Insurgency, Sex, and Tribalism in Northeastern India

Map of language and religion in northeastern India

Map of language and religion in northeastern IndiaThe small Indian state of Tripura was until recently beleaguered by insurgency, much like its neighbors in northeastern India. South Asia Terrorism Portal lists one active terrorist/insurgent group, two proscribed groups, and twenty-two inactive ones. Most have championed indigenous claims to land and autonomy, opposing the Bengali migration that has transformed the state. The All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) seeks the expulsion of “all Bengali-speaking settlers settled in Tripura after 1956.” Other groups have demanded more, aiming for full independence. The ethnic and religious diversity of Tripura has contributed to the proliferation of insurgent bands. ATTF membership is supposedly 90 percent Hindu, whereas that of the rival National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) is largely Christian. Religious tensions have led to further splintering. The NLFT split in 2001 due to allegations of “forcible conversion of tribal cadres/civilians to Christianity” as well as the “lavish lifestyles led by the senior leadership.”

The indigenous peoples of Tripura do not monopolize political violence in the state. The Bengali community has given rise to its own militant group, the United Bengali Liberation Front (UBLF), currently considered inactive. Formed in 1999, the UBLF seems to have specialized in the targeted assassination of tribal leaders. Although not banned by India, it is proscribed by Tripura’s government. The UBLF is reported to have “raised funds from the Kolkata [Calcutta]-based business groups, dealing in tea, rubber, timber and construction work in Tripura,” and to have “extorted money from State government employees.”

Map of the states on northeastern IndiaUnlike the UBLF, the tribal insurgent groups of Tripura have not had access to the funds of Kolkata-based business concerns. They have turned instead to other sources of funding, some quite odious. In 2005, the BBC reported that the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) was peddling pornography, filming captured “tribal women, and some men.” Dubbed into Thai, Burmese, Bengali, and Hindi, the pornographic films were geared to a wide audience. Unedited stock footage shows “boys standing around with automatic rifles and revolvers pulling in girls.” The BBC report claims that sexual abuse has been rife in the NLFT. Insurgent groups active elsewhere in the region have also turned to commercial sex as a source of funding, although not without fierce local opposition. In Manipur, rebels have supposedly shot pornography producers in the legs.

The chronic unrest in northeastern India highlights several conceptual issues. To begin with, it shows the inadequacy of the basic vocabulary used to discuss the conflict. The preceding paragraphs have followed convention in labeling all of the indigenous peoples of Tipura as “tribal.” Little is gained, however, in using this wildly elastic category. In the Middle East and North Africa, a tribe is an aggregation of people who claim descent from a common ancestor. Tribes of this sort run parallel to the state; while usually co-opted by it, they occasionally take it over. Such groups need not be linguistically or religiously distinctive, even though they may band together in competition with other descent groups. In South and Southeast Asia, by contrast, a tribe is a distinctive ethno-linguistic group that has historically resisted the pull of the political center; in this context, the tribe is, historically speaking, the antithesis of the state. South and Southeast Asian tribes are now enveloped by modern countries, but such incorporation is imposed upon them, running counter to tribal institutions. Tribes of this sort are usually religiously distinct from their non-tribal neighbors.  Some still practice local forms of animism; others have recently converted to a world religion, most often Christianity. Most lack an indigenous heritage of literacy.

Both meanings of “tribal” cover a significant range of internal variation as well. In northeastern India, many so-called tribes fit the second definition reasonably well, but others do not. Several of the more important northeastern groups have been organized at the state level for hundreds of years. Relatively centralized kingdom emerged among the Tripuri of Tripura, the Meitei of Manipur, and others. These societies wrote in their own languages, often in their own scripts. They also largely embraced Hinduism hundreds of years ago, albeit as interpreted though their own cultural lenses. The Kingdom of Manipur is sometimes said to date back almost 2,000 years, and in the 1700s its formidable cavalry posed a major threat to Burma and other powerful kingdoms.

Why then are the Tripuri and Meitei considered tribal? In northeastern India, it turns out, the tribal category encompasses all ethnic groups that were historically peripheral to South Asian culture. Speaking Tibeto-Burman or Austro-Asiatic languages, the “tribes” of the region are historically and culturally linked to the peoples of upland Southeast Asia and what is now south-central China. Historically speaking, most of these groups were politically decentralized, but a few developed states of their own. What they have in common is not political and social organization, but rather distance from Indian norms, resentment against incorporation into India, and anger over the influx of outsiders.

