Failure of the Indian Government to address the root causes could lead to a Domino effect in South Asia

By Shahid R. Siddiqi

Insurgencies do not emerge in a vacuum. Their underlying root causes are invariably to be found in political, socio-economic, or religious domains; their nature and scope depending upon the nature of the grievances, motivations and demands of the people.

India has had its share of insurgencies. In all, an estimated 30 armed insurgency movements are sweeping across the country, reflecting an acute sense of alienation on the part of the people involved. Broadly, these can be divided into movements for political rights (e.g. Assam, Kashmir and Khalistan [Punjab]), movements for social and economic justice (e.g. Maoist [Naxalite] and north-eastern states), and religious grounds (e.g. Laddakh). These causes overlap at times.

Wikipedia lists 16 belligerent groups and 68 major organization as terrorist groups in India, which include: nine in the northeast (Seven Sisters), four in the center & the east (including Maoist/Naxalites), seventeen in the west (Sikh separatist groups), and 38 in the northwest (Kashmir).

Political Causes

By the very nature of its population mix, one that began evolving thousands of years ago with waves of migrants pouring in from adjoining lands at different periods in history, South Asia has never been a homogenous society. The multiplicity of races, ethnicities, tribes, religions, and languages led to the creation of hundreds of sovereign entities all over the subcontinent ruled by tribal and religious leaders and conquerors of all sorts. Like Europe over the centuries, the map of South Asia also kept changing owing to internecine warfare.

One must remember that India in its entire history, until colonized by the British, was never a single nation, nor a united country. The numerous entities were in many cases territorially and population-wise much larger than several European countries, were independently ruled and could qualify for nationhood by any modern standards.

During and after the colonial rule, such territorial entities were lumped together to form new administrative and political units or states, without, in many cases, taking into account the preferences and aspirations of the people. For the people of these territories, which ranged from small fiefdoms to large princely states, and who had for centuries enjoyed independent existence, this administrative and political amalgam amounted to loss of identity and freedom and being ruled by aliens. The new dispensation – democracy, in many cases brought no political or economic advantage.

To complicate matters, hundreds of religious and ethnic groups, some of which are fiercely sectarian and independent in nature, found themselves passionately defending their religions, languages and cultures, at times clashing fiercely with rival groups, challenging the writ of the state in the process.

Thus the artificial nature of the modern state created by the British colonialists and adopted by post-colonial India also triggered violent reactions in several hotspots.

Caste Based Social Discrimination

India’s caste system, which tears apart its social fabric and divides people into potential warring groups, is unique to that country, having no place in the modern world. This sinister game has historically been played by the Brahmans in collaboration with the ruling class to their mutual benefit. The issue assumes more horrific dimensions when those who practice it among the Hindus insist that it is a divinely sanctioned concept and cannot be abrogated by humans. Even the anti-caste activist – Dr. Ambedkar, acknowledges that ‘to destroy caste, all the Hindu shastras would have to be done away with’.

The system confers on the ‘higher’ castes the absolute right to plunder the wealth of those belonging to the ‘lower’ caste or Dalits (or the ‘untouchables’). For over four thousand years, it has been driven by the intense hatred and by the yearning of the ‘higher’ castes to accept nothing less than abject subservience from the ‘lower’ castes. The defenders of this system have argued that it has kept a sense of order and peace among the people and has prevented society from disintegrating into chaos.

Although Dalits make up for the most part of Indian population, they have remained deprived of the benefits of the current economic boom. This is because of the barricades that bar Dalits from having access to education, job opportunities and even state provided healthcare and food. They are forced into menial jobs, denied entry to temples, cremation grounds and river bathing points and cannot even share a barber with the upper caste Hindu. Punishments are severe when these boundaries are transgressed. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, 45 special types of ‘untouchability’ practices are common.

As quoted in a report prepared for the WashingtonPost by Emily Wax; Anup Srivastava is a researcher with the People’s Vigilance Commission on Human Rights in Varanasi. His job requires him to investigate complaints filed by Dalits about discrimination among neighbors, in schools, at hospitals and at work. He says, “India is not a true democracy. The country is independent. But the people aren’t. How can there be a democracy when there are still people known as untouchables who face daily discrimination?”

