Sunday, August 31, 2008

India’s hegemony unmasked: The case of Northeast India

India’s hegemony unmasked: The case of Northeast India
(To be published in the International Socialist Review at the end of 2008)

Sriram Ananthanarayanan (

The Indian state with all its attempts at portraying itself to be a peace-loving democracy, whose economy valiantly rockets upwards, foreign company takeovers and all, pushing the country into one of the elite league of superpowers in the 21st century often finds acceptance with mainstream international media houses. However the seemingly benign nature of the Indian establishment would nevertheless find it hard to cover up its sub-imperialist hegemonic nature within South Asia and sometimes parts of Southeast Asia. A parallel drawn to Israeli militarism in West Asia is certainly not unwarranted, and indeed the historic proximity of one and the new bonhomie of the other towards the US and its own imperialist program are not altogether coincidental.

Contrary to its own self-perception and the one attempted to be broadcast internationally, a mainstream viewpoint of India found in all other countries in South Asia, including ones with huge militaries themselves like Pakistan, is one of a regional bully. Bangladesh often finds itself on the receiving end of Indian development projects utilizing the numerous rivers that flow through the country apart from the constructing of Indian fences along the Bangladeshi border to placate Indian xenophobia resulting in ruined commerce interactions and livelihood for villagers on either side of the border. Sri Lankans, both Sinhalese and Tamils, have for long spoken of Indian imperialism, alternatively supporting both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military, including the brutal Indian Peace Keeping Force sent to the tiny island nation in the 1980s. Indian monopoly capital has made huge inroads into all neighbouring countries in South Asia, resulting in immense resource usurpation. Tinier nations like Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan are essentially forced to act as Indian client states with the Indian military expanding and conducting operations in them as they please. Pakistan has often complained of Indian arm-twisting in international forums on the much-debated Kashmir issue, and this regional hegemony has resulted in even huge imperialist states like the US and UK lavishly courting India, while giving the cold shoulder to Pakistan, a country which has been greatly exploited by Western imperialists in their farcical “war on terror”.

While the Indian military presence and ensuing human rights abuses in Kashmir is well known, primarily due to claims on the region by Pakistan, one of the foremost examples of India’s regional hegemony is its oppressive military presence in Northeast India, a region not very well known outside of South Asia, and a hotbed of state militarism and numerous armed insurgencies.

Northeast India and its history of oppression: Northeast India comprises eight small states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura) in the northeast part of the country and is particularly well known for its raw greenery and multiple tribal cultures, often of a historically egalitarian nature. The region itself is tiny, comprising barely 7.5% of India’s landmass and 3.5% of India’s population, but extremely diverse, and home to more than 70 major population groups speaking nearly 400 different languages and dialects. Most native people of the region have strong cultural and social similarities with the people of East and Southeast Asia. The term “Northeast India” itself is very much a post-colonial construct, coming into existence only after Indian Independence in 1947, and the region has suffered for a long time under extremely oppressive Indian state hegemony as well as spatial discrimination in comparison to the rest of India. While the region is extremely rich in terms of mineral and natural resources, including tea, oil, limestone, coal as well as bamboo for papermaking, much of this has been usurped by national and private capital without any benefit to the local population. Development in the region is often never accorded the priority it merits and the Indian government maintains an extremely oppressive hold over the entire region. Indeed while education levels and other Human Development Indices are on par with the far better developed South Indian States, economic development levels languish at levels comparable to poorer Central and North Indian states. The hegemonic treatment meted out to the region has resulted in numerous armed nationalist and sub-nationalist insurgent movements, causing multiple conflicts with the Indian state as well as internecine battles with each other. This has resulted in harsh material conditions for the people, including human rights abuses, insecure livelihood, difficult working conditions as well as exploitation of the conflict by capital.

There is of course a history to the oppressive circumstances faced by the people of the region, and while impossible to cover in a couple of paragraphs, still merits a brief examination. As mentioned earlier, Northeast India was a political part of the Indian state only over the last 60 years or so, post-independence, and previously consisted of numerous tribal kingdoms, fairly self-sufficient and generally of little interest to the colonizers. Assam (which at that time included present-day Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya) slowly found its place in the colonial state from the 1820s onwards, with the British usurping the territory due to it’s potential for producing tea and breaking Chinese monopoly on the trade (indeed Assam is now the largest tea-producing region in the world). And while Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim weren’t even within the boundaries of British colonial India, Tripura and Manipur were princely states within the territory, but of hardly any political significance. However, what did happen under the British was an effective severing of the region from it’s traditional trading partners, including Burma and other parts of Indo-China, and it was the British who came up with the geographical and political term “Northeast Frontier” to act as a buffer between their Indian dominion and what is now known as Southeast Asia. The region played a particularly vital role in the victory of the Allied Forces during World War II, especially in the numerous battle theatres of Indo-China.

