The article that follows is not only a critique of the Indian government’s cynical and short-sighted handling of domestic ethnic and religious issues and its foreign policy shortcomings, but also a warning to Europe, where nationalism, racism and ethnic rivalries are growing dangerously.

by Subir Bhaumik *

The problems faced by the East and Northeast originate partly in  the way the subcontinent was partitioned and partly because much of this sprawling region was never part of any pre-British Empire that flourished from the days of the Mauryas (322-185 BC, ed.), who created India’s first trans-regional Empire. 

That India’s pre-Muslim Empire and the British Empires rose from and were based in the East (Patliputra, Kolkata) lends another facet to the festering Eastern Question, quite akin to Europe where the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later of Communist Yugoslavia left the continent with a festering ethnic minefield and a conflict zone that led to a World War and intensified the Cold War after 1945.

The post-colonial Indian Republic has suffered 75 years of armed separatist insurgency and bloody ethnic massacres in the Northeast since the 1950s. The worry is not with what and why this conflicts happened but why they have persisted and defied resolution. 

The bigger worry is that the present ruling dispensation in Delhi is not only failing to resolve the conflicts that it inherited from the Congress regime but also complicating some of these conflicts by overlaying religious schism on ethnic fissures. The recent conflagration in Manipur is not only a classic example of this trend – and of a Gujarat 2002 (Hindu-Muslim riots at the expense of the latter, seen as victims of a modern-day pogrom, when PM Narendra Damodardas Modi was Head of State and wilfully ignored the events. Ed.) type “State-Takes-Backseat” to allow for a majoritarian solution of a complex ethno-religious discord. 

It is easy to blame the Congress for everything gone wrong in Manipur which PM Modi has done in his much delayed speech in parliament but not possible to forget how the Congress regimes in decade after decade co-opted some of these hardened insurgents into the national mainstream by ruthlessly practicing Kautilya’s ”Sham-Dam-Danda-Bhed” (political reconciliation, monetary inducement, force and split) to take the sting out of the insurgent violence in Northeast.

The Modi regime has only resolved the Bodo imbroglio in Assam but it has failed to make any progress with the Indo-Naga political dialogue despite signing the 2015 Framework accord with the NSCN (The National Socialist Council of Nagalim, a Naga nationalist and separatist group, ed.), an agreement that alluded to the concept of ‘shared sovereignity’ and led Thuingaleng Muivah (general secretary of NSCN ed.) to demand a separate flag and a separate constitution for Nagaland. It is not possible for the Modi-Shah (Amit Shah is the Minister of the Interior, ed) combine to concede that, specially in the post Jammu and Kashmir reorganisation phase where autonomy is a bad word that runs contrary to “ek Nishan, elk Bidhan” (one flag, one polity). 

Abrogation of Art 370 makes perfect sense because it was relic from the Partition on religious lines, a recognition of Muslim-majority Kashmir as a distinct entity which makes no sense after the very principle of religious Partition fell apart during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War which split Pakistan on ethnic lines.  

Which is why it defies reason why India’s current saffron brigade panders to this very failed model of a religious state that Pakistan has turned out to be in all senses and that Bangladesh might turn out to be unless it firmly resists re-Pakistanisation attempted by influential elements infiltrating the Sheikh Hasina Wazed (PM of Bangladesh since 2009, ed.) regime. One would imagine intelligent people learn from somebody else’s mistakes rather than by making them.

The way Biren Singh (Chief Minister of Manipur, ed.) has been allowed to continue in Manipur, despite the promulgation of Art 355 and the largescale handover of police weapons to Meitei riot groups, set a new benchmark in governance failure and vandalisation of state functioning, further exemplified by the stubborn denial of an Unified Command structure to the army and central paramilitary forces, some of whom like the Assam Rifles (central paramilitary force responsible for border-security and counter-insurgency, ed.) have been falsely accused of backing Kuki militants just because they pioneered the Suspension Of Operations (SOO) with them.  

The fake narratives of the saffron brigade and the Meitei chauvinist groups enjoying support of the ruling dispensations in both Delhi and Imphal were blown apart by the horrific video of a war hero’s wife facing gang-rape and much else. But despite the Supreme Court’s observations that “there was no government in Manipur for the months after the riots erupted”: Biren Singh has been allowed to hang on. For those who rile the Congress, please recall how RK Dorendra Singh’s government was brought down by his own Congress PM in the 1990s when it failed to control Naga-Kuki clashes

Manipur’s descent into chaos is worrisome because it will make it impossible to pursue “India’s Act East” overland outreach through such a disturbed state. The free run that Burmese drug lords have managed to secure in Manipur with their local allies like the Itocha cartel (which has backing from powerful ruling politicians) and their links with Chinese gunrunners raises the threat levels to a new high. Failure to resolve the Naga insurgency, India’s first ethnic upsurge, and the festering Meitei insurgency set the stage for a possible upsurge of Kuki insurgency (with huge alienation multiplying in the last three months) which bears dangerous portents in view of neighbouring Myanmar’s descent into civil war.  

The Modi Government has boasted of India’s peacemaking abilities and aspires to play a role in resolving the Ukraine crisis – but it has totally failed to play a meaningful role in the Myanmar peace process expected of a regional power. South Block (PM’s office building, ed.) glorifies “wait and watch” in Myanmar and reposes its faith in the ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ed.), little realising India has squandered its links to actors on all sides of the divide (army, political parties, ethnic militias) that could have helped it play a big role in the restoration of democracy in the Pagoda Nation. Failure to do so will only jeopardise India’s grip on its eastern neighbourhood, specially with tell-tale signs of massive Chinese efforts to build influence in Bangladesh and Nepal.

If the Chinese manage to hijack the Awami League (ruling party in Bangladesh, ed.) which it clearly intends to and manage to keep the Nepali Congress out of power by supporting the current Maoist-Communist alliance, India’s failure to look for an alternative to Bengali PM Hasina within the ambit of the country’s mainstream nationalist opinion, despite the promises of the Shahbagh uprising against Islamist radicalism, and that of failing to keep Sher Bahadur Deuba and Pushpa Kamal Prachanda (Nepal’s Congress and Communist Party leaders, ed.) together must rank as Modi’s most significant failure in neighbourhood diplomacy. If Hasina’s clearance of the controversial power purchase agreement with the Adani group and Modi’s reciprocal gesture in going ahead with the Indian Oil Joint venture with the Beximco group headed by Hasina crony Salman Rahman known to be close to Pakistan is seen as indicators of a new high in bilateral relations, one can safely say Delhi is missing the wood for the trees. The pursuance of a not-so-soft Islamist agenda, evident in Hasina’s “go slow” on a case filed by Barrister Tania Amir challenging Jamaat-e-Islami’s effort to regain recognition as a political party, should not be missed (The J-e-I was founded in British India in 1941 and later split into three separate Islamist movements in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, ed.). 

From Nepal to Bangladesh to Myanmar with the burning Northeast in between, all points to a brewing crisis in the making, a fresh challenge to India’s “Eastern Question”. Self-denial and fake triumphalism may be costly.



* Subir Bhaumik, journalist and author, has been the BBC’s North East India correspondent for many years, a senior editor of Myanmar’s leading media group Mizzima and a contributor to the international news channel Al Jazeera. In India, he writes for a wide range of publications

On the cover photo: Manipur Prime Minister N. Biren Singh (the second on the left) © Ankshuman Baruah/