Despite the fact that the Indian Constitution abolishes it, this caste based discrimination continues because it has infiltrated into the Indian polity, serves the vested interests of a powerful minority and gives it a hold over a helpless majority in the name of religion and ancient social customs. It has even been glorified by M.K. Gandhi who is reported to have said that ‘caste is an integral part of Hinduism and cannot be eradicated if Hinduism is to be preserved’.

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The mentality of hate this creates in the lower castes in an age when the concepts of socialism, awareness about human rights and equality and dignity of man are spreading fast, this ‘helpless majority’ has begun to resort to violence to overthrow this out of date system of exploitation. The Maoist Naxalite uprising in eastern India is just one case in point.

Economic Disparity

Of India’s population of 1.1 billion, about 800 million – more than 60% – are poor, many living on the margins of life, lacking some or all of the basic necessities. Despite its emergence as Asia’s third biggest economy, India has the highest illiteracy rate in the world – 70% and the people lack adequate shelter, sanitation, clean water, nutrition, health care and job opportunities. The groups that are mostly left behind are minorities. There is a growing concern that unless this situation is addressed, the country will be torn apart by the despair and rage of the poor.

Hindutva – The Hindu Political Philosophy Seeped in Prejudice

The so called nationalist philosophy – Hindutva, is actually a euphemistic effort to conceal communal beliefs and practices. Many Indian Marxist sociologues describe the Hindutva movement as fascist in classical sense, in its ideology and class support, methods and programs, specially targeting the concept of homogenized majority and cultural hegemony. Others raise issues with regards to sometimes-vacillating attitudes of its adherents towards non-Hindus and secularism.

Defining Hindutva, “The struggle for India’s Soul” (World Policy Journal, fall 2002) states that India is “not only the [Hindu] fatherland but also …. their punyabhumi, their holy land”. To Hindu extremists all others on this land are viewed as “aliens” who do not belong there.

Hindutva is identified as the guiding ideology of the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu nationalist organizations of which Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad are part. Not part of Sangh Parivar, but closely associated with it, is Shiv Sena, a highly controversial political party of Maharashtra. The record of all these right wing radical parties in pursuing discriminatory policies towards minorities, particularly the Muslims, and engaging in their frequent massacres is no secret. This record alone is enough to show the true colors of Hindutvavadis (followers of Hindutva) and what Hindutva stands for.

Explaining the mindset of Shiv Sena, sociologist Dipankar Gupta says: “A good Hindu for the Shiv Sena is not necessarily a person well versed in Hindu scriptures, but one who is ready and willing to go out and attack Muslims … To be a good Hindu is to hate Muslims and nothing else.” This is borne out by the 2002 indiscriminate killings of Muslims in Gujarat for which Shiv Sena was held responsible.

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta clearly explains the mindset of  the Shiv Sena when he says;“A good Hindu for the Shiv Sena is not necessarily a person well versed in Hindu scriptures, but one who is ready and willing to go out and attack Muslims … To be a good Hindu is to hate Muslims and nothing else.”

The adherents of Hindutva demonise those who do not subscribe to that philosophy or are opposed to its pre-eminence and dub them anti-state or terrorists just as the Hindu scriptures in earlier times branded such people as rakshasas. As always, these groups have been ‘red in tooth and claw’ in violently resolving all their social, religious and political differences and killing, raping, burning and lynching those who show the audacity to stand up to them for their rights.

In 1947, these groups preferred violent upheaval and vivisection of India to sharing power with the Muslims and killed more people in communal violence, including Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and dalits than ever before in recent history. Citing ‘ekta and akhandata’ (unity and integrity) of India, they have refused to allow self rule to Sikhs (86%) in the Punjab, to Muslims (80%) in Kashmir, to Buddhists (90%) in Laddakh, to Christians in the North East of India and to the tribal population of central India.

It is this intolerance and bigotry that has generated alienation and hate among minorities, dalits and people of other faiths – Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists. It lays the ground for angry and rebellious reaction among those who are targeted.

Insurgent Movements

Naxalites or Maoists: The Maoist Movement of Nepal, supported ironically by the Indian Government, came home to roost. Inspired by the Nepalese Maoist forest dwellers who took over and ruled their forests, the lowest of Indian forest dwellers of Naxalbari (West Bengal) – the ‘adivasis’, launched their own Maoist movement and took control of their forests too.

