Conflict and Development in Northeast India

Stories from Assam
16 May 2021

Neo-capitalist development in the form of resource extraction in the North Eastern region of India has continuously expanded through mining, hydroelectric power plants, and militarised infrastructure, while basic necessities remain unmet. This has created a complex field for the contestation of identities, land sovereignty, and conflict.

India’s North Eastern Region (NER) includes the states of Assam, Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Pradesh, Sikkim and Tripura. Together, they represent a distinct geographic, cultural, political, and administrative entity. The area, which is part of the Eastern Himalayas, is also of geo-strategic significance as it shares 90% of its borders with four countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Tibet Autonomous Region/China and Myanmar, and also with Nepal – and is connected to India by a narrow piece of land called the Siliguri corridor, sometimes referred to as the ‘Chicken’s neck’.

The NER has the dubious reputation for including some of Asia’s most militarised and politically volatile societies. It also has the highest number of indigenous peoples in India, characterised by self-determination movements that have taken the form of armed struggle against the Indian state. The NER is also a biodiversity hotspot, including the mighty Brahmaputra River and its many tributaries, natural reserves of oil, coal, gas and other minerals – all of which provide another dimension to ethnic struggles and self-determination movements.

Seventy years after independence, the states in the NER still lack basic services, including health and education, occasionally receiving news coverage highlighting the human rights violations that have affected the civilian population during the years of conflict. The Union of India is a federation of states, but the central government dictates much of the policy in the NER, and neo-capitalist development in the form of resource extraction has continuously expanded through mining, hydroelectric power plants, and militarised infrastructure, while basic necessities remain unmet. This has created a complex field for the contestation of identities, land sovereignty, and conflict.

This essay starts with brief background to the NER and goes on to look at the most recent interventions regarding development and resource-extractive projects in Assam and what these mean for an area that has already suffered years of political neglect accompanied by militarisation.

A brief history of India’s North East Region

North Eastern Region of India
North Eastern Region of India

The connection between the NER and the rest of India is relatively recent, dating back to 1826 with the signing the Treaty of Yandaboo, when Burma ceded Assam, Manipur, Jaintia hills, Tripura and Cachar to the British at the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War. Even under the British, the region was mostly seen as providing a ‘buffer zone’ from Burma and China. This perspective continued after independence and was one reason for the major army deployment and militarised infrastructure in the region.

The integration of NER into the rest of the country was ‘abrupt’, with no prior history. The states were integrated and demarcated into ad hoc units for administrative convenience, principally economic and resource planning and security calculations. The region’s own politics or the political aspirations of fragmented tribes were marginalised within the larger political discourse, partly due to their small numbers.

This situation has given rise to conflict, to which the Indian government has responded by imposing controversial laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA), which allows armed personnel to conduct arrests, searches and encounters without a warrant. The actions permitted under the Act are not subject to the law of the land and violations cannot be pursued in the courts. Currently, AFSPA is enforced in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya Mizoram and Nagaland, and has not been conducive to development, peace or stability.

The insurgency and the consequent counter-insurgency measures became a part of everyday life. The attendant human rights violations, combined with sluggish economic growth in the region, has paralysed development, further enabling illicit economic enterprises in an already militarised zone. The response of the central government has included ill-considered approaches to conflict management and the injection of development funds into the oil, tea and coal sectors, all of which are concentrated on resource extraction. Together, these have nurtured a climate of ‘sustained low intensity conflict’, which allows many activities to fly under the radar and for government officials, political elite and armed rebels to control their respective sub-states. In conversations in Assam, a young Mising friend said:

‘… they cut the young trees! They don’t even wait for them to grow a little. We never cut young trees. Of course, they [the state officials] know that there is illicit mining. They won’t be able to carry out these activities without the knowledge of the state officials. But they only think of their benefit – now’.

This sentiment also resonated in Sikkim about how development projects affect and change landscapes and people’s experiences. A Lepcha activist in Sikkim explained that he has been depicted as espousing ‘anti-development’ by opposing state-backed development projects, accused of wanting to push the region into backwardness, to which his response is:

‘We live in hilly terrain, what does a bureaucrat making plans in Delhi know about the geography of a region like this and how large-scale projects affect us? The dynamite they are using to blow up the forests causes landslides every season. The soil becomes loose. We don’t cut down trees. We cut them when we need to use [the timber] to build our homes but for that, there is a process through which we choose a tree, we pray to it and then we cut it. We aren’t against development – this branding is done to make it easy to dismiss our concerns. The Teesta is a powerful river and I understand why they want to harness it but you cannot disrupt the flow of the river wherever you want. These projects are funded by the World Bank and the like and are implemented with the goals of getting carbon credits, but what do we get from it?’

