On 20 July 2023, a video made rounds on social media. It showed two women being paraded naked and groped by a mob of men in Thoubal district of Manipur.
The clip sent shockwaves throughout the country and its hitherto silent political class and opposition. What followed was an onslaught of verbal abuses hurled at the ruling party in the Centre, as well as, the state by the opposition.
This article neither rehabilitates the government’s position nor defends its failure to bring an end to the anarchy to the Meitei-Kuki clash in Manipur.
It however highlights how the Indian National Congress must introspect its own history of violence and oppression, before using the incident to further their chosen political narrative.
I argue that the Congress has been at the centre of the anarchy in the Northeast for 70 years and the roots of such conflicts lie deep within the grand old party’s rule.
The history of the Indian National Congress is rooted in division and exclusion, especially its relation with, and treatment of, the people living beyond the Chicken’s Neck.
Stories of exclusion, othering and victimhood dominate the political narratives of Northeast. For the leadership at the helm of the Indian state, the Northeast was a resource frontier, populated by outsiders that did not benefit them politically.
In 1952, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that he was apprehensive of the Northeast as “they may lack the feeling of oneness with the rest of India”.
This racial gaze of excluding the region in the imagination of the Indian nation, was passed on from generation to generation, from father to daughter and from daughter to son.
The “othering” of the Northeast was evident in the treatment meted out to the different ethnic groups of the region and the rigid hierarchical nature of nation-periphery interaction.
One of India’s oldest insurgencies, the Greater Nagaland Movement has its roots way back in the 1920s. But the movement was political not militaristic, and was also deeply divided between the pacifists and the extremists. That changed in the mid-1950s.
In 1953, prime minister Nehru and his Burmese counterpart U Nu were addressing a public rally where members of the Naga National Council staged a walkout in protest against Nehru refusing to meet a delegation of NNC members.
Nehru also complained that they had shown him their bare bottoms (although it is extremely possible that that may have been a part of their traditional attire).
Out of spite, Nehru sent a platoon of Indian Army troops to the state. Subsequently, the Yengpang Massacre took place on 15 November, 1954.
In 1960, another massacre took place in Matikhrü where a number of Naga people were beheaded by the military. This was the beginning of the Nagalim insurgency that continues till date.
In 1959, Mautâm hit Assam, and Mizo Hills, after nearly 50 years. It is an ecological phenomenon where the flowering of an endemic species of bamboo leads to a population boom in black rats, due to the large-scale availability of bamboo seeds.
When the seeds are exhausted, the rats leave the forests to forage on stored grain in human settlements leading to plagues and famines.
Despite repeated cries from the Mizo people, who were the worst affected by the plague, the Centre turned a blind eye.
In response, the Mizo National Famine Front was formed by Pu Laldenga, which later became an armed group, the Mizo National Front (MNF), which staged an uprising against the blind Indian state.
By early 1966, the MNF had taken control of most major towns and key rural centres in Mizoram such as Aizawl and Lunglei.
Newly appointed prime minister Indira Gandhi could have easily negotiated with the insurgents in exchange for greater political autonomy. Instead, she did the unthinkable.
On 5 March, 1966, Prime Minister Gandhi ordered the Indian Air Force to bomb its own citizens in Mizoram. Four Dassault Ouragan fighters and British Hunters first used machine guns to indiscriminately fire on the civilians. The next day, these planes dropped incendiary bombs, destroying most of the city.
Several innocents were slaughtered as bombs destroyed the city of Aizawl while many others fled away under great stress.
The Mizoram insurgency lasted for nearly two decades, thanks to the Indira Gandhi-led government for choosing the most inhumane tactic available in the repertoire of counterinsurgency.
Fast forward to 1971, the India-Pakistan War triggered a humanitarian crisis that led to over 10 million Bangladeshis settling in refugee camps in Tripura, Meghalaya, West Bengal and particularly Assam.
Under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, India won the war but at the cost of permanently altering the demography of both Assam and Tripura.
In 1978, the then Chief Election Commissioner, S L Shakdher admitted that the practice of enlisting foreigners in electoral rolls did happen, sending shockwaves across Assam.
In 1979, draft enrollments in Mangaldoi by-polls showed 47,000 doubtful entries out of which 26,000 were confirmed to be outsiders.
The inclusion of several foreigners in the electoral roll led to indigenous Assamese people from all walks of life, led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU), coming together for a massive agitation against the demographic invasion of the state, demanding revised electoral rolls in the entire state.
In the same year, a group of Assamese youth assembled at the deserted Ahom monument of Rang Ghar in Sivasagar and pledged to free Assam from the rule of Delhi, marking the beginning of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
Since then, Assam has experienced rampant militancy which forever changed the destiny of the state.
Born and brought up in Assam during the turbulent decade of the 2000s, I have personally experienced the bombings, kidnappings, extortions, et cetera that plagued that state. Stories of armed men entering homes at night to seek refuge are alive even today in collective memory.
