POLITICS AND POLITICAL ASPIRATIONS AMONG THE NORTH EAST TRIBES SINCE 1947
Written by Dr. H. Thangtungnung
When the British departure from India including the North East was imminent on the eve of Indian independence, political feelings ran high among the North East people, especially among the Hill tribes like the Khasi and Jaintia, Garos, Nagas, Lusheis (Mizos), etc whether to opt for independence or to remain with India and still more to merge with either Pakistan (Bangladesh) or Burma. Some British officers encouraged and influenced a few tribal leaders to choose a separate Protectorate Scheme under the British Colony for the Hill Districts of Assam including Manipur which would be known as Crown Colony. The British mooted this plan so as to perpetuate their rule as well as to protect the educationally and economically backward tribals from future annihilation of the more advanced Indians who are the majority. But as some tribal leaders like JJM Nichols Roy had been convinced by the Indian National leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru to opt for India, all the other alternatives were thwarted by the time of Independence. It soon affected the political scene of the region and discontentment immediately aroused among many Hill tribes manifested in the form of political demands like sovereignty, full autonomy and a separate statehood. The Nagas under the Nagas National Council (NNC), the Mizos under the Mizo National Front (MNF), Kukis under the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) are such fine examples which still remain unresolved with the exception of the Mizo issue. Tribal issues need to be addressed sincerely by taking into account the historical background of their numerous grievances.
North East India consists of eight state including Sikkim. It was under the British colonial rule like the rest of India until 1947. It was broadly known as Assam though princely states of Manipur and Tripura existed separately. Hill Districts like the Khasi & Jaintia Hills, Garo Hills, Lushai Hills, Naga Hills and Cachar Hills fell within Assam Administration. Adjacent to Manipur and the Lushai Hills is the Chin Hills in Burma while the Khasi and Jaintia Hills is linked to the Sylhet region of present day Bangladesh.
On the eve of India independence, the North east tribes like the Khasi, Jaintia, Garos, Nagas and the Lushais (Mizos) were left with political alternatives to choose whether to remain with India, or to exist as a separate sovereign state as before or to opt for Pakistan and Burma or otherwise. Therefore diverse political feelings aroused among the people of North East India especially among the Hill tribes.
The first move was to constitute a Protectorate known as “North Eastern Frontier Protectorate” to include Khasi and Jaintia Hills, the other Hill Areas of Assam, Manipur and Trans-Frontier Tracts up to Burma. It will be a Crown Colony to have direct links with Britain. This scheme was secretly mooted by certain officials of the Assam Government with the support of many high profile leaders of Khasi and Jaintia Hills, Lushai Hills, etc. In the opinion of a number of Hill leaders, the Whites devil will be somewhat better to rule over them than the brown or black devil. But the scheme was totally opposed by Nichols Roy, a high profile leader from the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, and with the support of Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian National Congress, it was nipped in the bud and quickly abandoned.
The second move was to stay within the Indian Union. J.J.M. Nichols Roy and the Mizo Union from the Lushai Hills were in favour of this choice when the fate of the North East tribes was undecided by the Britain Government on what course they would be left after leaving the Country. R. Vanlawma, a first rate politician and founder Secretary of the Mizo Union from the Lushai Hills was in support of this view provided that the Chin Hills Regulation, 1896 and Bengal Eastern Frontier Act, 1873 were to be retained by the Indian Union. But he subsequently changed his position in favour of Independence which probably caused him his post in the Mizo Union.
The third option for the Khasi and Jaintia Hills was to merge with East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. This was quite a desirable option because the territory was close to the Sylhet and Mymensingh region of Pakistan. But this was deathly opposed by Nichols Roy and some other prominent leaders including those from the Indian National Congress (INC) under Jawaharlal Nehru and it could not be materialised.
The third option for the Lushai people was to merge the Lushai Hills with that of the Union of Burma due to the fact that it shared a common boundary with the latter and in both sides lived the Lushai, Chin and Kuki tribes who are one and the same group of people. People from the Chin Hills and Lushai Hills including South Manipur Hills have shared common culture, traditions and languages through the ages and to part with their brethren Mizos living on the other side was something which many Mizos could not easily relent to. The Union of Burma was in the meantime open to the Hill tribes up to the extent of granting them sovereignty after ten years if they so desire as was manifested in the Panglong Agreement. This move was raised by the United Mizo Freedom Organisation (UMFO) under the leadership of Lal Biak Thanga.
