A Northeasterner's Reflection on India's Equation

Shanthalembi Lisham *

The question of how one perceives India's Northeast as a single geopolitical entity - as frontier or border; or as a diverse constituent of different communities, the narratives of constructing or understanding this space call Northeast is multidimensional depending on from which quarter it emerges and they are undoubtedly contesting narratives.

Increasingly the academia is also frequently asking on how do we research India's Northeast which perhaps draws the methodological attention. Often a politics of difference, different from the political and cultural identity of India is what identifies politics in Northeast.

The politico-cultural complexities of the region in the presence of a such differential perception; the differences between ethnicities; and the gap between how one perceives as an insider and how the other gaze India's Northeast leaves one far from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

It is in such a context that I attempt to understand and elaborate my reflection of Northeast from a commonsensical approach based on observation and reading of the texts as an insider (Meitei person). This essay is also inspired by the beauty of mosaic and the idea of building a solidarity for emancipatory politicsi in the Northeast.

One of the legacies of colonialism in India is the inheritance of the amnesia that India was the largest economy in the beginning of 18th century producing 25 per cent of the world's GDP, more than eight times that of the United Kingdom (Mukherjee, 2007); putting India and China together contributed nearly half the world's GDP; India once a producer of knowledge is nowhere today in the global map even though a large number of Indians are instrumental in the knowledge production as residents of another country.

Within India, Northeast as an entity is decorated with the narratives of underdevelopment and isolation from the mainland as the root cause of the rise of insurgency movements against the postcolonial Indian state leaving the unsettled political issues behind the screen.

Thakur (2007) has underlined how the colonial legacy of anthropologized perspectives of the precolonial socio-political structures and institutions has created an amnesia in the Northeast history and had not received much attention in research. Thakur (2020) also pointed out how works of Indian historians like H.K Barpujari, S Dutta, R M Lahari seem to have fallen prey to ill-founded lines of historical enquiry as their research are based on the British records that strengthens the mythification of Northeast as necessarily backward and regressive.

Thus, the narratives of the Northeasterners by the colonial anthropologist largely comprising of serving British officials are further perpetuated in the post independent period. Further, the concept of frontier remerges, and issues of security are prioritized more than its people. Thus, the centre is empowered to impose an inhuman act like AFSPA, 1958 in different parts of the region over a period.

Rather than curtailing insurgency, what we experienced is the mushrooming of insurgent groups in the last few decades. Nepram (2002) listed fifty-eight insurgent groups in the Northeast, however a report of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) listed sixteen major insurgent groups (MHA, 2021).

The region is also identified as a hot spot in South Asian conflict dynamics with a multiplicity of actors-agencies of the nexus between politicians and drug barons, and the abundant supply of sophisticated arms (Lama as mentioned in Nepram, 2002).

It may also be highlighted that various communities in the region have existed as village republic and governance were largely voluntary actions in the pre-colonial and pre-independent India and the modern type of governance seem to misrecognize the characteristics of these republics and has resulted in serious conflict to implement an effective governance as envisaged by the state. In the prevalence of such a calibrated narrative suitable for the centre, issues of Northeastern states are misinterpreted and misrepresented, subsequently any development issues in the region calls for a newer definitions and paradigm.

Now what is vital for a newer understanding is to revisit how the macro narratives and policies in terms of how the Centre sees the Northeast affect the lives of individuals, families and communities. What is more important is to gather the momentum of the people, their expectations and collective conscience into account in this struggle.

All these threads need to be placed in perspective for the political struggle of defining the subject of politics. Do we continue with the politics of difference in the Northeast or if we need to repackage them or if there is a need for a brand-new packaging with altered flavor of the ingredients all together?

What's intriguing is the mainland sees the northeast as a singular entity which requires to be civilized and developed keeping intact the mindset of the colonial masters which justifies the rule of British India. Whereas the fact is, the region since ages has been resided by multiple communities with differing social systems and politico-cultural identity, although majority of the people belongs to the mongoloid phenotype, as a result of which the mainland often failed to differentiate between an Arunachali or a Manipuri or a Mizo or a Naga or a Tripuri or an Assamese.

