Framing the Tribal: Ethnic Violence in Northeast India

Åshild Kolås. Asian Ethnicity. Volume 18, Issue 1. 2017.


The pervasiveness of violent conflict in Northeast India is routinely ascribed to the region’s backwardness and the ‘natural’ propensity for violence of its indigenous populations. As explained by the Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, commenting in 2005 on a recent ‘ethnic clash’ in the hill district of Karbi Anglong: ‘Such macabre killings were bound to happen in the jungles’.

When I first visited the hill areas of Assam in July 2007, heavily armed militants in uniform and camouflage face-paint patrolled the single-lane national highway connecting North Cachar Hills with the rest of the state. In the district capital, Haflong, I learned that the militants were members of Black Widow, one of the factions fighting on behalf of the Dimasa tribe for a separate state of ‘Dimaraji’ in the territory of the pre-colonial Dimasa kingdom. I was also informed about rival militant groups fighting for the interest of other tribes, as well as another Dimasa faction known as Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) that was in a ceasefire with the government. Armed paramilitaries in bullet-proof vests guarded the main streets of Haflong. Posters had been put up on shop fronts, condemning the recent killing of three members of the autonomous district council, including the Chief Executive Member (CEM). The district had been in the middle of an election campaign for the local council, and the murdered politicians were all Dimasa and all members of the ruling party. The elections were hence postponed. My elaborate list of research questions was quickly reduced to the one that seemed most urgent: what was the conflict about? And if this was an ‘ethnic conflict’, as I had been told, then what were the factions fighting over and why were they targeting members of their own tribe? As I continued working on this question in various locations over the following years, I started to realize that it was illusory: ‘what the conflict was about’ was an integral part of the conflict.

Across disciplines, scholars of ethnicity have recognized that research on ethnic conflict should interrogate the unique context of ethno-politics, questioning whether and how ethnic identity is significant to politics and political mobilization, and how such ethno-politics is related to political violence. As argued here, it is equally important to investigate the discourses of conflict actors and local analysts, to examine critically the use of terms such as ‘ethnic violence’, ‘ethnic conflict’, or in this case ‘ethnic clashes’ in the discursive framing, interpretation, and explanation of conflict.

This article interrogates the social construction of ethnic violence in representations of conflict by local stakeholders, focusing on the discursive framing of political (or politicized) violence. I argue that the representation of causes of conflict and the framing of acts of violence should be seen as key sites of contestation, and thus integral aspects of any conflict. This raises questions about the feasibility of scholarly projects that aim to make sense of specific cases of conflict via generic categories such as the ‘ethnic conflict’.

Ethno-Politics in Northeast India

British colonial historians classified the Dimasa-Kacharis as one of the earliest groups to inhabitant the Assam valley. The history of the Dimasa-Kachari kingdom, along with the unique characteristics of Dimasa customs and traditions, is at the core of contemporary Dimasa ethno-politics. In 1830, British India annexed the territories of the last Dimasa-Kachari king Govinda Chandra Barman following his assassination, while the area ruled by the Dimasa chief Senapati Tularam was annexed in 1854. The hill areas of the former kingdom were largely reunified in 1951 with the establishment of the United North Cachar (NC) Hills and Mikir Hills. Despite local demands for an autonomous ‘hill state’ that would merge the Dimasa-dominated NC Hills and the Karbi-dominated Mikir Hills, the hill areas were again divided, and the erstwhile Mikir Hills became a part of Karbi Anglong Autonomous District. Later on, proponents of a separate Dimasa homeland of ‘Dimaraji’ laid claim to the entire territory that was once ruled by the Dimasa royalty, covering the districts of Cachar, North Cachar Hills, Karbi Anglong, Nagaon, and even the city of Dimapur, the economic hub of the state of Nagaland.

The political significance of the Dimasa kingdom was brought home to me by DHD chairman Dilip Nunisa, a college graduate in History. After presenting a book on ‘The history of the Dimasa-Kachari as seen through their coinage’, he justified the DHD demands and dismissed the ‘so-called unique history of the Nagas’. Later, I visited the DHD designated camp in Dhansiri in Karbi Anglong, where members of the DHD liaison office were just as eager to show me evidence of their age-old history, a secluded pond built ‘in ancient times, by a Dimasa king’. The shore of the pond was a resting place for workers from the nearby fields, and there was also a huge tree on the shore, with many offerings at its roots. My guides narrated the story of the pond. A long time ago a terrible demon was living here. He used to capture people and take them away to drink their blood. The Dimasa king built this pond to suppress the demon, protect the people, and make the land fit for habitation, I was told.

