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Violence & Hope
In India's Northeast*
S.K. Sinha#

India’s North East is known across the country for all the wrong reasons. The common man, if your ask him, may not even be able to mention the names of some of the states in the region – yet, the ‘Northeast’ has become synonymous in the popular mind, with violence and militancy. There are, of course, any number of militant outfits spread over the region, and I think almost all the letters of the alphabet have been exhausted in the abbreviations of the names of various militant outfits there. This is, consequently, the appropriate time to review the situation in North East.

My association with North East dates back to my first posting to Guwahati, on becoming an officer in the Army at the age of 18, as a second Lieutenant in 1944. Thereafter, starting from the outbreak of insurgency in Nagaland in 1956, I have served four tenures in different ranks at different points of time, and gained some experience of insurgency at the ground level. Over the last four years as Governor of Assam, I have been actively involved in grappling with the insurgency in this major State.

This presentation is based on this experience, and is divided into four parts. The first, focuses on low intensity conflicts in their historical perspectives. The second deals with the peculiar factors obtaining in the North East, which are conducive to the outbreak of low intensity conflicts. The third part refers to the broad conflict situation in the States of the North East other than Assam. And the last part develops in some detail the insurgency in Assam.

A New Way of Warfare

When we look at low intensity conflict in its historical perspective, it is evident that the nature and the scope of warfare have undergone radical changes. Gone are the days when the fate of the nation could be decided in a one-day battle fought on a frontage of 3000 to 4000 yards, with the results accepted by the people in a spirit of resignation to their fate. This is what happened repeatedly at Panipat and the surrounding areas, where decisive battles of India’s history were fought; and this is what happened in Europe, as in the Battle of Hastings or the Battle of Waterloo.

With the emergence of nation-states in Europe in the 17th century, there was an attitudinal change among the people. Wars were not only the prerogative of professional armies, rulers and leaders, but some thing in which the people had stakes and interests. With the French Revolution, large conscript armies joined in battles, as the concept of a ‘nation at war’ emerged. And with the Twentieth Century, yet another buzzword was on the scene, and that was the idea of ‘total wars’. The Twentieth Century was the bloodiest, with more people killed as the result of war in this century alone than in all the previous wars in the history of mankind. Warfare had acquired new dimensions and was now executed across a global canvas, with the use of air power and weapons of mass destruction.

The 20th Century witnessed two world wars, two nuclear holocausts, a high-tech war, quite a few limited wars and any number of "peoples’ wars" – some of which could also be called low intensity conflicts. There are various types of low intensity conflict, including insurgency, terrorism and proxy wars. Insurgency visualizes active support and sympathy of the people for the chosen cause, with idealism dominating the course of operations. Terrorism, on the other hand, is another manifestation of low intensity conflict, and seeks to target the people, often coercing them against their wishes to take part in military activities; here, the idealism of insurgency gets drowned out under a syndrome of criminal activity under the guise of ‘revolution’. There is a very thin line dividing the terrorist from the criminal. Tactics change a little. Instead of just threatening security forces, the terrorists attack soft targets – women and children and helpless citizens. The third type of low intensity conflict is proxy war, in which a hostile State exports terrorism across international borders, and where there is support, whether large scale or small, from the indigenous people in the areas into which terrorism is being exported. India has had a share of experience with all these types of low intensity conflicts.

No matter what their type of, these conflicts have emerged in areas where roots of nationalism have perhaps not found enough strength, and in areas that are economically under-developed. You do not have low intensity conflicts today in Western Europe or Northern America, though Ireland and the Basque region in Spain are exceptions.

The tactics adopted in low intensity conflicts are of the hit-and-run variety – often referred to as guerrilla warfare or irregular war. These tactics, in themselves, are nothing new and have had a place in military history for a long-long time. But, using this tactic is not the same thing as developing a whole new concept of warfare. Indeed, the concept of insurgency was pioneered in India by Shivaji in his campaigns against the Mughals. And what is that concept? It was constructed around an ideal and a charismatic leader, in this case, the idea of Hind Swaraj – the independence of the indigenous people – and the leadership of Shivaji. Starting with Malwa tribesmen, Shivaji organized a military force – one that was much weaker than the forces of the occupying power – but one that could exploit its audacity, knowledge of the terrain and ability to hit and vanish, thus wearing down the occupying forces. Through this process, they carved out a sanctuary for themselves, a sort of ‘liberated area,’ where they developed their conventional military strength. In the final stage, after his coronation, Shivaji executed a 600-mile advance with conventional military forces, forcing the surrender of the Qutb-Shahis at Hyderabad and from the western coast across the Deccan province.