Just to add on the question of how much the mainland knew about the Northeast, on a lighter note one may refer to a conversation show Off The Cuff with Arun Shourie, where the host Shekhar Gupta recollects how an official who was in charges of accounts at the Indian Express enquired him "Aapka salary kaunsa shike (currency) mei jayenge?" before his departure for his posting at Shillong (The Print, 2022).

Now coming back to the discussion, many of these communities in the past were often in tension and conflict with each other, and at the same time have been co-existing since time immemorial. These unique characteristics reflect the dynamicity in the adaptation, competitive cooperation, balancing the political differences in this part of the land until the colonizers arrived with the cartographic management with their agenda of colonial imperialism.

The autonomy of the region is further integrated with the Indian Union post 1947. The wounds of the armed struggle in post-independence undoubtedly left an unforgettable scar which still continues. Decades of arm struggle for self-determination / autonomy by various insurgent groups, protracted peace over the last few decades and consistent militarization in the region leaves complex circumstances on the lives of individuals, families and communities.

On the other hand, the Indian state disqualifies the armed conflicts in the Northeast as Non-International Armed Conflict under Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva conventions and maintains it as internal disturbances. Moreover, besides the factor of the strategic calculation, the Northeast was important for -
a) labour, resources and market;
b) a buffer to counter Chinese 'social imperialism', Myanmar and East Pakistan, and
(c) a military stockpile and commodity stocked for commercial expansion in the South and South East Asian markets (Bahadur Gurung and Nichols Roy 19 and 23 November 1949, as mentioned in Ningthouja, 2021).

The region was thus considered weak and needed to be strengthen and consolidated. The twenty-kilometer strip of land - the Siliguri Corridor as the geo-political or geo-economical corridor connects the Northeast with the mainland India and certainly this region serves the connector between the two parts of Asia - West of India and East of India serving.

Coming to the everyday aspects, the experiences of racism against the Northeasterners is clearly visible all across India. The fear of indigenous population on the swamping of migrants / immigrants and illegal immigrants, the alteration of the demography mentionably in the state of Assam, the marginalization of the indigenous peoples in the labour market labelling descriptions such as 'land of lahe laheii', lazy natives, unprofessional attributes, hotheaded etc. to the indigenous labourers - are lived experiences of the indigenous communities in the region.

The ramifications of militarization and imposition of an inhuman act like AFSPA - the impunity and its manifestation into lawlessness states, its spillover of corruption and mistrust in the communities, and the state of democracy in the region is comprehended in the works of various scholars like Papori Bora, Dolly Kikon, Yengkhom Jilangamba, Bimol Akoijam and others like.

The lack of control over resources, the cracks in the customary laws due to various neo-liberal forces are issues having serious consequences on the lives of the indigenous peoples. At the personal level, having studied in a university located in the mainland, as a student often I tried to discuss the unsettled political issues and armed conflicts in my home state Manipur, on which few of my collegemates would tell me how their parents have been paying taxes and how endless funds are diverted in the name of containing insurgencies in Northeast and that they want their parents' hard- earned money back.

To survive in such circumstances, I resorted talking about dance, music, exotic food, momos, beer, fashion, sports and varied forms of jokes and fairly been successful in terms of creating the image of a cute Northeasterner and earned to hear them say 'I love Northeast'.

What history tells the people of the political accords be it Merger Agreement of 1949 or Shillong Accord of 1975 or Mizo Peace Accord or Naga Peace Accord or Peace talk with a faction of ULFA - it has not made much progress in bridging the gap between the Northeast and the mainland. Neither has it been able to bring about a solidarity for emancipatory politics in the region.

Thinking about peace and democracy in the region, there is a need for the Indian state to change its structure of governance to act according to the political sensitivity and aspiration of the dissatisfied sections to establish 'democracy' and perhaps it is the only way as to how the colonial depiction of the Indian state will loss significance and consequently the anti-colonial discourse will become self-redundant (Ningthouja, 2021).

This reminded me of how the state would refer the insurgents as the misguided youth and that they should be brought back to the mainstream either by giving employment opportunities or joining mainstream politics, perhaps few have joined politics. What is interesting is in the game of numbers, the elected representatives of the people from this region rarely have a voice and the intention of inviting them to join mainstream politics appears to be seemingly illusionary.

