Political Union of North-Eastern India

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Soon after India’s independence, some of the Christian missionaries and other foreigners started promoting sentiment in favour of separate and independent states in north-eastern India. The virtual absence of any political or cultural contact of the tribals in the North-East with the political life of the rest of India was also a striking difference. The struggle for independence had little impact among the tribals of the North-East. To quote Jawaharlal Nehru: ‘the essence of our struggle for freedom was the unleashing of a liberating force in India. This force did not even affect the frontier people in one of the most important tribal areas.’ Again: ‘thus, they never experienced a sensation of being in a country called India and they were hardly influenced by the struggle for freedom or other movements in India. Their chief experience of outsiders was that of British officers and Christian missionaries who generally tried to make them anti-Indian.’

The tribal policy of the Government of India, inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru was therefore even more relevant to the tribal people of the North-East. ‘All this North-East border area deserves our special attention,’ Nehru said in October 1952, ‘not only the governments, but of the people of India. Our contacts with them will do us good and will do them good also. They add to the strength, variety and cultural richness of India.’

A reflection of this policy was in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which applied only to the tribal areas of Assam. The Sixth Schedule offered a fair degree of self-government to the tribal people by providing for autonomous districts and the creation of district and regional councils, which would exercise some of the legislative and judicial functions within the overall jurisdiction of the Assam legislature and the parliament. The objective of the Sixth Schedule was to enable tribals to live according to their own ways. The Government of India also expressed its willingness to further amend the constitutional provisions relating to the tribal people if it was found necessary to do so with a view to promote further autonomy. However, this did not mean, Nehru clarified that the government would countenance secession from India or independence by any area or region, or would tolerate violence in the promotion of any demands.

Nehru’s and Verrier Elwin’s policies were implemented best of all in the North-East Frontier Agency or NEFA, which was created in 1948 out of the border areas of Assam. NEFA was established as a Union Territory outside the jurisdiction of Assam and placed under a special administration. From the beginning, the administration was manned by a special cadre of officers who were asked to implement specially designed developmental policies without disturbing the social and cultural pattern of the life of the people. As a British anthropologist who spent nearly all his life studying the tribal people and their condition wrote in 1967, ‘A measure of isolation combined with a sympathetic and imaginative policy of a progressive administration has here created a situation unparalleled in other parts of India.’

NEFA was named Arunachal Pradesh and granted the status of a separate state in 1987, While NEFA was developing comfortably, and in harmony with the rest of the country, problems developed in the other tribal areas, which were part of Assam administratively. The problems arose because the hill tribes of Assam had no cultural affinity with the Assamese and Bengali residents of the plains. The tribals were afraid of losing their identities and being assimilated by what was, with some justification, seen to be a policy of Assamization.

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