Most accounts of ethno-politics in Northeast India set out from a description of the region’s ethnic diversity, often referring to the numerous tribes inhabiting the area, speaking hundreds of different languages. Historians describe the Assamese language movement as an important source of Assamese nationalism, drawing on the same ideologies that inspired the Indian decolonization struggle. After Independence, failed negotiations on the incorporation of the Naga Hills into the Indian union led the Naga National Council to assert the sovereignty of Nagaland. After years of armed violence, the state of Nagaland was finally carved out of Assam in 1963 in an attempt to address the intractable demand for Naga self-rule. The success of the Nagas in achieving their own state set a powerful example, motivating other groups to make their own territorial demands. After the state of Meghalaya was formed in 1972, several new administrative units were set up as a result of negotiations with armed groups, including Mizoram in 1987 (in agreement with the Mizo National Front) and the Bodoland Territorial Council in 2003 (based on a settlement with the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force). In West Bengal (bordering Assam to the west), the Gorkha Hill Council was established in 1988 in an agreement between the government and the Gorkha National Liberation Front. Despite (or perhaps because of) these settlements, militancy continued throughout most of these areas, with new groups or factions often emerging as spoilers.

According to the Indian government, the granting of statehood and autonomous district status is a means to devolve decision making and maintain the ‘demographic uniqueness’ of Northeast India, in effect providing ethnic ‘homelands’ to certain groups. As regulated by the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution, district councils have been given extensive powers of legislation and administration of justice, powers to establish primary schools, assess and collect land revenue and impose taxes, issue leases for prospecting for or extracting minerals, and make regulations for the control of money-lending and trading by non-tribals. Strong devolution of powers combined with weak law enforcement and monitoring, and a ‘winner-takes-all’ political culture, has set the stage for violent homeland politics.

The view of Northeast India as a site of ‘ethnic conflict’ has become the standard frame employed by researchers, commonly used also among local analysts. As such, ‘It seems that the selective struggle with the state, claim of national identity by an ethnic community and its politics of difference have to be filled with events of violence’. Or so we are told.

Studying ‘Ethnic Conflict’

As described in the conflict studies literature, causes of ‘ethnic war’ can be broadly divided into material-based arguments (e.g. strategic issues, resources), non-material-based explanations (ethnic fear) and elite-manipulation (emphasizing the role of charismatic leaders). Theorists who have analyzed ethnic conflicts in terms of a security dilemma have assumed that mutual fears and suspicions toward other groups is a key explanatory factor for the outbreak and escalation of violence. Focusing on the emotional aspects of ethnic conflict, researchers have also suggested that the motivation to participate in or support ethnic violence is ‘inherent in human nature’. Contesting such ‘primordialist’ views, anthropologists have paid particular attention to the social construction of ethnic difference and the process of ‘ethnic othering’ related to political mobilization along ethnic lines. Numerous case studies have also suggested that economic disparity, competition over scarce resources, lack of opportunity, and exclusion from income generation are key causes of protracted sub-national conflict. Researchers have argued convincingly that armed insurgencies more easily find recruits among disadvantaged youth, and that marginalized groups in society often mobilize along ethnic identities. According to Ted Gurr, ‘The politics of identity are based most fundamentally on persistent grievances about inequalities and past wrongs, conditions that are part of the heritage of most minorities in most countries’. Contenders have picked up on the point that grievances are easily found, whereas the number of armed conflicts is far more limited. Putting it simply, grievances are so common that there must be more to the story of armed conflict. As suggested by Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, insurgency depends less on ‘grievances’ than on access to funding, typically diamonds and other easily extractable commodities, and the ‘greed’ of those profiting from war economies.