According to one of the legends that support India’s diabolical caste system, the adivasis were punished by the gods for killing a Brahmin (member of the highest caste – the 5% which more or less rules and controls India). As a punishment, the adivasis were expelled to live like animals in the forest and, like them, survive by preying on the weaker, owning nothing.

When huge mineral deposits were discovered in some of the forested areas, the authorities decided to relocate the adivasis in 1967. They refused. Having no title, they did not want to give up what they held and this set in motion a cycle of resistance and reprisals, including rapes and murders by the powerful vested interests.

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It is now recognized that exploitation of billions of dollars’ worth of mineral wealth of the central and eastern Indian tribal area by the capitalists without giving a share to the poorest of the poor forest dwellers whose home it has been for ages, lay at the root of the Maoist insurgency, modeled after the teachings of the great Chinese revolutionary leader.

These Maoists now inhabit an area known as the ‘Red Corridor’ that stretches from West Bengal to Karnataka state in the southwest. They are active across 220 districts in 20 states – about 40% of India’s geographical area. They also threaten action in major urban centers, including New Delhi. Indian intelligence reports say that insurgents include 20,000 armed men and 50,000 regular or fulltime organizers and mobilizers, with the numbers growing. In 2007 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged the growing influence of Maoist insurgency as “the most serious internal threat to India’s national security.”

The Seven Sisters: The seven states of northeastern India called the Seven Sisters are significantly different, ethnically and linguistically, from the rest of the country. These states are rocked by a large number of armed and violent rebellions — some seeking separate states, some fighting for autonomy and others demanding complete independence — keeping the entire region is a state of turmoil. These states include Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

These states accuse New Delhi of apathy towards their issues. Illiteracy, poverty and lack of economic opportunities have fueled the natives’ demand for autonomy and independence. There also exist territorial disputes among states and tensions between natives and immigrants from other states which the governments have not attended to, accentuating the problems.  

The Assam state has been the hotbed of active militancy for many years, ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) has been in the forefront of a liberation struggle since 1979, along with two dozen other militant groups, on the grounds of neglect and economic disparity. Over 10,000 people have lost their lives and thousand have been displaced during the last 25 years. The army has been unable to subdue the insurgents.

The divide between the tribal and non-tribal settlers is the cause of the trouble in Meghalaya. Absence of effective governance gives rise to identity issues, mismanagement and growing corruption. Like other states in the region there is a demand for independence along tribal lines. The Achik National Volunteer Council has pursued since 1995 the formation of an Achik Land in the Caro Hills, whereas the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council seeks to free the state from Garo domination.

The Arunachal Dragon Force, also known as the East India Liberation Front, is a violent secessionist movement in the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The ADF seeks to create an independent state resembling the pre-British Teola Country that would include area currently in Arunachal Pradesh as well as neighboring Assam.

Mizoram’stensions have arisen largely due to the Assamese domination and the neglect of the Mizo people by India. In 1986, the main secessionist movement led by the Mizo National Front ended after a peace accord, bringing peace to the region. However, secessionist demands by some groups continue to insist on an independent Hmar State.

Nagaland was created in 1963 as the 16th state of Indian Union after carving it out of Assam. It happens to be the oldest of insurgencies of India (since 1947) and is believed to have inspired almost all others ethnic groups in the region, demanding full independence. The state is marked by multiplicity of tribes, ethnicities, cultures and religion. It is home to around 400 tribes or sub tribes and has witnessed conflicts, including infighting amongst various villages, tribes and other warring factions, most of them seeking a separate homeland comprising Christian dominated areas of Nagaland and certain areas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The area is rich in oil reserves worth billions and government efforts to strike deals with the rebel groups have yielded no results. Thousands have died since the insurgency began.

The struggle for the independence of Manipur has been actively pursued by several insurgent groups since 1964, some of them with socialist leanings, arising out of neglect by the state and central governments of the issues and concerns of the people. For lack of education and economic opportunities, many people have been forced to join these separatists groups. The disturbed conditions have only added to the sufferings of the general population. The controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (or AFSPA) has been extensively criticized, as it gives wide and unrestricted powers to the army, which invariably leads to serious violations of human rights.

It was the ethnic tensions between the Bengali immigrants after the 1971 war and the native tribal population in Tripura and the building of a fence by the government along the Bangladesh border that led to a rebellion in the 1970s. Very active insurgency now goes on amid very harsh living conditions for thousands of homeless refugees. TheNational Liberation Front of Tripura and the All Tripura Tiger Force demand expulsion of Bengali speaking immigrants.