Except for the state of Assam with seven members, the other states of Northeast have either one or two representatives in the Lower house and single representation in the Upper house. This sort of asymmetry in the Indian state federalism deprives the political voices and agency of the people in this part of the country.

Further, what we witness is a 'power-at-the-centre centric logic' which perpetuates the parasitic dependence of the state on the centre. One may refer to formation of government in states like Manipur in 2017, Arunachal Pradesh in 2016 in recent past.

Often, one comes across the journalistic question of the need for the Northeast to break the cycle of dependency to New Delhi; and the question if the system of proportionate representation in parliament punishes the Northeast for its discipline in population control, and that how the nation is to correct this imbalance. Such background generates a perception of the lack of resources in the individual states of the region for construing popular political narratives and practice to watch out who is in power at the centre.

In such a scenario, the complexity is how does one strive for political voice and agency to participate in the democratic process. The path of insurgency movement has been futile as we have witnessed in the past with the Indian state's approaches of Kautilya's sama- dana- behda- danda (conciliation, gifts, rupture, and force), and taking up mainstream politics clearly does not reconciliate, often refer in political discourses in the region.

The imaginative geography (in Edward Said's word) of Northeast in such an asymmetric federalism, builds the perception of the region as naive citizens and reproduces the sense of an appendix especially in realms of politics and knowledge production; thus, perpetuating the colonial master's mindset. This perpetuation of control may be theoretically deciphered with the concept of coloniality of poweriii.

Thus, the construct of the term 'Northeast' allows colonialism and coloniality remain invisible. Mignolo's (2002) proposal of border thinkingiv may perhaps be useful to decolonizing; and engagement to create a space ontologically and epistemologically from the context aiming toward political and ethical transformation.

The local understanding of the political sensitivity and politico-social mobilizations vis-a-vis the larger political narratives of the Indian state and not falling in the trap of 'power-at-the-centre centric logic' politics may be the beginning of emancipatory politics. Such approach can throw light on the configuration of marginalization in the region.

As bell hooks says, 'marginality as a site of resistance', it is hopeful such engagement may generate meaningful resistance and dissent for strengthening democracy. Thinking of margins, I personify it and often versify as -

When Margin speaks
Pain is to express
Hate is to love
Reason is to unravel
Anger is to ask
Location is to resist
Fight is for justice for all,
Yet, all call me Margin!

Recognizing the need for a political voice to be presented and to create a space in the parliamentary government, I would like to draw the perspective of Prof. Jagannath Ambagudia where he elaborately discussed on the reasons of how the Tribal representatives in parliament articulate less as compare to their articulation outside the parliament (Ambagudia, 2021).

He underlines the parliamentary structure of representation and the role of the business advisory committee in the parliament which decides on the allocation of time for a member of parliament to present/ speak based on the number of representatives in the house, such structure is perhaps responsible for low participation of tribal representative in the parliament.

He highlights the need for exploring alternative for the peoples' representative to present in the parliament not on the basis of the political parties or numbers of representatives but the communities they represent or any other such propositions that serve the objective of representation of the underrepresented communities.

Although, I am not a constitutional expert; however upon reading such observations and the political reality of the region in terms of numbers which even well-known psephologist of the country overlooks the political and electoral analysis of the region, I presume perhaps using the provision of constitutional amendment the Indian state can rethink of allotting equal number of representations in the Upper house from the different state or increased the numbers of representation in the Upper house especially for the small states as they are indirectly elected; or allocating more time to the representatives as suggested above.

This perhaps would provide some hope and sow the seed for political voice creating certain level of agency to the representatives from this region which would help to loosen the deep-rooted image of naive political leadership and citizenship. Whether we from the Northeast are full citizen or half citizen is a matter of how one construe if examined the imposition of an act like AFSPA which violates certain fundamental rights - as analyzed in Papori Bora's work Between the Human, the Citizen and the Tribal: Reading Feminist Politics in India's Northeast, else what could one say, in the face of such asymmetry and dependency on the centre, the political battles and discourses seem dramatic and farcical.