Map of Northeastern IndiaNortheastern India, although it is substantially larger than Bangladesh, tends to be invisible in the international media, barely registering in the public imagination. Partly this is a product of political unrest itself, as access by journalists and others has been severely restricted. But it is also a product of the way we map the world—and of the structures of academic institutions. Young scholars wanting to study an interstitial place like Tripura or Manipur would have a difficult time, first finding funding for their studies, and then finding a place within the scholarly communities of South Asian or Southeast Asian studies. It is in these hidden ways that our unexamined geographical conventions get in the way of understanding the world.

Election Controversies and Ethnic Complexities on the Not-So-Tiny Island of Bougainville

In June 2010, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) voted out three quarters of its parliamentary representatives along with its president. Whereas the outgoing leader was a former revolutionary committed to independence, the newly elected chief executive favors continuing ties with PNG. Most sources, however, do not see a loss of interest in sovereignty. The election focused on governmental competence, which the voters of Bougainville evidently found wanting in the former administration. Another divisive issue was the future of the shuttered Panguna mine. While most candidates supported reopening, they disagreed over who should carry it out. Some favored returning control to the former operator, a subsidiary of global mining giant Rio Tinto; others argued for turning to Chinese investors.

Security formed another electoral concern. Interethnic strife remains deadly, although the body count has diminished in recent years. Violence is concentrated in southern Bougainville where, according to The Economist (June 10, 2010, page 47), “some 14 armed militia groups still openly carry arms.” During the election campaign, the successful challenger accused the incumbent of condoning the warlords who hold sway over much of the south.

Ethnic tension in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville is linked to pronounced cultural fragmentation. Roughly two dozen languages in three families are spoken by the region’s 175,000 inhabitants. Two of these families, North Bougainville and South Bougainville, may be unique to the island. They were formerly classified within the Papuan family, but linguists no longer think that the “Papuan languages” constitute a genuine group, descended from a common ancestral tongue. Other forms of cultural distinctiveness further divide the peoples of Bougainville. According to the delightfully discursive Wikipedia article, among the northern peoples of Bougainville, “Cheerful friendliness is the prevalent norm. Austronesian Bougainvilleans and especially Bukas value outgoing openness, chattiness, a generally friendly mien.” South Bougainvilleans, in contrast, are said to “value privacy, discretion, quiet. Just listen to the silence of their markets and religious and political gatherings. When they are contemptuous of ‘redskins’ and ‘mastas’ (i.e. white people) it’s not that they are vulgar racists as to the colour of your skin. It’s that they find noisiness and intemperate speech shocking and impolite.”

On an unrelated issue, Bougainville also offers a lesson on human perceptions of spatial scale. The otherwise excellent article on the island’s problems in The Economist magazine begins as follows: “The tiny troubled island of Bougainville has a new president …” Tiny? Bougainville is the 79th largest of the world’s roughly 100,000 inhabited islands. It covers more territory than such substantial islands as Cyprus, Crete, or Corsica. Bougainville is almost as large as Hawaii, which is called “the big island” in reference to the fact that it is seven times the size of Oahu, the state of Hawaii’s demographic, economic, and political center. Yet even Oahu, which covers almost 600 square miles, is almost never described as “tiny,” a term best reserved for islands like Australia’s Norfolk (13.3 square miles).

My point is not so much to chide the normally astute Economist for an uncharacteristic slip as to illustrate a common problem in geographical perception. Unfamiliar places far from one’s homeland tend to diminish in apparent size, as illustrated by Saul Steinberg’s famous “view of the world” New Yorker cover. A tendency to mentally shrink exotic places seems to be a natural human disposition. We should be vigilant against it if we want to remain geographically accurate.

Renewed Violence in the Niger Delta

Few of Africa’s many insurgent groups receive much notice in the global media. One way they can get attention is to attack the infrastructure of oil production. Thus the Movement for The Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) found itself in headlines on January 30, 2010, after breaking its truce with the Nigerian government and sabotaging an oil pipeline. A day later, crude oil jumped 1.3 percent (95 cents a barrel)—after having declined by 8.3 percent in January.

The truce between MEND and the Nigerian government, dating only to October 2009, never seemed particularly secure. MEND leaders demanded quick action to address the needs of the poor but oil-rich Niger Delta. Rapid response, however, is not a hallmark of the Nigerian government—especially now, as president Umaru Yar’Adua is ill and missing from action. Before breaking the truce, a MEND leader expressed his frustration in clear terms: “General Abbe, the current defence minister and his cohorts, rather than encourage the government of Nigeria to address the core issues as demanded by true agitators for justice in the Niger Delta, are still inaugurating one dubious committee after another in a bid to continue stealing funds supposedly allocated for the development of the Niger Delta” (see “Niger Delta’s Endless Planning,” by Ifeatu Agbu.