The other opinion (in the Lushai and Naga Hills) was to remain independence as it was in the pre-British period and not to remain under India, Pakistan or Burma because the Mizos or Nagas were already fit enough to govern themselves. The Mizos asserted that they had been politically trained under the British Government within almost sixty years of its Colonial rule. Similarly the Nagas raised the same voice.
On these political backdrops, the Muslim League conceived of a master plan to include Bengal, Cachar, Khasi and Jaintia Hills and Goalpara in the newly created Pakistan. There was a very strong move on the part of the League to persuade the Hill people to opt for Pakistan. However, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Rev. Nichols Roy thwarted this plan and the hill areas remained part of India in 1947.
The Cabinet Mission Plan had divided the Indian Provinces into three categories or groups—1. Group A: Madras, Bombay, United Province, Bihar, Central Province, Orissa. 2. Group B: Punjab, North West Frontier Province, Sind and Baluchistan, 3. Group C: Bengal and Assam. In Group B and C, the majority of the population was Muslims and when Bengal and Assam were grouped together, it was likely that the whole areas including the Assam Hill Districts would fall into Pakistan. In a private meeting with R. Vanlawma from the Lushai Hill District, the Assam Chief Minister, Bordoloi had confided his disagreement of pooling Bengal and Assam together. He further stated that he would be leaving for Delhi to oppose the move hoping that the Hill people would support him in voicing against such grouping without their consent. Bordoloi was of the opinion that grouping Assam with Bengal would obviously imply that Assam would go to Pakistan along with Bengal and if Assam is included in the newly created Pakistan, it would also definitely include all the Assam Hill Districts including the Lushai (Mizo) Hills.
In his memorandum submitted to the British Parliamentary delegation on 29th January, 1946, J.J.M Nichols Roy expressed his earnest wish to stay with India after the British leave the country. As a representative of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, he gave his opinion to the delegation stating why they should remain with India. He also openly expressed his disagreement with the proposed Protectorate Crown Colony in his memorandum which was actually sent by post on 30th January as the intended visit of the delegation to Shillong on the 29th of January was cancelled. He pointed out many oppressive and unjust rules of the British officers especially the administrative styles of the Political Officers in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills.
Whatever may be the case, Nichols Roy and his family was always the active supporters of the INC and in addition, had personal ties with Nationalist leaders like J. Nehru. This close relationship naturally led him to opt for India. He was also obviously under the political or personal influence of Nehru. Similarly, the newly formed Mizo Union chose to join the Dominion of India mainly because Mizo independence as well as Crown Colony would only mean the perpetuation of chiefship. The Mizo Union had always been from its very inception against the existence of chiefship and wanted to see its departure. It decided to even boycott the “District Conference’ called by the Superintendent at its first general assembly in September 1946. It chose to join India with the right to review the merger after ten years.
The Mizo Union seems to make the right decision but it failed within a short time when the Mizo National Front (MNF) under Laldenga fought for Mizo independence since 1966. Even before the outbreak of the upheaval, the demand for independence had been clearly affirmed through a memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister of India by the MNF in 1965. The turmoil could end only after the signing of peace accord between the two sides in 1976. The same situation happened in other Northeast states. The Naga issue is still unresolved. The Nagas had been fighting for sovereign statehood soon after Indian Independence. The indigenous tribes in Tripura are losing their land, survival, status and almost everything. The Hill districts of Manipur are after autonomy. The tribals in Manipur always alleged the state government its failure to protect tribal rights and dignity while lack of development and equal treatment are the long drawn issues in the once princely state bordering Myanmar. The same grievances have been raised everywhere in the North East states where tribals significantly remain as a minority group.