Thus under British colonialism, Northeast India was, in a sense, largely isolated from the rest of colonial India and from their traditional Southeast Asian trading partners.

After Indian Independence in 1947, the region effectively became landlocked, sharing borders with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma and China, further increasing its isolation and resulting in increased spatial discrimination at the hands of the newly formed Indian state. It was natural for the numerous tribes within the region to ponder their own future in the face of Indian Independence and the bloody partition of the land. The discrimination meted out by the Indian state also spawned massive cultural hegemony, and soon many movements, mostly of a cultural-nationalist nature, sprung up in order to counter Indian state-hegemony, as well as to ensure their own rights towards effective self-determination.

While initially non-violent in the 1940s and 50s, from the 1960s onwards many of these movements soon went on to becoming full-blown armed insurgencies, the most prominent ones being ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam), Manipur Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagalim) and many others. The region counts around 30 major insurgent outfits along with numerous smaller ones. This has resulted in the longstanding, massive and extremely oppressive presence of the Indian military, in the name of curtailing numerous armed nationalist movements either fighting for independence or greater autonomy. The history of Indian hegemony over the last 50 years or so in the region might not be one of classical occupation compared to say, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but the effects towards the people as well as exploitation of the situation by capital and the ensuing arm-twisting of neighbouring countries remains the same. A brief examination of each of these fallouts is done below.

Atrocities on the People: As can be expected in most situations of occupation or state hegemony, the brunt is borne by the working poor. Stories of disappearances, custody killings, encounter killings all conducted by the security forces as well as people caught in the midst of the conflict are all too easy to find.

Huge chunks of the region come under draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Protection Act or the Disturbed Areas Act, which have been in place in Manipur, Nagaland and many parts of Assam, thereby covering a significant geographical chunk of Northeast India for more than two decades. These Acts essentially give the security forces a free hand in doing what they please as long as it’s under the guise of “fighting terror”. Needless to say that this has resulted in numerous human rights violations and atrocities on many sections of the population for decades. One of the most famous cases of these atrocities that shot to the national limelight in 2004 and forced a vigorous debate by the Indian establishment with respect to these laws was that of the custodial death of Thangjam Manorama in Manipur, where the AFSPA had been enforced for over 25 years. Witnesses say Manorama was picked up on July 11th 2004 by soldiers of the paramilitary Assam Rifles from her home on alleged charges of links with separatist rebels. The next day, her dead body was reportedly found four kilometres away from her home in the state capital Imphal, with multiple bullet wounds and signs of torture. The entire state came to a standstill under the backlash of huge protests following the brutal and tragic death.

Cases like Manorama are certainly not hard to find. Indeed while research was being done for this article, this author ran across numerous accounts of such atrocities…someone’s uncle being held and tortured under false pretexts, a cousin who had been in jail without trial for over 6 years or a brother who had been shot in the leg by security forces.

One of the most moving stories was of a man, Nilikesh Gogoi, who was not associated with any insurgent movement, but simply a very kind man, who was, in the words of his friend “a coal trader, a poet, a farmer, a collectivist, an oral historian and a man who resolved conflicts that arose between hill people and authorities”. Nilikesh and two of his business associates were returning from a trip to the hills in Upper Assam on Jan 23rd 2007. Enroute, they overtook a slow-moving jeep of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which is not even a counter-insurgency force but merely meant to protect industrial outlets. Just when they were about to clear the vehicle in front on them, they were shot at, without rhyme or reason, killing Nilikesh and one other friend, while critically injuring the other. The fact that the CISF troops felt empowered enough to take these lives in this manner, and expected to get away with it, is testament to the hegemonic and oppressive circumstances that much of Northeast India’s rural and working poor deal with on a daily basis.

Tragic as they are, cold-blooded atrocities like those faced by Manorama and Nilikesh still do not encompass in totality the real harsh conditions imposed upon the people of Northeast India. State hegemony has resulted in extreme hard material conditions for workers and those reliant on rural pre-capitalist livelihoods.

Exploitation by Capital, Labour Deregulation and Effects on Rural Livelihood: It is amply evident that post-liberalisation in India, labour has taken a real beating with the state often kowtowing to capital’s demands for further deregulation. Due to this free hand being given to private capital by the state, many senior union leaders in the area point to a dangerous trend developing over the last few years in conflict-ridden regions like Northeast India. Often large private companies demand further deregulation or cheaper land prices citing the supposed violent scenario in the region as a cause for making the place more attractive for private investment. Threats are then carried out of taking investment elsewhere or pulling out existing investment which gets the state governments to meekly capitulate, wilfully overlooking harsh labour violations.