MEND is an amorphous umbrella organization for a number of insurgent groups operating in the Niger Delta. Nimble and decentralized, MEND has adopted “open-source” tactics relying on ad hoc recruitment from criminal gangs and local cults to conduct hit-and-run raids. MEND actions are brutal but its grievances are real. The Niger Delta, the main source of Nigeria’s wealth, is characterized by extreme poverty, political marginalization, and environmental despoliation. Earlier non-violent resistance movements were not successful. In 1995, the then-dictatorial Nigerian government hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa, a nationally noted author and television personality, after he organized a peaceful protest through the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. A peaceful resistance movement would have a better chance against today’s basically democratic government.

Nigerian culture and politics are sometimes portrayed too crudely as bifurcated between the Christian south and the Muslim north. To be sure, religious tensions are a major issue in much of the country, particularly in the central Jos region. But the situation in the Niger Delta is different. The Ijaw, who form the bulk of MEND’s support, are a primarily Christian group some 15 million strong, yet one of their heroes is the imprisoned and devoutly Muslim militant, Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo. Raised a Christian, Asari-Dokubo converted before founding another local insurgent group, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force.

In the delta, more important than religious conflict is the region’s intricate ethnic geography. The standard ethno-linguistic map of Nigeria, a portion of which is reproduced above, is highly simplified, concealing staggering ethno-linguistic diversity. According to Ethnologue, some 47 distinct language groups are found in the central delta area. Nigeria’s southeastern corner is more diverse still. (See Rivalries here sometimes become violent. In the late 1990s, for example, the Ijaw and the Itsekiri fought a minor war, the “Warri Crisis.” Whether inter-ethnic violence will be reignited in the current crisis remains to be seen.

Declining Violence In Northeastern India

On January 19, 2010, a grenade attack near the Manipur Police Chief’s residence in northeastern India critically injured three people. No one has yet claimed responsibility, and it would be risky to venture a guess, since for sheer diversity of insurgent groups it is hard to beat northeastern India. This remote and little-known area is divided into seven states. According to the website South Asian Terrorism Portal, the state of Manipur has 15 active or proscribed “terrorist/insurgent groups” (as well as 25 inactive organizations), while nearby Assam has 11, Meghalaya four, Nagaland and Tripura three each, and Mizoram two. No such groups are listed for Arunachal Pradesh, but it too has seen insurgent violence in recent years – and it is claimed in its entirety by China, greatly complicating Indo-Chinese relations. Insurgent groups in northeastern India have a strong tendency to divide and proliferate. The Kuki people of Manipur, for example, are “represented” by the Kuki Liberation Army, the Kuki National Army, the Kuki Liberation Front, and the United Kuki Liberation Front – with another nine Kuki insurgent groups currently listed as inactive.

Historically speaking, the uplands of northeastern India have closer cultural affiliations with Southeast Asia than with South Asia. They belong to India only because British imperial agents were determined to secure the vulnerable borderlands of their Indian empire. Local peoples tend to resent Indian authority, as well as the authority of the larger local ethnic groups that dominate the region’s seven states.

In most parts of the region violence has receded in recent years. Whereas Nagaland saw 154 insurgency-related deaths in 2007, the 2009 total was only 17; in Meghalaya, the death count dropped from 79 in 2003 to just 4 in 2009. Only in Manipur and Assam have body counts remained high (369 and 371, respectively, last year). Due to the lessened violence, India has recently opened parts of the northeast to tourism. For those interested in visiting the area, Northeast India Diary ( provides information on local attractions. On a trip to Meghalaya’s Balpakram National Park, it claims, one might see “elephants, wild buffaloes, gaur (Indian bison), sambar, barking deer, wild boar, slow loris, capped langur as well as predators such as tigers, leopards, clouded leopards and the rare golden cat.”

In Nagaland and Mizoram, some observers attribute the recent decline in fighting to peacemaking efforts by local church organizations. Owing to successful missionary activities during the colonial period, both states are now strongly Christian: more than 75 percent of the population of Nagaland is Baptist, whereas Mizoram is more than 90 percent Christian (mostly Presbyterian). Missionary schooling has led to high levels of education. Mizoram boasts India’s second highest literacy rate (91%), trailing only Kerala. Education, however, has not led to economic prosperity. Lack of infrastructure and insecurity are the major problems, but so too are the famines that occur every few decades after the synchronous flowering and then death of the state’s massive bamboo groves. When the bamboo flowers and seeds, rodent and insect populations explode; when the plants subsequently perish, rats and bugs invade fields and granaries. The most recent such famines occurred in 2006-2007.

The decline in violence in northeastern India is quite in contrast to the situation in east-central India, where a Maoist insurgency is gaining in strength. But that is a topic for a later post.