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Partition of Assam and the Northeast, 1947 - Online Partition Museum

Partition of Assam and the Northeast, 1947

Beyond 1947: Unpacking the Forgotten Partitions of Assam and Northeast India

The narratives of partition in India often center around the tumultuous division of Punjab and Bengal in 1947. Yet, nestled in the verdant folds of the Northeast, lies a different story, one of multiple partitions, fractured communities, and enduring anxieties. This piece delves into the oft-forgotten partitions of Assam and Northeast India, shedding light on their complex history and long-lasting legacies.

Rewind: Reshaping Assam (1905-1912)

Prior to the 1947 partition, Assam’s territorial boundaries faced their first redrawing in 1905. Driven by colonial ambitions, the British carved out the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, merging Assam with predominantly Bengali-speaking districts. This sparked widespread protests and civil unrest, ultimately leading to the annulment of the partition in 1912. The scars of this initial division, however, continued to fester, priming the region for future ethnic and linguistic discord.

The Sylhet Sliver and Beyond (1947)

The infamous Radcliffe Line of 1947, which partitioned India and Pakistan, also sliced through Assam, separating the Muslim-majority Sylhet district from the rest of the province. The area of Sylhet was split between East Pakistan and Assam through the Sylhet Referendum in 1947. This triggered mass migration, with Hindus fleeing Sylhet towards mainland Assam and Bengali Muslims moving in the opposite direction. This demographic shift ignited anxieties about cultural and political dominance, setting the stage for decades of social unrest and the rise of the Assam Movement in the late 1970s. 

Internal Delimitations: Fractured Identities and Lost Lands

Beyond Sylhet and Tripura, another, less acknowledged partition unfolded within Assam and the wider Northeast. Colonial-era administrative boundaries, drawn with little regard for ethnic and linguistic realities, became international borders overnight. This fractured traditional ties, disrupted trade routes, and severed ancestral connections for numerous tribal communities like the Khasis, Garos, and Nagas. The scars of this partition continue to reverberate in unresolved boundary disputes and lingering tensions between communities.

The Unyielding Spirit: Resistance Groups, Army Rule, and the Struggle for Autonomy in Assam and Northeast

Intertwined with the narrative of partitions in Assam and Northeast is the story of resistance: a story etched in the defiance of armed groups, the silent resilience of communities, and the enduring quest for self-determination. This tale runs parallel to the implementation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in the region, granting sweeping powers to the military and sparking controversies over human rights violations.

The partitions, particularly the creation of Bangladesh and the anxieties it triggered in Assam, along with decades of perceived neglect and political marginalization, fueled the rise of various armed resistance groups in the region. Some of the prominent groups include:

1. ULFA and the Quest for Sovereignty

The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) emerged in 1979, fueled by anxieties surrounding cultural erosion, economic marginalization, and the influx of Bangladeshi refugees. Their resistance manifested in guerilla warfare tactics, including attacks on security forces, oil installations, and government properties. In 1990, the infamous abduction of four foreign geologists by ULFA brought the group national and international attention, highlighting their demands for an independent “Sovereign Socialist Assam.” While peace talks continue, ULFA’s legacy underscores the complex aspirations for greater autonomy in the region.

2. Naga Nationalism and the NSCN

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was founded in 1952, spearheaded by Angami Zapu Phizo, who envisioned a sovereign Naga homeland encompassing Naga-inhabited areas across India and Myanmar. The NSCN’s resistance primarily involved armed confrontations with the Indian army, particularly during the bloody insurgency of the 1960s-70s. The group’s complex internal dynamics led to several factions, with the NSCN (IM) signing a ceasefire agreement in 1997, leading to a gradual de-escalation of conflict. Despite ongoing challenges, the NSCN’s struggle remains etched in the collective memory of the Naga people, serving as a reminder of their long-held desire for self-determination.