Three centuries later, this was the tactic and strategy adopted by Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh. In both these cases, in the final stages of conventional confrontation, Mao Tse-tung threw out the Chinese national armies from the mainland, and Ho Chi Minh’s forces inflicted a humiliating defeat on the regular forces of the French Army at Dien-Bien-Phu.

With nuclear weapons threatening to destroy the entire planet, and the scale of damage of conventional wars, with the attendant risks of nuclear escalation, going beyond the ‘tolerance limits’ of most states, low intensity conflict has emerged as an easier and less dangerous option. That is why, in the over 50 years since the Second World War, so many low intensity conflicts have erupted in different parts of the world – well over 200, according to some estimates.

There are unique factors in India’s North East that are conducive to outbreak of low intensity conflicts. India is a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious country – perhaps the most varied in the world – and the North East is the most diverse region of this most diverse country. Geographical barriers and an inhospitable climate have rendered the North East, from the very dawn of history, a remote and isolated region. Comparatively, it has been characterised by very low levels of interaction with people outside the region. And, while India is a very ancient nation, politically its development as a ‘nation state’ started only with independence, nourished by the memories of the freedom struggle. The people of India, under the leadership of the Mahatma Gandhi, went through a crucial formative experience that promoted nationalism during this phase – and the fabric of nationalism is still extremely fragile in many parts of the country. As far as the North East is concerned, this fragility is even greater, because the region remained substantially unaffected by the freedom struggle. This is an important contributory factor to the scenario that exists in the Northeast today.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that, despite its remoteness and geographical isolation, Indian civilisation has penetrated deep into the region, and particularly into its valley areas. India has been a ‘civilisation-state’ for thousands of years – though it became a nation-state only in the 20th Century – and the people living in the Brahmaputra Valley shared this common civilisation, culture and history with the rest of the country. Even today in the city of Guwahati, there is a place called Vashisht where once upon a time the ashram of the great sage stood. In the days of the Mahabharat, Lord Krishna’s consort was Rukmini from Assam. And much later in the medieval period, the contribution of Mahapurush Sriman Shankar Dev in strengthening civilisational and cultural bonds was tremendous.

However, while the people of the valley, the Assamese people, were integrated and assimilated culturally, civilisationally and historically with the rest of the country, the same could not be said about the tribes living in jungles and the hills. These tribes led a life of their own, and the harsh geographical conditions severely circumscribed even the interaction between one tribe and another. The tribes thus evolved a way of life governed by their own tribal customs and laws, unaffected by the winds of change blowing across the outside world, and, of course, remaining unassimilated with the national mainstream.

When the British came, they, in their own way and for their own reasons, tried to preserve the separate identity of these tribes, creating a system of ‘innerline’ restrictions according to which outsiders could gain access to these areas only with special permission. The normal laws of the country and the normal administrative patterns did not apply to the tribal areas beyond the ‘innerlines.’

When independence came, the gap of centuries between the outlook, thinking and ways of life of the tribals and the rest of the country, was sought to be covered, and attempts were made to integrate the tribals with the ‘national mainstream.’ With the tribes’ consciousness of their own separate identity, their pride in their own traditions, an upheaval in the process was inevitable. It is interesting, however, that the differences between these tribes – not-withstanding some theories of a pan-Mongoloid movement that have been proposed – have equally prevented a united tribal front of all the tribes of the North East. The reason is simple: their past has been different, consequently, their aspirations for the present and the future are different, and each tribe has its own agenda.

Geography, Partition & Development

Geography has also affected the pattern of development in the North East and the Partition caused havoc both in the geography and the economy of the North East. To begin with, the entire land mass of the North East is now connected to the rest of India by a tenuous 22 kilometre link along the Shiliguri Corridor; more than 99 per cent of the borders of the North East abut other countries: China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Some of these countries have not been too friendly and, across a porous international border, have been only too willing to assist militant activity in India. Others, while not anti-India in their approach, have not been in a position to prevent anti-Indian activity from their soil.

With Partition, the North East lost its access to the sea through the entry port at Chittagong. The region was land-locked, and transportation costs along new and circuitous routes – with the traditional routes through East Pakistan (Bangladesh) cut off –multiplied. To take an example, in the old days the distance from Agartala to Calcutta was only 400 kilometres. After Partition, that road distance increased four times to 1600 kilometres, because the route went all the way around Bangladesh, through the Shiliguri corridor, to Calcutta. This impacted very adversely on the economy of the region. The Brahmaputra, which was a waterway of commerce, was substantially abandoned because its lower reaches were now in a foreign country.

