January 11th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Paid maternity leave: who benefits?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: 2002: when the chickens came home to roost

EVENTS: Claudio Betti to visit Australia

BIOETHICS: Embryo battle was worth the fight

STRAWS IN THE WIND: To America with love, from Osama bin Laden

LETTERS: Real world (letter)

LETTERS: Comparisons (letter)

PROFILE: Dr George Pell: Australia's leading churchman

SOUTH ASIA: India's ethnic conflicts

COMMENT: In the wake of the Cultural Revolution

BOOKS: The Life of Matthew Flinders, by Miriam Estensen

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India's ethnic conflicts

by Dr Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, January 11, 2003
The September 11 events and their fallout added to the importance of South Asia, making it a focus of the world that is concerned with peace and stakes at different nations in the region. The conflict in Kashmir, sectarian and political violence in Pakistan, riots in Gujarat, and insurgency in Northeast India - all these issues are relevant as well as important in discussing stability in South Asia. The region has a crucial role to play in the days ahead; the international community is concerned with peace and stability in the region.

The origins of several inter-state disputes in the region, including the China-India-Pakistan boundary question and the Pakistan-India-Bangladesh feuds over sharing river waters, are rooted in the colonial demarcation of frontiers.

Porous borders

The Indo-Pakistan frontier is too porous for security forces on either side to contain trans-border terrorism or arms and drug trafficking. Similarly, it is virtually impossible to effectively patrol the Indo-Bangladesh border and prevent Bangladeshi migrants from seeking better living conditions in India.

Mass influx of illegal migrants can undermine a nation's internal security, and the separatist unrest in the northeastern Indian state of Assam is evidence of that.

The porousness of the South Asian frontiers has also become a licence for rival states to sponsor ethnic or terrorist violence across their frontiers through proxies or even by direct means. India has charged Pakistan with training and arming dissidents in the Indian Kashmir and Punjab, while Pakistan has accused New Delhi of aiding Sindhi separatism. The tribal guerrillas in India's northeastern states were originally trained by China, and there are now new Indian allegations of Chinese and Bangladeshi support for the Assamese rebels.

Northeast India, known as "Seven Sisters", comprising seven states - Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura - has never at any time been part of India. All the states here, which in the past consisted of the kingdom of Assam and the princely states of Manipur and Tripura, were formerly independent and then a part of Burma, until the British annexed them at the beginning of the 19th century.

At the time of partition in 1947, they toyed with the alternatives of becoming a part of Burma or remaining independent. It was the British who talked them into joining the Indian Union, and some of them felt that they were doing so conditionally, for a period of ten years. In this region, there has been an insurrection going on.

Since independence, the Union government has adopted measures to "Indianise" the people of the Northeastern region by swamping the area with a maximum number of people from other states. This could damage the very special ethnic, cultural and linguistic entity of the sub-nationalities living in the region.

The identity of the Tripuris has vanished and the indigenous Assamese are now engaged in fighting what to them is a battle for survival. Other ethnic groups of the region that can be similarly affected are the Meitis, Nagas, Mizos, Khasis and Garos.

The Indian leaders have failed to understand how the illegal immigration has allowed foreigners to influence the state elections of Assam and, therefore, they have been unable to impress upon the Government of India the actual nature of the Assamese demands on the issue of foreigners.

In Assam, estimated at 8.5 million, forming 25 per cent of the state's population, are non-Assamese or the 'foreigners' as the Assamese Agitatists call them. The major languages spoken in the state are Assamese (57%), local tribal languages (16%), Bengali (17.4%), Hindi (4.3%), and Nepali (5.3%). Those settled in the state for generations are included in the state electoral rolls and have adopted Assamese and in census reports returned Assamese as their mother tongue.

If migrants, in their long-term interests, have willingly assimilated themselves to the extent of using the Assamese language and adopting native life-styles, what sort of an "absorption" are the Assamese themselves afraid of?

Why has immigration become such a nightmare for the indigenous Assamese and what specific features exist in their cultural identity that they feel are threatened by extinction? A search for answers to these questions is vital for the Indian centre in the context of viable centre-state relations.