A few hours later the valley rang with the sound of explosions – to make new roads into the valley. As we sat listening to birdsong and people’s stories, the deafening explosion felt even louder in the knowledge that nature seems to exist only to be taken.

History of resource extraction

‘Tez dim, kintu tel nidieu’, meaning ‘We will give our blood, but we won’t give our oil’.

These words came to signify the Assam Agitation when in 1980, Dulal Sarma, a leader of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), slashed his chest with a blade and drew out blood to write these words across a street in Guwahati. The words resonated with the rebels who made opposition to resource extraction central to the armed rebellion.

The Assam Agitation began in 1979, with a number of demands – primarily economic development, recognition of cultural identity and illegal migration that was causing displacement of farmland, and resource extraction. Assam has historically had two large industries – tea and oil – with one of the country’s oldest refineries located in Digboi. Yet a region that at the time of independence had a stronger economy than the rest of the country, soon afterwards suffered low GDP, poor infrastructure and lack of access to education and health care, leading to very high rates of infant and maternal mortality. These factors contributed to the Assam Agitation, which started as a students’ movement and soon became an armed conflict against the Indian state. It continued for six years and cost a total of 885 lives. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was the main active group, along with smaller groups such as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). While initially the armed rebel groups enjoyed mass support, the situation soon led to a parallel economy involving kidnappings and arms smuggling. The Indian government launched several operations to quell the armed opposition, including Operation Rhino and Bajrang. The last was Operation All Clear, which was conducted in collaboration with the Bhutanese army.

By late 1990s it was considered that the armed rebellion in Assam had officially ended, but factions continued to exist. After many members of the ULFA surrendered (SULFA), the government mobilised to murder supposed sympathisers. Those years were known as ‘Secret Killings of Assam’, whereby people who were considered to sympathise with the cause were kidnapped or shot by state-backed police or surrendered militants. Those years created a generalised sense of fear, and many questions remain unanswered for the families of the disappeared.

Whose land is it? Contextualising citizenship and indigenous rights

In 2019 the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which excluded Muslims from legal frameworks to obtain citizenship, prompted nationwide protests. However, in Assam and Tripura where the protests started, the issue was not about the exclusion of Muslims but rather the outright rejection to granting citizenship to any immigrants regardless of their religion. The country was confronted with this narrative of the NER, where Assam became the pivot through which the CAA was conceived and later implemented. The CAA followed an arduous process of implementing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. In the final list, an estimated 1.9 million people were excluded, a disproportionate number of whom were Hindus. The CAA was brought in by the ruling right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to reinstate those omitted from the register – but only if they were Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jains, Parsis or Sikh, not if they were Muslim. This would effectively reinstate 90,000 of the 1.9 million and pave the way for others to seek citizenship.

The question of citizenship and indigenous rights has a long history in the NER with its distinct cultural, social, racial and linguistic identity that has shaped its historical struggle to become a part of the imagination of the Union of India. Most states, including Assam, have had a history of armed rebellion and the assertion of indigenous identity. These movements have also shaped the fears of indigenous populations being displaced and alienated from their land – something that has indeed happened through development projects, uncontrolled migration and even on the pretext of expanding conservation areas. This struggle contributed not only to people’s stance on the CAA but also to the invisibility of their narrative in the national discourse. Sanjib Baruah writes ‘There is a long history of resistance to colonial and postcolonial rulers treating their territory as land without people – or land with barely any people’. The region and its people were considered a ‘homogenous, undifferentiated mass’ which would better serve the Indian Union through resource extraction or occupation.

Another reason for the longstanding Assam Agitation and armed rebellion with the Indian state was over the questions of mass immigration from Bengal and East Bengal. At the time of partition, the leadership in India decided that Assam (which then included Meghalaya and Mizoram) was to go to East Pakistan since it shares no border with India. The fear of becoming a cultural and linguistic minority in a Muslim-majority nation prompted the Assamese people to seek to become a part of the Indian Union. It was under the leadership of the chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi, along with Gandhi, that this took place.

