Killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and their exodus to Bangladesh, described by a top UN official as ethnic cleansing, is similar to what many communities across the eight Northeast states in India have suffered intermittently since 1948, according to social scientists.
Tribe or region-specific extremist groups in the Northeast are blamed in most cases of targeted killings, often labelled as “riots” despite being one-sided or xenophobic mass movements, the social scientists argue.
Clashes are often attributed to the insular characteristic of most ethnic groups that makes them suspicious of other cultures and view numerically, resourcefully and economically more powerful communities as aggressors.
The perception, more of secessionist groups, that “mainstream” groups such as Hindi and Bengali speakers have replaced the British as colonisers is also a factor, according to Northeast watchers.
Political scientist Akhil Ranjan Dutta acknowledges these as factors, but says the main reason for conflicts is the penetration of state dynamics into mostly tribal communities used to a certain kind of living and resource-sharing.
“The ultimate aim is political space for every community. The state has been playing a divisive role because it cannot control or face collective resistance. This division has percolated down to ethnically different communities, among tribes that have been neighbours for years and within certain tribes,” he said.
The Northeast has not had any major incident of targeted killing since 2012 when 114 people were murdered and 450,000 displaced in the Bodo tribe-dominated Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) areas of western Assam. The victims were most migrant Bengali Muslims.
“But given the seeds of distrust sown as a political strategy, there is unlikely to be an end to ethnic violence in the region,” Dutta, who teaches political science at Gauhati University, told HT.
Bengali academic Nabanipa Bhattacharjee wrote of “breathing in an atmosphere of immense vulnerability, torment and fear” in Meghalaya capital Shillong in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I witnessed… the non-tribals of Shillong being persecuted and brutally murdered. I recall the disruption of puja processions, days and nights of curfew, army flag marches, the rush for essential supplies, night vigils, shuttered shops, deserted streets, the plight of refugees, looting, arson, and much more. I, therefore, joined the great dkhar (Khasi word meaning foreigner) exodus and left Shillong in 1994,” she wrote for a website in 2015.
The Wounded Northeast: ‘OUTSIDERS’ ATTACKED
Bengali Hindus◼ Assam (1948 - 1980s):
Bongal kheda (chase away Bengalis) persecution started with targeting of Guwahati traders in 1948. The visit of the States Reorganisation Commission to Goalpara district in 1956, violence over implementation of Assam Official Language Act in 1959-1960, racial attacks in 1972 and anti-foreigners’ Assam Agitation from 1979-1985 left hundreds dead and forced at least 300,000 to move to West Bengal and elsewhere. Bengali technocrats, administrative officers and police personnel too were not spared.◼ Meghalaya (1979 - 1990s):
Tribal mobs attacked Bengalis, mostly in capital Shillong, resenting their dominance in jobs and business. A Congress MLA, Manik Chandra Das, was among those killed. At least 35,000 left Meghalaya, selling off their property for a pittance, while some stayed back after spending harrowing days in relief camps. Racial attacks have not stopped. In November 2013, trader Bireshwar Das was set on fire during an agitation to demand implementation of inner-line permit. ◼ Tripura (1980):
Though Bengalis are in a majority, they have borne the brunt of tribal militancy. The worst genocide happened at Mandai, near Agartala, where 255 Bengalis were massacred on June 8, 1980. Nepalis◼ Assam (1979 - 1985) & Meghalaya (1987 - 88):
What started with Bengalis in Meghalaya spilled over to the other ‘foreigners’ – some 75,000 Nepalis in the state. At least 30,000 were forced to take refuge elsewhere. The irony of the attacks was underlined by the government’s move to erect a relief shed in a Nepali graveyard for some 2,500 displaced within Shillong. Earlier, some 50,000 were forced to flee during the Assam Agitation against foreigners.Bengali Muslims◼ Assam, other states (1979 - 2014):
The anti-foreigners’ Assam Agitation started in 1979 with Bengali Hindus as the target, but gravitated towards the Muslims often dubbed as "Bangladeshis". The agitation reached a crescendo with the Nellie massacre of February 1983 that left 2,191, mostly women and children, dead. Muslims were targeted in present-day Bodoland Territorial Council areas in 1993, 1994, 2008, 2012 and 2014. Around 400 died and 650,000 were displaced. Many are still in relief camps.