3. PLA and the Fight for a Socialist Manipur

Formed in 1974, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) serves as the armed wing of the Communist Party of Manipur (CPIM). Driven by Marxist ideology and grievances against perceived economic exploitation and political marginalization, the PLA engaged in armed actions against government forces and infrastructure. Their resistance also embraced social activism, focusing on land rights, healthcare, and education for marginalized communities. While the PLA remains active, its focus has shifted to advocating for greater political autonomy and social justice within India.

These groups, along with numerous others, employed armed tactics to confront the perceived injustices faced by their communities. The complex motivations behind their actions ranged from ethnic self-determination to economic grievances and a sense of alienation from the Indian state.

4. Beyond Armed Struggle: Non-Violent Resistance and Cultural Assertion

The narrative of resistance in Assam and Northeast India extends beyond armed groups. Numerous non-violent movements have emerged, championing indigenous rights, environmental protection, and cultural preservation. The Assam Movement (1979-1985) stands as a testament to the power of peaceful protests in demanding the expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and safeguarding Assamese identity. Likewise, the Meghalaya People’s Resistence and Defence Committee (MPRDC) has played a crucial role in opposing destructive uranium mining projects, advocating for sustainable development in the region. These examples highlight the diverse forms of resistance employed by communities in the Northeast, showcasing their unwavering commitment to protecting their land, culture, and way of life.

The Long Shadow of AFSPA

The presence of armed resistance groups led to the imposition of AFSPA in various parts of Northeast India, granting the military extraordinary powers, including the ability to arrest without warrants, shoot to kill in certain situations, and detain suspects for prolonged periods. The implementation of AFSPA has been highly contested, with critics raising concerns about human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, and the militarization of everyday life.

The Malom Massacre: A Stark Example of AFSPA’s Controversies

The Malom massacre of November 2, 2000, serves as a stark reminder of the human cost associated with the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. Ten civilians, including a young woman and a teenager, were shot and killed by the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force with special powers granted under AFSPA.

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peaceful protest against AFSPA in India from cjp.org

The incident occurred at a bus stop in Malom, a town near Imphal, the capital of Manipur. The victims were reportedly mistaken for militants in a case of mistaken identity. This triggered widespread outrage and protests across the state, highlighting concerns about the potential for abuse of power under AFSPA.

Malom Massacre Controversy and Ongoing Investigations

The Malom Massacre became a rallying point for critics of AFSPA, who argued that the act’s provisions granting immunity to security forces for actions taken in “disturbed areas” created an environment of impunity and encouraged human rights violations. In 2017, the Manipur High Court awarded compensation to the families of the victims and ruled that the killings were “fake encounters,” contradicting the security forces’ claims. However, no security personnel have been convicted for the massacre. The Malom massacre continues to cast a long shadow over Manipur and serves as a potent symbol of the ongoing debate surrounding AFSPA. While the act has been amended in recent years to curb some of its excesses, concerns about its potential for abuse and its impact on human rights remain.

The Unflinching Voice: Irom Chanu Sharmila and her 16-Year Hunger Strike

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Irom Chanu Sharmila during her hunger strike from www.smithsonianmag.com

Amidst the anxieties and controversies surrounding AFSPA, Irom Chanu Sharmila, a young Manipuri woman, emerged as a powerful symbol of resistance. Witnessing the Malom massacre in 2000, where ten civilians were shot dead by security forces under AFSPA, Sharmila embarked on a remarkable hunger strike that would span 16 long years. Her unwavering demand? The repeal of AFSPA.

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AFSPA protest sign from maktoobmedia.com

A Beacon of Hope and Change

Sharmila’s hunger strike, sustained solely through nasal and intravenous feeding, transcended her individual struggle. It became a rallying point for countless individuals and communities across India and beyond, drawing attention to the human cost of militarized violence and demanding accountability for alleged abuses of power under AFSPA.

Beyond the Fast: A Legacy of Courage and Persistence

While Sharmila ended her hunger strike in 2016, her legacy continues to inspire. Her unwavering courage and commitment to non-violent resistance shed light on the need for dialogue, social justice, and respect for human rights in Assam and Northeast India.
Sharmila’s story underscores the crucial role of individual voices in challenging oppressive systems. It compels us to continue the dialogue for a future where peace and security are built not on militarization, but on mutual respect and the upholding of fundamental rights.