Several critiques have been raised against the underlying assumptions of the debates outlined above. One argument targets the misuse of constructivist and other theories of ethnicity, especially by political economists. A related appraisal revolves around the need to account for subjectivity and contingency, which cannot be addressed by quantitative studies. In short, while deprivation, marginalization, and poverty can be quantified, their political salience is contingent and depends on subjective interpretations. Another important critique highlights the need to recognize the difference between causes of conflict and ways of rationalizing or legitimizing violence for political ends. For instance, based on her fieldwork in Sri Lanka, Carolyn Nordstrom has argued that vested interest was behind the ‘official versions’ of what was labeled ‘Sinhalese rioting against Tamils’. Similarly, Paul Brass has described the ‘publicized versions’ of so-called caste and communal riots in India as constructions upon events that were open to a multiplicity of interpretations. Brass sees ‘communal’ or ‘Hindu-Muslim’ riots in India as ‘providing convenient scapegoats, the alleged perpetrators of the events, and […] providing as well dangers and tensions useful in justifying the exercise of state authority’. According to Brass, this has produced ‘institutionalized riot systems’ that are potentially useful to political actors by helping them to capture or maintain institutional power and serving to justify their authority.

A large body of anthropological and related research has detailed how identity-based political violence depends on mobilization (or ‘ethnic action’) and the politics of difference or ‘othering’. Arguing against popular views of ethnic conflict, anthropologists have also shown how ethnic identity, rather than causing conflict, ‘emerges out of conflict’. While I agree with these perspectives, I take a different path here by looking at ‘ethnic conflict’, ‘ethnic violence’, and ‘ethnic clashes’ as constructs that are employed in the discursive framing of acts of violence. A frame is a ‘schemata of interpretation’ that makes meaningful ‘what would otherwise be a meaningless aspect of the scene’. Inspired by Gregory Bateson and Erving Goffman, frame analysis has been employed in scholarly work on a range of topics including social movements, performance, virtuality, representations of war, and gender politics. As understood here, framing is ‘an interactive process by which actors with agendas encounter specific discursive opportunities in the form of institutionalized texts’. When an actor interprets or explains an event as ‘ethnic violence’, he or she makes use of just such a ‘discursive opportunity’. The act of framing involves choices of terminology and narrative (re)constructions of events that favor a particular interpretation, making conflict meaningful within a particular rationale. The framing of armed violence as ‘ethnic’ requires the active selection and highlighting of evidence supporting the frame in question, and silence on any counterevidence. Framing is similarly employed in the representation of ‘causes of conflict’, which is a key site of contestation for conflict stakeholders. As described by Myra Ferree, framing is ‘the process of saying what a political problem is, whose needs are to be addressed, and what kinds of solutions are imaginable’.

Narrating ‘Causes of Conflict’

Conflicts are invariably struggles over the truth, but in the face of violence, people are often silenced by fear. In NC Hills, I was told that ‘Nobody reports what is going on. The police hardly take action. Might is right’. There was fear of the Army as well as militants. One day while I was walking along the road together with a friend, several army trucks passed by, loaded with soldiers. From the back of the trucks the soldiers stared at me, probably surprised to see a foreigner in this area. While I looked back smiling, I noticed that my friend was uncomfortable. Later, he admitted that he would never look a soldier in the eye, he was too afraid. Locals of both hill districts (Karbi Anglong and NC Hills) also explained how armed groups demanded a ‘house tax’ from every family, collected by the ‘gaonburah’, the village leader. In some places, several different armed groups were demanding ‘taxes’ from the villagers. There were also ‘taxes’ to be paid by local shopkeepers, businessmen, and civil servants.

While most people preferred to keep silent, the more prominent members of society were happy to give me information about ‘causes of conflict’ in the hill areas. As the ‘root causes’, they variously cited demographic changes and migrant encroachment, competition for resources, land alienation, lack of protective mechanisms, violation of traditional laws, histories of animosity, failure to provide security, changes in the power structure, vote bank politics, competition for political and government posts, unemployment, failure to address economic disparities, lack of public transparency and accountability, corruption, bad governance, and lack of development. The diversity of explanations could partly be explained by the fact that respondents were referring to different cases of conflict. In addition, their grievances obviously covered a wide range of issues. Their accounts still seemed to converge on key themes which made up ‘institutionalized texts’. Drawing on Robert Benford and David Snow, I will call them ‘diagnostic frames’. Despite recognizing that individuals often drew simultaneously on competing arguments, I distinguish between two such frames: ‘ethnic rivalry’ and ‘malgovernance’. In the following, I give a few examples of discourses that serve to diagnose the local conflict within these two frames.

