of people remained restricted beyond the Inner Line. The Inner Line was extended to all the hills except the Khasi and the Garo Hills - today's state of Meghalaya - and the Mikir Hills - the Karbi Anglong district of present-day Assam. The plains areas of present-day Assam and Tripura were unprotected by such exclusionary rules.

The British had many reasons for adopting an exclusionary policy in the northeast. They were not anxious to extend administration to the tribal areas with the attendant political risks and financial expenses, so long as there were other ways or ensuring their suzerainty. The colonial distrust of educated and well-to-do Indians also partly explains this element in colonial policy. Thus in the British House of Commons debate on the Government of India Act of 1935, Col. Wedgewood argued that the "backward" tracts should remain under British control and should not be controlled by the elected government of the province. Educated Indians, he argued, "want to get them as cheap labour and if these people are to be saved from the hell of civilization, the only chance they have is British protection and British control and to be free from the insidious advances of the rich people in the Provinces to exploit them".

The colonial period did not see much effective opposition to the exclusionary policy. Yet there was the occasional dissenting view of the modernizing and assimilationist nationalist, and that should serve to remind us of what could have happened to many an indigenous group without the protection of the Inner Line. Thus a plains politician, Promode C. Dutta, argued before the Simon Commission (1927-1930) regarding the excluded hill areas:

Is it fair that 50,000 square miles of territory should be kept as a close preserve for about a million people while six and half million should be concentrated in 27,000 square miles? We had always looked forward to the material advantages which the vastness of the hill territories and its mineral wealth would afford, in the fullness of time, to the common benefit of the hills and the plains.

Indian nationalist opinion was distrustful of the exclusionary thrust of colonial policy. The nationalists saw it as part of a colonial design of "divide and rule." It is to the credit of the post-colonial Indian state that the thrust of the exclusionary policy has been maintained after Independence despite its unpopularity among nationalists. The Constituent Assembly voted to maintain the excluded and partially excluded status of the tribal areas of northeast India. With respect to the area called the North East Frontier Agency - Arunachal Pradesh of today - which was a fully excluded area, the Administrative Reforms Commission noted in 1967 that "some people seem to believe that the 'Inner Line' has only served to insulate the people of NEFA from the mainstream of national life and this in the long run, will not be beneficial for them). Yet the commission disagreed with that position and noted that "almost every person both official and non-official, we met during out visit to NEFA" felt that the continuation of the Inner Line was "in the larger interests of NEFA people".

After the formation of distinct states, tribal leaders in power in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya have sought today to continue and even strengthen the exclusionary laws. There is sentiment for extending the Inner Line to non-tribal areas. Thus the leaders of a popular agitation in Assam on the issue of illegal immigration in the early 1980s demanded that the Inner Line be extended to Assam. A meeting of regional parties of the northeastern states held in 1986 demanded that the system of Inner Line permits required in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh be extended to all the states of the northeast, for this would be the only way to check the "large-scale influx of outsiders" that was "swamping the small nationalities" of the northeast. "Today," notes B.P. Singh in a recent took on the northeast, "the inner line is being widely demanded and this restrictive system is regarded as the only effective mechanism for the protection of the tribal 'identity' and culture.' There are many who would like to see this line over the Brahmaputra Valley as well." Singh sees in it evidence of how "the psychology of isolation" has been "perpetuated by the 'inner line' system.

It is not hard to gauge, however, why exclusionary laws are popular among indigenous groups in the northeast. In Tripura, where the tribals have had no Inner Line protection, their percentage in the population declined from 64 percent in 1874 to 28 percent in 1981. Migrants - mostly from East Bengal - now constitute 70 percent of the population and dominate the political process. In June 1980 several hundred were killed in riots between tribals and Bengali migrants. In Assam, based on the difference between the 1891 census and the 1971 census, it is estimated that immigrants and their descendants may account for as much as 8.5 million-a majority - of the 1971 population of 15 million. The immigration issue led to serious political turmoil in Assam between 1979 and 1985.

Political Autonomy Through Culturally Defined States

A second element in the Indian minority policy in the northeast is the use of the concept of a culturally defined state as a way of granting political autonomy. The principle that India is made up of distinct linguistic groups was accepted by Indian nationalist leaders as early as 1920, when the Indian National Congress under Mohandas Gandhi decided to organize the Congress into 21 provincial Congress Committees based on local languages. After Independence, the States Reorganization Commission (SRC) implicitly extended the linguistic state principle by recommending redrawing the borders between Indian states based on linguistic considerations.

The commission, however, was careful not to legitimize the principle of linguistic states, even while basing its recommendations on that principle. For although linguistic states could satisfy the demands of a number of ethnic groups in some parts of the country, in areas with no single, locally accepted language, the notion was potentially very divisive. The northeast was one such area.

