INDIA: Rule of law is a phantom limb in India’s northeast 

January 25, 2010

The Transcript of a Speech by Mr. Mrinal Talukdar delivered at the Asian Human Rights Commission

INDIA: Rule of law is a phantom limb in India’s northeast

North East India from the perspectives of a journalist : Speech by Mr. Mrinal Talukdar, delivered at the Asian Human Rights Commission about the concerns in the north-eastern states of India on 21 January, 2010.*

The north-eastern region of India is a curious case, sandwiched by the peoples’ aspirations to join the mad rush of the “growth curve” in the rest of the country and the legitimate concerns from an identity crisis. When those who have the power and influence try to benefit from the resulting chaos, the ordinary people living in the region is left at the mercy of the god.

There is a general belief amongst the ordinary people that lot of time has been wasted in the ongoing ethnic crisis in the region and that now it is time to catch-up with the mainstream growth. At the same time a small but powerful faction having stakes in the region continues to make the region unstable, determined to push the ethnic causes, using discrimination and alienation as the main plank.

There is no doubt that most of the ethnic issues; demands and the talk about discrimination are justified. Yet, the reality is the ordinary person on the street seems to be preoccupied for survival leaving the ethnic debate to a small group of individuals and entities. It is unsettling however that this group is increasingly using the debates as a means to push their selfish and often personal agenda than that of the common concern of the society.

It is common knowledge that in the northeast, everyone except the ordinary citizen, benefits from the ongoing instability. This is why even today despite billions of dollars worth spending in the name of infrastructure development, a sick person living anywhere in the region has to come to Guwahati in Assam for treatment. There are no proper communication possibilities between the states within the region. Neither are there proper transport facilities in the region.

Before venturing into a state-by-state analysis, highlighting the main areas of concerns in each state, let me make it clear that in the vicious circle of insurgency and identity crisis, we all have woven a safe cocoon for ourselves for our own survival; be it politician, military officer, insurgent, bureaucrat, businessperson, the members of the judiciary or that of the media.

The region as a whole

Let me first go to the history of the region. The region is the trouble child from the beginning (since independence). Travelling further back into history, it is not very difficult to understand why the region is so much ridden with problems. Fundamentally, the people from the region face the problem of identity and feel alienated from the rest of the country.

The region was never annexed by the British. The British came to the region upon invitation from the Ahom Kings of Assam. The British offered protection to the region from Burmese invasion in the early nineteenth century. Later, the British established their domain after the Yandabu Treaty of 1827. They pushed back the Burmese invaders and installed a puppet Ahom regime. The irony is that the Ahom where themselves alien to the region as they are from Chiang Mai in Thailand.

The British soon realised the business opportunity in Assam. By the end of the century they could find tea, oil and coal in Assam. In fact the world’s second oldest oil refinery is in Assam. Oil was discovered in the region in 1867. By the beginning of the twentieth century the British had major settlements in Assam to cater tea, oil and coal exports and they expanded their infrastructure.

The British maintained a policy of not venturing into the neighbouring tribal and hill areas of the region as long as they remained loyal to the British rule and paid annual tax. The British also placed a token representation in these areas. Manipur and Tripura were well developed princely states even before the advent of the British.

During the Second World War, the region became a major war theatre as China was to be rescued from the advancing Japanese. From the bases in upper Assam the allied forces maintained a supply route both through air as well as the famous Stillwell Road for two years linking upper Assam to Kunming in China.

Then came the freedom movement. Frankly speaking the movement had not touched the region except in the Brahmaputra valley and the Surama valley, majority of which is now in Bangladesh.

The independence led to the division of the country. But not many people know that when Sir Robert Redcliff, the then Director General of the Geological Survey of India, was given the task of dividing the country, that he organised a peaceful referendum in Assam-Shyllet border to decide which country the people could opt to stay, in East Pakistan or in India. Had the same process adopted in Punjab, the world’s worst migration and resultant loss of life would have never taken place.