And the cumulative impact of this and other factors is that, while the per capita income of Assam (which virtually comprehended the entire region at that time) before 1947 was well above the national average, today it has fallen far below. The North East has been transformed into an economically backward region, which it was not prior to 1947.

Another and manor destabilising element has been the factor of demographic intrusion. This, of course, had been going on long before independence, but in the post-’47 era, it acquired an international as well as a grave security dimension. It is this influx of population from across the border that was primarily responsible for insurgency in at least two states – Tripura and Assam.

A combination of these factors – diversity, history, geography, economy and demography – have thus created fertile ground for the outbreak of insurgency in the Northeast.

Spillover Insurgencies

In Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, there is no strong indigenous insurgency at present, though there is a certain problem due to the ‘spillover’ of insurgency from adjacent or neighbouring States. There are, consequently, certain law and order problems, but the patterns and levels of violence of the larger militant movements in the region are non-existent in these three States. Mizoram requires a special reference in this context, as there was a time when violence of a very acute nature had erupted in the State. It is the only area in India where, after 1947, security forces had used air power in an offensive against militants. Today, however, Mizoram is a success story where, as the result of a political settlement with the insurgents led by Laldenga in the 1980s, peace was restored, and Laldenga was installed as Chief Minister in that State. Today, Mizoram remains the most peaceful of the Northeastern States.


The Nagas have a long history of wanting a separate State of their own. Even in the British days, they had voiced the demand for a sovereign Nagaland comprising Naga areas in the Indian North East and Burma (now Myanmar).

The Nagas were one of the tribes that had a greater exposure to the outside world than any of the others in the North East. In the Second World War, Japanese forces came up to Kohima and Imphal. The Nagas – I remember because I took part in the Second World War – were actively supporting the Allies, and British officers in those days looked up to them with a sense of gratitude. When Partition was approaching, the Nagas wanted a State of their own as a reward for having helped the British during the war. Some British administrators had even come up with a proposal for a separate Christian State of the tribes in the North East and North Burma, which could be a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, but the idea remained stillborn. The Nagas were brought to accept the Independence of India after and to be a part of the Union through what is known as the Hydari Agreement – after Sir Akbar Hydari, the then Governor of Assam – under which a 10-year period was stipulated for review. Some autonomy was given to the Nagas, but they were not satisfied and the first shots of insurgency were fired in the Naga Hills in 1956.

Phizo, a charismatic leader, through a struggle over decades, was able to unite the Naga people, cutting across the 14 constituent tribes, after he raised the standard of revolt with weapons of Second World War vintage – both Japanese and Allied – which were left behind or given to him during the war. Soon enough, he started getting generous support from what was then East Pakistan and from China. A strong militant movement was built up, and I recall that during operations in those areas at that time, one did get a feeling that we had a full-fledged insurgency on our hands.

There were many efforts to pacify the Nagas, and through concessions in 1963, the State of Nagaland was created. This State was for a population of barely 500,000 – less than the population of many of the colonies of New Delhi – and yet all the trappings that go with full Statehood, a Legislature, Cabinet, Chief Minister and later even Governor, went with this new status. But, this failed to satisfy the Nagas, and they continued with their operations. Later, the Shillong Agreement of 1975 provided further concessions, but failed again to satisfy the more radical elements among the Naga leadership, which fractured into a number of splinter groups at this stage.

The cease-fire agreement of 1997 between the Centre and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), brought relative peace to Nagaland after nearly half a century of violence, and the people at large have, over the past years, developed a vested interest in the peace. But there are two major militant groups, the NSCN-IM, which has a bigger military punch with about 4,000 weapons, and the NSCN-Khaplang (NSCN-K), which is not as strong but has about 1,000 weapons at its disposal.

The year 2001 saw important developments in the State, with the Centre establishing formal cease-fire agreements with both the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K. This was a major move forward, particularly in view of the fact that the NSCN-IM had long insisted on being recognised as the ‘sole representative’ of the Naga people, and had a sustained internecine conflict with the Khaplang group, and was not expected to take too kindly to this arrangement. Nevertheless, this did not create any additional controversy or tension – the source of escalated tension came from a different quarter: the extension of the cease-fire "without territorial limits.’

