ASSAM AND NORTHEAST INDIA: ITS PEOPLE AND THE VIOLENCE AND POLITICAL INSTABILITY THERE

ASSAM

Assam is known for its forests, tea plantations and rich mineral deposits. It was largely unpopulated until World War II. A land of dense forests, high bamboo villages and mountains of all shapes and sizes, Assam's population is now on the rise because it has become India's largest producer of oil, tea and forest products. Assam produces 60 percent of India’s tea, and is famous for its tea plantations. It is very humid and get a lot of rain.

Assam is home to about 25 million people known as Assamese. About two third of the population is Hindu. Most of the remainder are Muslims. There are also some Christians and animists and thousands of tea plantation workers, many of them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh known as Mymensinghy. The region is known for its numerous tribes, each with its own fascinating customs and traditions. These hill tribes have much in common with those found in Thailand, China and Burma. Much of Assam's population lives along the mighty Brahmaputra River.

Sibsagar to the north was the capital of the Ahom kingdom for more than 600 years. Wildlife sanctuaries in the region include Drang, Manas and Kaziranga, home of the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinos. Majuli, the largest riverine island in the world, is situated in the Brahmaputra River in Assam.

The term of Assamese is used both to describe the current residents of Assam and the indigenous people that have lived there for centuries. The latter are at least partly of Chinese descent and are small in size and have Chinese features. Many tribes in the region traditionally hunted heads and practiced slash and burn agriculture and kept gayals as domesticated animals.

Northeastern India is made up of the seven states of 1) Assam, 2) Meghalaya, 3) Tripura, 4) Arunachal Pradesh, 5) Mizoram, 6) Manipur, and 7) Nagaland. Certain tensions exist between these states and a relatively distant central government and between the tribal peoples, who are natives of these states, and migrant peoples from other parts of India. These tensions have led the natives of these states to seek a greater participation in their own governance, control of their states' economies, and their role in society. Emerging from these desires for greater self-governance are new regional political parties and continued insurgent movements. In addition to the more frequently analyzed regional movements in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, and states such as Assam and Nagaland in the northeast, there are other regional movements, such as those in the Tripura and Miso tribal areas. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Tea production is the main industry in Assam. Assamese complain that money from the tea plantations end up in Delhi and elsewhere in India and relatively little money flows the other way into Assam.

Assam History

From 1228 to the British annexation of the region, Assam was ruled by the Ahoms, a Han people that migrated from upper Burma. These people referred to the land they occupied as Assam, Asam and Aham and the name stuck. They ruled over six districts on the lower Brahmaputra or Assam Valley and kept records of their reign. In 1820, the British added Assam to the East India Company’s territories. In 1822, the chief commissionership of Assam was set up bu by the British. It consisted of the six Brahmaputra or Assam Valley districts, and two district in the Suma valley, six hill areas and two frontier tracts.

Historically, the northeast part of India, including Assam, was sparsely populated. However, during the colonial period, the shortage of manpower in Assam was regarded as a major obstacle to British colonial plans (to clear the jungles, reclaim swampy lands for cultivation, develop tea cultivation, etc.). As a result, the British encouraged migration from East Bengal into Ahom. The inflow of people to the northeast continued even after the partition of India in 1947.[Source: Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland ~]

The population of northeast India has seen unprecedented growth during the past century, and that of Assam, for example, increased from 3,290,000 around partition to approximately 26 million in 2005. After the partition of British India in 1947, several hundred thousand Bengali-speaking Hindus left what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and flowed into Assam by late 1950. Since 1947, three tribal states have been separated from Assam: Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland. Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur of northeast India were considered for inclusion in Assam, but have also become separate states. In 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru's government created linguistic states in the wake of ethnic strife throughout northeast India. ~

During the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971, hundreds of thousands of hungry refugees poured into Calcutta, West Bengal, Assam and other eastern India. In the late 1970s waves of anti-immigrant protests erupted in Assam and spawned separatist guerilla movements.

Assam Language

Assamese (also known as Asamiya, Asambe and Asami) is the native language of the Assamese. The easternmost members of the Indo-European family of languages, it is derived from Sanskrit, has a script based on Bengali script and has many words borrowed from Hindi, Arabic, Persian, English, Portuguese and regional tribal languages.

