A peculiar thing about the Northeast is its divisiveness. And the paradox is there is some sort of unity or homogeneity even in that divisiveness. Yes, truth be told, the internal divide runs deep to the extent of dangerously plaguing the region’s growth prospects. Every state’s history is mired in blood. Conflict and feuds are a part of its history. In fact, the Northeast has long been a breeding ground for infighting. No state is spared from its share of feuds and conflicts. If it’s not insurgency, it’s the people who are pitched against each other over identity, dominance, land and territorial issues, to name a few. That, therefore, also explains the eternal yearning for lasting and meaningful peace. Equally, it also demonstrates the deep-rooted frustration, the sense of helplessness and, the anger in many people who had to leave their homes because of these infightings, coupled with corruption at a chronic level.
The recent border clash between Mizoram and Assam and how it was allowed to flare up brought home many things not just about the two states but also about the region in totality that has seen too much bloodshed. Sometime in the ’90s, I witnessed an ethnic feud that involved two communities—Paites and Kukis— whose ethnic proximity is enough to club them as brothers. They fought nonetheless. The contention was identity. I was a silent and helpless spectator, but mindful of all the gory details. That left me cold and disillusioned. What I saw was brutal—when the divide was sudden and friendly neighbours turned into deadly foes overnight there was little to take home. That was that. After a peace accord was signed, the two communities had the wisdom to never look back. And then, in the early ’90s, again, the longstanding feud between Tangkhul Nagas and Kukis over strips of land shook the social fabric of Manipur over claims and counter-claims over community land.
These feuds and many more in other states of the region, without necessarily going into the origins of the fights, have shaken the Northeast, which is already fractured and wounded from myriad problems: from insurgency to political instability.
Nagaland had its share of internal feuds too. Not all the 16 influential tribes see eye to eye. But the Nagas have the spirit of restrain and maturity to never let that get the better of them. That’s also partly because, in the shadow of a far bigger battle for freedom and sovereignty, the internal conflict pales. Still, in the words of a local in Nagaland, infightings are frequent and keep recurring. Sometimes even a small mishap is enough to ignite the powder.
Meghalaya, a peaceful state now, hardly can forget its brutal brush with homegrown insurgency. Following its statehood in 1972 (being carved out of Assam), the first trigger for the conflict was a strong anti-outsider movement. Suddenly non-Khasis born in Shillong became strangers. Writer Bijoya Sawian captures an interesting account of Shillong’s bloody underbelly in her book Shadow Men.
Tripura is rife with similar anti-outsider sentiments too—the indigenous people versus the Bengali-speaking populace, many of them immigrants from East Pakistan or Bangladesh. The deep-seated mistrust and hatred continue to fester. What simmered at the time of Independence continues to be a stumbling block for growth in the state.
Sikkim, which is quietly surging towards progress and development ahead of the other northeastern states, has unspoken internal feuds among its resident communities—Lepchas and Bhutias on one side, and Nepalis on the other. Nepalis are considered “outsiders” and slowly outnumbering the ethnic communities. This is not discussed in public, but that people harbor such sentiments is no secret either. The reasonably well-governed state and its well-behaved citizens never let that come in the way.
And, of course, memories are also vivid of a near war-like situation that almost changed the course of history when the question of Greater Nagaland or Nagalim was making waves not too long ago. The key vision of the Naga groups has been Greater Nagalim, a sovereign state of Naga-inhabited land, including parts in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Assam. That entailed redrawing of state boundaries. The plan was protested in all manner of speech and action by the other three states.
Border disputes in the region are not new. At the heart of it is Assam, the biggest state in terms of population. It has the thorniest relations because of its common boundary with almost all the states—for instance, a 434-km border with Nagaland that has several areas of contention. Or with Arunachal Pradesh, an 804.10-km shared boundary that has several disputed stretches. Skirmishes spring up regularly along these borders. But Assam and Nagaland recently decided to amicably resolve its dispute. In doing so, they proved that all disputes needn’t be dealt with attrition.
Outside the realm of politics, it must be acknowledged that there exist real and thinking people who are truly weary of the fights that are often politically motivated. All the historical differences no longer merit the kind of attention and focus given now. Be that as it may, they must no longer be seen through the prism of politics. You can change your friends, but not your neighbours. All action should spring from that old adage to stop the infighting. It is time the Northeast moves on to a better space of real progress and development. Perhaps, it is also the right time to question our leaders and their intentions.