I felt there was a mistake on the part of the Government of India at the initial stage, to have agreed to geographical limits for a cease-fire. A cease-fire is between two contesting parties – you cannot have one in one place and not in another. You do not say that I am at war with you in this room and that I am at peace with you in the other room. But the cease-fire of 1997 was defined in terms of the territories of the State of Nagaland.

The Nagas have, of course, been committed to the idea of a ‘Greater Nagaland’ and wanted the cease-fire to be extended to all Naga inhabited areas, with their attitudes becoming increasingly adamant on this point in 2001. There was a lot of brinkmanship, with a threat to scrap the cease-fire agreement altogether, and to resume ‘hostilities’, if this demand was not conceded.

I think this was more brinkmanship then anything else – though these are just my personal views. The people in Nagaland want peace, and the militant groups now realise this, and realise equally that if hostilities are resumed, they would lack popular support. Furthermore, there are also reports that all is not well within the IM group. The Secretary Muivah – a Tangkhul Naga – is all-powerful, and the Semas have long been feeling sidelined. A resumption of hostilities could well cause a another split within the group. That is why you see how quickly the IM group did a climb down at the last moment, accepting a cease-fire that would be operative not, as they had demanded, in all Naga areas, but "without geographical boundaries."

There is a world of difference between these two formulations. When you talk of cease-fire without geographical boundaries, it means there is cease-fire in Delhi, in Bombay, anywhere, between the two groups – as a result, using the extension of cease-fire to buttress claims for territorial expansion is no longer an option. Unfortunately, this fact was not viewed or projected in this light, with the result that in the newspapers, and statements of various leaders, there was a constant reference to the cease-fire being extended to ‘Naga inhabited areas,’ and the claim that the government had implicitly ‘conceded’ Naga claims to these areas. But cease-fire ‘without geographical limits’ is not the same thing as cease-fire being extended to ‘Naga inhabited areas’.

As for the future, I personally believe that the longer peace reigns in Nagaland, even without a political settlement, and the dialogue continues, the better are the chances of peace becoming something permanent in the State, as of a political settlement achieved.


Manipur was a Princely State, and the Manipuris are an emotional people, proud of their past history. Two-thirds of the population are Meiteis, who are Vaishnavite Hindus, and one–third is tribal, including the Nagas, the Kukis and some others. In this tribal population, the majority is constituted by the Nagas.

The Manipuris have nursed a sense of grievance for a long time. The population of Manipur was double that of Nagaland, and its resources were far greater. Yet, the Government of India made Nagaland a full-fledged State in 1963, while Manipur remained a Union Territory even years later. It was only in 1972, after a long agitation, that Manipur also became a State.

Another grievance is that the Nagas were recognised as Scheduled Tribes, and received the benefits that go with this status. The Meiteis, however, were denied this recognition, and felt deprived of the related advantages. These sentiments were aggravated by what was mistakenly called the ‘extension of cease-fire to the Naga inhabited areas of Manipur’, which aroused fears that the districts of Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel would become part of a Greater Nagaland, and a truncated Manipur State would be left behind.

This needs to be placed against backdrop of Naga militancy in Manipur. The NSCN-IM, the most powerful and well-organised militant group in the North East, is led by T. Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Ukhrul in Manipur, and maintains a significant presence and activities in the State. So far as the Meiteis are concerned, they have their own militant outfits, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) with about 1,000 odd weapons. For a long time, there were clashes between the Kukis and Nagas, and till a couple of years ago, this was a very common occurrence. Fortunately, these have now been suppressed, and one no longer hears about the Kuki-Naga conflict. However, clashes between the security forces and the other militant outfits in Manipur – NSCN-IM, PREPAK or PLA – are recurrent. There has also been tremendous political instability in Manipur for the past few years, too much floor crossing, and too many links between militants and political leaders. Unfortunately, no organisation has been created to conduct co-ordinated operations at Manipur, and the various security forces work almost at a tangent. It is no wonder that Manipur is one of the States that are suffering the most as a result of militancy in the North East today.


Tripura was also a Princely State, and acceded to India after Partition. According to the 1931 Census, 95 per cent of the population of Tripura was tribal. After Partition, there was a continuous influx of refugees from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) totally changing the demographic pattern, with the proportion of tribals today reduced to 28 per cent. Democracy is a game of numbers, and the tribals find that the indigenous people have lost political power in their own lands. They have also lost their land, as it is increasingly encroached upon by the migrants.