Some Assamese groups speak Austroasiatic languages. Some Assamese tongues are spoken by only a few dozen people. There are 60 million speakers of Austroasiatic languages. Although the language group may have originated in China, very few people in China speak it today (a small enclave near the Myanmar border). Vietnamese and Cambodian are Austroasiatic languages. Enclaves of people that speak this family of languages also live in Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and northeastern India.

Austroasiatic languages are characterized by an abundance of vowels. In contrast to English, which only has around a dozen vowel sounds, Austroasiatic languages have around 40 or so, including ones that are nasal, nonnasal, long, extra-short, creaky, breathy, normal, high-tongue, low-tongue, medium-high tongue, medium-low tongue, front tongue, back tongue, middle tongue and various combinations of these sounds.

Assam Religion and Festivals

The Assamese form of Hinduism has two contrasting forms of expression: 1) sects based on caste that emphasizes polytheism, hierarchy, inherited status, caste groups, meditation, multiplicity of images and rituals performed by high caste priests; and 2) sects that emphasize monotheism, egalitarianism, membership by invitation, worship in the vernacular and salvation through faith and mysticism.

People from all different ethic groups take part in agricultural festivals called bihus. People bath in the Brahmaputra and other rivers on the first day of each festival. The most important and first bihu, Bohang Bihu, is held in April and last seven days before planting begins. Bohang is the name of first month of the Assamese calendar.

The second bihu, Kangali Bihu, is held in October before the harvest. Kangali means "poor," a reference to the fact some people have a hard time getting enough to eat. The third bihu, Bhogali Bihu, is held in January after the harvest. Bhog means "enjoyment and feasting." It is a refers to the fact it is time of plenty and good times.

Assam Society and Customs

Villages are organized around local centers of devotional worship called “name houses,” whose members describe themselves as “one people.” There are generally several name houses in a village. Villages are made up of members of different castes that are also divided into five different categories based on income.

In northeast India and Assam, sometimes honored guests are greeted Tibetan style with a scarf around the neck. If you are honored in this way you expected to keep wearing the scarf until you leave.

Rice is the staple food. Life revolve around rice production and houses are built so they face the fields and crops can easily be observed. The granary is positioned at the front of each house so that it is the first thing people see when they leave their house. Hindus but not Muslims are reportedly very fond of turtle.

Many Muslim men in Assam have short beards and wear ankle-length lungis. In some places in northeast India men wear loincloths. Assam women paint their noses as well as decorate their foreheads. They also die their toenails with henna and have tattoos on their arms.

Assam Culture

The bihu is a folk dance performed during the Bihu festival in mid-April. It features young men and women dancing in separate groups to music produced by drums and pipes. The Thang-ta is a dance performed by young men with swords and shields to the rhythm of drumming. It evolved from martial arts exercises encouraged by the kings of Manipur.

Manipuri is a style dance from the state of Manipur in northeast India. Regarded as one of the most beautiful dance styles, it features graceful swaying and twirling movements to ascending tempos and is based on the Raas Leela, a story about the cosmic dances and mischievous games played by Krishna and the gopis (milk maidens). Manipuri is derived from Lai Haroba, an ancient ritualistic dance depicting creation.

The costume worn by Manipuri dancers is one of the most beautiful in all of India. Dark orange or green skirts are stiffened from thigh to ankle, flared from the waists with translucent veils and decorated with gold thread embroidery and tiny mirrors. A gathered skirt with a short silver gauze, and edged with a golden border is worn over the skirt A colored choli is worn with a fine gauze veil draped over a special hair style. Belts and jewelry are also worn. The Krishna dancer wears a tall peach-feather crown.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Just like the southern state of Kerala, the tiny northeastern state of Manipur also has its own rich theatrical tradition, which preserves both archaic and animistic, as well as later “classical”, forms. While most of Kerala’s genres are firmly related to the classical (margi) Natyashastra-related tradition, the dance-orientated forms of Manipur have evolved in isolation and have retained their unique style and spirit to this day. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The valley state of Manipur lies amidst the hills of the easternmost part of India, bordering Nagaland in the north, Assam in the west and Myanmar (Burma) in the east. Thus, in fact, it belongs to the Southeast-Asian cultural sphere, which is also reflected in its dance traditions. The people of the Manipur valley are called Meities (also Meeteis) and they trace their antiquity back to Vedic times. The indigenous, animistic belief system, Sanamahi, is very much a living tradition still today, although the Krishna bhakti form of Hinduism was adopted in Manipur as a state religion in the 15th century. /=/

