Forced Migration, immigration, Racism And Xenophobia In North-East India

Literally, all the four key words in the title of the MCRG’s third winter course on forced migration – forced migration, immigration, racism and Xenophobia are either correlated or synonymous. The first two relates with movement of people owing to various factors in which racism is one of most important one. Racism induced people to flee their original or habitual place of settlement within or across the border thereby creating fear (xenophobia) amongst those receiving the displaced people.

The concern is growing over issue of displacement throughout the world. Several millions of people in every nooks and corners around the globe have been uprooted either by conflict, human rights violations, natural disasters and development projects which forced these uprooted people to take refuge within or across the borders. Taking refuge within borders of a particular country are termed Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and those across the borders – Refugees.

To begin with it will be worthwhile to define who the displaced persons are and the difference thereof between the IDPs and the refugees. There has been no internationally agreed upon definition of who an internally displaced persons are, yet, the United Nation’s current working definition holds internally displaced persons as those who have been forced to flee their homes suddenly in unexpectedly large numbers, as a results of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights and natural or manmade disasters but continue to reside within the territory of their own country. This definition however is considered inappropriate and the IDPs have been aptly defined as persons or groups of persons who have been or are being forced to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residences as a result of armed conflict, internal strife and systematic violation of human rights as well as natural or man-made disasters involving one or more of these elements, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized borders.

There are currently 25 million internally displaced persons uprooted by conflict and human rights violations worldwide. More millions of people have been uprooted either by natural disasters and development projects. Internal displacement is one of the more pressing humanitarian, human rights and security problems confronting the international community. Unlike refugees who cross national borders and benefited from an establish system of international protection and assistance, those forcibly uprooted people within their own countries lack predictable support. While primary responsibility for safeguarding security and welfare of the IDPs rests with their own governments, international community has an obligation to step in when government are unable to or unwilling to fulfill that responsibility.

Displacement has been and had been occurring too in north-eastern states of India where various tribes or ethnic communities having different cultures, customs and traditions settled from time immemorial. The region is ethnically diverse as out of 635 tribals categorized tribes in India, some 213 are found to be living in this predominantly hilly region. Though Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are practiced extensively by people inhabiting in this region, large numbers of tribes still adhere to their animistic beliefs even as many of the tribes have been converted to major religions as did by the Meitei in Manipur to Sanamahi. Each of these tribes or indigenous communities have their own imagined homelands and tense situation often arise between battling ethnicity for demands of imagined homelands. Though the hills of the region were largely protected from large scale influx of outsiders, Assam and later Tripura were not and both the states were subjected to continuous influx from erstwhile East Bengal (Bangladesh). The influx people from East Bengal had already come to constitute as majority community in Tripura, the homeland of the indigenous Tripuris, who have become minority. Hindus and Muslims of Bengali decent account for more than 40 percent of the Assam 2.6 crore people (2001 census). A sizeable numbers of Nepalis, Bhutanese and others have also moved in to other states in the region.

The NE region is also marked with ethnic clashes and secessionist movements and counter insurgency operations thereof by government forces have led to substantial internal displacement in this region particularly in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Other factors like development projects, natural disasters like floods and takeover of land by migrating communities have also led to large-scale displacement in this part of the country.

Manipur has witnessed substantial internal displacement and ethnic relocation in the wake of the Naga-Kuki and Kuki-Paite feuds in the 1990s that led to nearly 2000 deaths and rendering more than 30,000 homeless. Latest case of internal displacement due to ethnic strife is being witnessed in Karbi Anglong district in Assam where ethnic feuds between the Karbis and Dimasas have led thousands of people to flee conflict zone.

Large scale influx of Bengali speaking migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan to the north eastern region of India particularly in Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya have led to considerable xenophobia amongst original settlers of the region. Bengali migrants from erstwhile Bangladesh have reduced Tripuris in Tripura to a minority and similar is the case in Assam where almost 40 percent of the state’s 2 crore people are Bengali speaking migrants from Bangladesh. In search of economic activities and livelihood these migrants communities are spreading to other state of the region invisible. This has created much apprehension amongst indigenous communities inhabiting in the region.

