Russian Matryoshka doll has a series of smaller dolls fitted one
inside the other. A Matryoshka is, perhaps, an appropriate image
to analyse the problems of autonomy, ethnicity and governance
in India’s Northeast (NE). These problems, often ascribed to simpler
explanations of British colonialism, cultural and geographical
isolation, modernisation, poor governance and the other reasons
we are familiar with, are in reality far more complex. These are
dynamic issues constantly evolving, producing mutants and newer
forms. The remedies that one suggests will have to take these
into account, with the understanding that the remedies themselves
need to change along with the developing dynamic of the situation,
e.g., the nature of the Naga ‘freedom’ movement has mutated from
a nationalist movement to one that also seeks a balance between
a status quo which is required by the organised crime in
which it is involved (extortion, facilitating drug flows, illegal
collusion with the government) and the violence of a revolutionary
movement. Despite its pan-Naga stance, it still remains Indo-centric
and is also internally unsettled by inter-tribal power struggles.
The mutation is not restricted to the Nagas and illustrates the
dialectics of many ‘autonomy movements’ that are long drawn out.
At this stage of an extended insurgency, the state’s continued
reliance primarily on use of force becomes an inadequate response.
Other conflict resolution means, such as enhanced intelligence
and targeting of the underground economy, as well as international
cooperation are needed. Effective conflict management is achieved
when a political solution is arrived at prior to this mutation,
as was seen in the case of the 1986 Government of India-Mizo ‘Memorandum
of Settlement,’ as also the Mizoram Government-Hmar ‘Memorandum
of Settlement’ of 1994.1 The latter
settlement is, however, still unstable as the Hmars seek a larger
grouping with their fellow tribesmen in Assam (Cachar) and Manipur.2
Maras: A Case Study
complexity and development of ethnicity and autonomy movements
can be illustrated by the case of the Maras, an ethnic group in
southeast Mizoram. Though the Maras were variously called Lakhers,
Shandus and Mirams by neighbouring ethnic groups,3
the name Lakher stuck. What they called themselves did not seem
to matter to others. Indeed, apart from the Central and the Assam
governments, even as late as in the mid-1950s, the Maras too referred
to themselves as Lakhers4 in their
interactions with the outside world. This aspect of acquired
identity has its contemporary manifestation in the so-called ‘NE
identity’ – a construct born out of political expediency in shaping
the perspectives of both the Centre and the seven Northeastern
In 1924, the entire Mara area became part of the British Empire
and was divided into three different districts, of which two were
in Burma and one in India. Even to this day, the Maras remain
divided between Myanmar and India. A similar situation exists
with the Lais (earlier called Pawi), a northern neighbouring tribe
to the Maras. The demand for autonomy and eventual grant of Statehood
to the Mizos evolved through a series of steps, which were reactive
and lacking a distant perspective or understanding of the special
nature of Mara ethnicity and autonomy.
underlying common dynamic of ethnicity that is situational and
not primordial operates not only in Mizoram but also in all the
NE States and elsewhere. During the period 1810 to 1850, twelve
minor ethnic groups such as the Fanai and Kawlni merged with the
Lushais5. Similar voluntary groupings
are still occurring in Manipur and Nagaland e.g. the ‘old Kuki’
(a dubious colonial classification) of the small Lamkhang and
Monsang tribes now claim to be Nagas6.
Around the year 1946, due to growing ethnic awareness, the Lushais
began to refer to themselves as Mizo7
belonging to a pan-Zomi ethnic group.
1952, the Lushai Hills District of the Assam State became the
Autonomous Mizo Hills District under a District Council. In 1953,
the Pawi-Lakher tribes were also grouped into Pawi-Lakher Regional
Council under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Both these
Councils, in theory, were granted a fair degree of autonomy regarding
land and forest management, taxes, agricultural practices, village
administration and customary law. But, in reality, the authority
of the Governor, the District Commissioner and his administration
overlay this autonomy.8
Pawi-Lakher Regional Council was unable to function effectively
due to ethnic power struggles. The Maras unilaterally opted out
of the Regional Council in 1963 and consequently set up a self-styled
Interim District Council, which functioned upto 1972, even as
political turmoil and insurgency raged in the Mizo Hills9.