A history of demographic change giving rise to ‘ethnic rivalry’ was often evoked to account for the causes of conflict in hill areas of Assam. For instance, as explained by the commander of a local company of the Assam Rifles, Major Anil Raman, the post-ceasefire ‘Dimasa-Hmar conflict’ was the result of demographic change, especially competition for political and government posts, which affected the existing power structure, fuelling Dimasa insecurity and setting the stage for conflict. According to Major Raman, the history of conflict in the area can be summarized as follows:

The North East has remained demographically unstable as waves of invading tribes, attracted by vast tracts of land with insignificant population and immense natural resources, encroached upon earlier settlers. […] Vote bank politics translated this instability into conflict and the easy availability of weapons added violence to the disputes.

Dimasa activists often recited a similar history of demographic outnumbering and loss of political power to explain and justify their demand for Dimaraji. Thus, when Prafulla Hafila, president of the All Dimasa Student’s Union, addressed the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva on ‘the plight of the Dimasa people’, he gave an account of the downfall of the Dimasa kingdom and ‘unabated influx of outsiders’ outnumbering the Dimasa tribe. His address further called for the creation of a ‘Dimaraji homeland to safeguard the identity and existence of the Dimasas’, arguing that ‘foreign nationals must be expelled from proposed Dimaraji state’, as this is ‘integral for the protection of the people from further exploitation’.

Interestingly, I was offered a very different account by DHD liaison officers in Karbi Anglong. They insisted that Dimaraji is not an ethnic territory or homeland for the Dimasa people. To prove this, they pointed out that Dimasa people are not the only supporters of Dimaraji: ‘The DHD has Bengali, Assamese and Adivasi cadres as well, and we are demanding Dimaraji according to historical records. We will not impose our customary law on other groups’. The DHD cadres also emphasized that their agenda is secular, stating their position as ‘non-religious’, and ‘without imposition’. They also pointed out that English is the common language in DHD, as well as the proposed official language of Dimaraji.

Scholars have supported the view that resource competition is a cause of conflict in hill areas of Northeast India. For instance, Sanjib Baruah maintains that conflicts in these areas are caused by competition for resources, especially cultivable land, coupled with policy failures and structural problems facing shifting cultivators:

As shifting cultivation declines, largely as a result of official policy discouraging it, the shifting cultivators of yesterday can hardly be expected to transform themselves overnight into viable settled cultivators without sustained assistance. Under these circumstances […], the cash-starved former shifting cultivator tends to turn actual control of his land to immigrant denizens.

During fieldwork in Dhansiri, Dimasa informants offered similar views, reporting that in Dimasa villages across the nearby border with Nagaland ‘all the good land has been grabbed by the Nagas’. Later, I was given a neatly hand-written list of ‘Dimasa villages in Nagaland’. I was also told that a ‘jhummia’ (shifting cultivation) village in Dhansiri had lost some of its ‘good land’ after the Karbi Anglong district authorities told the villagers they could no longer cultivate the area. When people from a Karbi village later started cultivating there, the authorities had done nothing to stop them, so they seemed to have ‘different rules for them’. While this seems to support Baruah’s portrayal of the competition for cropland as ‘ethnic’ struggle, others have challenged this claim. For instance, Sanjoy Barbora suggested that land alienation is not merely (or even primarily) an inter-ethnic issue, and that individual tribals are also taking advantage of the ongoing privatization of tribal lands in hill areas.

An alternative frame for diagnosing conflict in the hills of Assam is ‘malgovernance’. As explained by DHD commander-in-chief, Pranab Nunisa, the conflict is fundamentally caused by lack of services and failures of governance: ‘Nothing is functioning here. People have no water, no electricity, no health services, nothing. This area lacks every kind of development’.

According to a local judge who adjudicates on the basis of Naga customary law, the ‘root cause’ of conflict in the NC Hills is corruption:

Development funds are taxed by extremists and siphoned off by local politicians, who force the ‘gaonboras’ [village leaders] to sign. There is corruption in the Army as well as the government. There is no monitoring or inspection. The records say that we are self-sufficient in food, and all roads are surfaced. The government officials blame the extremists for taking twenty per cent, but actually they take the money for themselves.