Racism has been one of the main factors influencing force displacement as it had been and has been witnessing in different countries around the world. With its vague ideology of national building based on discriminatory, suppressive or racism based on racial origin has been the main factor enhancing displacement of people, both within the borders of a country and across the borders.

Racism can be defined as the belief that each race has certain qualities or abilities, giving rise to the belief that certain races are better than the others. It can also be defined as discrimination against or hostility towards other races or groups. In short race is a group of people or things with a common feature. Thus, racism can be defined as a prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races. It can also be defined as a discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race.

Racism or ideology of nationalism is the root cause of construction of a nation based on the common character of a group of people. Almost all the modern state in the world had evolved either through the route of racism or nationalism. The presently continuing process of nation-building as being waging across the world are based on the ideology of nationalism or racism. The emergence of Pakistan and Bangladesh marked by the large-scale displacement were products of nationalism based on religion. The continuing nation building process by the Nagas under the initiative of the NSCN (IM) in north east India is also based on racist design which had led to large scale forced displacement in Manipur during early part of 1990s till end the end of the last decade. Manipur is inhabited by around 33 different communities with different racial origins though most of them of mongoloid stock some of them have close affinity. One by tenth of the total geographical area of Manipur is comprised of hills and it is inhabited by tribes which can be broadly categorized as Nagas and Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups, the valley portion in the state is inhabited by the majority Meiteis and the Manipuri Muslim (Meitei Pangal). The Nagas and Meitei claimed to be original settlers of the present day Manipur and they have some similarities in customs, traditions and life-styles though majority of the people both the communities have adopted different religions. Before Hinduism and Christianity swept through valley and hills respectively, both the Meitei communities and many of subgroups of Nagas namely Kabuis, Tangkhuls etc were following animistic religion of Sanamahi, which is still predominantly practiced by the Meiteis even as they have turned to Hinduism. Many folk based stories about relation between the Meiteis, Tangkhul and Kabuis are also found.

On the other hand the Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups are believed to have originated from the hills of Burma (Myanmar) and its surrounding hills and later migrated to neighboring hills and some finds their way to hills of Manipur and spread to other areas in the state. This particular group is also said to be nomadic in nature and in due course of time these people migrated to the hills of Manipur in search of cultivable lands and other economic activities. However, both the Nagas and the Kuki-Chin groups practiced Jhuming or shifting cultivation and they have similarities in mode of cultivation though they belong to entirely different racial stocks. People belonging to both the communities have been living together as neighbors before the NSCN (IM) started the movement for Naga integration based on racist design. When the Naga integration movement in the line of nation building ideology move forward and visible, the Nagas under the initiative of the NSCN (IM) started attacking Kuki villages. At the same time, the Kukis too were in the process of launching a movement for a separate homeland and they too retaliated thereby leading to serious conflict between the communities during initial months of 1992. The ethnic feud continued till the last few years of the last century thereby leading to serious bloodbath and large-scale displacement of people of both the communities. An estimated figure of around 2000 people belonging to both the community loss their lives and as many as 30,000 of them were either shifted or relocated. Thus when we look back to root causes of conflict it is revealed that the ideology racism based on ethnic line had led to large-scale displacement of people.

The intense Naga-Kuki ethnic conflict in Manipur and one between the Kukis and Zomis in 1997, involving both armed underground groups and common people, though resolved at different levels with the efforts of nonpartisan communities and understanding amongst the underground outfits have serious repercussion leading to large scale displacement, forcing common people to flee their original place of settlement and moved to safer and economically viable areas. As a result, large number of people affected by ethnic clashes moved to villages and towns where there is sense of security and more economic opportunities, leading to marked demographic changes in hill districts of the state. The decadal variation of population in these districts showed marked variation as per 1991 and 2001 census. Population of state’s least populated district, Chandel was only 71,014 as per 1991 census but it had jumped to 1,18,327 in 2001, showing marked increase of 47,313. Decadal variation of population in Chandel district was 14,570 in 1981-1991. Four other hill districts of the state namely Senapati, Churachandpur, Ukhrul and Tamenglong also showed the same trend, while it is more or less normal in all the four valley districts, where Naga-Kuki or Kuki-Paite ethnic strife could gave any impact.

