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.

Red Tripura and the Geopolitics of Greater Bengal

Map of Indian states by party of government, 2011

Map of Indian states by party of government, 2011India’s regional elections in early May 2011 saw the devastating defeat of the far left. After having ruled the 91-million-strong state of West Bengal for thirty-four years, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [abbreviated as CPI(M)] lost 146 seats in the Legislative Assembly, retaining only 42. In what could be an epochal loss, the larger Left Alliance coalition did not win a single West Bengal district. The communists were also defeated in Kerala in the southwest—a long-time stronghold sometimes called Red Kerala. Only one Indian state, tiny Tripura in the northeast, currently has a communist government. In Tripura’s most recent legislative election (2008), the CPI(M) took forty-six of sixty seats, giving it its fourth consecutive term in power.

Soon after the routing of their fellows in West Bengal, Tripura’s Marxist authorities found themselves in hot water. On May 24, leaders of the opposition Congress Party vowed to undergo a hunger strike to protest “the replacement of Mahatma Gandhi’s name with Communist icon Vladimir Lenin in a Class 5 textbook.” Communist leaders countered that the discussion of Gandhi was simply moved to a different chapter. Congress Party activists were not mollified, arguing that the state’s textbooks more generally suffer from a “huge distortion of facts,” and are aimed at “brainwashing school students in line with Marxism.”


Tripura is a distinctive state. We have already noted its near engulfment by Bangladesh, giving it an unusually long andtroubled international border. Like its neighboring Indian states to the north and east, Tripura has long been plagued by ethnic tension and insurgency, although at present rebel activity is minimal. Disruptive protests commonly occur, however, and are sometimes violent. In late May 2011, authorities aimed water cannons at representatives of the Tripura Pradesh Youth Congress gathered in front of a police station. The demonstrators, affiliated with the mainstream Congress Party, were protesting the recent assault on one of their leaders by members of a rival student organization, the communist-linked Student’s Federation of India. According to the Times of India, the resulting imbroglio brought “rain-soaked Tripura to a complete standstill.”

West Bengal and the Original GerrymanderUnrest in Tripura is linked to the partition of British South Asia in 1947 and the subsequent independence of Bangladesh. Partition broke up the Bengali-speaking region, one of the world’s largest cultural areas; with some 250 million speakers, Bengali is usually counted as the sixth mostly widely spoken language on earth, surpassing Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, and German. In 1947, the Hindu-majority Bengali districts of the west and north went to India, forming West Bengal, while the eastern zone went to East Pakistan, later Bangladesh. (The oddly shaped West Bengal evokes the original “Gerrymander,” as illustrated by the image to the right.) Several million Hindus eventually fled East Pakistan, most settling in West Bengal. Hundreds of thousand, however, headed east into what had been the princely state of Tripura, a minor kingdom under British dominion. As a result, Tripura’s demographic balance underwent a tectonic shift; Bengalis, previously forming around twenty percent of the population, were catapulted to majority status with roughly seventy percent. If effect, Tripura became a third political unit of divided Bengal.

The flow of Hindu Bengali refugees into Tripura was not welcomed by the culturally distinctive indigenous inhabitants. Most local ethnic groups, including the once-dominant Tripuri, speak Tibeto-Burman languages and are historically linked to the peoples of what is now south-central China. Resentment against the newcomers led many indigenes to join one of the twenty-plus insurgent groups that made Tripura a bloody mess in the late twentieth century, as we shall see in a later post.

The “Bengalization” of Tripura also brought about a political transformation of the state, placing it firmly within the communist camp. In the early 20th century, educated Hindu Bengalis—who often styled themselves as the intellectual elite of India—generally embraced Marxism as a cerebral yet potent anti-colonial philosophy. Bengali Muslims, in contrast, generally espoused much more conservative beliefs. The migration of Hindu Bengalis into Tripura thus brought the local branch of the Communist party to power. West Bengal, as we have seen, witnessed the collapse of the communist vote in 2011; it remains to be seen whether Tripura will follow suit.

Map of Great Bengal and Greater SylhetAlthough conventional depictions of the Bengali region divide it east from west, Bangladesh from India, in actuality the Indian parts of greater “Bangla-land” almost surround Bangladesh. The eastern Bengali-speaking zone includes not only Tripura, but also Cachar district of southern Assam, site of the state’s second city, Silchar. In the north are the often over-looked districts of West Bengal’s “beak,” including Cooch Behar and its enclave-ridden border.

The internal coherence of this greater Bengali region, however, is itself suspect. The historical Sylhet region, including India’s Cachar and adjoining districts and Bangladesh’s Sylhet Division, is often excluded from the realm. The Sylheti tongue is not fully inter-intelligible with standard Bengali, and is thus often considered to be a separate language. Heavily influenced by Assamese, Sylheti was formerly written in its own script. Under the British, the entire Sylhet region was administered as part of Assam; it too was spit with partition, with the Muslim-majority west going to East Pakistan (hence Bangladesh), and the Hindi-majority east staying with Assam in India.

Also of interest is the fact that the substantial Bangladesh immigrant community in Britain is mostly Sylheti—ninety-five percent according to some sources. Relations between Sylhetis and other Bangladeshis in London are strained, as demonstrated in a fascinating 2008 internet discussion thread entitled “Why Do Dhakaiyas Hate Sylhetis So?” (“Dhakaiyas” are people from Dhaka, or more generally non-Sylheti Bangladeshis.) Muslim Sylhetis have a reputation for being much more devoted to fundamentalist interpretations of their faith than other Bangladeshis, a trait that has been linked to religious tensions in London’s Muslim-majority neighborhoods.