The result is that the Tripura tribals have taken up arms and resorted to violence that is primarily directed against the Bengali population that has come into Tripura. They have the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) with their camps in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. These groups have occasionally targeted the security forces as well.

The tribal areas of Tripura were accorded Hill Council status as prescribed under the Sixth Schedule, but efforts are required to make a success of these institutions.


Assam is an area of special interest for me by virtue of my appointment as Governor, as also by virtue of a very long association. You often hear people referring to the seven sisters, in terms of the seven States, of the North East. I think this terminology is most misleading. Assam cannot be called just one of the seven sisters. Assam is the mother-State. The others are progenies of Assam. Assam is the core State of the North East. Geographically, it is the region’s heartland. It is the only State, which has boundaries with all the six States. And Assam has a population now of 260 million, which is more than double the population of all other six put together.

The State’s economic resources, in terms of industry turnover, are to the tune of Rs. 30 billion a year, of oil, Rs 25 billion a year – figures that have no parallel in the other States.

Consequently, if there is insurgency in Assam, it affects the whole North East. Strategically, if something happens in lower Assam, adjacent to the Shiliguri corridor, the entire landmass of the North East would be cut off from the rest of India.

In the other States, it is often said that the tribal people ask for secession from India because they were not ‘assimilated in the mainstream’. But how could this happen in Assam, where cultural and civilisational links with the rest of India have been so strong through the centuries? Of course, the militants spread a canard that Assam was never part of India; that it was only when the British came to the region that Assam was brought into India, and hence, the Assamese must re-assert their separate identity and become an independent nation. But this only shows up their ignorance, rather than any significant understanding of history.

Assam had strong civilisational links to the rest of India even in the days of the epics, and through the historical era. Assam was a vassal state, Kamrup of Samudra Gupta, of the Gupta dynasty. The iron pillar inscription of Allahabad mentions Kamrup as a vassal frontier kingdom. During the rule of the Varman rulers in Assam, Bhaskar Varman in particular, the Kamrup kingdom was extended to include the whole of what are, today, Bangladesh, West Bengal and modern Bihar. Huen Tsang, the Chinese traveller, records that Eastern and the Western kings, Harshvardhan in Kanauj and Bhaskar Varman at Guwahati, had the closest of links, exchanging visits and cultural activities. These are only a few examples of the deep linkages between Assam and the rest of India through the ancient period. In the medieval period, however, this link was broken when all the other provinces came under Islamic rule, while Assam retained its independence, repulsing as many as 17 invasions.

In the modern period, Assam participated in India’s First War of Independence in 1857, and in the freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi. The claim that Assam has never been a part of India is, consequently, totally wrong and factually incorrect.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that an insurgency erupted in Assam, and that people were carried away by the secessionist propaganda. On analysis, I find that this happened largely because of a feeling of popular neglect and discrimination, and not because of ethnic, cultural or historical differences. This is the crucial difference between the insurgency in Assam and insurgencies in the tribal areas.

The sense of neglect and discrimination was built up over a long period. When the British came into Assam, they brought with them the western educated Bengali, who established a domination in all the intellectual profession: lawyers, doctors, clerks, teachers and so on, introducing Bengali as the State language and medium of instruction. There were anti-Bengali riots, and ultimately the Assamese language got a place in Assam in the 19th Century. Then came the tea industry, with a new set of distortions. The owners were all British companies, so all the dividends went back to Britain. The middlemen were the Marwaris, and they repatriated their profits to Rajasthan. The labour was mostly from Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, and family remittances of labour went to those States. There was nothing in the tea industry for Assam and the Assamese people.

With the advent of the 20th Century, communalism raised its head in Indian politics. The Muslim League was formed at Dhaka, and even before the cry for Pakistan went up, there was a demand for what was called ‘Bange-Islam’: under which Bengal, with a predominantly Muslim population, would engulf the region completely. Then, in 1905, Curzon’s Partition of Bengal on communal lines sealed Assam’s fate – it had long been a separate province, but lost its identity as it was tagged to East Bengal under this scheme. But historical memories were stronger, and no one wanted to become part of this Greater Bengal.

In the 1932 Census Report on Assam, written by a British officer, Census Superintendent S C Mullan, pointed out the dangers of the uncontrolled influx of population from then North Bengal, which, he warned, would one day result in the Assamese people being restricted only to the upper Assam districts. Then came the Muslim League Ministry at Shillong, about which the then Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell, wrote that, under the pretext of grow more food, the Muslim League ministry was trying to grow more Muslims.