Soon after independence, immigration from the new country of Bangladesh was inevitable, especially into Assam and Tripura with their porous border. The backlash from Assam came in as early as 1950s but since the region was not fully understood by New Delhi, such concerns were not addressed. In 1978 India’s Chief Election Officer spoke publicly of the ‘large-scale inclusions of foreign nationals in the electoral rolls’ . In the by-elections held in Mangaldoi in the same year, it came to light that there was a phenomenal rise in voters, which was attributed to the inclusion of illegal migrants from Bangladesh in the electoral rolls. The student bodies in Assam asked the Indira Gandhi government to postpone the elections until an agreement was reached on deleting foreigners from the electoral rolls. The Nellie Massacre took place on 18 February 1983 days after the Assembly elections. There had been isolated incidents of violence and the Assam police had cited Nellie as a “troubled” spot . The official narrative claims that Tiwa, Lalung and Assamese tribesmen descended from the hills and over the course of a few hours massacred the people in Nellie and a few neighbouring villages. Official numbers state a total of 2,191 lives were lost.

The victims were Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. The survivors of the massacre distinctly remember the villages being cordoned off for months and for at least 24 hours before the massacre took place, and that none of their Assamese neighbours were among those wielding daos or machetes. This begs the question of who participated in the massacre. The Tewary Commission Report suggested the involvement of the RSS, the youth wing of the BJP. Is it not too far-fetched to imagine that political parties thrived on the chaos their own policies had created. Subsequent governments have treated the region as a field to secure their own seats in the parliament, which shows that the region has not only functioned as a “disturbed area” but one in which the continuation of disorder has been encouraged to benefit those in power to retain and maintain their power. While migration from partition is a continuing process, the lack of development in the region and the historical atrocities experienced by local people creates the field for ethnic violence.

The Assam Agitation fed off some of these tensions and only came to an end with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. It was decided that ‘foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971’ (the cut-off date for the rest of the country had been set at 1951) would be detected and expelled. Its Clause 6 said: ‘Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the culture, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people’. The BJP came to power on the promise of implementing the Assam Accord in ‘letter and spirit’, which the CAA violated.

Leading up to the CAA in 2019, fear was again mounting that the indigenous population in the NER would lose their culture, identity and land. At present, Assamese is the first language of 48% of the population; many feel this foretold a future as dismal as Tripura where the indigenous population have been reduced to 30 per cent and have lost more than 40% of their land to migrants. It is automatically assumed that the fears arise from xenophobia, which not the case as land has a particular significance for communities who eke a living out of subsistence farming. The fear is not about religion or the ‘other’ but rather a tangible fear of losing their living and way of life in a context where the state offers them no protection.

In an interview, Dr Walter Fernandes of Northeastern Social Research Centre, describes the problem as economic, revolving around the question of land. He emphasises that religious persecution is not the primary cause for migration from Bangladesh but rather economic conditions and high population density, which makes migration essential to the ‘demographic balancing process’, noting that ‘most come and occupy what is known as common land which is two thirds of the land in Assam. The CAA paves the way for further immigration which will pose a threat to the land, language and culture and the whole social system. That can mean ethnic conflict’.

The region’s historical struggle is also an extension of India’s colonial past. Armed rebellion from the borderlands against the state existed even during colonial times and the troubled post-colonial integration of the NER with the rest of the country has never fit into the ‘standard narrative of democracy in India’ combined with draconian laws such as the AFSPA. As early as 1980, academics and activists were making the argument that the region suffered internal colonialism. This idea was also the basis of the ideology of the ULFA. The unfulfilled promises of the Assam Accord created the political space for the rise of the ULFA, which started as an attempt to ‘avenge the perceived betrayal of the Assamese people by the central government’ .

The loud protests in December 2019, after years of historic marginalisation, have therefore hit at the only aspect the people believe they have retained – their identity. The perception of threat is shared across the NER. Indigenous people in the borderlands face the struggle of establishing and preserving the integrity of their cultural identity. Most communities in the region are subsistence farmers with no constitutional or legislative means to guarantee ownership of their land. The CAA was viewed as paving the way for uncontrolled inroads into their lands through demographic changes which would also affect their political rights.