My conjecture in such a situation is that, the political leaders in the region rather than spending time, energy and resources in the race for political leadership, should perhaps have informal concords (strictly an insiders' / personal understanding) where they should agree to take turns to be represented and continue to relish the privileges as an elected representative so that there are lesser concocted political discourses, less instances of violence and that the people do not become distasteful and continue to love democracy and to let peace prevail comparatively in the region as a whole.


o Ambagudia, J. (2021, June 19). In Conversation with Prof. Virginius Xaxa and Prof. Jagannath Ambagudia. [video].

o Constituent Assembly Debates. Vols I, II, IV, VI, VII, IX and XI. Delhi: Constituent Assembly of India.
Retrieved from

o Baruah, S. (2020). In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast. Stanford University Press, Standford California.

o MHA. (2021). Insurgency in North-East. Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India.
Retrieved from

o Mignolo, D, W. (2002). The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference, The South Altlantic Quarterly, 101(1). Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.

o Mukherjee, A. (2007). The Return of the Colonial in Indian Economic History: The Last Phase of Colonialism in India in Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 2007, Vol. 68, Part One (2007), pp. 496-538.
Retrieved from

Nepram, B. (2002). South Asia's Fractured Frontier: Armed Conflict, Narcotics and Small Arms Proliferation in India's North East. New Delhi: Mittal Publications.

o Ningthouja, M. (2021, March 27). Anti-Colonial Discourse in Manipur: the Shillong Accord 1949 and Annexation Theory.

o Thakur, Amrendra K. (2007). Reassessing Researches into History of North East India. In T. Mibang and M.C. Behera (eds.)
Tribal Studies Emerging Frontiers of Knowledge (pp. 93-120). New Delhi: Mittal Publications.

o Thakur, Amrendra K. (2020). Historical Reconstruction of the Past of Northeast India: An Assessment of Colonial Writings.
In M.C Behera (ed.), Tribal Studies in India: Perspectives of History, Archaeology and Culture (pp. 67-79). Springer Nature, Singapore.

o The Print (2022, April 13). Off The Cuff with Arun Shourie. [video].

i Emancipatory Politics refers to the political activities that aim to end exploitation and hegemonic control, a goal that is relatively free from coloniality (as concept developed by Walter Mignolo, 2002) which operated not only in the sphere of the political and the economic, but basically at the epistemic, cultural, and aesthetic levels. Thus, it refers to a politics that liberates us from often unconscious but persistent total control over sensations to which bodies react as formulated by Walter Mignolo. i Northeast refers to India's Northeast which is the official name given to the region and is different from the use of the term like North India or South India. It points to a distinctive governance structure specific to the region with formal and informal rules. The contemporary Northeast India which now consist of the state of Sikkim formed the frontier provinces of British Imperial India as part of Bengal Province. This region encompasses directly ruled areas and a variety of indirect ruled areas - native state, excluded areas, partially excluded areas, Tribal areas of Assam etc. The region also has experienced a form of territorialization particular to the imperial frontier such as Inner Line and the other boundaries and has persisted into contemporary times. This background is important to understand the nature of postcolonial sovereignty as idealized by nationalist and by United Nations way of seeing (Baruah, 2020).

ii Lahe lahe is an Assamese word which means slow or moving slow

iii The concept of coloniality of power, according to Walter Mignolo, allows us to think how the colonized are subjected not simply to an avaricious exploitation of their resources but also to a hegemony of Eurocentric knowledge system. This idea has been taken from Anibal Quijano's concept of coloniality which refer to the system that organise the distribution of epistemic, moral and aesthetic resources in a way that both reflect and reproduces the empire (Mignolo, 2002).

iv Mignolo's idea of border thinking is to specify the locality of subaltern knowledge as a border location rather than considering as the beyond of Western knowledge; border epistemologies are not intended to replace the existing ones but a space for an epistemology that comes from the border and aims toward political and ethical transformation (Mignolo, 2002).

* Shanthalembi Lisham wrote this article for
The writer is a PhD Scholar, TISS Mumbai and Assistant Professor
and can be contacted to slisham(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on 08 February 2024 and updated on 11 February .

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