How did the Indira Gandhi-led government respond to this?
First, she used draconian measures under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to crack down on insurgents, and enabled the use of secret killings and rapes as a means to bring ULFA to its knees.
Second, instead of addressing the problems of immigration, she passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act in 1983, making it even more difficult to deport illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants.
The Assam Andolan intensified and continued for two more years until the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. However, the problem was far from over and the Accord provided little to no solution for the demographic invasion of Assam and this issue dominates Assamese politics till date.
While grandfather created the Nagaland problem and mother handcrafted the issues in Mizoram, Assam and to an extent Tripura, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi changed the fate of Manipur forever.
In response to the attack on the Onam army outpost by militants belonging to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), Rajiv Gandhi ordered Operation Bluebird in Manipur in 1987.
Nearly 300 people claimed to be tortured, many suffered third degree burns, 27 people were killed, and three women including minors raped. Two pregnant women were kicked and forced to give birth to their babies in front of the officers. Such was the brutality enabled by the then government on the people of Manipur.
When villagers pleaded with the government, chief minister Rishang Keishing met prime minister Gandhi and home minister Buta Singh detailing the violence and begging for redressal. His cries were, obviously, dismissed.
In Assam, Rajiv Gandhi ordered Operation Bajrang to bring an end to the ULFA.
In the villages of Tinsukia and Sivasagar in upper Assam, several crimes of sexual violence, including mass rapes, were reportedly committed leading to an outrage in the Rajya Sabha and shame all throughout international media. This remains a blot on the Assamese psyche even today.
Even during the prime ministerial tenure of P V Narasimha Rao, two massacres took place in 1994 and 1995 in Mokokchung and Kohima respectively.
While there was hope that his protege Dr Manmohan Singh would be different as he was a Member of Parliament from Assam, he would only go on to visit the state he was nominated from, a mere eight times. He chose to stay within safe quarters of Delhi while blood was shed on the streets of different parts of the Northeast.
It was also under his tenure that the infamous rape of Thangjam Manorama took place in Manipur. Author Binodini Devi, Padma Shri, returned her award in protest while nearly 30 women walked naked through the city of Imphal, bringing international shame.
In October 2008, the most deadly attack in Assam’s modern history was unleashed by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) where 18 bomb blasts took place killing 81 people and injuring several hundreds.
As a second grader in primary school, I was safely escorted home from school at noon just moments after the bomb went off near the Office of the Deputy Commissioner in Guwahati.
I vividly remember watching streets red with blood and mutilated bodies lying everywhere, a sight that continues to traumatise me even today. These incidents and stories marked the reality of being a Northeastern in those days.
Many years later in 2014, the treatment of the region as ‘the Other’ was contested when Narendra Modi referred to the Northeast as India's Ashtalakshmi at a rally in Manipur.
Since becoming the Prime Minister, he has visited the Northeast nearly 60 times, be it for the inauguration of various projects or for rallies and roadshows or to attend swearing-in ceremonies of NEDA governments.
Under his administration, there was a dual push for the development of infrastructure to reduce the distance between Delhi and the Northeast both literally and figuratively, as well as the promotion of social harmony and upliftment of the people through welfare schemes, healthcare, education, et cetera.
Apart from the numerous major highway projects, bridges, railway lines, hospitals and educational institutions, the Government has taken landmark steps to accommodate dissenting voices and ensure the transition of the region from one plagued by turmoil to a peaceful one.
Efforts have been made for the surrender of militants through various peace talks and accords, rehabilitation of surrendered insurgents, creation of several autonomous councils for different tribal groups, removal of AFSPA from several districts, reducing border conflicts, among a plethora of measures.
In fact, until the Meitei-Kuki clash that erupted in Manipur in 2023 after a controversial High Court decision, the Northeast had been the most peaceful in its turbulent 75 year old history.
The signing of the Karbi Peace Accord, Adivasi Peace Accord, Dimasa Peace Accord and Bodo Peace Accord are examples of the government’s lasting legacy.
Starting from 2021, governments of Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland also adopted a unique policy to resolve border disputes, aided by Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
On 29 March and 20 April 2023, a resolution of longstanding border disputes of Assam with both Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh was announced. These are extremely significant developments that have paved the way for ensuring long-lasting peace in the Northeastern region.
It is hence no surprise that unlike the turbulent decades of 1960s to 1990s, a spirit of nationalism has filled the hearts of the people of the region.
It was only natural that the Har Ghar Tiranga movement was embraced wholeheartedly and the national anthem was played in the Nagaland Legislative Assembly for the first time since independence.
In a sense, the present government has successfully achieved the integration of the Northeast after 75 years of Indian independence. Meanwhile, the forces that destroyed the region for so many years, use an unfortunate incident to save their sinking political ship.
Contrary to their hopes, the people of the Northeast haven’t forgotten the dark clouds of violence and oppression that the grand old party once unleashed upon them.
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