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Three Matryoshkas
Ethnicity, Autonomy and Governance*
Sushil K. Pillai#

The 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

The Maras: A Case Study

The 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 States.

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.

An 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.

In 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

The 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.

Mizoram 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.

The Mara case study throws up a number of issues on autonomy, ethnicity and governance.


The 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

More 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.

Autonomy 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

Grant 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 the system.
  • Autonomy 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.
  • Autonomy 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 claims.
  • 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.


As 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’.

The empirical experience from the Northeastern region highlights the following features:

  • Ethnicity 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 more complex.
  • 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.
  • Identities 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.
  • Upsets 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.


The 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.

Grants 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

At 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.

At 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.

Irrespective 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.

The three thrust areas that need attention are:

  • Development 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.
  • Ethnocentrism 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 cultural practices;
  • through 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 peace efforts.


Autonomy 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.

The 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.
  1. For full text see South Asia Terrorism Portal; India; Mizoram; Documents; 1986 Mizoram Accord;

  2. S N Singh, "Hmar Autonomy Movement", in R N Prasad, ed., Autonomy Movements in Mizoram, New Delhi: Vikas, 1994, p. 123.

  3. Laiu Fachhai, The Maras, Saiha: Evangelical Church of Maraland Mission, 1994, p. 1.

  4. R T Zachono, "The Maras Towards Autonomy", in R N Prasad, ed., Autonomy Movements in Mizoram, New Delhi: Vikas, 1994, p. 141.

  5. C G Verghese and R L Thanzawna, A History of the Mizos vol. I, New Delhi: Vikas, 1997, p 95.

  6. Kaka D Iralu, Nagaland and India, Appendix I, Ser 28, 67, Private publication, September 2000.

  7. The 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.

  8. Prasad, Mizo Autonomy Movement, pp. 30-31.

  9. Zachono, Maras Towards Autonomy, p. 152.

  10. The townships are Thantlang, Matupi and Paletwa. See Fachhai, The Maras, p. 12.

  11. For details see B G Verghese, India's NorthEast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development, New Delhi: Konark, 1996, pp. 135-165.

  12. Yash Ghai, Autonomy and Ethnicity: Negotiating Competing Claims in multi-ethnic States, London: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 8.

  13. In 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.

  14. One 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.

  15. Ghai, Autonomy and Ethnicity, p. 83.

  16. Udayon Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back, Shimla: IIAS, 2000, p. 218.

  17. Jan Pieterse, "Deconstructing/Reconstructing Ethnicity", Nations & Nationalism vol. 3, 1997, Institute of Social Studies, p. 366.

  18. Urmila Phadnis and Rajat Ganguly, Ethnicity and Nation Building in South Asia, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1989, p. 14.

  19. Murkot 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.

  20. W C Smith, The Ao Naga Tribe, Quoted in J P Mills, The Ao Nagas, London: Oxford University Press, 1926, p viii.

  21. Ghai, Autonomy and Ethnicity, p. 4

  22. Memorandum 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.

  23. Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back, p. 218.

  24. Mani 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.

  25. Ministry of Home data.

  26. V K Nayar, "Insurgencies in the North East" (Part II), USI Journal, New Delhi, vol. CXXX, no. 540, April-June 2000, pp. 299-311.

  27. Governance and Development, Goran Hyden and Julius Court, Tokyo: UN University, 2000, p.14.







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