Development Studies #1: Ethnic conflict and civil society in the Northeast

Sanjoy Hazarika

Some years ago, I coined the phrase “One thousand years in a lifetime” to express the breakneck speed at which political, economic and social developments have swamped the Northeast of India and its people in the past half a century. I was reminded of that during a recent visit to Nagaland, where people spoke of the terrific pace of events and felt overwhelmed by despair at not being able to control them.

Photo courtesy: manipuronline.com

The Northeast is a magnificent and tragic tapestry of people, events and nature. You can be touched by its rivers, rain and mist, overwhelmed by its seeming gentleness and stirred by its powerful and evocative history. There is strength and fragility in its immense diversity — 350 communities in eight states with a population of about 35 million people. Communities with kin in neighbouring countries. Not less than four countries abut on its region, which juts out of the mainland of India towards Myanmar, with long borders with China, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Indeed, not less than 98 per cent of its land borders are with these nations. A bare two per cent is India’s share. Is it surprising, therefore, that people and communities there feel alienated and very distant, not just from Delhi, but the rest of the country?

There are many truths here, conflicting realities, especially in terms of perceptions. Indeed, it is these differing perceptions that lie at the root of most conflicts in the region, between India and its perceived Northeast as well as within the Northeast itself.

This is Asia in miniature, where the brown and yellow races meet and mingle, where communities and oral histories span national boundaries as seamlessly as the mountains and the forests run across them. The only land connection with India is a narrow corridor, the Chicken’s Neck, through which flow natural and finished resources such as oil, gas and tea in the out direction and consumer goods, food and other essential and non-essential items into the Northeast. There are sensitive and complex problems that have defied solution for as long as independent India has existed.

Our population of barely 35 million, about three per cent of the national figure, is just above one fourth of that of Bangladesh. It’s an anthropologist’s delight and an administrator’s nightmare. A settlement in one district that satisfies one group will alienate five communities in another part of the same district, not to speak of the state! There are special laws, constitutional provisions such as the Sixth Schedule and Article 371A, which seek to protect the traditions, lands and rights of various hill communities. In fact, no land can be bought by a non-tribal, even if he or she should live there. There can be no alienation of land.

Read more at The Little Magazine’s page, where it appeared initially.

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About Negotiating Conflict

The Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras is organising its second academic conference in the month of September, 2012 under the overarching theme of ‘Negotiating Conflict’. The two day conference will have a session each on Economics, English Studies and Development Studies offering an array of lectures, panel discussions by the leading thinkers and paper presentations by students. For queries, please mail at: negotiatingconflict2012@gmail.com.
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