Causes and Effects of Migration in India’s Northeast


Pradip Phanjoubam, Editor, Imphal Free Press

In the democratised world, immigrants no longer are willing to indigenise, setting them apart from the populations of the host regions.


The question is not an easy one by any standard. Just how is the issue of immigration, economic, political or otherwise, expected to be tackled by those who are at the receiving end? The answer would, to a very great extent depend on the perspective one takes. Against the context of the universal notion of human rights, as enshrined in the UN Charter of Human Rights, economic and political migration is deemed as a basic right. This humanitarian outlook is however premised upon the position that the host nation or region is far superior economically and demographically, and therefore is under no threat from such migrations. Sadly, this condition is not always a reality. The predicament of the Northeast is adequately the proof. Assam today for instance is virtually an extension of Bangladesh, and it is said indigenous Assamese today are no longer a majority in Assam. It is said if the various ethnic communities, like the Bodos, Cacharis, Misings etc were to be excluded as a separate tribal category within the broader Assamese identity, the percentage of Assamese Hindus and original Muslims, would be reduced to a significantly smaller minority, forming perhaps even less than 30 percent of the total population.

It is not as if migration is a new phenomenon in Assam and the rest of the Northeast. But in the olden feudal days, when the power structure was radically different, migrants sooner than later assimilated themselves to the identity of the host communities that their new feudal masters belonged. Hence, Bengali peasant migrants from East Bengal would in no time adopt the Assamese identity (Amalendu Guha: Planters Raj to Swaraj), so that along with the continuous immigration, would be a growth of the Assamese population. This was demonstrated in pre-independence census exercises. Guha also explains, that for the poor illiterate Bengali peasantry who migrated to Assam from the mufossil districts of the then East Bengal, to identify with the powers that be in Assam gave them a sense of greater identity and would readily indigenise. Had they known there was a much greater Bengal and Bengali identity were within their immediate reach, this might not have been. Indeed this was the case with the Hindu Bengali Bhadralok from East Bengal. They wanted to identify with what was then often referred to as the Bengali Renaissance in Bengal rather than rural and backward Assam of the time, creating another layer of ethnic tension. Those of us in Manipur need not go too far to appreciate this indigenization process Guha refers to, for this was also to a great extent the case in Manipur when it was still a monarchy. The Muslims, again from the then East Bengal, readily became the Pangals, and Brahmins from Kanauj in the modern day Uttar Pradesh and other places from subcontinental India too willingly became absorbed as the Bamons. As long as the indigenization process of immigrants remained a natural phenomenon, demographic frictions were either altogether absent or else within easily manageable limits. Enter modern times and democracy, and the scenario altered radically. Identity consciousness and knowledge also expanded immensely. To take the Assam example again, in the modern era immigrants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) are not willing to compromise their origin identity. Viewed against the compulsion of massive immigration on the eve of, and immediate wake of, the Partition of India, this became a huge issue, for then the indigenous Assamese began to see a threat to their own identity by a demographic takeover by Bengalis. Assam even refused to have the Hindu majority Sylhet become part of Assam when the Hindu Bengalis of the district desperately wanted it so in order to be included in India at the time of Partition, and as a result this populous district was forced to join East Pakistan. Sketching the scenario at the time, Sanjib Baruah, another well known Assamese scholar, quotes the memorable and bewildered remark by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru upon reading Gopinath Bordoloi’s letter, that the way the Assam chief minister was reacting, he might as well treat Assam as an independent country, adding an ironic remark that Nehru’s remark proved prophetic, that many youth in modern Assam would indeed come to want such a fate. Perhaps not an exact parallel, but the Assam story is generally also the undercurrent behind much of the xenophobia the northeast has now come to be afflicted by.

In the democratised world, immigrants no longer are willing to indigenise, setting them apart from the populations of the host regions. Struggles for power and economic spaces between them are the inevitable consequences. Democracy being ultimately a system of deciding who gets to hold the reins of power by a headcount, xenophobic tensions are also only natural. This, in our opinion, is one of the most fundamental challenges in tackling and overcoming the xenophobia issue in the northeast.



Manipur is today an ethnic cauldron but one in which the different ethnic groups have not been able to evolve a common identity. Tensions between them have traditionally been determined by competition for the control of resources and land, but in recent times, it has been politics which has given these tensions a new and dangerous dimensions altogether.


