That Rohingya feeling: NE no stranger to xenophobia, genocides, say experts

Almost every community or sub-region has a word, often used derogatorily, for outsiders. But the animosity is not restricted to those considered outsiders.
Selective killing by rebels in Assam reopened a 24-year-old conflict in 2013-14, 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. Forced to flee home, Rengma Nagas from the Phencherop belt of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council took shelter at relief camps.(Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)
Selective killing by rebels in Assam reopened a 24-year-old conflict in 2013-14, 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. Forced to flee home, Rengma Nagas from the Phencherop belt of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council took shelter at relief camps.(Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)
Updated on Sep 27, 2017 08:00 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Guwahati | By

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.

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.

Inter-tribe conflicts
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.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Rahul Karmakar was part of Hindustan Times’ nationwide network of correspondents that brings news, analysis and information to its readers. He no longer works with the Hindustan Times.

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