The SRC was quite aware of the difficulty of extending the principle of culturally defined states to the northeast. In fact the SRC's vision for the northeast was a culturally diverse state that would have included all the present states of the northeast. It recommended the incorporation of the North East Frontier Agency into Assam, which was then administered directly by the central government even though it was constitutionally a part of Assam. The SRC even proposed the merger of Tripura with Assam. Regarding Manicur, the SRC recommended that it continue to be centrally administered for the that it continue to be centrally administered for the moment, but should eventually merge with Assam.

The model of a culturally defined state in many ways is ill-suited to northeast India. Yet with the acceptance of the principle in the country as a whole, the idea of separate statehood shaped the political imagination of ethnic minorities in many parts of India. The northeast was no exception. In the decades since the SRC recommendations, the government of India responded to demands by indigenous groups in the northeast by giving them separate states in India's federal system. The initial effort to make these units something less than full-fledged states was given up in the face of local opinion, which favored full statehood.

The departure from the vision of the States Reorganization Commission started with the formation of Nagaland in 1963 as a result of the government's attempt to deal with the Naga insurgency. The demand for a hill state consisting of the remaining hill areas of Assam - that is, present-day Mizoram, Meghalaya and two other hill districts of Assam - had been circulating at least since the 1950s. But this demand was resisted until the late 1960s.

In December 1969 an "autonomous state" of Meghalaya, comprising the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and the Garo Hills districts of Assam, came into being. The Mikir Hills district was given a choice between joining Meghalaya or staying on with the state of Assam; the District Council voted not to join Meghalaya. The new autonomous state, which shared jurisdiction over some areas and a common capital with the state of Assam, was a short-lived experiment. In 1970 the two Union territories of Manipur and Tripura were declared full fledged states. It was only a matter of time before Meghalaya's desire to become a full-fledged state would be conceded, and the state of Meghalaya was inaugurated in January 1972. In February 1987 the Union Territories of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh became India's 23rd and 24th states.

The Benefits of Statehood

What benefits do the indigenous minorities of northeast India gain from statehood? These mini-states allow the elected representatives of indigenous peoples to gain power at the state level and to determine policy on areas that the under the constitutional jurisdiction of the states. This is a significant step. Whether these elected representatives formulate policy that is good for their electors, however, is not an easy question to answer, and is, incidentally, a question that plagues all democracies.

The significance of having indigenous elites in power cannot be exaggerated. For instance the control of state legislatures by representatives of indigenous peoples has meant that on substantive issue, such as the Inner Line policy, the indigenous perspective is reflected in the law of the land. Writing on the Apa Tanis of Arunachal Pradesh, the anthropologist Fürer-Haimendorf notes:

Apa Tanis of the present generation, both traditionalist and modern, fully support this (the Inner-Line) policy, and there are no indications that they would welcome the lifting of the protective barrier which interferes in no way with the movements of Apa Tanis and other tribesmen but keeps out potential exploiters. It is difficult to imagine that in the foreseeable future [the] Legislative Assembly of Arunachal Pradesh, composed overwhelmingly by [sic] tribal representatives, would agree to open the territory to uncontrolled influx of population from the plains. It may thus be safe in predicting that for a long time to come the Apa Tani Valley will remain a heaven for a self-contained society unsurpassed in its skill to utilize the natural resources of its environment and to invest life with a joie de vivre such as few Indian societies can rival.

Once democratically elected indigenous leaders control power in their states, it is not easy to say what cultural policies they would want to adopt. Cultural survival is not an unproblematical concept. It has to incorporate a dynamic notion of culture; what to outsiders may appear to deserve preservation may or may not appear as such to the people themselves. The influence of the modern world seems to determine what these societies feel should be preserved and what should change. The experience of what indigenous people have done with political power in the northeast brings home this point.

Following is an example of cultural policies advocated by indigenous organizations that have emerged as part of the democratic process in Arunachal Pradesh. The Apa Tani Youth Organization in Arunachal Pradesh, which was established in 1974, adopted a number of resolutions - drafted in English - regarding ways to preserve their cultures and traditions. In one of these resolutions the Association resolved to "conduct cultural tourings and a social service camp" in the Apa Tani area. Among the objects of these tours are:

(1) to abolish the puncturing of the nose and the tattooing of the face, (2) to discourage the use of (cane) tails, (3) to discourage the wearing of unnecessary necklaces, (4) to modify the hair-dress of the young generation, (5) to encourage inter-caste marriage, (6) to abolish child marriage, (7) to encourage the use of traditional dress by both boys and girls (this refers to hand-woven clothes worn as cloaks), (8) to encourage cultural and fashion shows annually, (9) to encourage the community dance, (10) to improve the use of the Apa Tani dialect, (11) to encourage the use of the Roman alphabet as Apa Tani script.

