North-east India again hit the national consciousness last week for the same reason it has been doing for the past 50 years.
Indian security forces killed three people belonging to the Naga tribe inside Manipur, along the border of Manipur and Nagaland. And the incident took place over the same issue it usually does in this region: assertion of Naga identity.
The immediate spur was the proposed visit after 40 years by Naga insurgent leader Thuigaleng Muivah to his native village Somdel in Manipur. The state government saw in the visit an attempt by the Naga tribe to drag up the old issue of bifurcation of Manipur and the creation of Greater Nagaland, to comprise all of the areas dominated by the Naga tribe.
The state of Manipur is divided into hills and valleys. The hills are dominated by various Naga and non-Naga tribes, while the valleys are inhabited by the majority of Meite community, which practices the Hindu religion.
There has been deep distrust between tribal and non-tribal people in the state. Various Naga tribes, the second-largest group in the state, feel neglected by the state government, which hasn’t developed the hilly areas the same way it has developed the valley. Meanwhile, the tribal groups aren’t given adequate socio-political representation in the state. As a result, Nagas want a separate state or the merger of their area with other Naga dominated areas, like Nagaland or the creation of a Greater Nagaland comprising all the areas in the north-east dominated by the Naga tribes.
This has been one of the main reasons why the peace process between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) and the central government hasn’t made much headway since 1997, when the Naga group agreed a ceasefire with the Indian government.
Insurgency has been the bane of India’s north-east since independence in 1947. The Indian state has taken to using force to try to deal with the problem, while political initiatives in the region have been few and far between.
The failure to find agreement is a significant one on the part of successive governments that in more than six decades of democracy have failed to ensure all sections of society in the region are brought into political mainstream. In part as a consequence, the region’s contribution to national growth is almost negligible.
If India is to make progress and emerge as an important international player it will need to sort out its internal contradictions. The state needs to show flexibility to deal with its marginalized tribals and demonstrate political maturity in recognizing the uniqueness of the tribal identity.
If Naxals are the greatest internal threat to the country (as they are according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), the insurgency in the north-east is the greatest challenge to national integration.