The Grouping Plan introduced by the Cabinet Mission in 1946 then grouped Assam with Bengal. This was accepted by Jinnah, and initially by Congress high command, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. But the Assam Congress stalwart, Gopinath Bordoloi, raised the standard of revolt, and secured Mahatma Gandhi’s support. The Grouping Plan, as a result, was scrapped. This historical sequence is important, because its memory lingered on in the popular consciousness of the people of Assam.

The post-independence period created its own history of grievances. Cooch Behar, for instance, was historically and culturally very close to Assam, but at the time of the merger of States, became part of West Bengal. Princely States like Manipur and Tripura became Union Territory, a pattern, which was not followed anywhere else in the country, where all States were either made a part of a grouping of States or merged with others.

The course of developmental projects was also discouraging. Assam was prone to floods, and lacked sufficient irrigation facilities. Given its enormous potential, it should have received the highest priority for hydroelectric projects. None was put up in Assam. There were no new public sector undertakings in Assam, and when it came to establishing the first oil refinery after independence, it was located at Barauni in Bihar. The reason given was security and the deteriorating relations with China. But the sentiment among the people of Assam was that, if the oil wells of Assam are secure, if oil pipelines going out of Assam are secure, how is it that an oil refinery would be ‘insecure’?

The bifurcation of States, compounded problems. Mega-States like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar have only now been divided into more manageable units. But undivided Assam was progressively cut up into a number of small States.

The Chinese aggression created new injuries. When the Chinese advanced right up to Tezpur, the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in an emotional outburst in his radio broadcast said, my heart goes out to the people of Assam. He may not have meant it, but this was interpreted as a farewell call – look after yourselves we can do nothing for you. This, in some sense, was a repeat of what had happened in 1947, when Nehru had said that, by accepting the Grouping Plan, Assam must make some ‘sacrifice’ for India’s Independence.

These were the cumulative factors, and they needed a straw, which was provided by the demographic invasion of Assam. While Bordoloi was trying to protect the interests of Assam, a new leadership emerged at Delhi, the ‘Assam Syndicate,’ comprising of Deb Kant Baruah [of "India is Indira, Indira is India" fame], Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Moinul Haque Choudhari [one time private secretary of Mohammed Ali Jinnah]. Their outlook and thinking was different, and Baruah articulated the principle that the support of ‘Ali Quli’ had to be retained – Ali standing for the migrants of Bangladeshi origin, and Quli for the tea garden labour.

Assam, at that time, had a very distinguished Governor in B K Nehru, a cousin of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and an eminent Congress leader B P Chaliha as Chief Minister, both of whom drew attention to the dangers of the flood of migrants. Unfortunately, their views were overlooked. In 1978, the Chief Election Commissioner, S L Shakdher, in a meeting at Ootacamond, told the Chief Electoral Officers that, very soon, the Assamese people would be a small minority in their own State. Large numbers of foreigners had settled there, and their names had been included in the voters’ list. At about this time, over seventy thousand illegal names were identified in the voters’ list in Assam.

The years of neglect and discrimination then sparked off two movements: A students movement through the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the militant movement by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). But these movements were the responses of a stepchild in a family feeling neglected, and not of a person who was totally alienated, ethnically, culturally and historically. This must be understood if we are to work out a strategy to deal with the problem.

Very quickly, the succeeding years led to the Assam Accord. 1985-1990 was the period when the first Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government came to power and it was also the period when the ULFA had a free run of the State of Assam. It was the ULFA’s writ that ran, rather than that of the State government. ULFA managed to collect billions of rupees. 130 murders were committed by ULFA during the period, and hardly any action taken. ULFA, to give it credit, tried to project the image of a Robin Hood and by and large was accepted by the people as such because of the various gestures it was making. But things came to a head and in 1990, and the State government had to be dismissed after the Dum Duma incident, when seven tea gardens were asked to give a ransom of Rs 10 million each. The army was brought in, elections were subsequently held, and the Congress came back to power. The Hiteshwar Saikia regime initially tried to find a political solution to the insurgency, and all the arrested militants were released, but violence continued unabated. The army was brought in once again, and was the broad story till 1996, when the AGP was voted back to power for the second time on a manifesto that included three points:

  • the people of Assam will be given the right of self-determination.

  • the ‘black laws’ – the Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act would be repealed.

  • The Army will be sent back to barracks.

None of these three stipulations could eventually be met, and that was the beginning of the rift between the AGP and the ULFA.