Except three police stations in Surama valley, most of the land and the people were given away as East Pakistan and thus Barak valley came to be part of India. But it was a peaceful transition unlike the massacre of Punjab.

But the post-independence map of the region found itself hanging with a 30 kilometre narrow strip just below Bhutan through North Bengal. The sense of alienation started creeping in when New Delhi kept the region far off from its mind and viewed it as something alien.

When the rest of the country took giant steps in development, the region remained backward and most of the attention remained confined to the Brahmaputra valley. Other states as well as the tribal dominated hill region thus became more alienated from the rest of the country.

Towards the end of the British domination, a few British army officers posted in Kohima identified a young educated Naga, Mr. Phizo, and groomed him to become one of the first claimants of a sovereign entity within the region, Nagaland. Phizo and his comrades were reminded that Nagaland was never a part of India nor was it annexed. Phizo and his friends found logic in the line of argument that the Nagas had not joined the freedom movement nor had anyone come to Nagaland seeking their support during the freedom struggle.

The British officers had a different reason to instigate Phizo. They wanted Nagaland as a British dominion within India much like Hong Kong in the post-independence scenario. Whether it was a New Delhi plan or individual brilliance of a few officers in Kohima is not known. But the seeds of secession were already planted.

A day ahead of India’s Independence, August 15, 1947, Phizo with the Naga National Council (NNC) tried to stay away from Independent India and declared independence from the British. For the rest of India, Naga aspirations were far off from their mind. Phizo did meet the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, three times between 1947 and 1955. But Phizo grew more and more disillusioned as a violent campaign for secession was launched against the Indian state by the middle of 1950.

As the violence grew, Nagaland became the hotbed of India’s first secessionist movement. Phizo had to escape to East Pakistan and eventually to London from where he was trying to run the movement. He died in London in 1990.

Back in Nagaland, Phizo’s followers carried on a violent movement which witnessed ups and own, splits and counter splits and lot of killing and counter killings among the factions. Indian authorities played the divide and rule role and eventually managed to get the Shillong Accord signed in 1975, almost overcoming the Naga cause for an independent nation.

A small group of young Naga leaders protested and walked out of the accord and formed a new group and went to China during the height of the Cultural Revolution. They came back armed to restart the Naga fight with renewed vigour. This group is now known as the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN).

The two leaders, Mr. Isaac Swu and Mr. Th. Muviah who walked out of the Shillong Accord are known world over. They also received support from another Naga leader from Burma, Mr. S.S. Khaplang.

In the late eighties the NSCN split into two as NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K). The NSCN is the mother of all insurgent groups in the region. The Naga insurgents during the height of insurgency in mid fifties to mid sixties achieved some military success. It inspired other tribes to take up arms to persuade their cause in other parts of the country. From here I would like to discuss the issues state by state.


There is a ceasefire between the Naga militants and the Government of India since 1989. But for over a decade there are rumours about secret discussions among the Nagas. Nobody is sure what the discussion is about. But it is getting increasingly clear that there would not be any sovereign Nagalim. Yet, rumour has it that there would be soon a demand for a more powerful autonomous region than the existing state of Nagaland.

What is ironic is that the Naga movement is heavily tribe oriented. There are about 16 major Naga tribes within Nagaland and they have their own dialect and distinctive identity and the inter-tribe language is broken Assamese which they call Nagamese.

Now the NSCN (IM) is largely comprised of Tangkhul tribe. The erstwhile Naga National Council (NNC) is Ao and Angami dominated. The NSCN (K) is largely Burmese Naga dominated as the Nagas are scattered all over Northern Burma, Nagaland and in the hills of Manipur.

The NSCN (IM) is negotiating with the Government of India for a greater “Nagalim” encompassing all these areas. The realistic goal for both sides is an autonomous region like Hong Kong SAR within India. But the problem is the geographic boundary. Since most of the cadres of NSCN (IM) come from Manipur including their top leader Mr. Muviah, they want a large portion of Manipur to be part of Nagalim. This is an unthinkable proposition in neighbouring Manipur.