Tamil Nadu:In the wake of their defeat by the Sri Lankan military in the Jaffna peninsula, the LTTE rebels took refuge in the adjoining Tamil Nadu state of India, where on account of common ethnicity, religion, language and culture they mixed easily and enjoyed mass support for their cause. Overtime LTTE regrouped and recruited volunteers from amongst the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and the local population and began to amass weapons and explosives. They began to work with a local independence movement called TNLA that was inspired by the Maoist/Naxalite movement and demanded secession from India. To the concern of the state and central government, highly explosive devices and other weaponry was recovered from LTTE’s possession but it has been difficult to take on LTTE owing to sympathy for Tamil cause among local Tamil population. TNLA has been banned and declared a terrorist organization.

Khalistan Movement of the Sikhs:The Sikh community has long nurtured a grudge against the Hindu dominated governments in New Delhi for having gone back on their word given at the time of partition in 1947, promising autonomy to their state of Punjab, renaming it Khalistan, which the Sikhs considered to be very important from their religious and political standpoint. Real as well as perceived discrimination and a feeling of betrayal by the central government of Indira Gandhi brought matters to the head and fearing a rebellion from the Sikh militant groups, she ordered a military attack on their most revered shrine – the Golden Temple, in 1981, where armed Sikhs put up stiff resistance. An estimated 3000 people, including a large number of pilgrims, died. This ended in a military victory but a political disaster for Indira Gandhi. Soon afterwards in 1984, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards and this in turn led to a general massacre of the Sikhs across India. Although the situation has returned to normal, the Sikh community has not forgiven the Hindus for this sacrilege and tensions continue. The demand for Khalistan is still alive and about 17 movements for a separate Sikh state remain active.

Another factor that has added to the existing tensions between the central government and the Sikhs is the diversion to the neighboring states of their most important natural resource – river water, which belonged only to Punjab under the prevalent national and international law. This deprived Punjab of billions of rupees annually. With 80% of the state population – the poor farming community, adversely affected, there has been a great deal of unrest. Armed forces were used to suppress this unrest but there are fears that the issue could become the moot point of another Maoist uprising, this time in Punjab.

Kashmir: The Kashmir issue is as old as the history of India and Pakistan’s independence. It arose out of India’s forcible occupation of this predominantly Muslim state against the wishes of its people and in violation of the principle of partition of British India. A fierce struggle for independence continues unabated in the valley in which hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives at the hands of the central and state government’s security forces and have been displaced. There has been international condemnation of human rights violations. India has defied the resolutions of the UN Security Council that have called for demilitarization of the valley and holding of plebiscite to determine the will of the people.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars and efforts at reaching a solution through negotiations have not been fruitful.  

Consequences for South Asia

The Indian internal scene presents a very disturbing scenario, one that has prompted Suhas Chakma, Director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi, to say that ‘India is at war with itself’. Alan Hart, the British journalist, while speaking about insurgencies in India at LISA seminar in July this year, agreed with this characterization. There is a consensus that this situation seriously threatens India’s stability and consequently its democracy.

In a changing world, as the poor of India become more and more aware of the affluence of the relative few who reap the benefits from the country’s development boom, the rich-poor division assumes greater significance and cannot not be ignored. “The insurgency in all of its manifestations and the counter-insurgency operations of the security forces in all of their manifestations are only the casing of the ticking time-bomb under India’s democracy. The explosive substance inside the casing is, in a word, POVERTY” said Alan Hart, and said it rightly.

It is also important to understand that unification of India has not yet taken firm roots and it would be a bad idea to try and trigger fragmentation among its neighbors. There is imminent danger of the Domino effect taking the whole of South Asia down.


Shahid R. Siddiqi began his career in the Pakistan Air Force. He later joined the corporate sector with which he remained associated until recently in a senior management position. Alongside, he worked as a broadcaster with Radio Pakistan and remained the Islamabad bureau chief of an English weekly magazine ‘Pakistan & Gulf Economist’. In the U.S. he co-founded the Asian American Republican Club in Maryland in 1994 to encourage the participation of Asian Americans in the mainstream political process. Shahid Siddiqi has consented to contribute his papers to Opinion Maker also. 

Courtesy FPJ