As violence mounted, a Chief Secretary, a Director General of Police and two other senior IAS and IPS officer just ran away from Assam – deserted – something that had never happened before. The Chief Minister himself escaped an attempt on his life: An Inspector General of police and an Army Brigadier were shot in the Guwahati streets. At the Kamakhya temple, two Colonels were shot. There were explosions in Guwahati and on the Brahmaputra. Hundreds of people were killed. There was ethnic violence between Bodos and Adivasis in which some 700 persons lost their lives and two hundred thousand people were confined to refugee or ‘relief’ camps. Culverts were blown off and the land link between Assam and the rest of India was severed for a few days. Now that was the scenario. In 1997, in another landmark event of that time, Sanjoy Ghosh, a highly popular social worker, who had won the hearts of the people of Majuli, was kidnapped and assassinated by the ULFA.

It was at this time that I received a bolt from the blue, when the then Prime Minister, I K Gujral, asked me to take charge as Governor of Assam – a move, he said, was supported by both the Government and the Opposition at Delhi.

The feeling in Assam at that time was, here is a General coming, so there will be President’s rule or military rule in Assam. It was, however, my very considered decision to work with a popular government in power and, as far as was possible, not to allow President’s rule in Assam. Introduction of President’s rule creates a direct confrontation between Delhi and the State, and any solution found under such circumstances would only be temporary, since the people would have a feeling that it was imposed upon them.

My second major decision and it was a very difficult decision, related to the CBI’s request to prosecute the Chief Minister who was involved in a scam. I went through the documents, and was convinced that prima facie evidence was absent, and chose to reject the recommendations of the CBI. I knew this would cause a furore, but I was prepared to face it. Of course, another consideration that weighed with me was that political instability was the last thing Assam needed at that time – but this was not the reason for rejecting the CBI’s recommendation. As it happened, the matter was contested in the High Court for two years, after which the Court not only upheld my decision in a speaking order, but supported the argument I had given. The matter went up to the Supreme Court, where the CBI eventually stated that it accepted the Governor’s order. This decision was important because it had a direct bearing on the conduct of counter-insurgency operations.

The army was widely deployed and my biggest asset was that, having been in the army for nearly 40 years, most of the officers there had worked under me and knew me. I could not possibly expect a more loyal and enthusiastic response than I received in Assam.

A three-pronged strategy was adopted against the insurgents. The first prong was the containment of violence; the second involved psychological initiatives; and the third sought to catalyse economic development.

So far as containment of violence was concerned, a Unified Command Structure was functioning. Unfortunately, there have been far too many personal conflicts and turf wars with the result that various elements of the security forces, the army and the police, tend to work more as competing rather than complementary forces. We couldn’t have the kind of unity of command that General Sir Gerald Templer established in Malaya, but Unified Command was the closest we could achieve, and it worked. There were hiccups, but these were resolved. The result was that we were able to kill more then one thousand militants in encounters, we recovered three thousand weapons and a large amount of cash; and over three thousand three hundred militants surrendered in batches.

These were backbreaking statistics for any militant organisation, but still the ULFA has survived. This is primarily because of its sanctuaries in Bhutan. Nevertheless, they have been greatly marginalised.

The first of psychological initiatives took shape within a few weeks after my arrival at Guwahati. There was a seminar of the Indian Council of Historical Research, which I was invited to inaugurate. Top historians from all over the country were present, and in my opening address, I underlined the fact that historians had neglected Assam, but that history had not neglected it. This point was amplified with examples, pointing out that, while textbooks wrote of the Indus Valley Civilisation, the Gangetic Valley Civilisation, etc., you hardly read anything about Brahmaputra Valley Civilisation. Rana Pratap and Shivaji are national military heroes, but there was a military hero of Assam in the same mould – Lachit Barphukan; his name is not known outside Assam. The thrust was that the people of Assam should be made to feel proud of their past, and the rest of India should feel proud of Assam. History would be used as a weapon to fight militancy. They had talked in terms of Assam never being a part of India, and the response would be to prove precisely how wrong they were.

To do this, I selected three individuals whose contribution was great, but was not known outside Assam. One was Shreeman Shankar Dev, a great religious reformer, who sought to rid the Hindu society of the evils of caste system and to create an egalitarian society in Assam, evidence of which is still visible all over. Today, politics in India is riddled with caste. But in Assam, no one speaks of caste in the political discourse. This was Shreeman Shankar Dev’s contribution. I installed a painting of Shreeman Shankar Dev, and had the Chief Minister of Assam sworn in under that picture, telling him that he was the first in Assam to take the oath under a picture of the Assamese reformer, though I hoped he would not be the last.

