Is BJP playing a dangerous game in Northeast India? ( Opinion )


 Ruata Lungchuang 


The sudden rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Northeast is something that has baffled political analysis over the decade. As of now 4 of the 8 Northeastern states are ruled by the BJP government while the other 4 are ruled by parties that are in union with the BJP party.  While the steady rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in mainland India is something that does not come as a surprise for many people considering the history that the party has in that region, on the other hand, the rapid rise of the BJP and its allies in the Northeast which was once considered an impenetrable fortress of the Congress has proved that BJP has been able to capture and exploit the very fabric of politics in the Northeast for its own advantage. While BJP is known as a nationalist party in the mainland, in the Northeast the coming of the BJP has paved the way to a pretty "Anti-nationalistic"  wave of movement which could be detrimental to the very idea of India. Is BJP playing a dangerous game in the Northeast?


Although politics in India is often said to be the same all over India, the nature of politics in the Northeast and Mainland India has some very important differences in characteristics. In the Mainland, politics has been centred around the issue of religion and caste, a factor which has been exploited by every national political party including the Congress and the BJP,  politics in the Northeast on the other hand is centred around ethnonationalism. While the prospect of economic development is often said to be the winning factor in Northeastern Politics, the presence of strong regional parties and then the rise of the BJP using the same strategy of these regional parties have proven that the formula to winning election in the Northeast is to play by the book of ethnocentric politics prevalent in the Northeast.


While it is true that the BJP and its allies have addressed some of the long-pressing issues of the Northeast after coming into power such as the  Naga issue, the ILP demands in  Manipur, Assam's demographic issues etc, the by-product of such move is the rapid rise of ethnonationalism in Northeast India. Ethnonationalism is at an all-time high in all of the eight Northeastern states particularly in states ruled directly by the BJP. Here is how each political step taken up by the BJP in the Northeast contributes to the rise of ethnocentric politics in the region.



The Naga framework Agreement


The long-standing Naga issue is by far the most important and crucial political challenge in the Northeast. And when the BJP government in the centre announces the signing of a framework agreement in 2015, Northeast India was abuzz with speculations. To many Nagas this was a victory at last after decades of struggle while to the Manipuris, Arunachalees and the Assamese the move by the central government was a direct threat to their territorial integrity and identity. The NSCNIM always strongly advocated for the unification of all "Naga inhabited areas'' in Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and the central government signing a framework agreement with the said armed group was in effect the central government agreeing to the most basic demands of the NSCN IM which is territorial unification at the expense of other stakeholders. Although the BJP state government in the three states ( Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh) have reiterated and assured their people that not an inch of their territory would be compromised, the damage was done. The effect of the framework agreement was particularly felt in the state of Manipur, a state which has its own separatist movements. Ethnic Manipuris felt betrayed and frustrated, to them this was like adding salt into an open wound.  Thus, in Manipur, the reaction to the signing of the framework agreement spiralled into a Manipuri centric ethnic movement that had a narrative of Tribal vs Non-tribals conflict and ultimately led to mass violence in the southern Manipuri town of Churachandpur. Meanwhile 6 years on into the framework agreement, the lack of transparency and final resolution to the so-called agreement has led to distrust and resentment towards the Indian government and the NSCN IM in the state of Nagaland. It is also important to mention that there exists a certain level of hostility towards the framework agreement even among the Nagas in Nagaland who sees the agreement between the government of India and the NSCN IM as manipulative and invasive owing to the fact that the NSCNIM leadership is based in Manipur and headed by a Tangkhul, a tribe which many Nagas of Nagaland consider is a non-native Manipuri tribe.


ILP regime in Manipur


The demand for ILP in Manipur has been a long-standing issue particularly advocated by the majority Meitei community of Manipur. Although the demand has been going on for decades, the Naga framework agreement intensified the call for a Meitei centric movement in Manipur which included the demand for the implementation of the ILP among other things. The Meiteis are one of the main communities inhabiting the state of Manipur along with the other two major communities namely the Kukis and the Nagas and for a very long time, the Meities have felt imprisoned in the valley owing to the fact that they are classed as "General" in the Indian caste-based categorisation and cannot purchase land in  Manipur's Tribal areas outside of the Imphal valley where they are concentrated. The prevailing sentiment among the Meiteis is the feeling of being trapped in the Valley while losing Manipur's hill to groups like the NSCN IM while still slowly being outnumbered in the valley by immigrants from the mainland. Hence, the Meiteis came up with their own resolution that is to be recategorised as Tribals and have the ILP ( Inner Line Permit) System be implemented in Manipur. Soon after the signing of the  Naga Framework agreement Manipur erupted in a streak of protest and agitation by Valley-based organisations which prompted the Manipur government to pass three controversial bills which would in theory pave the way to the inclusion of Meiteis in the ST quota and their subsequent settlement in the hill areas of Manipur. The BJP party in part capitalised on the rise of this Meitei nationalism by making a vocal valley-based ex-congress MLA N Biren Singh its CM candidate in the 2017 Manipur assembly election where it emerged victorious thanks in part to what the Manipuris call "Frog hopping" MLAs ( Congress MLAs who joined the BJP party to form a majority) and the promise of fulfilling the demands of the Meitei think tank such as the implementation of the ILP and ST status to the Meiteis. Hill-based communities and their organisations were obviously riled up by the developments in Manipur valley and staged their own protest in 2015, the most violent being the 2015 CCpur riot which led to the death of 11 protestors. Now Manipur is even more divided than it has ever been, the hill people noticing the rise of Meitei Nationalism and fear of Meitei hegemony are pushing for a 6th Scheduled autonomous councils for the hill people in Manipur while the valley-based community the Meiteis live under constant fear of being subjugated by Naga politics particularly that of the NSCN IM and the compromisation of Manipur's territorial integrity.