“In Manipur the ancient belief system and the culture it created are interwoven with Hinduism. This is clearly reflected in the rich dance tradition in which Hindu themes are performed in a uniquely indigenous style, while at the same time some dances are still related directly to the Sanamahi religion and its rituals and ceremonies. Manipur also has its own tradition of martial arts, thangta. It includes exercises without weapons and exercises with weapons, as well as solo and group exercises. It probably has a very long history, as is indicated by its aspects related to the archaic weapon worship. The basic choreography of the exercises repeats the form of an 8, as do the body and hand movements too. This is also the most characteristic feature of all Manipuri dances.” /=/

Manipuri, See Dance

Muslims in Assam

Assamese-speaking Muslims are known as Garia. They make up about 2 million of the 5 million Muslims in Assam. They have absorbed many Hindu customs and have traditionally identified themselves with Hindu Assamese rather than other Muslims. Although they often live in separate communities from Hindus they actively trade and interact with them. Their kinship terminology and marriage customs are close to that of Hindus; and they have modified version of the caste system; and many have deep respect for the 16th century Hindu Vaishnavote scholar Sankaradeva.

As many as 300,000 Bangladeshi men cross into Assam every year in search of work. There are also many immigrants from West Bengal, many of them Muslims. Not many have been rounded up and deported because authorities have difficulty distinguishing them from local Muslim men. Garias resent being accused of being Bangladeshis.

The "invasion" of Bangladeshis to Assam has raised tensions between India and Bangladesh. In April 2001, 15 Indian troops were killed in clashes between Indian and Bangladeshi border guards. Hindu extremist complain the Bangladeshi immigrants take jobs from Assamese and skew elections in favor of Muslims.

Assam Separatist Groups

There are more than 30 different separatist insurgent groups fighting in the seven states in Assam and northeast India. They include the United Liberation Front of Assam, the Manipur People’s Army, the National Liberation Front of Tripura and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland. Some of them have been fighting since independence in 1947 and have ties to groups with a history of fighting that goes back before that.

There have been monthly, weekly and daily reports of violence in Assam and northeastern India. In the 1990s there were relatively frequent reports in newspapers of 10 or 20 people getting killed here or there. Rebel groups in eastern India include the People's Liberation Army and the United National Liberation Front. In Manipur several separatists groups have united to protest alleged human rights abuses by Indian forces. The Nagas and Bodos have been fighting for independence for a long time.

India has periodically expanded its military efforts in Assam against groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), and Bodo Security Force (BSF). Other rebel groups in Assam observe cease-fire agreements with the government. The decades-long separatist conflict in Nagaland continues with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khapland (NSCN-K), although peace talks have occurred with another faction, the NSCN-IM (Isaac Muivah), after the government lifted its previous ban on the organization. In Tripura, various insurgents continue to target Bengali immigrants and Indian security forces. [Source: Library of Congress]

The conflicts are many and complex and often overlap. By some estimates more than 10,000 people died as a result of fighting in Assam in the 1990s. More than 150,000 Indian troops are in Assam. India has accused Bhutan, Myanmar and especially Bangladesh for letting members of these groups seek refuge in their territory. Many in northeast India want Bangladeshis in the region to be sent back home.

See Nagas, Bodos

United Liberation Front of Assam

The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) is the main separatist group in Assam. It was founded in 1979 by activists angry over the immigration of Muslims from Bangladesh to liberate Assam from Indian control. The ULFA reportedly operates out of camps in Bangladesh. It was based for a while in Bhutan. In the early 2000s, they moved somewhere else.

The ULFA has the won the support of local people by supporting development projects such as building flood-control embankments and drawn the wrath of landowners and government officials by staging raids, raising money extortion, kidnaping and murder, blowing up tea processing plants, ambushing and killing police, filling buses carrying workers with bullets, tossing grenades into busy markets and meeting places, killing dozens.

SULFA (Surrendered ULFA) is a militia made up of ULFA militants who surrendered to the Indian army and then began carrying out death squad attacks on supporters of ULFA. It has been linked to the execution-style killing of dozens of Indian immigrants from Bihar and other places .