In 1972, the Maras, Lais and Chakmas were given an Autonomous
District Council (ADC) each, while the Mizo District Council became
a Union Territory (UT). The three ADCs for the Pawis, Lakhers
and Chakmas functioned within the UT. In 1987, Mizoram was granted
Statehood. The Lakher and Pawi Autonomous Councils were later
renamed as the Mara and Lai Autonomous Councils in 1989. In Myanmar,
which has a different concept of autonomy, the Maras are listed
as a major tribe and placed under three autonomous Townships of
the Chin State.10 Similarly, the
Myanmar Naga population of the Sagaing Division opposite Nagaland
have been organised into three self-administered zones as designated
by the Myanmar National Convention. However, local autonomy has
not solved the problem of ethnic conflict. In India, the Maras
are currently demanding UT status. If such a demand is not efficaciously
handled, it could inevitably lead to further demands for Statehood,
secession or a trans-border merger.
walks a thin dividing line between peace and separatist movements.
In northeastern Mizoram, the Hmar People’s Convention seeks a
larger homeland, to the south, the Chakmas and the Brus are restive,
as are the Maras.11 Beyond India’s
borders live the same ethnic groups. The call for a Greater Mizoram
incorporating these groups emerged in the 1980s. Yet, holistically
viewed, Mizoram is a success story of conflict management. Such
are the many dolls within the Mizo Matryoshka. The same dynamic
complexity exists in all the Northeastern States though the details
are unique to each of them.
Mara case study throws up a number of issues on autonomy, ethnicity
purpose of autonomy is to establish a "political arrangement
to allow ethnic and other groups claiming a distinct identity
to exercise direct control over affairs of special concern to
them while allowing the larger entity those powers which cover
common interests."12 There are
many shades of meaning to 'Autonomy' as also various forms. While
granting autonomy is a political decision, its operation and infrastructure
are primarily bureaucratic within a particular political paradigm.
And it also serves as the reason for successful and failed autonomies.13
often than not, autonomy is considered a panacea for ethnic conflicts,
particularly by a ‘soft state’. However, it is not necessarily
so, as is evident in the failed autonomy scenario of the Bodo
ADC. Autonomy unites people (Maras) as well as divides (Mara-Lai)
or marginalises (Mizo-Mara) sub-communities. Minorities, depending
on their size and location, react differently to the major communities.
While some smaller groups (Lamkhangs, Monsangs, Fanais) voluntarily
get assimilated, particularly those from the periphery, the larger
groups (Nagas, Mizos) at the periphery tend to opt for secession
when they feel threatened by assimilation and neglect. Since the
same ethnic groups live across the border, this aspect has to
be factored in through measures like easing trade and movement
of people as well as new measures for border management beyond
trade and security.
based on the principles of minority rights, indigenous rights
and right to self-determination is intended to give a community
or region substantial powers of policy, administration and fiscal
resources. It also aims to preserve and promote the traditional
indigenous culture. In reality, an examination of how autonomy
is being exercised in the NE shows that it is akin to the curate’s
egg because these are not only a reflection of ADC-State relations
but also of Centre-State relations.14
of autonomy to regions on the periphery is, invariably, grudgingly
conceded due to fears of secession. These fears can be allayed
when one looks at the various types of autonomies that are being
practiced elsewhere. China, with its 55 ethnic/ nationality groups,
offers a variety of autonomies like the ‘One Country, Two Systems’
(China-Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau) and ‘Regions’, ‘Prefectures’
and ‘Counties’, ‘Special Economic Zones’ and ‘Nationality Townships’15.
The Myanmarese also have ‘Nationality Townships’ (Maras) and ‘Self
Administered Zones’ (Nagas).