They need some portion of Assam also, which is also not realistic. However the NSCN (IM) has stopped talking of integrating the Burmese Naga areas in their proposed Nagalim. On the ground, although there is peace in Nagaland and no major killings or any act of violence is reported during the past decade, there is occasional infighting reported between the various Naga militant groups in their zest for territorial control. This has continued to keep the state in the news.

Nobody investigate these killings. Nobody feels it important also because in Nagaland trying to know more about a killing is a dangerous proposition. Nobody does that, at least officially. No investigation goes beyond the First Investigation Report and nobody is heard to be arrested by the police for killing anyone within the past 30 years.

Like “the phantom limb” syndrome, the people of Nagaland believe that there is a law and order machinery and a legal system in the state. But in reality this does not exist in the state.

The situation of human rights is very bad inside Nagaland as everything is well orchestrated. There is a parallel government in Nagaland and the extortion by Naga militant groups have now become the part of daily life. Right from the top bureaucrat to petty traders, everyone have to pay 10 percent of their income to the militant groups. In larger commercial centres like Dimapur, the traders face annual extortion rates from at least three to four major groups. Nobody takes the help of law as it is meaningless and counterproductive.

Killing for non payment of extortion money by the Naga groups is common. In fact the present state government in Nagaland is indirectly installed by NSCN (IM) and that is why the state administration takes no action against open lawlessness. Even the security forces look other way and rather concentrate on milking money in every possible way. The traders also charge exorbitant rate as they reimburse themselves against the extortion completing the big cycle of benefit. With no independent media in the state, the true picture of Nagaland is unknown to the rest of the world. The existing media in the state is owned or controlled by local politicians who use it to promote their own interests.


This is the most complex of all states in the region though some of the finest and brave people in the country live in Manipur. They are culturally and in the field of sports far more advanced from the rest of the people in the region. But the big divide between the tribal communities living in the hills and Meiteis living in Imphal valley have led the state into a quagmire from which it will be extremely difficult to come out.

At least a dozen insurgent groups are operating in the state. But here the fight is based more on morals and ideologies rather than a question of sovereignty. Technically, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) is the strongest organisation and even now they have an occupied land of their own, a feat never achieved by any militant organisation of the region, not even by the Naga groups during the height of insurgency.

Although China helped the Naga militants with logistics it was the first batch of the Manipur militants who were completely indoctrinated by the Maoist ideology. Reminiscence of this cadre is still seen active in Imphal valley.

Manipur is a ‘basket case’ where decades of abject failure by the political class led to an all round backwardness of the state. When the insurgent groups took arms seeking redress, they were either brutally confronted or eliminated leading to endless cases of human rights violations.

Post Manorama Devi killing in 2004, the militancy took an upward trend as there were endless instances of human right violations. The failure of the political system in Manipur by successive governments gave prominence to the government armed forces, who, in turn have been falling back upon the dreaded Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) for violating human rights with impunity.

Manipur has not had any good political leadership for the past three decades. Corruption is at its peak. The present Chief Minister, Mr. O. Idobi Singh, is the primary fund raiser for the Indian National Congress in the entire region.

Manipur is also notorious for shady and non-trustworthy NGOs. The state has the highest number of NGOs in India, working on almost every conceivable issue. Yet, most of them are corrupt or fake entities and are in reality money-making machines doing very little on the ground. Many engage in preparing copy-paste reports to satisfy their donor agencies.


This is the only state in the region where insurgency is quelled and its leaders successfully integrated into the mainstream politics. Encouraged by the success of the Naga militants and triggered by the massive famine of 1960, the Mizo National Front (MNF) launched a violent campaign in 1961 and occupied a number of important towns and garrisons in the Operation Jericho campaign.

