Should India be concerned about the Northeast?

A recent attack in Assam suspected to have been carried out by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) killed 13 people. Had this happened in a more populated and economically potent region of India, it would have received far more coverage. Yet, the unfortunate truth is attacks of this nature are all too common in the northeast, where intranational tension threatens to further alienate a region which has gone through its fair share of unrest over the past few decades.

Historically, India’s northeast has retained a distinct cultural identity, with much of the region being inhabited by tribes speaking Sino-Tibetan languages, and so vast numbers of them are simply unable to communicate with the majority of Indians. This disconnect is only compounded when you realise that the northeast is also only connected to the rest of India by the Siliguri corridor, a thin strip of land only dozens of kilometres wide which is flanked by Bangladesh and Bhutan. Skirmishes in 1967 and 1987 with China over the area, although minimal, have cast a light upon India’s perceived vulnerability in the region.

States in the area have been redrawn various times to appease certain groups, which is one symptom of the complex geopolitical nature of the northeast that renders it fragile. The NDFB is just one of many separatist groups in the Northeast of India that demand their own sovereignty. For example, the Mizoram National Front (MNF) which demanded independence for Mizo people, posed such a problem that they eventually were satiated by the establishment of the state of Mizoram as per the Mizo accord of 1986. The northeast is composed of a vast array or tribespeople who have historically been unaccustomed to being a part of a vast nation, and so traditional unrest in the area can in part be attributed to this, as well as various incidents in which northeast Indians been the victim of racial discrimination.

The Indian government has responded to this predicament by taking drastic and arguably draconian measures against those who compromise relations with those from the northeast. Referring to someone from the north east derogatorily as a ‘chink’ carries a five-year jail sentence. Is this really appropriate? Armed forces in the northeast also reserve the right to use deadly force when appropriate and search homes without a warrant. In response, figures like Irom Sharmila, who recently ended a mammoth 16-year hunger strike,have given the issue traction. The controversial nature of these laws suggests that they are not feasible long term solutions to what has been a chronic issue for India.

While there are certainly causes for concern, India’s handling of the northeastern situation has been handled considerably well on the whole, as evidenced by the fact that terrorism-related deaths falling from a concerning 717 in 2005 to an improved 236 in 2015. Cultural disparities and some unease may linger between the northeast and the rest of India, but as long as Prime Minister Modi continues to pay attention to the area, having established a power plant in Tripura and introducing Mizoram on to India’s railway map, the prognosis appears to be positive.

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