A Flickering Light: AFSPA’s Reduced Footprint in Assam and Northeast India

For decades, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) cast a long shadow over Assam and Northeast India, its provisions granting sweeping powers to the military fueling anxieties and controversies. However, recent years have witnessed a gradual reduction in AFSPA’s footprint, offering a glimmer of hope for a future with less militarization and greater emphasis on democratic processes.

A Step in the Right Direction

In 2022, following sustained advocacy from civil society groups and public pressure, the government announced the removal of AFSPA from several districts across Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur. This marked a significant shift, shrinking the areas designated as “disturbed areas” where the act remains in force.

Assam: As of January 2024, AFSPA is only applicable in four districts of Assam – Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Sivasagar, and Charaideo. This represents a notable decrease from the earlier coverage of all districts in the state.
Nagaland: Following significant improvements in the security situation, AFSPA was completely withdrawn from Nagaland in December 2022. This decision was met with widespread jubilation by the Naga people, who have long campaigned for the removal of the act.
Manipur: While AFSPA continues to be in effect in some parts of Manipur, the government has progressively reduced its footprint. In 2023, four police station jurisdictions were removed from the act’s purview, signifying a commitment to de-escalation and a stronger reliance on police forces for maintaining law and order.

Cautious Optimism and Unresolved Concerns

The reduction in AFSPA’s territorial reach is a cause for cautious optimism. It reflects a recognition of the improved security situation in the region and a willingness to move away from militarized solutions. However, several challenges remain:
• Uneven Progress: The pace of AFSPA’s withdrawal has been uneven across states. While Nagaland has achieved complete freedom from the act, Assam and Manipur still face its presence, albeit in a smaller capacity.
• Lingering Anxieties: Communities in areas still under AFSPA continue to grapple with anxieties about its provisions, fearing potential abuse of power and infringements on their civil liberties.
• Addressing Root Causes: While reducing AFSPA is a positive step, it’s crucial to address the underlying issues that led to its implementation in the first place. This involves addressing historical grievances, fostering inclusive development, and ensuring social justice for all communities.

Navigating the Path Forward

The journey towards a future without AFSPA in Assam and Northeast India is ongoing. Continued dialogue between the government, civil society groups, and local communities is vital to ensure a smooth transition and address any concerns that may arise. By prioritizing democratic processes, upholding human rights, and fostering an environment of trust, the region can move towards a brighter future where security rests on the foundations of peaceful coexistence and rule of law.

Please note that the situation regarding AFSPA remains dynamic, and we will do our best to keep you updated on the latest developments. This information is current as of January 10, 2024. Please stay informed about ongoing developments regarding AFSPA’s coverage in Assam and Northeast India by bookmarking and revisiting this page.

Concluding thoughts: A Legacy of Unhealed Wounds and the Quest for Identity

Understanding the intricate web of partitions, resistance movements, and the complexities of AFSPA is crucial for engaging with the challenges and aspirations of Assam and Northeast India. Addressing historical grievances, fostering inclusive development, and upholding human rights are vital steps towards reconciliation and building a future where diverse communities can thrive within a democratic India.

The partitions of Assam and Northeast left a complex and multifaceted legacy. The demographic shifts triggered by migration led to anxieties about identity and citizenship, fueling political movements and social unrest. Fragmented communities continue to grapple with the loss of traditional ties and ancestral lands. Yet, amidst the challenges, there are also stories of resilience and adaptation. Cultural groups are rediscovering their shared histories and forging new narratives that transcend imposed boundaries.

Unveiling the Forgotten

It is crucial to remember these forgotten partitions of Assam and Northeast not just as historical footnotes, but as integral chapters in the region’s complex story. By deconstructing the dominant narratives of 1947 and acknowledging the multiplicity of partitions, we gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and aspirations of this vibrant and geographically diverse region. Only then can we move towards a future that embraces its multicultural tapestry and fosters a sense of shared identity, healing the wounds left by the lines drawn in the past.