While there is no doubt that autonomy as granted to the Northeastern
States is a good measure, the contention here is that it is a
part of the problem and not the solution:
- When autonomies
were granted based on the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution,
there was a large space between the individual and village,
on the one hand, and the State, on the other. In the colonial
period, this space was occupied by a lean British administrative
set up and by the various social organisations of the Church.
There were no larger traditional institutions of governance
in this space, as there were only village republics. In the
post-Independence era, government agencies and insurgent movements
have occupied much of this space. Indeed, at the village level,
certain governmental structures like the Block Development Officer
and the Circle Officer have eroded the traditional machinery
of village self-governance rather than incorporating them into
for underdeveloped areas can easily slip into separatism and
consequently weaken democratic unity as also its institutions.
The minorities (Chakmas, Brus – also called Reangs, Maras vs.
Mizos) in the ‘Little Community’ feel discriminated against
and seek further autonomy (UT status for the Maras). Poor exploitation
of natural resources and inadequate economic infrastructure,
combined with the lack of trained manpower, forces the state
to become the largest employment agency. The obverse side of
a high literacy rate is educated unemployed, which the government
cannot now absorb. All these culminate in a spiral of dissatisfaction.
in the NE is perceived mainly in ethnic terms. This results
in an inevitable conflict between autonomy and over dependence
on the Centre because of the lack of an economic base. It also
changes the focus of attention. Instead of tackling the real
issues of isolation and of socio-economic development, the focus
of attention shifts towards the accommodation of competing ethnic
- The Simon
Commission in 1929 noted that "(the tribes) do not ask
for self determination but for security of land tenure, freedom
in the pursuit of the traditional methods of livelihood and
reasonable exercise in their customs." In the post–Independence
era, these demands for autonomy were viewed by the government
as potential threats of secession and handled accordingly. Autonomy
is easier to handle when state sovereignty is not questioned.
- The concepts
of autonomy as viewed by various insurgent groups also need
to be studied. These are not necessarily liberal or uniform.
The 1971 Yezhabo (Constitution) of the Federal Government of
Nagaland envisages traditional autonomous village republics
as part of a federation of regions with no right to secession.
Christianity and ancient Naga religion are the recognised state
religions.16 In the case of the
Nagas, its three main groups have different territorial definitions
of their homeland.
with the concept of ethnicity itself, its definitions too keep
changing. Thus, there is a need to state the sense in which it
is used in the context of this paper. Many discussions generalise
as if there is only one type of ethnicity, but it is more realistic
to think of ethnicity as a continuum, varying in terms of salience,
intensity and meaning. Along this spectrum several types of ethnicity
can be distinguished. Domination ethnicity, enclosure (inward
looking) ethnicity, competition ethnicity, optional (low-intensity)
ethnicity. Ethnicity is not static; it is a matter of ever-changing
relational positioning, which refers us to the dynamics of ethnicity,
shifting from one mode to the other.17
It can be ethno-centric (the Maras), nationalistic (Nagas), competitive
(Nags vs. Kukis) or even opportunistic (as with the demand for
autonomy by the Paites). Irrespective of its form, it represents
the dialectics of domination and emancipation. The players in
the dialectics of ethnicity are ethnic groups on the one hand
and the dominant majority on the other. The ethnic groups are
historically formed aggregates of people having a real or imaginary
association with a specified territory, a shared cluster of beliefs
and values connoting its distinctiveness in relation to similar
groups.18 Ethnic conflicts occur
when territory is claimed by rival groups at the synapse of historical
migration routes, as in the case of India’s NE, or through fear
of assimilation and disempowerment by the dominant group, e.g.,
the imagined, homogenised, ‘Ugly Indian’.