The old and new traditions that have become part of the official cultural symbolism of the mini-states of northeast India would sometimes surprise outside observers. In 1988 I was struck by a sign that said "Jesus Lives" in newspaper pictures of an official ceremony held to inaugurate the first airport in Nagaland. The sign reflects the influence of Christianity among the Nagas - brought over by American Baptists - and the fact that many of Nagaland's elected officials are practicing Baptists.

There are also important social, economic and political consequences of India's minority policy in the northeast. Large amounts of development funds have been pumped into these areas in recent years; the development impact of these policies need to be evaluated. Political corruption in some of these states is believed to be quite extensive. Whatever one thinks of corruption, it seems that by making the local political process more responsive to the indigenous minorities, corruption may have aided the incorporation of these groups into the political process.

The Limits of the Policy Framework

Both the colonial policy of preservation and the post-colonial policy of culturally defined states assume a particular model or cultural survival that is problematical. The assumption that there are exclusive, territorially based ethnic groups that can all be given autonomy in their regions does not work in a context such as northeast India. To impose such a model there is to court danger, despite its effectiveness so far.

The mini-states of northeast India are hardly culturally homogeneous; yet their cultural policies have sought to give them each a particular identity, such as Mizo, Naga or Assamese. States such as Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have been more pluralistic in terms of official symbols. This aspect of India's minority policy might some day prove to be a Pandora's box.

Signs of significant tensions between ethnic groups have been growing within these states. In Mizoram, for instance, tension exists between the Mizos and the Buddhist Chakmas. One issue that divided the government of India and Mizo leader Laldenga for some time was Laldenga's insistence that the Chakma autonomous District Council, which gives Chakmas a certain amount of autonomy, be abolished. In the past some Hmars of Mizoram, too, have asserted their distinctiveness from the Mizos. The Pawis have a party called the Chin National Front. As a Pawi leader pointed out in 1972: "When the Mizos had a District Council, we [the Pawis, Lakers and Chakmas] also had a District Council. Since Mizoram has become a Union Territory, we also should have the same status which the Mizos have".

Such tensions have been a major part of the post-Independence history of the state of Assam. Under the influence of the ideology of the linguistic states, Assam's political leadership since the 1950s has pursued cultural policies - for example, its policy on the state's official language and on the language of educational institutions - the seek to define the state as Assamese. Superimposed on Assam's cultural diversity, these policies are a significant force in the alienation of some of the indigenous minorities from the Assamese. Right now, the Bodo demand for further division of the state of Assam in order to form a new state of Bodoland reflects the persistence of the problem. From time to time there have been demands for Greater Mizoram or Greater Nagaland - demands that have the potential to be highly emotional and divisive issues. The vision of a Greater Mizoram, for instance, would call for reclaiming Mizo territories now in Assam, Manipur and Tripura as well as in Burma and Bangladesh. The states of northeast India have erupted in armed conflict from time to time over territorial disputes.

Furthermore, the legacy of exclusionary policies is unlikely to be of much use in those areas that did not historically benefit from such policies and have absorbed the bulk of immigration into the area. In these areas, such as Assam and Tripura, this legacy has encouraged nativist movements that are now demanding exclusionary rules. Yet cultural survival in these areas would depend on developing inclusive and pluralistic definitions of their cultures, not on exclusionary models.


I have tried to focus on the aspects of India's minority policy in the northeast that have eluded most observers. It is not my intention to underemphasize the human rights violations in the northeast resulting from the Indian government's military response to the Naga and Mizo insurgencies, and the recurrent violent conflicts between locals and immigrants in most of these states. But that story is relatively well known.

Partly due to the recurrent political unrest, the Indian government has been reluctant to allow foreigners to visit the northeast. Yet, as the anthropologist Fürer-Haimendorf, who did pioneering work in the area in the 1940s and returned in 1978 to parts of Arunachal Pradesh, noted:

The developments in Arunachal Pradesh are undoubtedly one of the success stories of present-day India, and one wonders why the astounding progress of the tribesmen of this region is being covered with a veil of secrecy while the far less creditable situation in the tribal areas of Peninsular India can be observed without any need for official permission.

The Indian policy would probably compare quite favorably with the treatment indigenous minorities of the same geographical region have received in Bangladesh, in Burma and somewhat further away across the Himalayas, in Tibet.

Table 1

A Profile of Northeast India, 1981

State Area Population Growth Density Schedule Literacy

km² (millions) rate per km² percent percent

Assam 87,253 19.90 36.09 254 11.00 36.00

Nagaland 16,527 7.73 49.73 47 83.99 41.99

Meghalaya 22,487 1.32 31.25 59 80.58 33.22

Manipur 22,356 1.43 33.65 64 27.30 41.99

Tripura 19,477 2.00 32.37 196 28.44 41.58

Mizoram 21,087 4.87 46.75 23 93.82 59.50


Pradesh 83,578 6.28 46.75 7 69.82 20.09

India 3,287,782 683.80 24.75 221 7.76 36.17

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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