The Mizo Union had forgotten that the Protectorate Scheme was advocated by some British Political and Military Officers, Administrators and missionaries who dearly loved the land and the people. Their rule would not have been opposed as it was in 1966 and after but only due to Indian independence. It had all along been appreciated except at the initial stage when the Lushai chiefs raised the banner of revolts between 1891 and 1895. After this, proper administration was restored and Christianity was introduced which released them from their backwardness through modern education and way of life. Those Western missionaries who served among them worked with zeal and affection which the Mizo masses deeply appreciated. On the contrary, the Mizo Union formed by the emerging middle class, toed a different line merely due to its antagonism against the institution of the aged old chieftaincy. Many Mizos started to regret this alteration.
Had the wish of such British elements been fulfilled in the form of Protectorate of Assam Province or almost the whole North East had been formed a separate sovereign state, there might not have been so much disturbances and clamour for autonomy and status as of today. The farsightedness and wisdom of our visionary leaders at that point of time have failed us in one way or another today.
Regarding the Naga Hills, the Nagas under the Naga National Council (NNC) were at first undecided regarding their future political position when Indian independence was approaching. But soon the NNC was apparently convinced to join India with the promise of granting enormous autonomy. NNC passed a resolution in June 1946 at Wokha demanding autonomy within Assam and opposing both the Crown Colony and ‘Grouping’. Gopinath Bordoloi, the Congress Premier of Assam visited the district in November 1946 and Sir Andrew Clow, the Governor of Assam early in 1947. Both the two advised the Nagas that their future lay with India and with Assam. Sir Akbar Hydari, the next Governor of Assam visited the Naga Hills again. The result was the nine-point ‘Hydari Agreements’ which recognized the traditional rights, land and natural resources of the Nagas, which could not be alienated without the consent of the Council. Accordingly, the Nagas would have power over land revenue, house tax and other taxes. In return the Nagas would remain with India provided that the agreement could be subjected to review at the expiry of ten years. However, this point of agreement remains a permanent discord between the NNC and the Government of India as well as Assam till today.
With the ascendency of A.Z. Phizo in Naga politics, the NNC under his leadership overtly demanded full independence from India since July, 1947. Phizo led a deputation to Delhi with the ultimatum that the Nagas would declare independence after 14th August, 1947. Phizo actually declared the Naga independence on 15th August, 1947. Since then, Naga politics remains in turmoil perhaps due to the political blunder committed by the NNC under its first Secretary, Imti Aliba Ao which was just before Phizo’s ascendency in the Naga politics. The NNC should not have signed the ‘Hydari Agreements’ if it would immediately demand self determination later on. There was disagreement on the interpretation of this Agreement in the sense that the NNC claimed the right to secede from India after the lapse of ten years as per the terms which the Government interpreted the agreement as only giving the Nagas the right to revision of the administrative pattern. After a meeting with Nehru on this regard, Aliba warned the Government of India that the Nagas would form their own independent government if the NNC’s view on the Nine-Points agreement was not incorporated within a month. However, he soon retired from politics and after his retirement, NNC under Phizo resolutely rejected the government interpretation of the Agreement, and the real foundation for Naga sovereignty demand started from this time.
In the plains of Assam, the equivalent tone was addressed by various sections like the Asom Jatiya Mahasobha (Assam National Conference). Its Kamrup district branch suggested on 1st January 1948 that Assam should come out of the Indian Union to become an independent state. On 3rd January, the Mahasobha conveyed full support to the Naga stand for self-determination to the President of the NNC. On 19th April 1948, The Assam Tribune editorial stated that Assam does not want unity. The transfer of four thanas of Dhubri Subdivision who were Bengalis to Pakistan had been suggested earlier on 17th July. Similar cases came to be experienced here and there even after independence, like the demand for a united hill state or unification of the same group of people segmented into different geographical areas.
Soon after independence, the Chin-Kuki tribes of Manipur were yearning for re-unification of the Chin tribes of India, Burma and Bangladesh. The Paite National Council (PNC) submitted a memorandum for this purpose way back in 1960 to the Prime Minister of India. Similarly, a declaration and Charter of Agreement on Zo Re-unification was adopted on the 21st May 1988 at Champhai, Mizoram with the initiative of the Zo Reunification Organisation (ZORO). A memorandum was submitted to the United Nations on 20th may 1995 for reunification of the Zo people of India, Burma and Bangladesh. The Zomi National Council (ZNC) which was established in 1976 submitted a memorandum for the same in 1983. The Kukis of Manipur, Nagaland and Burma clamour for a Kuki state, mainly under the aegis of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO). A Kuki State Demand Committee, Manipur (KSDCM) has been formed to pursue and achieve this demand.