empirical experience from the Northeastern region highlights the
is dynamic and keeps changing. Tribes are still renaming, grouping
and degrouping themselves. The Kukis were accepted as Nagas
in 192919 but are their bitter
enemies today. In 1925, W C Smith listed 14-shared physical
and cultural traits as markers of Naga ethnicity.20
Contemporary markers are just 4 – language, race, religion and
colour.21 Even in these markers,
differences are found in many of the same ethnic groups, e.g.,
the Nagas do not have a common language. Increasingly, with
modernisation, these markers have acquired a political significance
and ethnicity is now a political tool for acquiring power and
redistributing it. When serious underlying socio-economic problems
are simplified as ethnic demands, the solution becomes much
- There is
a copycat feature to ethnicity. In 1945, the Mara Chiefs petitioned
the Additional Superintendent, Lungleh, in words echoing the
Naga submission to the Simon Commission in 1929 and added, "Now
that we know the wisdom and good news concerning other tribes
we are very desirous to also state our wants."22
The Paites taking the cue from the Hmars formed a Paite National
Council to demand a separate district. Also, others demand concessions
given to one group.
are often acquired. The way in which boundaries are drawn can
create identities such as the ‘NE Identity’. This lends itself
to political manipulation by both the state and insurgent groups
and also raises the question as to how far back in history one
can go regarding identities and the physical boundaries that
define them? As everywhere else, ethnic nationalism can be attempted
through selective historical events, e.g., the Naga Federal
Government has declared "the demarcated boundaries between
regions and sub regions from the day of the British shall have
legal recognition of this Yezhabo."23
On the other hand, the NSCN (IM) has declared that the boundaries
of Nagalim rest on the banks of the Chindwin.
in ethnic composition in India due to internal migration and
external migration from Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, particularly
into Assam and Tripura have critical impact.
idea of poor governance breeding poverty is an accepted thesis.
But when poor governance becomes a willing or unwilling collusive
partner with terrorists and secessionist groups, it begets a stable
anarchy. Many of the ills of the Northeastern States have been
traced to corruption in the agencies of governance or of individuals
who represent the powers of the state. What is often neglected,
however, is the manner in which the lack of certain institutions
and rules of governance, especially in the regions that have been
granted autonomy, breeds corruption. Consequent public dissatisfaction
becomes a fertile ground for parochial ethnic calls for secession
or demands for further autonomy in the vain hope that a better
scenario would unfold. An additional factor not vectored adequately
enough into governance is that the peripheral location of these
States demands a closer socio-economic and security relationship
with neighbouring States.
of autonomy are, more often than not, hurried due to mounting
political pressure or action. A significant function of governance
is to provide intelligence flow and a holistic picture so that
the ensuing political decision is not mistimed. R D Pradhan, the
then Union Home Secretary, has given a remarkable account of how
the Assam Accord was signed in a hurry because an arbitrary date
had been fixed for its announcement on August 15, 1985. Both the
parties, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Government
of India (GOI), were aware that parts of the Accord were not implementable,
and yet it was signed, because the primary aim of the AASU was
to secure political power. An amusing side narrative mentioned
in this context is that, when Rajiv Gandhi, the then Premier,
did not approve of the phrasing of a particular draft clause,
the Home Secretary’s response was: "Sir, I have worked enough
in the UN to know that bad English always makes for good negotiations.
So please leave the English alone."24
the micro level, even programmes based on sound principles flounder
when there is weak governance. The Village Development Board (VDB)
in Nagaland, for all its flaws, is an excellent example of village
autonomy, having both executive and financial powers. Yet, the
budgetary allocation to the VDBs amounts to a bare 0.7 % of the
budget.25 The impact of this local
autonomy, in effect, does not amount to much.
the macro level, the role of civil society in governance needs
far more attention than is currently accorded. Of the many theories
on the constituents of governance, one view identifies four major
constituents: (a) Policy implementation, (b) Sound administration,
(c) Implementation of economic development and (d) Security management.26
A United Nations (UN) paper27 identifies
six aspects: (a) Involvement of civil society in governance; (b)
Responsiveness of the Government to the will of the people through
various organisations – mainly political; (c) Formulation of policy;
(d) Execution of policy (the bureaucracy); (e) Regulating the
economy; and (f) Judicial management and conflict resolution.