In Manipur’s geography was always embedded the potential for a divided population, a condition which is very much its reality today. This Northeastern state of 22,327 sq km constitutes 20,089 sq km mountainous terrain surrounding an oval shaped vallley 2,238 sq km in area located almost accurately in the middle of the state. It is only to be expected that the first major psychological division that the state is stymied by today, coincides with this topographical feature.


There is a paucity of scientific studies on the migration patterns in pre-historical as well as the proto-historical periods of this region, but it is generally believed that the hills were first populated, the valley being initially largely water-logged and marshy. Evidences of a water-logged past of the valley and the gradual drying process are to be seen even today in the continued shrinking and disappearances of many lakes and other forms of wetlands that dot it. The 200 sq km freshwater Loktak Lake is itself, according to experts, in danger of dying up, largely because of heavy silting caused by the many rivers that empty into it from the surrounding mountains.


The Loktak serves as the reservoir of the waters from these rivers and the excess that it cannot hold is drained out of the state to flow into two major trans-national river systems. One of them is the Chindwin which joins the Irrawaddy at Kalewa in Myanmar. The other waterway is an artificial tunnel dug through the hills that flank the Imphal valley in the west, to power a hydro electric power generation project, which ultimately flows into the Barak River which meanders through the Barak valley in Assam onto the adjacent Surma valley in Bangladesh and meets the sea at the Bay of Bengal.


Mythologies of the various ethnic groups living both in the hills as well as the valley somewhat coincide on the belief of migration of population from the hills to settle in the valley. The most popular and touching of these tells of two brothers in their mountain home parting ways. The elder decides to remain in the security of their established home, while the younger and more adventurous opts to look for his fortune in the valley below. The younger valley dweller later came to be the Meiteis and elder who stayed behind are the hill tribes, in later years the Nagas, and Kukis (Naga and Kuki are recent nomenclatures, each tribe was then known by their individual tribe names only).


It is not difficult to imagine that the Meiteis discovered what a blessing the fertile, well irrigated, alluvial river valley proved to be for a farming community. They would have progressively grown more prosperous, opening up an economic gap with their brothers in the hills, thus setting the roots of all the complicated problems of disparity and inequity. This divide was to continually widen in the years ahead, and indeed one of the most daunting challenges before the Manipur administration today is to bridge this hill-valley chasm, and since the hills and valley dwellers have come to acquire different ethnic identities, an ethnic problem as well along this divide. (Fractured Land: Pradip Phanjoubam
IIC/OUP 2006).


Manipur has seen several major ethnic feuds in the recent decades.

  • In the 1990s Kuki and Nagas clashed. Outbreak of ethnic violence began over the control of the Moreh area and spread to the rest of the state. Not only deaths, but huge and permanent displacements of populations of the two communities resulted from it.


  • In May 1993, in what is considered an aberration, Meitei and Meitei Pangals clashed, provoked by a previously unheard militant outfit, resulting in about 100 deaths, mostly of Meitei Pangals. The clashes lasted for just a day or two and then things were back to normal, though the scars took much longer to heal. No permanent forced migration resulted.


  • In 1997 quite to the surprise of many, kindred tribes Kukis and Paites clashed. After the Kuki-Naga clashes a little earlier on, the Kukis who bore the major brunt at the hands of armed Nagas, began spawning armed militant groups and this made the neighbouring Paites insecure, therefore the frictions between the two communities.


  • Meitei-Naga tension soared again in 2001 following NSCN(IM) ceasefire extension troubles “without territorial limits”, a decision which had to be retracted by the then NDA government at the Centre.No permanent migrations resulted, though while the tensions lasted, many Naga families from the valley area moved into the hills.



Mother of all Insurgencies:

It is amazing how an iconic image can influence decisions not just at the individual level, but at community and governmental levels. The advertising world will know better of this power, and indeed they recommend pumping in billion of dollars to the effort of creating such images for the products they sponsor. The makers of these products too willingly spend these astronomical sums, obviously realizing the wonders that these images can do their businesses. Indeed much of the world of advertising is about promoting an illusory world of these iconic images to whet the worldly appetites of consumers and make them simply continue buying compulsively. And it succeeds, that is why the phenomenon not only has remained, but grown. Like it or not, who is anybody to argue with success.


But the iconic image business is not always a success especially when it strays out of the confines of the consumer market. In politics especially it has proven to be a flop far too often. We have a very immediate example in the northeast to demonstrate this. The current philosophy of the counter insurgency policy of the Government of India for instance is built on a single, widely circulated iconic idea: “The Mother of All Insurgency”. Anybody who has been following the affairs of the region close enough will understand who this supposed “mother” is, although many of the numerous insurgencies will disagree if at all they consider this so called “mother” as their “mother”.


