Politically and strategically vital Northeast India remains at the helm of identity politics, border conflicts, and insurgency. Interaction and migration of non-tribal communities has been seen as something that leads to social and political exclusion of indigenous tribes.
Such a situation has led to the demand of more autonomy and separation of tribal lands within or outside the nation. These issues get traction in political affairs of these states and the upcoming assembly elections in Nagaland, Tripura, and Meghalaya are no different.
The complex Naga issue
In Nagaland, the solution to the Naga issue —the demand for a Greater Nagalim by rebel groups— out of India has been long pending. Since the signing of the Framework Agreement in 2015 between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the Centre, three elections have passed.
Nagaland boycotted the first general elections in 1952 after over 90 per cent of the state’s population in a plebiscite the year before voted for a Greater Nagalim, an independent Naga nation separate from the Union of India. However, the Government of India refused to recognise it. Since then, every election in Nagaland has witnessed resistance from pressure groups, militant outfits, and even Opposition parties over the demand of a solution of the complex Naga issue.
In 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) fought the assembly elections on the slogan “Election for Solution” and made it to power. In August 2021, Opposition parties of Nagaland, including the influential Naga People’s Front, joined hands with ruling United Democratic Alliance (UDA) to take forward the Naga issue between the Centre and the NSCN (IM) and other groups. Thus, in a rare phenomenon, Nagaland became Opposition-less.
However, despite several talks with the main rebel group (NSCN-IM), and seven other armed outfits under the banner of Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs), the negotiations have remained stagnant since 2019 over the demand of NSCN (IM) for a separate Naga flag and a constitution.
In the run-up to assembly elections, the NNPGs have accused Nagaland BJP’s leadership of failing the people of the state by not finding a solution to the issue.
“If election is enforced in Nagaland against the people's demand for honorable and acceptable negotiated political settlement, men like Temjen Imna Along as per their trivial activities will most certainly ensure a wipe out of BJP from Nagaland," said NNPGs in a statement.
Apart from Greater Nagalim, the demand for a Frontier Nagaland has hogged the limelight recently. As per its supporters, the proposed state would be carved out of six eastern Nagaland districts —Mon, Kiphire, Longleng, Tuensang, Shamator, and Noklak— where 20 out of 60 Assembly seats are located. Notably, a Frontier Nagaland was a poll promise of the then-BJP President Nitin Gadkari if the BJP came to power in the Centre in 2014. This demand for a separate state out of Nagaland was a two-decade-old demand mostly arising out of lack of development and administrative infrastructure in the hilly terrains of eastern part of the state.
Two days back, however, the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO), the apex tribal organisation of seven tribes, withdrew its call to boycott the Nagaland Assembly polls in demand for separate statehood after a meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi. Notably, the Union government has offered an autonomous council for the six eastern districts of eastern Nagaland.
The Congress, which could not open its account in the last Assembly polls in Nagaland, this time is banking on the long-pending Naga solution as their election planks.
“The mood of the people of Nagaland is to defeat the traitors. BJP has deliberately betrayed us and not by mistake. There is no excuse on why they could not arrive at a political solution after signing framework agreements — one in 2015 and the other in 2017. The population wants it to be implemented and in this election the people will decide,” said K Therie, President of Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee to the media.
The Congress has been urging for a ‘secular alliance’ with like-minded parties to oust the BJP from power.
Separate statehood demand in Tripura
Like Nagaland, Tripura too has the demand for a Greater Tipraland. It is anchored by the largest tribal party of the state Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (Tirpa Motha), led by royal scion Pradyot Manikya Debbarma.
Tripura, which has 19 scheduled tribes (STs), was once an independent kingdom ruled by the Manikya dynasty before it acceded to India in 1949. However, the indigenous communities became a minority due to the large-scale influx of Bengalis from the erstwhile East Pakistan —present-day Bangladesh— during the Partition and Bangladesh War of 1971. Since its inception in 2021, Tirpa Motha has been demanding a separate tribal state for the indigenous communities of the state.
In April 2021, the party managed to secure 18 out of the 28 seats of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), upending the ruling BJP. This election, the party is planning to contest in 42 seats, 20 out of which are reserved for STs.
In December 2022, Debbarma also sat on a two-day dharna at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to bring attention to the matter where more than a thousand tribals of Tripura participated.
Since its formation in 2021, TIPRA Motha has been able to attract several popular political faces from the BJP, including its tribal face and Leader of Opposition in the TTAADC Hangsha Kumar, BJP MLA Burba Mohan, BJP Minority Morcha leaders SK Darlong and Mujib Miah, and BJP ST Morcha President Khagendra Reang.
Notably, the Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura (IPFT), a tribal party and an ally in the BJP-led government of Tripura, was the first party to raise the demand for a separate Tipraland for the tribals of the state. However, after joining the ruling party, it put the demand behind only to be renewed by Debbarma as a Greater Tirpaland that seeks to unite all the Tripuris living in and out of the state.
In June last year, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra, one of the oldest tribal parties of Tripura, got merged with Tirpa Motha in support of a Greater Tirpaland.
Shekhar Datta, a political analyst from Tripura, however, feels that the dream of Greater Tirpaland is far-fetched.
He said, “Debbarma has insisted on a written assurance of support for Greater Tirpaland from any party seeking alliance with Tirpa Motha. But no party has so far agreed. Debbarma has also sat with the Union Home Ministry officials wherein he was given a letter which says what the central government has proposed to do for the benefit of the tribals of Tripura, but there is no mention of Tipraland or greater Tipraland. He is now fighting alone.”
According to Datta, law and order situation, political violence, and non-payment of dues to employees are some of the other major factors in this election.
He said, “Law and order is an issue taken up by all the opposition parties of Tripura — CPM, Congress, and Tirpa Motha. Another issue is political violence. The third one is breach of commitments. The BJP government had mentioned 299 specific commitments in their vision document for the last election. But they could fulfil only four of them. Lack of development, corruption by BJP ministers and legislators, and anomalies in implementation of schemes are the key issues in the state.”
In Tripura, the Congress and Left parties led by CPI-M, which are traditional rivals, have decided to fight the elections together to oust the BJP from power.
The Meghalaya elections
In Meghalaya, where the government is ruled by Conrad Sangma’s National People’s Party-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA), the air of regionalism and identity politics is also felt.
For the past few months, the demand for a separate Garoland state for the Garo tribes in Meghalaya is on the rise. Groups like the Garoland State Movement Committee, Garoland Statehood Movement Committee, and National Federation for New States have been demanding a separate state out of Meghalaya for the tribe. In October, thousands of Garo people participated in a demonstration in Tura, the urban hub of Garo Hills, to raise voice for the demand.
In December, supporters of the proposed Garoland state staged another demonstration in Jantar Mantar in Delhi.
Notably, Garo Hills is the one of the most important places politically which has 24 out of the 60 assembly seats of Meghalaya. South Tura in Garo Hills is the most watched out constituency from where NPP Chief Conrad Sangma and BJP candidate Benedict Marak will contest the polls.
Angela Rangad, one of the founding members of political forum KAM-Meghalaya and an independent candidate from the South Shillong constituency, feels that the discontentment of people due to lack of development leads to the imagination that if one removes the ‘other’, they would do better.
He said, “People are not getting jobs, agriculture is failing, the health sector is pathetic, which are the result of failure of those in power. The political opportunists feed on that discontent of the people.”
Patricia Mukhim, a senior journalist and an authority on Meghalaya politics, however feels that there are few takers for a separate Garo Hills state.
“Development or the lack of it and corruption is the poll issue this election,” Mukhim told Outlook.