of the classification, there is need for a much greater involvement
of civil society in governance in the NE. In some of the States,
the Church generates most of the social and community work and
there are also certain strong and effective youth and women’s
organisations, as well as Human Rights groups. Traditional organisations
like the Naga Ho-Hos are also in operation. Yet, neither the State
government, Central government nor the civil polity has exploited
the tremendous potential of co-opting civil society.
three thrust areas that need attention are:
of Human Infrastructure: this is as important as building economic
infrastructure. For this, development of knowledge centres,
data banks and research centres is essential, and centres of
excellence have to be established. While there is a Regional
Documentation and Information Centre at Shillong and similar
centres in State capitals in the North East, these do not provide
the variety of information needed by researchers. For instance,
there is inadequate data about how and when various insurgencies
have mutated to combine with organised crime and whether any
pattern of transition emerges. Information should not only be
accessed but should also be disseminated to grass root levels
by volunteer groups. The Internet home pages of governments
and secessionist groups on the web provide only ‘Performa’ information,
more often than not outdated.
- There is
a need for more institutionalised arrangements directed towards
the psychological integration of the NE with the rest of the
country. The present arrangement of two Core Groups at the Union
Home Ministry level and Inter-media Publicity Coordination Committees
at State levels is grossly inadequate. Furthermore, radio transmission
systems are weak and ineffectual. The number of students from
the NE studying in other parts of the country is approximately
9,000 at any given time. One would expect that, on return, they
would be a positive amalgamating influence. Yet, that is not
so. A potential binding force is not being utilised. Objectively
considered, there is no media policy for the NE, though of late
the Home Ministry is disseminating information through pamphlets
and brochures; these, however, lack detail.
can be tackled at three levels:
- at the
political and institutional level, through negotiations, cease-fires
and education policy. The key issues in this context are power
sharing and safe guards regarding land, natural resources and
awareness generation at the grass roots level, where innovative
techniques and information exchange patterns are practiced.
For example, at Siphir in northern Mizoram, the villagers have
grouped together to market squash, avoiding the formalities
of a cooperative. Similarly, at Longsa in Nagaland, the villagers
have set up a micro economy for providing Mokokchung town with
the bulk of its requirements of soya beans;
- at the
level of the intelligentsia where there is a search for an appropriate
dynamic for peoples’ movements. For example, Niketu Iralu’s
and ethnicity have diverse faces and masks. They are not ends
in themselves but part of a continuum. A paradigm shift in perception
and policy-making occurs when they are viewed as part of the problem
and not the solution. Autonomy as practiced by us is accommodative
but it is firmly controlled by the Centre and the States, politically
and bureaucratically. Autonomy to an ethnic group on the Indian
side cannot afford to ignore the condition of the same ethnic
group across the border. One has to necessarily strive towards
achieving a far greater inter-government coordination.
psychological integration of the NE with the rest of the country
is of critical importance. One also has to upgrade the policy
and institutional structures to render effective such integration.
The involvement of civil society is an essential ingredient of
good governance. The function of effectual governance should be
to provide instrumentalities for this vis-à-vis obtaining,
dissemination and feedback of information, transparency as also
coordination. The guiding principle, as Ghai aptly describes,
is that, autonomy be chosen not because of some notion of preserving
sovereignty but in order to enable different groups to live together
to define a common public space.
||This article is a revised version of the author's
paper presented at the seminar 'Addressing Conflicts In India's
North East' organised by the Institute for Conflict Management,
June 25-27, 2001, New Delhi.
||Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Sushil K. Pillai, PVSM, is
a former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Director General of
Infantry. He was commissioned to the Assam Regiment in 1955.
After retirement in 1991, he has written extensively on India's
Northeast, and is currently writing a History of the Assam
Regiment. He is also a Consulting Editor with Faultlines.
full text see South Asia Terrorism Portal; India; Mizoram;
Documents; 1986 Mizoram Accord; www.satp.org.