The Indian army launched a major counter offensive. The next decade witnessed violence at its peak. By 1970 the Indian intelligence agencies infiltrated the MNF successfully and managed to win them over from Pakistan’s grip. The MNF leadership was brought to Afghanistan from Pakistan by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agents. Over the next decade and through a series of deals, in 1985, a peace accord was signed with the MNF. The MNF then formed the state government.

The MNF won and lost elections. But Mizoram became the most peaceful state in the region where the Christian church has been playing a very important role. Human rights conditions are comparatively good so is the standard of education. Yet drug abuse has become a major concern in the state.


It is a classic example of how the indigenous community in a state was swamped by migrating Bengalis from East Pakistan and the migrants eventually becoming the majority in the state. Insurgency in Tripura has never taken a very serious proposition as each time the government won over the rebel tribal leaders who were persuaded to join mainstream politics. Armed conflict in Tripura has been a problem since the end of 1970 as an aftermath of Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. Low-intensity militancy in the state by groups like the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) is aimed to drive away the Bengali people. Fortunately Tripura has a reasonably good political leadership, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Tripura is ahead in the region in terms of health and education as well as infrastructure. Instances of violent incidents of human rights violations are low due to the considerable reduction in the number of armed conflicts in the state. Yet, living conditions of the native indigenous community is still an area of concern as not much effort or study has been conducted on this aspect. But the fact remains that native language, Kokborok, is on the verge of being extinct.


Despite Shillong remaining the jewel in the crown for the region for more than a century, Meghalaya is heavily backward as development remains city centric. Even basic facilities do not reach the poor. Till now travelling between two important towns in the state, Shillong and Tura, require a long circuitous route through Assam crossing almost 350 kilometres.

The political class is absolutely not good. Yet there are no major militant groups in the state and all smaller groups are too insignificant to be even called as pressure groups. Shillong has very good civil society groups. The civil society extensively uses the Right to Information Act as a powerful tool in their fight against corruption and human right violations.

The state is a storehouse of geological wealth and in their quest for exploitation, human rights have been trampled and that is where the civil society and the NGOs are working wonders. Their numbers are limited but they are doing good job.


The state is one of the most important states of the northeast. This is because of the sheer geographical advantage the state enjoys. However, often the people living in other states in the region accuse that Assam is given undue importance.

Assam like Manipur and Nagaland is faces severe issues from insurgent activities. For the past two and half decade both the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) have led violent campaigns keeping the entire region on the tenterhooks. Although the people of Assam initially supported some of the causes of both the ULFA and NDFB, soon the middle class Assamese started to distance themselves from them and remained mildly critical to them. The successive governments used that gap to push their own agenda.

Keeping the door for negotiation open, the state launched a major assault against the insurgents. The response was a counterattack by the insurgents. The ordinary Assamese were sandwiched between the two forces.

The result was gross human rights violations which have been going on since 1991. The relatives of the insurgent as well as the political leaders in the state are regularly becoming the target of attack. During this period both sides have killed innocent persons making the ongoing civil war the ugliest in the region. This has also led to heavy militarisation.

“Secret killing” is the term used in Assam for these killings. It means nothing other than extrajudicial executions. It is regularly used since 1991, with the state’s approval particularly between 1996 and 2001. During this period, extrajudicial execution was the state’s “effective means” to take on the ULFA and the NDFB leadership.

The state’s response was some sort of a ‘tit for tat lesson’ to the militants who often targeted innocent people to show their presence. From the state’s point of view the killings were successful to contain the insurgents. But it came at a very high cost — of gross human rights violations committed by both parties to the dispute.

Even the Congress Party that came to power in 2001 and have won every successive election since then used extrajudicial executions as a tool to retain power as well as to ‘fight’ insurgency. The state government is exploiting the opportunity that has opened up with the growing rejection of militancy by the average Assamese, to engage in more extrajudicial executions in the name of ‘containing extremism’.

The unified command structure of the military, paramilitary and the state police force operating in the state have placed the state’s Chief Secretary as its ornamental head. The actual control is with the army commander who leads the military contingent stationed in the state. The presence of army and its engagement in the day-to-day law and order issues in the name of providing protection to the state police has largely legitimised the continuing operational presence of the army in the state.