It is uncertain where the idea may have had its genesis, but probably it was a phrase coined by some journalist struck by a flash of bright idea to colour up his copy of the day. The image however has struck a chord in popular imagination and has been somewhat immortalized. As we have said, without doubt, it has also influenced profoundly, government policies on insurgency. The understandable approach has been to tackle the mother in the hope all its supposed offsprings will come under control. We also know today how badly this approach has misfired. At this moment, it is practically impossible to say which is the mother and which the child in the complex matrix of northeast insurgencies. Considering the endless complications the approach has led to, all concern would have also realized by now that tackling the “mother” is hardly the key to a final answer to insurgency in the region.


The 1990s in Manipur was very interesting in this regard. The chain reaction in the multiplication of insurgencies amongst the Kukis, to say the least, was phenomenal. It began with the Naga-Kuki clashes that left over a thousand dead and many more destituted and homeless. Unlike the Nagas, who had 50 years of militancy behind them, insurgency amongst the Kukis at the time was nascent and marginal, and if it did have a cognizable presence, it was the KNA in the Moreh area but mostly along the Burmese side of the international border. But the clashes, in which the Kukis bore the major brunt, exposed the Kuki community’s vulnerability and it was this insecurity that became the fertile ground for the spawning of various armed militia amongst the community.


This process was catalysed by the virtual absence of any effective state intervention, or its impotence in instilling any sense of confidence amongst the victimized community. If this was the reason for the sudden growth of Kuki militancy in the mid-1990s, this phenomenon in turn left other smaller kin communities of the Kukis insecure. To resist Kuki hegemony, they began making friends with the adversaries of the Kukis, angering the latter. The bloody fratricidal Kuki-Paite clashes in the Churachandpur district even as the Kuki-Naga feuds subsided will have to be explained as a part of this vicious chain.


Each link of this chain has also now become a separate reality not to be taken for granted at all. But this is just one chain to demonstrate how such a chain works. There are plenty more. The interesting thing is, once formed, no part of a chain is the “mother” to the other parts anymore and they become all the same. There is also no other way than to treat the whole chain as one entity. In the insurgency scenario in Manipur today for instance, it would be unrealistic to have cessation of hostility with one group and expect peace to set in, just as it would be equally unrealistic to ask only one group to disarm while the rest remain armed.

Kuki Naga Conflict:

The most major ethnic clash in recent times has been undoubtedly the one between the Nagas and Kukis that turned the hills of Manipur red during much of he early and middle parts of the 1990s. In the early 1990s, tension between the Nagas and Kukis reached a flashpoint with the United Naga Council serving a quit notice to Kukis settled in “Naga areas” in 1992.


Manipur has nine districts, four in the valley, dominated by the Meiteis and five in the hills, four of which are dominated by the Nagas. The Kukis and other kin tribes dominate in one. The Nagas consider much of the Manipur hills as their traditional homeland and that the Kukis living in these districts were in a way their tenants, hence the UNC quit notice. Persecution of the Kukis began thereafter but it was only in 1993 that the feud broke out in the open. The Kukis being largely migratory on account of their shift cultivation economyare scattered and were hence much more vulnerable. Moreover the Kukis at the time did not have any well organized militia of their own whereas the Nagas did, having run an insurgency for over 50 years then. The results were predictable but the Kukis were the main victims, although in the years to follow, the Kukis too became more organized, and did hit back causing casualties amongst Naga villagers too.


The Kuki-Naga feud has now concluded, but the bitterness remains. There has been a multiplication of militant organizations amongst the Kukis since. Amongst these are the KNF and its factions, KNA, KLA, KRA etc.


It also caused the largest single displacement of population in recent times. Constituency profiles have virtually altered in many cases because of the ethnic cleansing. While some villages have disappeared new ones have come up. The ethnic divide between the two groups of tribal population have also become virtually water-tight with even government servants from either communities remaining away from areas dominated by the rival tribes. Without doubt again, this is the conflict that resulted in the most displacements.


In the other conflicts, if there have been displacements, they were temporary. After the condition of feuding concluded, most of the displaced returned back to their their original homes. In the case of the aftermath of the Kuki-Naga feud however, there were huge population shifts. Many villages were uprooted for good while new ones came up in different districts. A good many of them too joined the (urban migration basically to Imphal) to eke out a living, often not in legally permitted ways.


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