Hindi-speakers◼ Meghalaya (1992), Assam (200 - 2003), Manipur:
Hindi-speakers, specifically from Bihar and Rajasthan, started becoming extremist targets as "representatives of colonial India" in the 1990s. After the 1992 attack on Biharis in Meghalaya, the BN Sharma Commission report said 15 years of communal carnage in Meghalaya beginning 1979 displaced thousands and killed hundreds of non-tribal people in Shillong. The United Liberation Front of Asom is accused of killing nearly 200 Hindi-speakers and displacing 10,000. They continue to be killed in Manipur. Marwari traders too have been targeted in these states.Chakmas & Hajongs◼ Arunachal Pradesh (1992 - 1994):
Driven out of present-day Bangladesh, first by a dam and then religious persecution, Buddhist Chakmas and Hindu Hajongs settled in Arunachal Pradesh in the 1960s. They are in focus now over a move to grant them citizenship. They were victims of racial attacks in 1992 and 1994. About 2,000 were forced to take shelter in Assam and 180 died without food and medicines.Pangals◼ Manipur (1993):
Pangals or Manipuri Muslims came to the state in two waves about five centuries ago. Intermixing with locals gave them a unique identity but they were victims of communal violence in 1993 that had its roots in militancy and extortion. More than 100 died.Adivasis◼ Assam (1996 - 2015):
Brought by British tea planters from central India in the 1800s, the Adivasis have been soft targets for Bodoland extremists. At least 460 were killed and 400,000 displaced in three waves of violence – 1996, 1998 and 2015-16. Many victims still languish in relief camps without basic facilities.Brus◼ Mizoram (1997):
Terror allegedly unleashed by the majority Mizos on minority Brus, earlier called Reangs, led to the exodus of at least 50,000 of them to adjoining Tripura. Death figures are vague. Around 5,600 of them were rehabilitated by 2014, but issues raised by Mizoram have put a question mark on the fate of the others.
Almost every community or sub-region has a word, often used derogatorily, for outsiders. What dkhar is to Meghalaya, vai is to Mizoram, mayang to Manipur, and fatarniborok to Tripura. In Assam, the word bohiragata is often used to distinguish outsiders from the khilonjia (indigenous).
But the animosity is not restricted to those considered outsiders. For instance, extremists batting for the Nagas have a history of hostility toward those clubbed as Kukis.
“We observe September 13 as black day to mark the massacre of 108 Thadou (Kuki) tribal people by National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) in Manipur’s Joupi and Janglenphai villages in 1993. Between 1992 and 1995, more than 1,000 Kukis were killed and 100,000 displaced,” Michael Lamjathang Haokip, a Thadou student leader, said.
The fight for political space has also seen intra-tribe conflicts, specifically among the Bodos and Karbis of Assam over the years.
Kukis◼ Manipur (1992-1995):
The extremist NSCN-IM targeted Kukis, mostly the Thadou community, in northern Manipur killing more than 1,000 and displacing nearly 100,000. The worst case of massacre on September 13, 1993 left 108 dead.Kukis and Paites◼ Manipur (1997-1998):
Conflicts involving the Thadou-speaking Kukis and the ethnically related Paites, who began to be identified as Zomis, claimed 352 lives and displaced a few thousand in Churachandpur district. Many moved to adjoining Mizoram for safety before the church brokered truce.Karbis & Kukis◼ Assam (2003-2004):
Control over land resources and establishment of homeland based on ethnicity were at the root of extremist-driven ethnic clashes in Assam that began a conflict between Karbi and Kuki tribes in Karbi Anglong district. At least 25,000 were displaced and 117, mostly Karbis, were killed. Karbis & Dimasas◼ Assam (2005):
Militancy drove a wedge between
the hitherto co-existing Karbis of Karbi Anglong district and Dimasas of adjoining Dima Hasao district of central Assam. Localised violence and extortion led to a flare-up with more than 50, mostly Karbis, being killed and 41,000 displaced.Zemes & Dimasas◼ Assam (2009):
Ethnic violence between the dominant Dimasas and the Zeme Nagas, the largest minority tribe, resulted in 63 deaths – 39 of them Zemes – and burning of 528 houses.Rabhas & Garos◼ Assam, Meghalaya (2010-11):
Identity assertion movement of the Rabha tribe living along the Assam-Meghalaya border led to clashes with Garos, sharing the same space but more dominant in Meghalaya. At least 12 people were killed and 10,000 displaced.Karbis & Rengmas:◼ Assam (2013-14):
Selective killing by rebels reopened a 24-year-old conflict, leaving at least 15 dead – nine of them Karbi youths across the border in Nagaland – and displacing more than 3,000, a majority of them Rengma Nagas.
Assam home department’s data given to the assembly in 2016 said the state had witnessed eight bloody ethnic clashes since 2001. These clashes claimed 535 lives, including 80 women and 45 children.
A 2011 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre said ethnic violence in Northeast India forced almost a million people to flee homes over the past 20 years. “More than 76,000, according to conservative estimates, are still living in displacement,” the report said, adding that the displaced have usually been forgotten.