Even though there are serious suspicions against the army as being responsible for the secret killings carried out between 1996 and 2001, successive commissions appointed to investigate the killings failed to provide any clear answer to the question as to who is responsible in the state for the secret killings.

Illegal migration from across Bangladesh continues to remain the biggest political issue in the state. But it is difficult to accept that it still continues given the current geo-political changes. Yet for those who have crossed over to Assam in the past from Bangladesh, and the ensuing issues such migration caused in the state and in the region, there has not been any solution yet. Instead of isolating and discriminating the migrants, a more practical solution would be allowing the migrants to work by providing them with a work permit.

Meanwhile the media and public are getting quieter against extra judicial executions. It appears that the civil society is forced to recognise killings as the order of the day. Some have even started legitimising such killings as ‘required’ in the state.

In reality there are only a miniscule number of people in the state who would want Assam to become a separate country. With the militant groups either on the run and the majority of its leadership behind the bars, their role is limited to issuing press statements. This is unfortunately used by the state to further trample basic human rights in the state.

Already in the name of many development projects the human rights are repeatedly violated by the state. Many cases are documented where the state agencies are engaged in rights violation in the name of development programmes.

Arunachal Pradesh

This is the biggest and most resourceful of all states of the region and also the most backward of all. It is of the size of Netherlands or Sweden and strategically most important for India because of the international border with China. The state has a 48000 MW of hydro electric project under construction.

The people of the state are still politically in a primitive world and are thus exploited by the ruling and business class. Crime rate is near to zero and the people live in far-flung and remote areas. Due to this a very small, but influential class of people is exploiting the state which has the potential of becoming one of the richest states of the country by the sheer royalty coming from the hydro electric project.

The Indian constitution provides for 12 per cent royalty to the state for the use of its natural resources. By those standards Arunachal Pradesh by 2020 should be getting free power of 5760 MW every day, almost half of the total requirement of the whole of a power-dependent city like Hong Kong. Due to this potential China is also interested in claiming Arunachal as theirs. On the other hand, for New Delhi, 5760 MW of free power, if traded for cash, is enough to run a whole state of similar size elsewhere in the country.

While summing up I must go back to the original view that in the region everyone are benefited from the cult of violence and the cycle of human rights violations and the militarisation except the ordinary people.

Insurgent groups: Except some small exceptions in Manipur, all political organisations in the region have turned themselves into a money making machines. They all use insurgency as a lucrative business. In that climate, ideology has become the first casualty and extortion is the order of the day.

The state machinery: Insurgency has become the best weapon for the state to siphon off the funds coming from New Delhi. And that money is very huge and no state knows better than Nagaland and Manipur, the most corrupt of all states in the region. Around 25,000 Crore Rupees, amounting to 5000 million Hong Kong dollars, have been siphoned off in the past two decades by various state governments in the name of development and hence a parallel economy is running in the region.

Contractors: They are most happy lot when the insurgency is on its height. They demand exorbitant rates for very little work. In many cases there is a 60-40 agreement (a term popularly used where the bureaucracy is paid 40 per cent and contractors take 60 per cent) between the contractors and the state, with no work ever done on the ground.

Media: More insurgency means more news and they remain in business. With no independent media in the region, as there are no viable private sector entities for supporting the media with independent advertisement revenue, almost 80 per cent of the media are controlled or run by local politicians. Media in the region are not free and it is actually running an agenda based journalism. Slowly, the human rights violations have become a non-issue for them. Except in Assam, Tripura and Manipur, creditable media do not exist in other states in the region, although each of them has a number of newspapers. Condition is the worst in Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, while in Manipur militancy has almost forced media to toe their line.

* Mrinal Talukdar is the Chief of Bureau of the United News of India (UNI), North East and a television personality who has written a number of books on human right violations to the micro credit as well as a coffee table book called ASSAM. He can be reached at

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-010-2010
Countries : India,