Challenging narratives of ‘ethnic rivalry’, academics have also attributed the conflict to ‘malgovernance’. For instance, Sajjad Hassan claimed that conflicts in Northeast India are fuelled by the state’s failure to provide security, ensure transparency, and accountability in public life, and address the significant economic disparities, especially those between urban and peripheral areas. Hassan further argued that although ethnicity is certainly a mobilizing and legitimizing factor, conflicts are not so much about inherent differences between social groups as about the absence of an effective (institutional and cultural) medium to regulate relationships and moderate contestations. A similar argument is made by the Dimasa activist Uttam Chand Barman (head of the Dimasa People’s Council), who claims that ‘the state of Assam doesn’t provide any effective machinery to protect Dimasa indigenous people and their land’.

Constructing Non-State ‘Armies’

Northeast India is a heavily militarized region. The region’s history of armed insurgency started in the 1950s in the Naga Hills, where an increasingly vocal demand for an independent Nagaland was spearheaded by the Naga National Council (NNC). In 1956, after carrying out a plebiscite on independence, the NNC announced that it had established a Naga Federal Government and a Naga Federal Army. The Union Government of India subsequently launched massive military operations and took direct control over the Naga Hills. Armed conflict soon spread into Manipur and the neighboring hill districts of Assam, and in 1958 these were all declared ‘disturbed areas’ under the newly promulgated Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA). After the formation of the state of Nagaland in 1963, NNC was eventually challenged on its championship of Naga independence. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) was formed in 1980 by Isak Chisi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and S.S. Khaplang. In 1988, disagreements within the leadership led to a spilt in the organization and the formation of two factions: NSCN (K) and NSCN (IM). Both factions have provided training, weapons, and organizational assistance to numerous smaller armed groups, contributing to the proliferation of militancy in the region. In the 1980s, the Assamese nationalist cause was also militarized, after the founding of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

Despite their many differences, Northeast India’s militant groups have all been formed around demands for sovereign nationhood, independence, or autonomous homelands. While their territorial demands often overlap, such differences can usually be ignored as long as groups maintain strategic alliances. Inter-group violence is more often related to disputes over economic stakes in ‘taxation’, difficulties in maintaining alliances, rivalry between armed groups, and factional fighting. Kidnapping for ransom, extortion, political abductions and killings, and violent enforcement of general strikes (bandhs) are some of the methods used by militant groups to make their presence felt.

The first turn to militancy on behalf of the Dimaraji demand came in 1992 with the founding of the Dimasa National Security Force (DNSF). According to the then Deputy Commissioner of NC Hills, Jishnu Barua, NSCN (IM) armed and trained DNSF at their headquarters, Camp Hebron, as ‘DNSF had a common agenda with NSCN against the state’. This arrangement made DNSF dependent on NSCN (IM), who would also take 60-70 per cent of the ‘loot’ (i.e. extortion money) collected by DNSF. In 1994, the police launched an offensive against DNSF, as detailed by the officer in charge:

I headed a Mossad-like operation, going into Nagaland to arrest the DNSF leader just as he was coming out of Camp Hebron. We forced him to lead us to the DNSF camp. We had to walk about 20 kilometres through the jungle to get there. At the camp there was a major gun-battle. We captured them all in that encounter, except two who went back to the NSCN (IM) camp.

Soon after DNSF was disbanded, a new group was formed taking the name of Dima Halam Daogah (‘Dimasa Territorial Guard’). Jewel Gorlosa became the self-styled chairman of the group, Dilip Nunisa the vice chairman, and Pranab Nunisa the commander-in-chief. On the group’s website, their ‘emergence’ is described as follows:

Another armed revolutionary wing in the name and style of Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) was soon reconstituted with the youths newly recruited and the remaining non-surrendered DNSF cadres. It took up armed movement and pressed the Government in support of the [Dimaraji] demand.

From the very beginning, the DHD maintained close ties with NSCN (IM), training at NSCN (IM) headquarters in Camp Hebron and other bases. Harsh discipline was maintained in the NSCN (IM) camps, and Dimasa trainees were expected to denounce Hinduism and accept the values of a fervently Christian movement based on the maxim ‘Nagaland for Christ’.

