Land issues at the core of ethnic violence and internal displacement in north-east India

By Anne-Kathrin Glatz

Anne-Kathrin Glatz is a country analyst at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). IDMC’s report This is our land”: Ethnic violence and internal displacement in north-east India” can be accessed here.

The north-eastern region of India, which consists of the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura, has seen many episodes of armed conflict and generalised violence since India’s independence in 1947. Some of these situations caused massive internal displacement, of hundreds of thousands of people. Currently more than 76,000 people remain in internal displacement in Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura due to such violence, according to conservative estimates provided in IDMC’s new report.

Conflict and violence in north-east India have had different causes, including violent competition for land and political power. Rebel groups such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland have fought for outright independence for their ethnic group, while other groups have strived to reach some level of autonomy. Related, the increasing scarcity of collective land available to indigenous people has led some to instigate violence against people they regard as “outsiders” in order to change ethnic demographics in their favour. Inter-ethnic violence between indigenous groups has also led to internal displacement.

The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India has been a means for some groups to establish a de facto ethnic “homeland”. It recognises “Tribal Areas” administered through Autonomous Councils, and thereby provides special protection to some “tribes” in the north-east. A demographic majority in an area is necessary for groups to seek this status. This has created grievances among minorities living in territories falling under Autonomous Councils. The hundreds of ethnic groups in north-east India do not live in distinct areas, and so their demands for ethnic homelands have often led to generalised violence and, in turn, internal displacement aimed at “ethnically cleansing” an area.

State authorities have provided some assistance and cash compensation to IDPs. However, this has generally not been based on comprehensive needs assessments, and was mostly not sufficient for people to rebuild their lives. In Western Assam, for example, some IDP families received a grant in the amount of Rs. 50,000 ($1,000), which had to cover the costs of obtaining land where return was not possible, building or rebuilding homes, and investing in livelihoods. Those staying on rented land had to pay Rs. 10,000 ($200) in annual rent, while others had bought land at a rate of Rs. 40,000 ($800) per family. The cost of building a basic cottage in that region was estimated at Rs. 100,000 ($2,000).

In Assam, some IDPs displaced by ethnic violence in the 1990s had returned to their homes, but were evicted in late 2010 by the Assam forest authorities without compensation for their losses and without being given alternative land. These evictions clearly failed to meet the conditions for legal evictions laid down in international treaties to which India is a State party, and therefore constituted forced evictions.

India has no national IDP policy or law covering displacement due to violence or conflict. This explains the lack of a systematic response by various government authorities to such displacement. A policy or law, ideally based on the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the Framework on Durable Solutions, would provide a framework against which the central government could hold state and district authorities accountable as they respond to displacement situations. Measures to facilitate durable solutions for the displaced, whether through sustainable return, local integration, or settlement elsewhere in India, would also be needed.

How can conflict and displacement in north-east India be prevented from happening in the first place? The states of the north-east have largely been dependent on funds allocated to them by New Delhi. Central government bodies are well placed to ensure that the funding they provide leads to economic and political opportunities for all. In this way the central government would help to address the long-standing grievances which have prevailed among many in north-east India, and which are too easily instrumentalised to instigate ethnic violence for political gain.

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