India: Political Challenges In Northeast – Analysis

The results of Assembly Elections of three northeastern states – Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura – declared on March 2, 2023, provides the ruling party at the Centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), another opportunity to resolve the issues that have the potential to resurrect insurgencies in these three states in particular, and the region at large. However, the experiences of the last five years, when the BJP and its allies were at the helm in these states, suggest that these are exaggerated expectations, more so as the political challenges have now increased.

To begin with, in Tripura, the BJP’s strength in the 60-memebr Assembly has come down from 36 in 2018 to 32 in 2023. Its ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) now has one seat, down from eight in 2018. While it has a clear majority, the alliance is on a shaky ground. Garnering any kind of support from ideologically opposed parties such as the Community Party of India-Marxist, which has won 11 seats, and Indian National Congress (INC), which has won three seats, would be out of question. However, a induced ‘change of heart’ of the newly elected Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) cannot be ruled out, given the past trend in Indian politics. The prospect of improving the government’s strength in the Assembly would depend, substantially, on the newly formed Prayed Manikya Debbarma-led Tipra Motha Party (TMP), which won 13 seats, and has emerged as the second largest party. However, support from this direction is also unlikely, as TPMP fought the election with the ‘Greater Tipraland’ – a separate state for Tripura’s indigenous communities – as its main poll plank. Just before the elections, Debbarma had declared,

We will not sit in the government; I am making that very clear today. We will not join any government or support any government till a constitutional solution for ‘Greater Tipraland’ is given in writing. Rather, we will sit in opposition. We don’t want to make the same mistake as IPFT. They got two or three berths in the government, and then they could not question the government regarding Tipraland.

On the other hand, the BJP has been opposing this demand since the beginning. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s architect in the Northeast, asserted during the elections,

For power, we can’t create a pandora’s box in the northeast. If you do something in Tripura, that will trigger similar kind of demands in other states.

In Meghalaya, the National People’s Party (NPP) has won 26 seats in the 60-memebr Assembly, followed by the United Democratic Party (UDP), 11 seats; INC and All India Trinamool Congress, five seats each; Voice of the People Party, four seats; BJP, Hill State People’s Democratic Party (HSPDP), People’s Democratic Front, and Independent, two each. The election for one seat was countermanded due to the death of a candidate. In 2018, INC had won 21 seats, followed by NPP, 20 seats; UDP, six seats; People’s Democratic Front, four seats; Independents, three seats; BJP and HSPDP, two seats each; and Nationalist Congress Party and Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement, one seat each. The NPP-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government was formed with the support of UDP, PDF, HSPDP, BJP, and an independent.

However, the BJP parted ways with the Alliance just before the 2023 elections, hoping to “form government at its own”. However, after the attempt proved futile, it has again decided to support the NPP, which has staked a claim to form the government with 32 MLAs: NPP (26), BJP (2), HSPDP (2) and Independents (2). Meanwhile, the issue of two HSPDP MLAs lending support to the NPP-led alliance has snowballed into a major controversy and has led to some violence as well.

Soon after NPP leader Conrad K. Sangma made an announcement regarding support from two HSPDP MLAs, HSPDP categorically declared that the party had not authorised these MLAs to lend support for government formation and “the party (HSPDP) has no role in this affair.” Local organisations and activists from the Hynniewtrep Youth Council, the Hynniewtrep Integrated Territorial Organization and others came together, denouncing the MLAs’ decision, and burned their effigies during the demonstration.

A six-party opposition alliance, including HSPDP, is also trying to form the government under the leadership of UDP. The opposition alliance is now harping on the issue of having a Khasi Chief Minister for the state. The stability of the Conrad Sangma government, which is going to be formed on March 7, will consequently be under immediate threat, depending on the action HSPDP chooses to take against the two MLAs supporting NPP.

HSPDP is the oldest regional political party of Meghalaya and has been demanding a separate Khasi-Jaintia State. Its leader, K. Phlastingwell Pangniang, had stated,

We will not compromise at any cost as this is the visionary issue for the sake of the larger interest, the special status of Khasi-Pnar of the state… so that this issue will always be in the heart and manifesto of the party.

HSPDP also supports the Garo National Council’s (GNC’s) demand for ‘Garoland’. On December 12, 2022, in a meeting held at Mawphanlur Tourist Spot in West Khasi Hills District, these two parties discussed the demand for a separate state for the Khasi-Jaintia and Garo people, and they decided to re-constitute the coordination committee between GNC and HSPDP.

In Nagaland, where the risk of the resurrection of the mother of all insurgencies in the Northeast persists, the BJP is back in power with its ally, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP). Unlike Tripura, where the BJP and its ally IPFT lost seats, and Meghalaya, where its main ally the NPP also lost seats, the BJP has retained its strength in Nagaland, winning 12 seats in 2023, as in 2018. Its ally, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), has increased its tally from 18 to 25, giving more strength to the alliance in the 60-member Assembly. Worryingly for the BJP, however, the NDPP’s reliance on the BJP has diminished.

Elections in Mizoram, where the regional party, Mizo National Front, is in power, are due later in 2023. In Assam, Manipur and Arunachal, the BJP is at the helm (Assam goes to the polls next in 2026, Manipur in 2027, and Arunachal in 2024).

Meanwhile, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), insurgency in all these states has been on a decline over the past several years. In 2022, the Northeast region recorded the lowest fatalities, a total of 21, since 1992. The previous low of 27 was recorded in 2020. Since 2018, fatalities in the region have remained in two digits, with a high of 72 in 2021. Between 1992 and 2017, total fatalities were in four digits for 10 years, and in three digits for 16 years.

Civilian fatalities in the region, the critical indicator of security in any area of conflict, were down to five in 2020, but increased to 21 in 2021, to decline, again, to 12 in 2022. At peak, 946 civilians were killed in 2000 alone. Fatalities in this category remained in three digits between 1992 and 2009, but touched three digits only once thereafter, when 243 civilians were killed in 2014.

The situation has improved as the Security Forces have consolidated their gains on the ground in subsequent years. Two SF personnel were killed in 2022, as against eight in 2021. A high of 289 SF fatalities was recorded in 1997. SF fatalities remained in two digits between 2007 and 2018, as well as in 2003 and 2005, and have been in single digits since then.

Terrorist fatalities have also declined, from a peak of 599 in 2000, down to seven in 2022, the lowest ally since 1992. Terrorist fatalities remained in three digits between 1992 and 2015, and have been in the double digits since then.

These numbers clearly indicate tremendous improvement in the security situation in the region, as most of the major militant groups, after suffering body blows at the hand of the SFs, have now been brought into peace processes. However, most of these negotiations are yet to reach to a conclusive outcome.

It is useful to recall here that the even after almost seven years of the signing of Framework Agreement of 2015, the ‘Naga talks’ continue to linger, with no visible signs of any imminent resolution.

Political stability in India’s Northeast is essential if the region’s many insurgencies are to be steered towards sustainable resolution. The BJP now controls five of the region’s seven historically insurgency afflicted states (the eighth, Sikkim, has remained peaceful) and should find significant opportunities for resolution. However, the many contradictions of the region, the fractious politics of the states, and the BJP’s own politics of polarization, as well as its ideology of Hindutva, will stand in the way of the necessary accommodation, if enduring settlements are to be reached.