Development and extraction

‘This development feels like an invasion!’ – Mamang Dai

Apart from the CAA, government decisions to expand resource extraction in the region have also involved increasing securitisation. Most of these projects threaten to damage sensitive ecological and biodiversity zones. Kikon writes about how the nineteenth-century discovery of oil and coal in the region and resource politics have shaped people’s lives, with militarisation and violence becoming part of the construction of the region and of people’s lives. Development and the exploration of resources go hand in hand ideologically, creating ‘enclaves’ of health, prosperity and safety facilitated by the resource-extraction industries. These zones are also militarised, but to protect them from the outside – the people for whom the project was intended.

In January 2020, the Government of India released notification of the draft law for Environment Impact Assessment 2020, which gave rise to public concerns about various provisions that would allow industries to avoid environmental accountability. The draft notification allowed industries that have violated environmental laws to continue operating by paying a penalty after the event. The new notification also inverted the ‘precautionary principle’, which was previously fundamental to India’s environmental approach and allowed for an initial assessment of the environmental impact of projects. The notification made provisions for industries to be exempted from public hearing clearance or consultation with the people affected, or with state-level bodies. This is of importance in the NER, as many indigenous tribes live in protected areas and would possibly be displaced by development projects. For example, in the public hearing on the Dibang dam, 99% of the speakers from tribal communities who live in the area proposed for the dam opposed the project. The Dibang Valley projects are also estimated to submerge 4,577.84 hectares of biodiversity-rich forest area and have an impact on areas downstream, including the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam. Since 2007, there have been protests by the Students Union and Akhil Gogoi, an activist who has been imprisoned since December 2019 by the National Investigative Agency under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – another piece of legislation that has been widely used to incarcerate activists and dissenters.

In May 2020, a gas well operated by a government-owned subsidiary company – Oil India Ltd. – had a blowout in Baghjan, Assam. Two weeks later the blowout became a blaze that engulfed the region as the oil well was located between a wetland and a national park. The leakages caused irreparable ecological damage. Official documents later showed that the company expanded operations into the ecologically sensitive zone without the public hearings mandated by the environmental law in force at that time.

In the same month, the Assam Forest Department issued a fine for Rs. 43.25 crore to Coal India (the subsidiary of a state-owned company) for having carried out illegal mining in a reserved forest for 16 years. Soon after, The National Board for Wildlife granted approval to Northeastern Coalfields (NECF), part of Coal India, for coal mining in Dehing-Patkai forest reserve, thus legitimising mining deemed illegal by the High Court. Soon after, the Twitter campaign #SaveAmazonOfEast from the ‘coal mafia’ began. In July, the Assam state government passed an ordinance to curtail land-use norms in order to facilitate rapid industrialisation. The Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) gave clearance for the extension of drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations by OIL under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park area. The area also includes the Maguri-Motapong wetland area.

In July 2020, the government announced an ordinance that would allow the conversion of land for micro, small and medium enterprises to set up industries without the need for any license or clearance, raising fears about the expropriation of indigenous people’s land. Since 2015, Patanjali, one of the largest businesses in India with annual sales of $1.6 billion in 2018, has acquired approximately 1485.6 hectares of land to open up industries, flying in the teeth of popular protests. In an interview, one of the factory managers revealed that large tracts of forests had been cleared in elephant ‘corridors’ displacing herds of wild elephants. Based on interviews conducted as part of my fieldwork in December 2019, the company has also formed an illicit economy in collaboration with government officials for tracking and procuring protected species of plants from reserved forests and conservation sites. This kind of network is also seen in areas where illegal mining is rampant, often in collaboration with state officials and the political elite.

These events put into perspective the different ways in which development is manipulated in resource-rich frontier regions to serve extractive industries or in collaboration with local elite to form illicit economies. Both scenarios function outside legal frameworks or create increasing militarisation to change them. Academics in the region such as Sanjib Baruah have shown how some social sectors were beginning to see the reality of the ‘slow violence’ of health risks associated with air and water pollution that extraction projects inflicted on local communities.

