Echoes of Kashmiri Disempowerment Are Being Felt in the Northeast

The BJP’s majoritarian politics, its insistence on uniformity and an imaginary single cultural construct are creating insecurities. 

The horrific scenes out of Manipur this past month confirm what is well established: diversity, while something many of us cherish, is incredibly hard to manage. Reconciling different perspectives is complex when people seek refuge in their identities, rushing to safe harbour when the ‘others’ look menacing, and life feels unsettling and unsettled. With more than 100 people killed and thousands displaced, Manipur’s cataclysm requires careful consideration. This comes across clearly in a series of interviews for The Wire by veteran journalist Karan Thapar. In these engaging, at times confrontational discussions with Meitei, Kuki and Naga guests, there emerges a complex tapestry of Manipur and Northeast India. But one thing specifically caught my attention. In some of the interviews, there were references to Article 370 that merit attention, as we seek answers for a more dignified and peaceful life in Manipur, in Kashmir and in the rest of the country.

It should not surprise anyone that Jammu and Kashmir was not the only state with special provisions in the Indian constitution. To accommodate the aspirations of people in various parts of the country, the constitution was amended several times. Specifically, Article 371A applies to Nagaland and stipulates (among other things) that “no Act of Parliament in respect of— ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides.” In 1971, Article 371C provided special safeguards for the Hill Areas of Manipur. In 1986, as part of the Mizo Accord, Article 371G protected land ownership rights in Mizoram. Many other states have similar special accommodations.

The parallels with J&K

Beyond these provisions is the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system, a colonial holdover travel document that Indian citizens from other regions must possess when venturing into parts of the Northeast. Independent India retained the ILP as protection for indigenous tribes in the Northeast. This contrasts with J&K, where citizens from other parts could visit freely. However, issues of protection of identity and land, which underpin protections for states in the Northeast are similar to those in J&K, especially in Kashmir.

The lack of sufficient land from a Meitei perspective or the sense of Kuki persecution is front and centre of the current conflagration. However, all this is part of a broader and more complex problem of identity, demography, opportunity, migration, etc., that leads to fear and loathing of the ‘other’. To the extent that people in Manipur are fearful of losing their lands and identity, Thapar’s guests seemed to be pointing to Jammu and Kashmir as an example of what must not happen. An exchange between the Naga statesman Niketu Iralu and Thapar was instructive. 

As a follow-up to an earlier question, Thapar asked, “It’s not just the Kuki and the Meitei but all north-eastern states cherish their unique identity, they wish to preserve and protect it. This is precisely what Article 371A is created to do. But after the Modi government abrogated Article 370, and despite the fact that the Modi government has repeatedly said that it won’t do anything similar with 371, are there fears and question marks in the minds of the people of the Northeast? Is a trust deficit emerging between the Northeast and New Delhi as a result?”

Iralu’s response was emphatic and revealing. He said, “Definitely, really, I am sorry to say, what happened in Kashmir, we said well that is not worthy of India. There is a strong element of vengeance that is too disgraceful, too small, too tragic for India.” He went on to say, “If they are going to do this kind of thing to solve problems, will they do something like this to solve what they think is the problem here?” He added: “That is our fear and that is our despair, because we are so small.”

When Thapar brought up Article 370 with former Manipur assembly speaker Hemochandra Singh, the worries over the unique identity of communities in the Northeast came up along with the region’s sensitive geopolitical context. In a conversation with the leader of Meitei Leepun Pramot Singh, the plight of Kashmiri Pandits came up as a way of sounding the alarm for protecting Hindus in Manipur. The majority Meitei community is overwhelmingly Hindu and the Pandit exodus from Kashmir helps craft a narrative to consolidate Meitei identity.

That J&K’s special status was, to my mind, unconstitutionally snatched, or that the state was divided and then demoted to union territory status reflects what Niketu Iralu characterised as vengeance. It is a miserable thing to be so small that a larger group can do whatever it pleases with you. That the Nagas or others fear the fate of Kashmiris because of “how small” they are is strangely reassuring. After all, misery loves company. But, more importantly, it is also an opportunity to reassess how we negotiate the tricky terrain of identity, especially as it pertains to small or marginalized communities.

Perhaps Iralu is right when he says that Indian democracy “cannot deal with it”, referring to the aspirations of the Nagas or other small communities. But perhaps with time, as Indian democracy matures, we will be better at accommodating each other’s dreams and aspirations. This is not to say India has not attempted such accommodation in the past. Articles 370 and 371 are examples of that. However, the BJP’s majoritarian politics, its insistence on uniformity, and an imaginary single cultural construct are creating insecurity. For India to mature as a vibrant and modern social democracy, there must be respect for the aspirations of those in the minority – whether religious, ethnic, linguistic or something else. The founders of independent India understood that. That is a legacy worth protecting.

Salman Soz is an economist, author, and deputy chairman of the All India Professionals’ Congress. Views are personal.