Such political demands are rampant in the North East which was totally absent throughout the British regime. Was the Government of India snatching away their lands and forcibly occupying them without caring for their welfare and progress in the subsequent stage? Or were tribal rights neglected and relegated and their land and resources were not well protected as it should be as per the Indian Constitution? The Meitei extremists claim that Manipur was made Part C State within the Indian Union without the consent of the Manipuri people. According to this claim, the Manipur Maharaja, Bodhachandra was forced to sign the instrument of Accession on 2nd September 1949. Consequently, the princely state of Manipur was merged to the Indian Union on 15th October, the same year. This standpoint led to the demand for a sovereign state in Manipur especially since the 1970’s. It was likely that the British Colonial rulers had anticipated such a divisive nature once they leave the region and therefore tried to chalk out a different scheme like Crown Colony or separate existence for the North East. They held the view that since most of the Assam Hill districts were still very backward and were virtually placed within ‘excluded’ and ‘partially excluded’ areas as a result, the Hill people would not be able to catch up with the national mainstream if they were left to stay with India. They were also of the opinion that these backward areas of Assam could be merged into a separate administration outside India, Burma and Bangladesh so that they would become politically advanced within a short time under their extended regime.
The Crown Colony system originated with the idea of N.E Parry, the Superintendent of the Lushai Hills which was incorporated in the Coupland Plan. Parry envisaged that the Hills or backward areas should be included in the proposed scheme with the object of safeguarding their future existence because they still remained backward. Parry was of the opinion that the tribals were not fit to govern themselves. Though some form of education existed among the tribals, it was superficial and unstable. They had no knowledge of abstract political ideas and pursuit without any understanding. He further pointed out that industrially the Hills like the Lushai District had no future. Transport system was limited and costly.
According to what Parry had observed, the tribals might still be very backward to govern themselves during independence period. As he observed, it could be better that the British administer them for some more time than granting them independence status. As for joining Pakistan or Burma, it would not be the best option either, taking into account the political and administrative conditions of the two countries right after that till today. The decisive choice made to join India was not a wrong one, but as of now, what Nichols Roy had proudly stated came to be belied. He had claimed that the Khasi and Jaintia Hills ruled ‘ourselves’ even before the British advent and had ‘our own political institutions’ through the Syiems and therefore, ‘we were never afraid of our neighbours’. But now, the Khasis and the Jaintias are afraid of the neighbouring Assamese, Bengalis and Nepalese, who entered in large number in the state since independence. The locals fear that they would be soon outnumbered. One more thing that they tackled as a long pending issue is the Bangladeshi immigrants.
Secondly, Nichols Roy had argued that the district advanced in education greatly and narrated lists of top Khasi personalities under the Government of India. However, the present fear is loss of educational seats and post vacancies by the locals without any reservation. While I was in NEHU during 2002-2004, the Khasi Students Union (KSU) imposed general strike for days throughout the State for post reservation for local tribals in top institutions like North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). Such a reservation is felt necessary because the non-locals normally excelled them.
Roy has stated that the District of Khasi and Jaintia Hills has a population of about 3 lakhs and the non-Khasis are only about 25, 000 who mostly live in the capital town Shillong. But today the non-locals are everywhere and overpopulated. Their growth could not be contained even by the Government. It has become a mess to deal with in the present day Meghalaya state.
With such a number of crisis face by the North East states today especially in the hill areas, one needs to ponder with an inquisitive mind how far things would have been if the North East people had chosen the British Crown Colony or the whole North East remaining a separate sovereign state. It might be the better or worse depends not only on one individual understanding of political history and his interpretations but also of his visualization of the past to the present based on historical facts and knowledge. Whatever the case may be, history could have been different under the Protectorate or Crown Colony system. It could neither be concluded nor justified or rejected what the present situations could have been if the Assam Hill districts remained independence separately or united as well. But atleast the numerous issues of tribal rights and dignity as well as unending grievances under the Union of India concerning political autonomy would have been possibly averted.