In conversation with the members of the Mising community, regarding an agro-forestry project in the region focused on livelihood generation and spearheaded by a non-government organisation (NGO), they expressed their fear of being displaced once the planting of trees starts. Over time many communities living on the edge of a forest have faced displacement when the government has decided to expand into ‘protected areas’; in most cases these areas become the sites of illicit mining, poaching, and timber logging, with the knowledge of forest officials and often in collaboration with them. Categories of ‘protected areas’ and the legal provisions governing them have over the years been used to displace communities from their land. Kikon writes that he imposition of laws such as the AFSPA and use of the terms such as ‘disturbed area’ and ‘suspicion’ have created an environment of mistrust and intimidation – there is one armed personnel for every ten people living in the NER.

In the sort of intervention seen in the NER, the state is seen as the guardian of the assets of the region. Mcduie-ra, writes about how insurgency or the armed rebellion in the region is seen as being connected to the lack of development, with the World Bank declaring that poverty and lack of development are among the factors contributing to the instability – the prevailing assumptions being that ‘the northeast is poor because of the conflict or there is conflict because the northeast is poor’.

Further, in writing about Manipur state, he mentions that words such as ‘development’ or ‘infrastructure’ acquire a new meaning in the region. In Assam, they are used interchangeably, having the same meaning in Assamese as the word ‘unnati’ meaning progress. The conflation of the categories of economic and social ‘advance’ have been used as the underlying discourse to justify extractivist infrastructure in the region, which is mostly securitised and concentrated on connecting roads and highways. This is also evident in the numerous banners and signs in Assam put up by coal and oil companies, and referring to progress in the region.

Scholars from the region such as Dolly Kikon, have referred to it as a ‘militarised carbon landscape’ with a history of securitised infrastructure and resource extraction functioning within the trope of development. She asks, ‘How do we still manage to conveniently walk away from seeing the interconnection of extractive violence, consumption, market, extractive regime, and labour around us?’

Lived experience

‘Ami Ugrapanti Nohoi’ – ‘We are not militants’

These were among the first words spoken and often repeated during my interviews conducted in a Bodo village in Assam in January 2020, with frequent references to the ‘boys’ of the armed rebels – the aim being to reassure me that the villagers did not harbour them. In fact, the armed rebels ensure that the ‘boys’ who join from a certain village don’t go back there to seek shelter lest it put their family at risk, or that their family insists that they become state informants. These words are also reminiscent of the times of the Secret Killings of Assam. There are many things that people do not wish to remember or bring up now. This was also evident in many of the interviews I conducted with politicians, who constantly reiterated that the past must be forgotten. Incidentally these are the same politicians and bureaucrats who are implicated in illicit activities and extra-judicial killings. They constantly say ‘it was in the past, let us move on’, while families still don’t know where the remains of their loved-ones are buried.

While speaking to one of the villagers, a young man who is also a member of the village council reluctantly spoke about the illicit sand mining in the area.

‘In the absence of job opportunities what are people supposed to do? They work as daily wage labourers in the sand mines and illegal timber trade. They know they get paid very little. They know the owners – which includes some people from the tribe but not from the village, the government officials including forest officials and the business contractors are all earning a lot from illegal trade.’

In the case of Assam, multiple layers of authorisation have been enacted with the sole aim of resource extraction, and militarisation facilitates the extractive network. This illustrates the complex linkages between nature, the nation and the nationalities that make up these spaces – relationships that lie at the heart of unlocking the perpetual ‘environmental crisis’ that the region seems to be going through.

This essay has shown how development operates on the ground in Assam, in conjunction with many other factors. Government thinking has been that development would allay the region’s grievances, which have themselves arisen by ignoring regions that have been or are still affected by conflict. First, inequitable economic growth is unable to erase the historical injustices in the region. In the case of the Assam the structures of power between oil companies, local stakeholders and the central government intersect to create a structural framework of extraction. Development in the NER has always been securitised in an area already highly militarised. The continuation of this dynamic in an increasingly politically volatile region has given rise to the fear of history repeating itself. In the last year indigenous communities have taken a stand, making it imperative to acknowledge alternative histories and stories of development in which indigenous communities and their claims to their land are not dismissed as ‘terrorism’ and ‘parochial’. It is evident that the problems in the North East Region are not exclusive to the region but resonate with other parts of the Global South, which can be solved only when communities are heard and acknowledged.