Assam violence: Why is it risky to form new states in northeast

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The decision to create a separate Telangana, as expectedly, has given an incentive to other sub-national sentiments to assert themselves under the sun. Violence and angry protest have broken out at various corners of the country in the wake of the Telangana decision, including the northeast, where a few lives have also been lost and property ransacked. In northern West Bengal, supporters of separate state like Gorkhaland and Kamtapur have also revived their agitation.

Now, the question is: Is the idea of granting statehood in the northeast is viable, unlike in many states of India? A feeling of deprivation will undoubtedly upset the proponents of separate states in northeast India, but is the ground reality there conducive for separating administrative units?

Assam violence: Why is it risky to form new states in northeast

It is not. Setting up separate states essentially speaks about the relation between central and state forces, which in the case of northeast is not very 'smooth'.

Why northeast is a different situation

The reason is partly the paralysis of the Centre's in dealing with the northeast and partly the complex social structure in that part. The Indian state system finds itself somewhat misfitting in the northeast owing to historical and ethnic reasons and this makes a normal accommodation of the regional aspirations by the Centre an uphill task.

The British didn't interfere there

We have learnt our democratic statecraft from the British but since the latter had chosen not to assert their rule on the northeast and followed a policy of non-interference, the Indian state hasn't learnt to handle issues in the complex region as it does in any other part of the country.

The British hit back whenever there was a disturbance in the region and this approach of non-interference punctuated by occasional punitive action had left the northeast largely 'left alone'. The Indian nationalist movement also didn't do much to improve this arrangement and integrate the northeast with the country more. Neither the resentment was settled and nor were the borders in the region.

Indian state inherited a tough situation after independence

After independence, the Indian state inherited a strategically vulnerable region (bordered by a number of neighbours not known to be very friendly with New Delhi and economic backwardness facilitated by a devastating partition) and since its had no institutional framework to deal with it apart from ad-hocism and military counter-moves, birth of problems was just a matter of time.

The lack of borders between areas inhabited by extremely diverse social groups is perhaps the biggest impediment in the way of settling statehood issues in northeast.

The Indian state focused, as it had done in other regions of the country, to demarcate state units in the region on informal border lines between communities with different cultural traits, and this was more than adequate to keep the ethnicity problem burning.

Demarcating states in northeast is a major risk

For, as soon as the Centre creates a new state to meet the demand of a community/tribe for autonomy, another distinct group, also sharing the same geographical space, will resist the move. And again, the community seeking a territory will also feel its members residing in other parts of the region or country should also get similar accommodation and oppose the presence of other groups in their territory. The situation will inevitable give rise to mutual suspicion and hostility.

We have seen similar situations in Africa where hastily drawn border lines has fuelled ethnic clashes instead of settling the issues of nationhood.

Geographical hostility fuelled by other factors

This hostility, in turn, is fuelled by issues like religion, language, ideology, leadership, land, national security (for northeast is surrounded by international borders) and so on and ultimately, the crisis looks unmanageable. The demands for Gorkhalnd, Bodoland, Kamtapur, Karbi Anglong and several other states in the northeast might have sound sentiments, but it will be a massive gamble on behalf of the Indian state to give a 'go-ahead' signal to any of them.

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