The Asom Gana Parishad (Assam people organisation) is a party of "Assam for the Assamese". It was voted into power in 1985. The party is led by former student activists who throughout the 1980s agitated against the presence of too many Bengalis in Assam, in general, and in particular, against the presence of illegal migrants from Bangladesh on Assam's electoral rolls and the reluctance of the Union government to have them purged.

The Mizos have a provincial party as do the Nagas and some other tribal groups. The Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) is potentially the party of the 'Gorkhaland' for which it agitated during the 1980s. Gorkhaland, according to the GNLF, would be carved from the Daijeeling district of West Bengal and neighbouring states particularly Sikkim, with substantial Nepali-speaking populations.

The Nagas, one of the most politically active ethnic minorities, demanded separation from India as soon as India was granted independence. From 1956 onward, the movemeni began to use violence as a means to achieve their goals. By the mid-1960s, the Nagas had been joined in Mizos. Despite several decades of low-level insurgency, neither group could achieve its demand for separation.

Dual approach

Indian reactions to these insurgencies have: stressed both military and political approaches, While India has been willing to discuss a considerable level of autonomy, she has expressly denied the right of any part of the country to secede, and has successfully enforced that denial through military means in Nagaland. Many difficulties have arisen in the path of the creation of a great Indian consciousness, which has been the goal of the Government of New Delhi and which has yet to be achieved.

There is much disturbing news, including the recent Gujarat riots. The Hindu-Muslim riots in Ahmedabad, the prosperous western Indian state of Gujarat, left more than 1000 people dead and 100,000 in shelters. The riots began when a Muslim mob torched a trainload of Hindu nationalists, killing 59 of them. A wave of retaliatory rioting rolled over Gujarat; the overwhelming majority of the victims were Muslims.

The riots in Gujarat have not ceased. Although reduced in intensity, violence continues to flare up, primarily in the underpoliced Muslim areas of Gujarat's major cities, where there are daily instances of murder, looting and arson.

The central and state governments, both run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been slow to curb Hindu retaliation. While India's parliament debated whether the Gujarat Government should be dismissed for failing to restore the rule of law, even more disturbing reports emerged that some of the Hindu mob leaders were activist members of the ruling party.

Earlier in 1992, Gujarat also witnessed Hindu-Muslim riots over the destruction of a 17th century mosque in Ayodhya. That mosque was destroyed by a 10,000-strong mob of Hindu nationalists who want to build a temple there instead. It resulted in a huge number of deaths; the overwhelming majority of the victims were Muslims. Is the secular edifice of India under threat?

Many people think that these were organised and encouraged by the BJP Government in Gujarat. The fact that the Chief Minister didn't resign is very indicative; moreover, the fact that the state authorities and the police who watched the massacres take place, is very symbolic of what was happening.

The secular edifice of India is in doubt. The secular India no longer exists as it did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and even to a certain extent in the 1980s. I think the clashes between the Congress and the Sikh population in Delhi were the first indication of that. The attacks on Muslims, which took place during the "emergency" of Mrs Indira Gandhi, were another indication of that, and the logical result of this is the victory of the BJP.


Not that Indian governments have failed to acknowledge the unhappiness of Gujarati Muslims and Kashmiri Muslims, Sikhs, Assamese Hindus, Nepali-speaking Gorkhas and Christian tribal people of the northeast. In a country larger than Europe and as diverse, somewhere, some of the people are going to be unhappy.

The Indian Government is reconciled to this. Unhappiness is negotiable, but secessionism is not. Although there are insurgencies and secessionist movements in Punjab, Kashmir, Nagaland and Mizoram, none has any chance of succeeding; and they are best considered as particular and bloody manifestations of the general problem of ethnic provincialism.

The Indian Government suppresses secessionism wherever it occurs. Considering its great heterogeneity, India's success in fostering national integration has been notable. It has been achieved largely through the instrumentality of parliamentary democracy. India's political elite has been notably successful in nation- and state-building.

As for state-building, New Delhi's rulers have been able and/or willing to use parliamentary democracy to structure their country's provincial diversity into a viable national state.

  • Sharif Shuja

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