The ‘homelands’ demanded by the two groups, Dimaraji and Nagalim (or Greater Nagaland), comprised overlapping territories, including the major city and economic hub of the state of Nagaland, Dimapur. While DHD and NSCN (IM) were allies and DHD depended on NSCN (IM), they had no argument over the conflicting territorial demands. Besides, DHD and NSCN (IM) were not alone in claiming ‘ethnic homelands’ in the hills of Assam. There was also the Hmar People’s Convention-Democracy (HPC-D) demanding an independent Hmar state covering Hmar-inhabited areas of Mizoram, Manipur, and Assam (including NC Hills), and the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) calling for a separate territory for the Karbi tribe, covering Karbi Anglong, NC Hills, and contiguous ‘Karbi dominated areas’ of Meghalaya. As long as these groups were all busy fighting the Indian security forces, there were good reasons to leave internal differences aside. However, the situation changed when the Indian security establishment started to reform its strategy in Northeast India, combining counterinsurgency operations with ceasefires and negotiations.

Beginning with a momentous agreement with NSCN (IM) in 1997, ceasefires have been signed and regularly renewed with NSCN (K) as well as numerous smaller armed groups, including DHD since 2003 and Black Widow since 2009. The ground rules or code of conduct of a ceasefire or ‘Suspension of Operations’ agreement demand that insurgent groups ‘will not engage in violent armed conflict, live in designated camps or cordoned off sites mutually agreed by both the State and the group, not engage in any illegal activities like extortion, kidnapping etc., and put weapons in double-lock mode’. However, despite that groups in ceasefire were funded by the government and provisions were made available for their cadres to live in designated camps, there was little to stop them from continuing their demands for routine payments of ‘taxes’. The ceasefire regime actually made it easier for armed groups to run their extortion businesses, due to the failure of law enforcement agencies to protect the victims. According to some accounts, high-ranking members of the security forces even made their own extortion demands, while soldiers posing as militants threatened villagers to pay ‘taxes’.

When DHD first signed a ceasefire with the government, the agreement offered funds to provide for DHD cadres in five designated camps, and a dialogue with the government on a political settlement. Now that DHD and NSCN (IM) were both negotiating with the government, it was difficult to overlook the inherent competition in their demands for the territories of Dimaraji and Nagalim. Another issue at stake for NSCN (IM) was how they would maintain control over their weapons smuggling route via Bangladesh, NC Hills and Dhansiri, when they no longer had any allied group along the route.

Enacting ‘Ethnic Clashes’

In February 2003, three DHD cadres were abducted from a Hmar village while surveying for a location to set up a designated camp. DHD immediately launched a search in the area, taking three Hmar youths as hostages. The violence (henceforth known as an ‘ethnic clash’) escalated further after 28 Dimasa villagers were killed by Hmar assailants (later identified as HPC-D cadres). It was this event that triggered Jewel Gorlosa, then DHD leader, to disregard the ceasefire agreement and found a break-away organization. The name Black Widow was supposedly taken to commemorate the widows of the victims of the assault.

The 2003 post-ceasefire violence in NC Hills was widely described as an ‘ethnic clash between Dimasas and Hmars’. In the aftermath of the violence an official inquiry into the ‘ethnic clashes’ was conducted by the Justice P.C. Phukan Commission. In 2005, the Commission submitted a report concluding that several militant groups were engaged in the violence, with DHD and HPC-D as key actors. The Commission maintained that ‘there is no conclusive evidence regarding involvement of any third party’, although ‘the possibility of NSCN (IM) tacitly supporting the HPC-D cannot be ruled out’. This was concluded despite statements on the involvement and ‘vested interests’ of NSCN (IM) by the Superintendent of Police and Deputy Commissioner of NC Hills.

Further evidence on the involvement of NSCN (IM) was also provided by Major Anil Raman of the Assam Rifles, stationed in NC Hills during the 2003 ‘ethnic clash’. Raman has reported that the initial kidnapping of the DHD cadres was ‘the handiwork of NSCN-IM militants masquerading as the “Assam Commando Group”’. NSCN (IM) allegedly did this to get the Dimasas ‘embroiled in violence’ so as to prevent the DHD from taking advantage of the ceasefire and consolidating its hold, as ‘NSCN-IM demands for NC Hills to be part of “Nagalim” directly leads to confrontation with the DHD’.

