Throughout this trip, and in particular in the North East of India, we have come across armed separatist movements. As we elaborated in the previous three posts, Nagaland and Manipur are buzzing with factions fighting for more autonomy or independence. In Assam, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is the largest of a dozen of insurgency movements and has fought for secession from India since 1979. A smaller movement fighting for independence not from India but from Assam since 1987 is the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), through whose proposed homeland we traveled after exiting Bhutan. And in West Bengal, visiting its main attraction Darjeeling, we had traveled through what many locals in fact hope to one day call their own State of Ghorkaland.Often, the reasons for these movements are understandable. Like in the case of Nagaland and Manipur, which are areas with completely distinct identities and histories yet were suddenly taken to become part of newly independent India. Our Assamese guide in Kaziranga National Park explained that the demand for an independent Assam is largely fuelled by the unequal distribution of revenue from Assam’s large oil provisions, as well as by a general feeling of neglect and internal colonization by Delhi. The movements for Bodoland and Ghorkaland are different in that they demand Statehood rather than independence, but likewise they rest on the grounds of a different ethno-linguistic identity, a separate history and (claimed) economic disparity. The Nepali-originated inhabitants of Darjeeling for example feel no cultural affiliation with West Bengal, and Darjeeling has been a separate district part of the British Empire since 1835 when it was given to the British East India Company by Sikkim.
The movement for an independent Ghorkaland is particularly interesting, in that it reaffirms its patriotism to India while demanding a separate State – under the slogan ‘Jai Hind, Jai Ghorkha’. The main cultural sentiment of its protagonists is the desire to be identified as Indian Ghorkas (= people of Nepali origin) rather than as Nepali migrants. Ever since the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Myanmar allowed free movement of people between the two countries, the Ghorkhas have sought to affirm that their presence in the country long predates independent India and was a result of the policies of the British colonial empire.
However, the high death tolls and serious level of division within these movements cast a dark shadow on their otherwise perhaps understandable causes. It is said that since its inception in 1979 the Assamese separatist movement has taken a toll of over 30,000 people, including 12,000 UFLA members and 18,000 others. And are the many Naga factions really upholding the general will of the people they claim to represent? It seems that many groups have arisen that are profiting from the unrest, thus having a vested interest in the continuation of the conflicts.Exact sentiments and loyalties of citizens seem to vary from place to place. Whereas in Nagaland we got the impression that many civilians were resenting the disorder and turmoil caused by the factions and didn’t really believe it was worth continuing the fight, in Darjeeling we understood that despite serious skepticism about the credibility of the Ghorka’s political leadership, the popular sentiment is overwhelmingly in favor of a separate Ghorkaland State. On most houses that we passed there would be pro-Ghorkaland graffiti, and most cars sported pro-Ghorkaland bumper stickers. And in a beautiful old church near the central square of Darjeeling, I had a nice chat with a charming old lady, who together with 6 other ladies was just completing her weekly one-day fast in support of the cause. Although she said they had no illusion about the probability of a separate Ghorkaland, they would continue their silent protest untill the end of their days.
Since the passing of a resolution to recommend the formation of a separate Telangana state from Andhra Pradesh in Congress a couple of months ago (July), demands for statehood have flared up throughout India including for Ghorkaland and Bodoland. Bandhs (strikes) lasting weeks had taken place in the hills of Darjeeling just before we arrived, and by various people there we were warned of more possible unrest as the Government had taken an exceptionally tough stand. Except for a few shops being shut however, we didn’t notice anything unusual.
In a place so vast and diverse as India, Delhi’s narrow-minded approach to ethnic variety, and its extremely violent crackdowns on their movements, puzzles me. From Anuradha M. Chenoy and Kamal A. Mitra Chenoy, both professors of Jawaharlal University, Delhi, I understand that India does not accept the concept of indigenous people and that the official position is that there are only religious and linguistic minorities. “Partly as a reaction to British colonialism and the construction of the Indian nation, the nationalistic discourse is profoundly homogenizing. Though cultural variations are recognized and within limits celebrated, there is a notion of ‘composite culture’ incorporating strands from all of India’s diverse cultures, rather than recognition of a multiplicity or plurality of cultures corresponding to different nationalities or nascent nationality formations … Minority cultural and political assertions are subordinated to elitist upper class/caste ideologies, and such ideas have shaped the Indian’s state’s response to movements for autonomy or self-determination, which are seen as ‘identity politics’” (in Maiost and other Armed Conflicts). Whilst understandable in light of the threat of fragmentation after independence, one would hope that over the years Delhi would have progressed towards a more nuanced stance.
Moreover, it seems that Delhi’s highly militarized treatment of the movements only has the opposite effect of what is intended; alienation and infuriation rather than more control. Since 1950 Government has passed several acts, both at the Centre and State level, to tackle separatist movements in certain parts of the country. The most feared of these is the Armed Forces Special Powers Acts (AFSPA) introduced in 1958, which permits arrest without warrant, with whatever force necessary, of any person against whom suspicion exists. Basically, it gives soldiers complete immunity against prosecution, providing the basis for indiscriminate arrests and the use of brutal force against innocent citizens. As such, the Act has instilled a deep sense of collective grievance amongst communities involved in or affected by the armed conflicts, reinforcing the desire for separation. In particular the paramilitary force of the Assam Rifles, tasked with maintaining internal security in the North East and guarding the Indo-Myanmar border, are resented for their severe human rights abuses.
Lately, it seems the Assam Rifles have changed their tactics somewhat, now propagating themselves as ‘The Sentinels of the Northeast’ and ‘Friends of the Hill People’. Throughout Nagaland and Manipur we came across dubious road signs espousing their affability, and on the webpages of the Indian Defense Service it is mentioned that the Assam Rifles have made a monumental contribution ‘towards assimilation of the people of north-east into the national mainstream.’ A slightly more harmless series of road signs similarly seeking to claim they are bringing the states of the Northeast to ‘the mainstream’ were those of the Border Roads Organization (BRO). Responsible for building roads and maintaining road safety all over India, their often sharp and funny slogans have amused us throughout our trip.Understandably, the violent partition of British India in 1947 infused a fear of fragmentation in the new nation-state, for which India avoided the division of provinces on ethno-linguistic lines. A deepening hegemonic cultural and ideological stance meanwhile has made India’s militarism so pervasive and resilient. But have cultural and ideological subordination combined with a highly militarized response allowed India to move closer to peace and prosperity?
These are questions that are also relevant for Myanmar’s on-going reform process. After 50 years of brutal dictatorship, Myanmar is now trying to resolve its two interlinked conflicts: the struggle for a democratically accountable government, and the struggles for self-determination of its ethnic minorities (which make up over a third of the population). How Myanmar will manage its diversity and meet the challenge posed by ethnic separatism will largely determine its future stability and development direction. Looking at India – where despite 60 years of democracy, demands for ethno-linguistic reorganization have persisted – Myanmar might realise that mere democracy is probably not going to be enough, and consider a so-far feared federal agreement allowing for a certain level of self-determination…