Violence in Assam

The rebels and separatist generally only go after government and military targets—and sometimes gun down migrant workers from outside the region—but generally leave ordinary local people alone. Assam not only has a problem with rebels and separatists it also has a problem with crime. Bandits, kidnappers and dacoits are a threat in many places. Tea plantations are often targets.

In February 1983, perhaps thousands of people in northeast India were killed in ethnic violence. More than 1,500 Muslim were massacred at Nellie at the height of the violence. In December 1996, a bomb exploded on the Brahmaputra Mail train traveling in western Assam. The bomb totally wrecked three carriages of the train and derailed six more, killing at least 33 people. Elections in Assam have been characterized by violence. In 1999, 50 people were killed, including a candidate with the BJP party. In December 2000, gunmen killed 28 people and injured 16 in a bloody attack known as the Sadiya massacre. The victims were non-Assamese: mostly Biharis, Marwaris, Nepalese and Bengalis.

In January 2001, tribal militants in Meghalaya were accused of shooting dead five shoppers and setting fire to a historic legislative assembly building in Shillong. In May 2001, three Catholic priests were killed at a missionary school in Manipur’s Thoubal district. The militants were thought to be either members of the People’s Liberation Army or Kinglei Yawol Kunna Lup.

In November 2003, a mob killed 15 settlers in Gwahato in Assam. The settlers were mostly from Bihar. Most died after their homes were torched. The attacks were prompted by an attack on Assamese train travelers in Bihar. At the core of the problem is competition over jobs in Assam. In December 2003, the army of Bhutan overran camps used by secessionist groups fighting Assam. In August 2004, a powerful bomb exploded during an Independence day parade in the town of Demaji, killing at least 16, many of them children, and wounding at least 40 others. The attack was blamed in the ULFA.

Between October 2nd and October 5th, 2004, 70 people were killed in a series of explosions in and gun attacks in town and villages market and a bus station. Some of the bombs were strapped to bicycles. The attacks were blamed on the ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

See Nagas, Bodos

Separatist Attacks at Tea Plantations in Assam

Separatist groups in Assam have deliberately killed non-Assamese traders, tea managers and migrant workers as part of an effort to keep non-Assamese out of the region. To raise funds the ULFA extorts money from Assam tea plantation owners (Assam produces half of India's tea). Landowners that don't pay up on time are shot or abducted.

More than a dozen tea plantation mangers have killed and an equal number have been abducted. In October 1990, gunmen opened fire on a Hindu News Year's Eve party at a planters club, killing a manager and wounding 10 others. A few years later, another manager was shot dead by five men on his front porch reportedly because he refused to pay an extortion fee.

There have also been a number of attacks by disgruntled workers. In May and June 2003, three tea estate managers were killed in Assam. One was hacked to death for firing three workers. A Managers have also been kidnapped for ransom by bandits.

For protection from bandits and guerrillas, tea pickers are escorted by bodyguards and tea planter have turned their beautiful homes into fortresses. Managers of tea plantations in Assam have been targets of separatists who hide out in Bhutan. Threats from bandits and separatists have added security costs.

Political and Regional Agreements in Assam

In May 1995, the state government of Tripura extended the area covered by the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council, a result of the tripartite accord among the central government, the state government, and the Tripura National Volunteers movement concluded in 1988. In the elections in July 1995, the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), defeated the alliance of the Congress (I) and the local Tripura Tribal Youth Association (Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti), which had controlled the council since 1990. The new council proceeded to dissolve the more than 400 development committees at various levels under its jurisdiction for corruption and inaction and promised to constitute new ones swiftly. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In June 1995, the Assam government signed an agreement with two organizations of the Mising tribe, the Mising Autonomous Demand Committee and the Mising Greater Council (Mising Bane Kebang), to set up an autonomous council for the Misings. The council will include villages with majority tribal populations in four districts of Assam, with a total population expected to be about 315,000. However, villages in so-called Reserve Forest Areas will be included only with the approval of the central minister of state with independent charge of environment and forests. This decision is a possible source of discontent because tribals frequently feel themselves hampered by restrictions on the use of forests by the government. However, in July 1995 the Mising Bane Kebang boycotted the swearing in of the interim council because it said the Mising Autonomous Demand Committee had kept it out of its formation. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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