Another so-called ‘ethnic clash’, this time involving Dimasas and Karbis, took place in Karbi Anglong in September-October 2005. The violence began with the killing of three Dimasa auto rickshaw drivers who were killed with sharp weapons in a forest near a Karbi village. The assailants were never identified. After several more cases of abduction and killing (all by unidentified attackers, and all with sharp weapons), an assault on the Karbi passengers of two public buses (also with sharp weapons) and a series of raids on Dimasa and Karbi villages left more than 90 people dead and 45,000 people taking shelter in relief camps. After the assaults on the buses, the police enforced a curfew and issued a shoot-on-sight order.

Countering the local media’s persistent labeling of the ‘Karbi-Dimasa violence’ as an ‘ethnic clash’, investigators from the Asian Centre for Human Rights maintained that there was no ‘ethnic conflict’ between the Karbi and Dimasa communities:

While the present killings have increased distrust and suspicion, the intensity of the conflict has baffled both the communities. That the killings were not ethnic conflicts but [the] handiwork of the armed opposition groups—DHD and UPDS—has been a common refrain of both the Dimasas and the Karbis met by ACHR delegation.

Several local sources reported that Black Widow had an agreement with UPDS at the time, and that the Dimasa faction was involved in the violence on the side of UPDS, backed by NSCN (IM), burning down Dimasa houses and killing Dimasas. As argued by these informants, the ‘clash’ was as much a factional struggle or turf war between Black Widow and DHD as a war over ethnic homelands between UPDS and DHD. According to a local ‘peace team’, many people in Karbi Anglong also believed the violence was engineered by a third party, and the ‘Karbi-Dimasa’ conflict fabricated by ‘elements that wanted hatred between these two tribes’, so as to subvert the joint Karbi-Dimasa demand for an autonomous state that has been raised for decades by the Autonomous State Demand Committee.

In both these cases of ‘ethnic violence’, there were locals who resisted the ‘ethnic’ framing of the conflict. There were in fact many local efforts to mediate, reconcile and resolve issues, often at the risk of retribution and sometimes with serious consequences. The ‘ethnic’ frame was also challenged by eyewitnesses through the stories they narrated about the tragic events. Many related how neighbors belonging to different tribes helped each other after their homes were torched. As would be expected, accounts of these efforts were missing from the narratives that framed the conflict as ‘ethnic’, including most media coverage as well as the report of the Justice P.C. Phukan Commission.

Yet another ‘ethnic clash’ took place in NC Hills in 2009, beginning with the killing of Zeme Naga villagers by Black Widow cadres who had entered a village asking for food. The militants unexpectedly opened fire as the villagers were preparing a chicken. In another Zeme Naga village, several people were lined up and shot dead. As in the earlier cases, the following violence involved a series of raids on villages in which houses were torched and any remaining people killed. These events were again framed as an ‘ethnic clash’, this time between Dimasas and Zeme Nagas. Since the violence started just before the general elections and continued throughout the voting, some suspected that the ‘clash’ was created to split the vote for the Autonomous District seat in the Indian parliament (the seat shared by NC Hills and Karbi Anglong), which might otherwise have been won by a Dimasa candidate. Others pointed out that the targeted Zeme Naga villages were Heraka (animist) villages, and that Heraka mandirs (temples) were also set ablaze, suggesting that the fault-lines of conflict were not necessarily tribal. In fact, as proponents of ‘Nagaland for Christ’, the NSCN (IM) had previously made repeated threats against Heraka followers among the Zeme Nagas, asking them to convert to Christianity or ‘face the consequences’.

While the ‘ethnic violence’ continued, and as general elections were held in Assam, a series of armed assaults on trains forced the only rail connection through NC Hills to a halt. As a result, a major military offensive was launched in the district, eventually deploying 78 companies of central government forces under a Unified Command. The scene thus shifted from an ethnic clash to a counterinsurgency operation. The violence lasted from March until August, and left more than 60 people dead, hundreds of houses torched, and more than 16,000 people in relief camps.

