Keynesian Spirits

A Historical Look at Violence in Assam, India

The northeastern Indian state of Assam has been witnessing large-scale violence since around a week. India’s northeastern regions are a highly diverse place, supporting around 200 ethnic and tribal groups. Nearly a 100 people have been killed, many more are missing, and around 400,000 people have been displaced and are now living in relief camps as the violence continues. Such violence between the the indigenous population and recent immigrants started in the 1970s, with massacres occurring at various times, and these tensions have risen once more.

But, the purpose of this piece is not to discuss this topical question, but to start exploring an even longer history of resistance and violence between the indigenous residents of Assam and the Indian state. This very violent past offers quite an interesting perspective on modern, democratic India. It would be instructive to understand what has happened in Assam since the British left the subcontinent as it shows the strengths and weaknesses of the current political structure in India, and sheds a light on other important conflicts, such as the one in Kashmir. The noted British historian, Perry Anderson, has written a series of very insightful, and thought-provoking articles on India in the London Review of Books. Below is one long excerpt from his article, ‘After Nehru’, which sheds some light on the Assam issue.

“On the symmetrical wing of the union to the east, matters were no better. There the British had conquered an area larger than UP, most of it composed of the far end of what James Scott has described as the Appalachia of South-East Asia: densely forested mountainous uplands inhabited by tribal peoples of Tibeto-Mongoloid origin untouched by Hinduism, with no historical connection to any subcontinental polity. In the valleys, three Hindu kingdoms had long existed, the oldest in Manipur, the largest in Assam. The region had lain outside the Maurya and Gupta Empires, and had resisted Mughal annexation. But by the early 19th century Assam had fallen to Burmese expansion, and when the British seized it from Burma they did not reinstate its dynasty, while leaving princely rule in the much smaller states of Manipur and Tripura in place. The spread of tea plantations and logging made Assam a valuable province of the Raj, but the colonial authorities took care to separate the tribal uplands from the valleys, demarcating large zones throughout the region with an ‘Inner Line’ and classifying them as ‘Excluded and Unadministered Areas’, which they made little effort to penetrate. So remote were these from anything to do with India, even as constituted by the Victorian Empire, that when Burma was detached from the Raj in 1935, officials came close to allocating them to Rangoon rather than Delhi.

The arrival of independence would, in its own way, make the links of the North-East to the rest of India even more tenuous. For after partition, only a thin corridor, at its narrowest some 12 miles wide, connected it to the body of the union. Just 2 per cent of its borders were now contiguous with India – 98 per cent with Bangladesh, Burma, China, Nepal and Bhutan. Manipur had no direct road connection to India at all. Confronted with difficulties like these, the Congress leaders did not stand on ceremony. The ruler of Manipur had not been rounded up along with his fellow princes by V.P. Menon in 1947, and by 1949 was resisting full integration. Briefed on the problem, Patel had just one short question: ‘Isn’t there a brigadier in Shillong?’ Within days, the maharajah was kidnapped in Shillong, cut off from the outside world and made at gunpoint to sign his kingdom into oblivion. With it went the elected assembly of the state, which for the next decade was ruled – like Tripura, brigaded into the union at the same time – with no pretence at popular consultation by a commissioner from Delhi.

Dispersed tribes in the uplands did not permit of this kind of coup de main, and there trouble started even before the departure of the British. In Assam, about half the Naga population of 1.5 million – some 15 major tribes, speaking thirty languages – had been converted to Christianity by Baptist missionaries, and acquired an educated leadership in the shape of a Naga National Council, which made clear it did not want to be impressed into any future Indian state. A month before independence, a delegation called on Gandhi in Delhi. ‘You can be independent,’ he told them, characteristically adding: ‘You are safe as far as India is concerned. India has shed her blood for freedom. Is she going to deprive others of their freedom? Personally, I believe you all belong to me, to India. But if you say you don’t, no one can force you.’ Congress was less emollient. Nehru dismissed the emergent Naga leader, Phizo, as a crank, and the idea of Naga independence as absurd.

Undeterred, the Naga leaders declared independence a day before Britain transferred power to India. Congress paid no attention. Phizo continued to tramp villages, increasing support among the tribes. In March 1952, he met Nehru in Delhi. Beside himself at Phizo’s positions, Nehru – ‘hammering the table with clenched fists’ – exclaimed: ‘Whether heavens fall or India goes into pieces and blood runs red in the country, whether I am here or anyone else, Nagas will not be allowed to be independent.’ A year later, accompanied by his daughter, he arrived on an official visit as prime minister at Kohima, in the centre of Naga country, in the company of the Burmese Premier U Nu. Petitioners were brushed aside. Whereupon, when he strode into the local stadium to address a public meeting, the audience got up and walked out, smacking their bottoms at him in a gesture of Naga contempt. This was an indignity worse even than he had suffered among the Pathans. The Naga National Council was de-recognised, police raids multiplied. An underground Naga army assembled in the hills.

By late 1955 a Naga Federal Government had been proclaimed, and a full-scale war for independence had broken out. Under its commander-in-chief, two divisions of the Indian Army and 35 battalions of the paramilitary Assam Rifles, a largely Gurkha force notorious for its cruelties, were dispatched to crush the uprising. As in Malaya and Vietnam, villagers were forcibly relocated to strategic hamlets to cut off support for ‘hostiles’ – Indian officialese banning even use of the term ‘rebels’. In 1958, Nehru’s regime enacted perhaps the most sanguinary single piece of repressive legislation in the annals of liberal democracy, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which authorised the killing out of hand of anyone observed in a group of five persons or more, if such were forbidden, and forbade any legal action at all against ‘any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers of this regulation’, unless the central government so consented. With this licence to murder, Indian troops and paramilitaries were guaranteed impunity for atrocities, and made ample use of it. The brutality of Delhi’s occupation of Nagaland far exceeded that in Kashmir. But as in Srinagar, so in Kohima pacification required the suborning of local notables to construct a compliant façade of voluntary integration, work that in Naga territory was entrusted to the Intelligence Bureau. Once assured of this, Nagaland was promoted to statehood within the union in 1963. Half a century later, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is still required to hold the region down.”

‘After Nehru’ by Perry Anderson

AlJazeera on the history of the current violence