Discussions with progressive union activists and labour department officials also reveal the oppressive network of lumpen elements (usually surrendered insurgents), ruling-class party folk and traders who run the businesses like their own personal fiefdoms without any concern for labour rights or workers welfare. The exploitation is harsh with extremely hazardous working conditions, especially in highly deregulated sectors like stone quarries and extraction industries, comprising of the most informal and unorganised labour. The dangerous network ensures that the oppressive web remains firmly in place with any attempts at unionising viciously thwarted down. Furthermore, a corrupt nexus between state officials and business owners was mentioned by numerous labour activists as one of the critical issues contributing to harsh labour conditions. And while these are not necessarily directly related to militaristic state hegemony, the environment of state-led violence in Northeast India (unlike many other parts of India) has caused immense labour deregulation, and exploitation by capital making it very difficult for workers and activists to struggle for their rights. This has resulted in the extraction of enormous surplus labour by managers and owners through the harsh system, the complete lack of workers benefits, and extremely informal, unorganised nature of work forcing all members of a typical poor family to toil simply in order to survive.

Outside of formal and informal labour that is some way or the other connected to the market, Indian state hegemony in the region has a hugely deleterious effect on rural livelihoods and sustenance that are not connected to the larger national or global market. One of the most widespread modes of sustenance is the practice of shifting cultivation, usually along hill slopes, which ensures that there is enough grains and vegetables for the entire year. Along the lines of the egalitarian functioning of most tribes in Northeast India, this form of cultivation has men and women playing equally large roles.

Now, anyone who has ever done some real hiking would confirm that trekking up a steep hill slope, even for fairly fit individuals, is hard work. Then, imagine chopping firewood along a tract of hill-land, clearing that tract through controlled fires for cultivation, cultivating on the land as per a tight seasonal schedule, and then carrying large bundles of firewood (uphill) back to your village in the evening for cooking fire. This gives an idea of how, by sheer dint of hard labour, the rural poor find sustenance in the region. The produce is harvested at the end of the season, and the practice is done along one tract of land for no more than 3 or 4 years, allowing the soil to regenerate as people move on and cultivate another tract. Locals and friends familiar with the process mentioned that this form of cultivation is a cooperative system of production with a village or many villages cultivating one tract of land and then sharing the produce at the end of the harvest, completely devoid of feudal fetters. It however is starting to get brutally affected in many parts of the region due to the presence of the Indian army and the resulting conflict, which causes disruption in the cultivation cycle resulting in harsh insecurities for people depending on the produce to feed themselves.

Thus the hegemony of the Indian state in the region does not just have implications along the lines of direct violence and human rights abuses, but also extremely harsh material conditions for the labouring masses as well as the rural poor.

Arm-twisting neighbouring countries: The conflict in Northeast India has some significant trans-national fallouts as well, since the region borders so many states. Many insurgent outfits have had or continue to have training camps or bases in neighbouring countries like Bhutan, Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal.

India has continuously arm-twisted these nations into providing space and support for the Indian military to enter and conduct operations in flushing out insurgents without any concern for local people within those neighbouring countries. Numerous joint military operations have been conducted on India’s behest in each of the nations mentioned, including particularly brutal ones launched in Burmese and Bhutanese territory to kill ULFA militants that also resulted in massive displacement and human rights abuses upon locals in the two countries. This has resulted in not just oppression within political boundaries but the wilful subjugation of people outside Indian territory, adding to their discontent and giving India the afore-mentioned moniker of “regional bully”.

It is neither wise to have this many disgruntled neighbours within the sub-continent, nor is it within the ambit of a supposedly peace-loving democracy. While colonial nation-states of the West conducted and continue to conduct mass human rights violations outside of their borders, the Indian government and elite is gleefully following suit within its own backyard and region of South Asia, while further pushing its agenda forward in other regions of the Global South like Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia. India can build for itself, a reputation as a large and important member of the Global South and typically one that can carry cudgels in solidarity with smaller nations facing the brute end of imperialism. Instead it chooses to replicate the very imperialistic behaviour it once so eloquently raged against rather than address righteous grievances in an egalitarian manner that takes into account historical oppression as well as fundamental human rights including that of self-determination. Foaming discontent with alarming brutality within and outside of ones borders has never resulted in anything other than mass upheaval, and if that’s the path that the Indian establishment chooses to trod on, then the ruling elite best be prepared at some time or the other for a conflagration that will take them down.


hruaia said...


Anonymous said...

Yes, India is a hegemony. Try running a nation like India with One billion people, 1500 languages, 100 different ethnic backgrounds, and dozens of religions. Any given day India pars better than China, Pakistan, even Russia, and several other so called 'democratic' countries.
Even US had substantial state sponsored human rights abuse till late 60's in the southern parts against African-americans.
Idea is to stop complaining and come up with a solution. But then if nothing works, then you have resort to martial law. Just my two cents or paise!

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