Whereas the violence in the hills received surprisingly little press coverage, other events were making the headlines. In March 2009, Assam state police reportedly recovered more than ten million Indian rupees during the arrest of two Black Widow cadres on their way to settle an arms procurement deal. The money was allegedly provided by the NC Hills Chief Executive Member (CEM). In June 2009, the government announced that the newly established National Investigation Agency (NIA), set up in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks to deal with ‘acts of terrorism’, had been assigned as its first case to investigate ‘terror incidents’ in the NC Hills. The ‘terror incidents’ in question covered ‘alleged links between politicians and armed underground outfits’, but failed to include the ongoing ‘ethnic clash’, despite that Black Widow was known as a key actor. Only three days after the announcement came the breaking news that Jewel Gorlosa had been arrested in Bangalore. When Black Widow eventually surrendered arms in September 2009, the security forces happily claimed a major counterinsurgency victory.

Even as Black Widow leaders remained in custody, the government generously offered them a seat at the negotiating table. While the government’s talks with DHD had become deadlocked, the peace talks with Black Widow produced quick results, with the Assam state government ceding to the renaming of North Cachar Hills. In 2010, the district was officially renamed Dima Hasao (translated as ‘Dimasas of the Hills’). The name change was enacted despite objections from DHD (describing it as a case of misplaced priorities), and was subsequently protested by civil society groups including the Zeme Naga Council and the Indigenous People’s Forum. ‘Ethnic’ conflict was evidently set to continue.

Dramatic Productions of ‘Ethnic Violence’

In making sense of the social construction of conflict we should take into account how frames are employed to attribute acts of violence to social groups such as ethnic minorities or ‘tribals’, and how violence is politicized and even institutionalized. As suggested by Stephen Lubkemann, the anthropological gaze in the study of war should be turned toward the struggle for the social imagination. This approach, focusing on the subjective, socially constructed meanings of diverse violent practices, opens up for the analysis of collective violence as ‘dramatic production’, and ‘violent imaginaries’ as the outcome of narratives, performances and inscriptions of conflict.

In Northeast India, the routine framing of armed violence as ‘ethnic’ is linked closely to the construction of organized armed violence as ‘ethnic clashes’. During the last decade, the media and local authorities have reported so consistently on ‘ethnic clashes’ in hill areas that the term is now virtually taken for granted. Following Paul Brass, ‘ethnic clashes’ have become institutionalized forms of political violence, in which violence is constructed as ‘ethnic’ by the media, law enforcement agencies, members of the judiciary and other authorities, as well as ordinary citizens who know that the label ‘ethnic violence’ fits into the least controversial frame of understanding. The perpetrators are no doubt guilty of murder and arson. However, ‘ethnic clashes’ are not produced by physical acts of violence alone. As ‘violent imaginaries’, they are as much a product of actors who hold stakes in representing the ‘outbreak’ of violence as a result of ‘ethnic conflict’ between rivaling and violent tribal communities.

It is worth returning here to the report of the Justice P.C. Phukan Commission. The mandate of the Commission was to make an enquiry into ‘matters connected with the ethnic clashes between Hmars and the Dimasas in NC Hills/Cachar districts’, including the ‘root causes’ leading to the clashes, any involvement/provocation of a third party ‘resulting in the ethnic clashes’, the actions taken by the law and order authorities of NC Hills/Cachar districts, and finally to ‘give appropriate recommendations for ensuring long term peace and ethnic harmony in NC Hills/Cachar district between Hmars and the Dimasas’. It is obvious that such a mandate provides no scope whatsoever for questioning whether the violence was anything other than an ‘ethnic clash’ between Hmars and Dimasas. The mandate was thus set to reiterate the framing of the conflict as ‘ethnic’.

When framing armed violence as ‘ethnic’, narrators have taken advantage of discursive opportunities, and strategically included evidence that supports the ‘ethnic’ frame, while excluding any counterevidence. The framing of armed violence is in fact a key site of contestation for stakeholders in the conflict. The construction of conflict as ‘ethnic’ serves the interests of powerful stakeholders, including armed actors, security forces and the police, local authorities and politicians, who often try to blame the victims (the ‘violent tribals’), and appear as the protectors and the people with the solutions. These are key stakes in the current politics of ‘ethnic violence’ in Northeast India.