The second inspirational figure I had identified was Lachit Barphukan. An annual Lachit Barphukan memorial lecture was introduced at the University, and a Lachit Barphukan Gold Medal was introduced for the best cadet in the National Defence Academy at Pune, where his statue was installed as well.

The third Assamese hero who was projected was Gopinath Bordoloi. To create greater recognition to his enormous contribution to Assam and to India, we worked to have a posthumous award of Bharat Ratna conferred on him; the Guwahati Airport was named after him; and a life-size bronze statue of Bordoloi now stands in Parliament. In all these cases, the thrust was to project their contributions that went far beyond the geographical limits of Assam. Had it not been for Bordoloi, all of Assam would have gone to East Pakistan, Calcutta would have been a port in Bangladesh, and Delhi would probably have been a frontier State

There was also this question of an anti-army sentiment among the people. This was another aspect that was taken up, not because I was from the army, but also because the Army represented the rest of India, it represented Delhi – it was the result of the strong feelings against Delhi that the Army was being used as a whipping horse. Small incidents were blown out of proportion, and the media was constantly raising bogeys: ‘This is military rule. When is the army going back? When will the Unified Command be abolished?’ And so on.

The Army was consequently encouraged to conduct people-friendly operations. Here I was reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi had said when I was a young Captain in 1946, and we knew that Independence was coming. He had pointed out that we are a colonial Army, and not very popular with the people. After all, in the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, General Dyer may have given the orders, but the act was executed by the Indian Army. Mahatma Gandhi understood this, and his very words were pregnant with meaning. He said, till now they have been used to fire indiscriminately against us; now, they must learn to plough the fields, dig wells, clean latrines and do other constructive work if they want the hatred of the people of India to be converted into love for them.

When the Partition holocaust came, the Army was the only effective instrument in the States of North India. The war in Kashmir, the war in Junagadh and the conflict in Hyderabad redeemed the reputation of the Army, which was transformed from a colonial Army into a national Army overnight. There was tremendous patriotic fervour all over the country, and the Army had become the most popular instrument of the state.

But here in Assam, when I came as Governor, Gandhiji’s words rang in my ears. The Army responded splendidly, and a range of activities was launched. Hundreds of thousands of patients were treated in medical relief camps; the Army helped renovate schools and temples; it ran training centres for computers, vehicle mechanics, and other skills; it helped provide water at the Kamakhya temple, and assisted in conservation efforts in wildlife sanctuaries. Gradually, there was an attitudinal shift among the people, and this became our greatest asset.

The third prong of our counter-terrorism response strategy was economic development. Within one year, we managed to install over one hundred thousand shallow tube wells and, for the first time, Assam was self-sufficient in rice. One of the greatest agricultural scientists in the world, who was the father of green revolution in India, Dr. M S Swaminathan, came to Guwahati and said that a mini Green Revolution had taken place in Assam.

The cumulative impact of these strategies was a clear change in the ground situation in Assam. There are, of course, still some incidents of violence – but incidents of violence occur even in Delhi – this does not mean that Assam is in the grips of militancy. As long as the sanctuaries in Bhutan remain intact, this nuisance will persist.

In conclusion, some points need to be reiterated. Insurgency flourishes when the people have a feeling of separate identity on the basis of ethnicity, culture or history. This is compounded by a sense of neglect, exploitation and discrimination, and immensely aggravated by bad governance, corruption and economic backwardness. All these factors exist in the North East. The key to the situation, clearly, is to provide good, corruption-free governance, and economic development.

It has been rightly said that when people in Delhi think of the Northeast, they think of the distance, and that translates itself into a mental gap. When the people of the Northeast think of Delhi, they think in terms of different levels of development, and this translates into an emotional gap. Let us hope that these gaps can be bridged, and that, with changes in attitudes, the Northeast will take the high road to peace and prosperity.


* This paper is based on the inaugural address delivered by HE Lt. Gen. (Retd.) S. K. Sinha, Governor of Assam, at the seminar on "Addressing Conflicts in India's North East" organised by the Institute for Conflict Management, June 25-27, 2001, New Delhi.
# HE Lt. Gen. (Retd.) S. K. Sinha is the Governor of Assam. A former Vice-chief of Army Staff, he also served as India's Ambassador to Nepal. He has written several books on defence related issues including the autobiographical A Soldier Recalls.







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