Traditionally communities in Northeast region of India lived with certain sense of self-sufficiency with some degrees of isolation. This was more pronounced in the mountainous regions, where difficult terrain kept the ethnic communities in isolated pockets. Lack of inter-community organisational engagements and interaction failed to develop a lingua franca for the villages living side by side. The people lived independently and separately with few restricted contacts as well. Diversity per se is not the issue. Trouble lies in the diverse conflicts that have come up in the last few decades. These have emerged not without any substantive reasons.
What was traditionally left to the ethnic communities without interventions by the colonial powers (through the policy of non-intervention) was changed with the birth of independent India. The formation of states to govern different regions and the people in the country led to the creation of larger administrative units. This also led to consolidation of the Northeast as a unit over the years.
Masked by the new idioms of modern institutions, the ethnic communities want land and administrative mechanisms to serve their own community interests. Several autonomy movements came up from 1970’s onwards to carve out new states, Union Territories and Autonomous District Councils. These movements have their stories of success and failure and points of negotiation. Today attempts are being made to initiate division of administrative institutions and citizens’ privileges on ethnic line across the region. This is turning out to be a never-ending story.
Along with autonomy demand, which is more of a soft version of self-rule, the region has also seen mushrooming of identity assertions. While one may see ethnic assertions as positive search for subjecthood, the inter-ethnic conflicts take us towards a different understanding. Often these conflicts arise out of control over land: each of the communities requires not only to claim as its own but also to have governing and administrative mechanism in operation. While larger communities take to consolidating their hegemonic presence in the region, the smaller communities are constantly in alliance and in the process of re-negotiating their identities. While these renegotiations/reconfigurations may be towards larger process of political formations, at few places there are instances of communities succumbing to pressure abandoning their traditional identities. This may be seen as a product of constant tussle between tradition and modernity. Modern forms of political institutions and their compulsions have pushed the ethnic communities to negotiate between traditional values and ways of life on the one hand and democratic politics and individual aspirations on the other. These are some intriguing cobweb of political practices clearly visible now and may linger on till a holistic vision of the region is being carved out of collective anxiety.