N Singh, "Hmar Autonomy Movement", in R N Prasad,
ed., Autonomy Movements in Mizoram, New Delhi: Vikas,
1994, p. 123.
Fachhai, The Maras, Saiha: Evangelical Church of Maraland
Mission, 1994, p. 1.
T Zachono, "The Maras Towards Autonomy", in R N
Prasad, ed., Autonomy Movements in Mizoram, New Delhi:
Vikas, 1994, p. 141.
G Verghese and R L Thanzawna, A History of the Mizos
vol. I, New Delhi: Vikas, 1997, p 95.
D Iralu, Nagaland and India, Appendix I, Ser 28, 67,
Private publication, September 2000.
first political party in the Lushai Hills was raised on April
9, 1946. It called itself the Mizo Union. See Verghese and
Thanzawna, A History of the Mizos, p. 153.
Mizo Autonomy Movement, pp. 30-31.
Maras Towards Autonomy, p. 152.
townships are Thantlang, Matupi and Paletwa. See Fachhai,
The Maras, p. 12.
details see B G Verghese, India's NorthEast Resurgent:
Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development, New
Delhi: Konark, 1996, pp. 135-165.
Ghai, Autonomy and Ethnicity: Negotiating
Competing Claims in multi-ethnic States, London:
Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 8.
the NE, there are nine autonomous district councils (ADCs).
1) East Khasi Hills; 2) Garo Hills; 3) Jaintia Hills; 4)
North Cachar Hills; 5) Karbi Anglong; 6) Bodo (non-functional);
7) Chakma; 8) Lai; and 9) Mara.
of the pitfalls in the NE has been that autonomy has been
granted without ensuring an adequate administrative framework
of rules of procedure e.g. accounts of the Mara Autonomous
District Council (MADC) were not presented to the Governor
for 13 years (1970-1984). See M J Pathy in the MADC Silver
Jubilee Souvenir (1972-1997); Prasad, Autonomy Movements
in Mizoram gives even more scandalous examples of misgovernance
in the ADCs. Misgovernance has also led to demands in certain
cases for secession as confidence in the State and Central
governments has eroded.
Autonomy and Ethnicity, p. 83.
Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back, Shimla: IIAS, 2000,
Pieterse, "Deconstructing/Reconstructing Ethnicity",
Nations & Nationalism vol. 3, 1997, Institute of
Social Studies, p. 366.
Phadnis and Rajat Ganguly, Ethnicity and Nation Building
in South Asia, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1989, p.
Ramunny, The World of Nagas, New Delhi: Northern Book
Centre, 1988, p. 250. Lengjang, a Kuki, was a member of the
Naga Club which submitted a Memorandum to the Simon Commission
in 1929 seeking separation from Assam and coming directly
under the British Government.
C Smith, The Ao Naga Tribe, Quoted in J P Mills, The
Ao Nagas, London: Oxford University Press, 1926, p viii.
Autonomy and Ethnicity, p. 4
Submitted to the Additional Superintendent, South Lushai Hills
dated 4 Jan 1945 from Chhomo, Chief of Serkawr on behalf of
Lakher Chiefs. For full text see Prasad, Autonomy Movements
in Mizoram, p. 140.
The Periphery Strikes Back, p. 218.
Shankar Aiyar, ed., Rajiv Gandhi's India, vol 1, New
Delhi: UBSPD, 1998, p. 94. This is an amazing account of how
the Assam Accord was drafted. Pradhan continues his narrative
and says, "it is not that they (Mahanta and Phukan) were
not aware that this Accord will not be implemented." See p.
97. The underlying cynicism is sobering.
of Home data.
K Nayar, "Insurgencies in the North East" (Part
II), USI Journal, New Delhi, vol. CXXX, no. 540, April-June
2000, pp. 299-311.
and Development, Goran Hyden and Julius Court, Tokyo:
UN University, 2000, p.14.