It must be concluded that the present political aspirations, issues and demands of North East tribes like the Nagas, Kukis, Cacharis, etc have been a fundamental one which have their long historical background right from the independence period. Though, the Mizo issue had been resolved by granting them a Union Territory status in 1972 and then a statehood of Mizoram in 1987, still there are more long pending issues and problems which need to be dealt with awaiting Indian future politics. Tribal rights and dignity as well as their constitutional safeguard needs to be maintained by granting greater autonomy for tribal areas. In order to promote and protect such self existence for the tribals, the plight of the tribals most importantly who does not have any territorial autonomy or political status to safeguard themselves needs to be addressed by the state as well as central government. Otherwise, tribal problems in the North East could not be easily resolved especially without taking into account the historical aspects of their political grievances.
This article has been published in Phaitong Gospel Centenary (1914-2014) Souvenir, 2014 and partly in Siamsin Thugousiah V, SSPP JHQ Shillong Golden Jubilee Souvenir, 2013 with the title, “Politics and Political Aspirations in North East India- Past and Present.
Notes & References:
Kyndiah, P. R: Rev. J.J.M. Nichols Roy, Architect of District Council Autonomy, Sanchar Publishing House, New Delhi, 1993, p. 2.
Ibid., p 3.
Vanthuama, H.: Mizoram Politics Chanchin (1952 Hmalam), Ms. Vanlalmawii Publication, Aizawl, 2001, p. 35.
Chaube, S. K.: Hill Politics in Northeast India, Orient Longman, Patna, 1999, p. 177. Lal Biak Thanga, the first MA of the Mizo District founded the United Mizo Freedom Organisation on 20th July, 1947.
Kyndiah: op. cit., p. 4.
Vanthuama: op. cit., p. 34.
Memorandum to the Chairman, British Parliamentary Delegation, 29th January, 1946, Shillong from J.J.M Nichols Roy, MLA.
Chaube: op. cit., p. 175.
Proceedings of A Meeting of the Accredited Leaders, Lushai Hills Held at Aijal on 14th August 1947, signed by L.L Peters, Superintendent, Lushai Hills, forwarded by Sainghinga, Assistant to Superintendent, Lushai Hills.
Memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister of India by the Mizo National Front General Headquarters: Aizawl, Mizoram on the 30th October, 1965.
Chaube, op. cit., p. 77.
Ibid., pp. 157-58.
Phizo became the NNC President in November 1949, becoming a political idol by 1951 with his campaign for a plebiscite and boycott of the Government of India. His militancy started in 1953.
Chaube: op. cit., pp. 120-21.
PNC is presently called PTC (Paite Tribe Council), a constituent body of the recently formed Zomi Council by the various Zo (previously known as Chin or Kuki) tribes.
Memorandum Submitted by the Paite National Council for Reunification of the Chins of India, Burma and Pakistan under one Country to the Prime Minister of India, New Delhi- 30th May 1960, See Khup Za Gou: Zo Chronicles, Mittal, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 161-68.
Declaration and Charter of Agreement on Zo Re-Unification, 21st May, 1988, Champhai Convention, published by Zo Re-Unification Organisation (ZORO) Headquarters, Aizawl, Mizoram, 1996, pp. 14-16.
Memorandum Submitted to the United Nations by the Zo Re-Unification Organisation (ZORO), dated Aizawl, May 20, 1995.
Memorandum to Mrs. Indira Gandhi Submitted to the Prime Minister of India by the Zomi National Congress demanding for the Creation of Union Territory for the Hill People of Manipur Specially for the Backward Areas Bordering Indo-Burma under the Provision of the Constitution of India, 4th Dec. 1983.
Manipur was merged with Indian Union on 15th October, 1949.
Parry had previously suggested that the Hills of Assam and Burma should be kept under one administrative unit. See Chaube: op. cit., p. 76.
Venkata Rao, V.: A Century of Tribal Politics in North East India 1874-1974, S. Chand & Company, New Delhi, p. 69.
The Syiems are the Khasi and Jaintia chiefs.
In his Memorandum to the British Parliamentary Delegation, 29th January 1946.
As it was until Januray 1946.