Under many protests by the Tribals of Manipur the central government in 2019 extended the ILP regime in Manipur as promised which then turned Manipur into the 4th ILP State in the Northeast. Xenophobic sentiment towards mainlanders and Tribals in Manipur has been on a steady rise ever since the BJP government came to power. Social media platforms particularly Facebook is filled with xenophobic hate speech directed towards the Hindus and tribals, particularly of Kuki origin. The Meitei nationalist flag of the "Salai Taret" now waves in every corner of Imphal valley and is now in a way more popular than the tricolour tiranga. The development that is seen in Manipur is caused by multiple factors and cannot be just attested to the BJP alone, the rise of Meitei nationalistic sentiment can also be attributed to the decades of neglect and is in a way a manifestation of frustration towards the previous congress government in the state. However, one cannot ignore the chain of events leading up to its outburst which includes a number of steps taken by the BJP government including the signing of the Naga Framework agreement and it being sympathetic towards Meitei nationalism. All in all Manipur today is a very divided state, divided based on political leaning, ethnic affiliation and most recently religion.


The development in Manipur had a far-reaching impact on other ILP aspiring states particularly Meghalaya where Khasi nationalism is brewing up. Frustrated at their demands for ILP not being fulfilled while other states like Manipur are being granted the same law which they have been demanding for decades, the Khasi movement is quickly turning into an ethnic nationalistic movement where both civil societies and underground outfits alike are quite vocal about their aspirations that can often be deemed seditious. The people's movement of Meghalaya is no longer just about the ILP anymore with Shillong seeing multiple incidents of ethnic violence over the past years. The Conrad Sangma NPP government which is in coalition with the BJP is under tremendous pressure due to the developments seen in other BJP states.


The Controversial CAA


While the Citizen Amendment Bill is extremely unpopular in the Northeast, its opposition has been more severely felt in Assam, which is the epicentre of the BJP power in the Northeast and the seat of the Northeast BJP Alliance NDA. As mentioned, politics in the Northeast is based on ethnocentrism and the central government implementing an act which is based on religious affiliation is perceived as highly controversial by the Assamese community which is more concerned about the ethnic imbalance happening in Assam than the religious make - up of the state. To ethnic Assamese, the passing of the CAA bill was a slap at the face of their long-standing demand for the deportation of what they believe are "Bangladeshi nationals". In the Northeast, Assam has reported the most amount of public violence in 2021 and it only appears to be rising as Himanta's government is stepping up its effort to contain what it calls "illegal immigrants" most of whom are Bengali speaking people in lower and central Assam, these operations are most often than not violent. The situation has put Bengali speaking people in Assam in a precarious situation which is speeding up the demand for the creation of a separate Bengali speaking state out of Assam.


ADCs in Mizoram and Tripura


Mizoram does not generally come up in BJP's grand scheme of plan, but the situation in Mizoram, particularly the relationship between different communities in the state has also been deteriorating ever since the BJP and its ally the MNF came into power. The three communities that have their own Autonomous District Councils in Mizoram ( The Mara, Lai and Chakma ) are increasingly feeling neglected by the state government and are looking for ways to have their councils upgraded into territorial councils. The BJP, having not been able to make any significant inroads into mainstream Mizo society is appearing to cosy up to these groups and their demands which again does not sit well with the Mainstream Mizo society. Mizo civil societies have especially been vocal on the Chakma Autonomous District Council and the central government cosying up to their demands is seen as a threat to the very territorial integrity of the state. It did not help especially when the MNF government was seen campaigning in the Chakma areas with a slogan of a "Vibrant Chakma Nation". Meanwhile, in Tripura, the indigenous tribes in the state are demanding the creation of Twipraland which would encompass all the tribal areas of Tripura. Tribals in Tripura are increasingly losing their confidence in the Bengali centric  BJP vs Trinamool Congress situation happening in the State.


While much can be said about the miraculous victory of BJP in the Northeast and its shortcomings. One thing is certain, Northeast India is getting more attention than it has ever been able to amass during Congress rule and is also more divided. The infrastructure investment going into Northeast India ever since the BJP came into power is indeed commendable. While the BJP not shying away from addressing some of the most controversial issues of the Northeast is welcoming, like every undertaking, it comes at a cost, and the cost of all these recent developments in the Northeast is the rise of ethnonationalism and the polarisation of politics in the Northeast. Still, while BJP is perceived as a nationalist party in the Mainland, in the northeast many of its initiatives have appeared to cause more division and create what its own people call "Anti-national" sentiments. The BJP government will have to tread very carefully in respect to its dealing with Northeast India, being a sensitive area a small mistake can lead to all-out chaos in this part of the country. The current trend of xenophobia and ethnic nationalism in the Northeast of India is indeed a cause of concern.

Also read - Assam Doctor performed pig to human organ transplant

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The Mizos is a one-man team news blog, that brings you news and stories from Mizoram, Northeast India and the rest of the World.

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