The growing concentration of communities based on tribe and clan line is also one direct repercussion of the ethnic clash, which has given severe impact to adult franchise as witnessed in the last Manipur Legislative Assembly election held in 2002. In the Parliamentary election of 2004, a candidate belonging to the Nagas snatch victory in the lone Outer Manipur seat, which was held earlier by Kuki candidates for two successive terms.

Relief and rehabilitation measures taken up by state government for the victims and resettlement of displaced villagers are far from satisfactory. During the intense Naga-Kuki clash in 1992, altogether 12167 families of both the communities were displaced but government provided assistance for construction of houses to only 2180 families and same is the case for the displaced victims of Kuki-Paite ethnic clash.

The increasing lack of economic opportunities, commercialization of life-styles, soaring prices of essential commodities and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, people all over the world have been grabbing every opportunities for earnings livelihood. Coupled with persistent financial crisis, people displaced by ethnic clashes in Manipur moved to towns and cities in search food and survival prompting them to adapt to various kinds of labor and physical jobs. Sudden increase of rickshaw puller in state’s capital, Imphal and its periphery, the increasing numbers of children working in hotels and restaurants in state capital and other towns are repercussions of these ethnic conflicts.

As per the Imphal Municipal Council source, there were some 2000 registered Rickshaw pullers in Imphal area in 1999-2000 however it jumped to over 10,000 in 2005. One main factor responsible for this abnormal increase is due to influx displaced people from hill area to the valley where there are more economic opportunities, security, and better means of livelihood. Most of them are the Kukis hailing from interior areas of Manipur’s southern district of Churachandpur.

Similar is the case for children working in hotels and restaurants who have lost their relatives during the ethnic clashes. In the aftermath of the Naga-Kuki and Kuki-Paite ethnic clashes, a numbers of children home came up in the state housing those children uprooted by the ethnic strife.

The question of prostitution & AIDS and displaced person is the area, which has rarely been touched while discussing the issue of displacement. However, this particular issue has become one alarming problem being faced by contemporary Manipuri society where prostitution is socially unacceptable and prohibited. No specific area can be identified where this particular group of people is concentrated in Imphal area, but a voluntary women group identified 1172 such person in 2004-2005, which incidentally is said to be only 375 in 1999-2000. One main factor responsible this quantum jump is involvement in this trade by poverty stricken homeless young girls and women hailing from the hill area affected by the ethnic clashes. Addicted to drugs, alcohol and other psychotropic substances, most of these women are also vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. This is a growing concern in the state where HIV/AIDS prevalence cases are said to be highest in the country and the menace is threatening to engulf the Manipuri society.

The syllabus and reading material provided to participants of the CRG winter course on forced migration – 2005 have highlighted numerous cases of displacement happened and as happening in different in almost every nooks and corners of South Asia with relevant data and backgrounds. However, the core issue of providing relief and rehabilitation to the displaced people and the serious repercussion thereof brought about by displacement to the receiving society have rarely been highlighted or discussed.

*This paper was written by Inaotomba Thongbam and published in January 25, 2006

*This paper was originally written as term paper assignment for the Third CRG Annual Winter Course on Forced Migration

(Courtesy: Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata, West Bengal, India)

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One Comment

  1. manjil basumatary says:

    the issue that has been raised is one of the major issue to be focussed upon. this issue has found a place in the academic circles now and is being discussed. hopefully, the academicians will be able to come forward with more meaningful suggestions so as to solve the crisis situations,