After Kashmir, the ‘Special Status’ is No More Special

By abrogating Article 370 of Indian Constitution which gave Kashmir a special status, what message the Indian government is sending to those 11 states which has been governed by India under the similar article of special status? Many other states, generally in the northeast of India, enjoyed special provisions, under Article 371. This article of Indian constitution extends to 11 states -¬Nagaland, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Assam, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Karnataka and outlines the special provisions in place for them.

The abolition of Article 370 has sparked apprehensions in north eastern Indian states as the next Article 371 contains special provisions for them relating to sale and transfer of land and distinctive social and religious practices. But this move by the government has led to concerns in other regions that their special provisions could be taken away especially after the apprehensions expressed by the Congress leaders that the government might unilaterally modify Article 371 as it did Article 370.

North Eastern states are anxious about losing their special protections, but the anxieties are most pronounced in Nagaland. Article 371 (A) relates to Nagaland where political parties and tribal outfits said they were confident that the Indian government will not dare to make a move similar to that of Jammu and Kashmir as it would jeopardize the ongoing peace process and hurt the sentiment of Nagas.

Nagas are tribal people of the Burmo-Mongolian race who have inhabited the Indian North East for almost 5000 years. With distinct culture, heritage, socio-religious outlook and traditions, Nagas have never belonged to India. British colonization of Sub Continent brought Nagaland under the British Raj, where gradually the American and European missionaries converted the Nagas into staunch Christians. Today, 90 % of Nagaland is predominantly Christian. While Naga people enjoyed special status under British rule, they did not accept the state of India after partition in 1947, as half of their brethren were cut off due to an artificial boundary between Burma and India.

The scratching up Jammu and Kashmir special status has started the social activism of Naga afresh. The youth has found innovative ways to bypass the state oppression and formed associations and groups who are highly organized and dynamic. Different insurgents groups are forming a grand alliance like United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) comprising United Liberation Front of Assam, NSCN, Kamatapur Liberation Organisation and National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

Indian government is trying to play down the Nagaland movement through secret deals and accords with different factions. Modi govt during first tenure in 2015 also made a secret deal “Naga Accord Framework”. A BBC report, published on 4 Aug 2015, highlighted the hard challenges faced by them while getting along on this deal. Though the framework could not help Modi government much as the accord had nothing new to offer than the infamous Shillong Accord of 1975. Neither the Naga militant groups dropped the demand for separate Nagalim, nor did it allow any open discussion.

The new setting of constitutional precedence in India after revocation of Article 370 has opened up fresh in-home battlefields for the government. In a t, Mizoram’s former chief minister, Lal Thanhawla, called the recent turn of events in Jammu and Kashmir a “red alert” to the people of North East. The seven sisters of North East India, which are connected to the rest of India by a small strip of land called Siliguri Corridor, is already a home to massive separatist movements.

Indian Eastern seaboard and seven sisters of the North East (which includes almost all of the states mentioned under Article 371) combine to form almost 40% of Indian landmass, but this 40% of landmass actually house the bulk of downtrodden and marginalized Indians. The area is witnessing more than fifty imploding insurgencies, reflecting an acute sense of alienation of the people involved and sustained mainly by failure to attend to their grievances and human rights violations at the hands of Indian government. Regional tensions eased off in late 2013, with the Indian and state governments making a concerted effort to raise the living standards of people in these regions. However, in late 2014 tensions again rose as the Indian government launched an offensive, which led to a retaliatory attack on civilians by tribal guerrillas.

Many in the world may not have heard the names of Naxal and Naga warriors like Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Dr. Phizo, Thuingaleng Muivah, S.S. Khaplang and the rising hero Konyak, but these unsung heroes of eastern and northeastern India have become legends in local folklore. Their grip over the sentiments of local marginalized people of these poor Indian states should be a huge worry for the sitting Indian government. The anxious Nagas nationalist groups are currently in talks with the Centre for some autonomy beyond the special status for which they signed ceasefire agreements and went into peace talks after decades of armed struggle for an independent Naga state. But any misadventure from the government to scrape the articles of constitution undermining their special statuses will become a disaster which may cut India into pieces.