The strategic importance of the North Eastern states of India could not be disputed during the long stretch of colonial rule in India. Unifying the North East into British India was of absolute political necessity, concerning the relations with what was then known as Burma. The physical geography of North Eastern India, especially states like Assam, is mountainous. The presence of a plethora of tribal groups including the Miris, Mikirs, Lushai, Jaintia and Khamptis made the task of colonial administration very tricky in these spaces of both geographical and political upheavals. The margins of linguistic diversity and cultural practices in this region renders it an exciting place for any form of anthropological excavation. It is still considered a “miniature India,” marking the presence of such diverse ethnic groups. Ethnicity has played a major role in the politics of Assam since colonial times. Therefore, in order to make sense of the post-colonial developments in Assam, one needs to contextualize its colonial roots first. The nature of militarization, the rise of insurgent groups demanding secession, and frequent violent clashes between ethnic groups that we witness now in Assam in the 21st century, all have roots set in its colonial legacy.
The rationale of colonial interest in Assam was purely monetary in nature. The colonization of Assam’s tea estates was the beginning of the larger scheme of division and exploitation. The language policy in the valley was suppressive, making the Bengali community more dominant compared to the “Assamese” in language training. The creation of a new top-down hierarchy of Bengali officials made the landscape of Assam more divided, marking the onset of both social and economic exploitation. One of the most important waves of migration, during the colonial years, was the migration of peasants from East Bengal. This also marked demographic changes in the sub-region, provoking public pressure. The “Line System” was conceived in 1916 in response to these demographic changes in Assam, which made the Assamese-speaking population more susceptible to “otherized” communities. The Line System was an administrative decision of drawing a line between the tribal tracts in the hilly areas and the general districts of Assam. This exercise of boundary drawing set a limit to district jurisdiction and started defining areas of autonomy and areas of control. The inception of drawing the Inner Line can be narrowed down to the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873. The drawing of administrative lines bifurcated the supposedly “hill tracts” and “plain areas”. The British interest in administering these spaces was twofold. Firstly, for revenue-generating concerns and secondly, the political significance of governing the North East. British interest in tea plantations, and surveying of land for this purpose, forced them to arrive at conflicting standoffs with hill tribes. Under these contexts, the boundaries were drawn to administratively focus on plain areas and keep the hill tracts under autonomy. This colonial mindset precipitated the hardened bifurcation between the hills and the plains.
The larger British political interest in the North Eastern Frontier grew more concrete with French involvement in Burma in the 1890s. And subsequently, the rise of China in South East Tibet. These concerns forced the British to spearhead the “line system” even further, with the creation of buffer states. The politics of boundary-making and autonomy around the hill tracts created consolidated cultural identities and a sense of alienation of the hill tribes in post-colonial India as well. The construction of categories like excluded areas, and backward tracts became a framework of governance even after Independence where identities had grown political wings. The neglect of plain tribes like the Bodo Kacharis and their conflict with the umbrella identity of “Assamese” in post-colonial India, was a breeding ground for the streaks of ethnic violence one witnesses in this region.
Independent Assam was built on the colonial understanding of divisive institutionalism. The constitutional protection of autonomy under the Sixth Schedule was granted to states like Assam, to maintain their own autonomous district councils. This gave considerable autonomy to the hills and frontier tribes of Assam. But the alienation of the plains tribes like the Bodo Kacharis, and their general political neglect, made it a breeding ground for future insurgencies. The very division of hills and plains was a colonial construct, which had little significance in contemporary Assamese Politics. The creation of consolidated racial identities, along with political under-representation—created a cocktail strong enough to spit ethnic fires for decades to come.
Currently, Assam, and North Eastern India more generally, are dominated by large insurgent groups like the Bodoland Liberation Tiger—often clashing with other ethnic groups. These clashes were perpetuated by a series of migrations from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh in the 1970s and 1980s. This influx of “other”, “foreign”, and “alien” immigrants into the plains of Assam, further inflamed the already delicate situation. With the politicization of “Muslim” immigrants, the conflict soon took on a religious aspect within the wider political context of the 1990s. Ethnic cleansing in villages of the Kamrup District in July 2012 exemplifies the dark side of ethnic strife between Bodos and Bengali Muslims in Assam. Last year on 26th July, we witnessed clashes with the Assam and Mizoram Police forces as well. These examples are important as they draw attention to the history of such inter-state boundary related disputes, which have a colonial legacy. The colonial tendency to draw lines for administrative reasons and revenue sharing concerns has planted infinite seeds of racial alienation. The creation of institutions of autonomy in post-colonial India has ultimately caused more damage than repair.
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