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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Fractured Nation: Secession Movements and Insurgencies in India

A diversely-populated country with several ethnicities, castes, and even color in it finds its diversity to be its strength but India with its actions against minorities has turned a huge chunk of its population against the country which resulted in several among them asking for freedom.

India is a mosaic of distinct ethnicities, religions, cultures, and races – and although other nations find strength in their diversity, India is a far cry from being such a nation. At this point, even the politically uninterested are cognizant of the gross human rights situation in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK). The IOK secession movement was incepted in 1988 due to a lack of civil rights and democratic reforms.

Over 100,000 people have been killed and over 100,000 children have been orphaned in IOK since 1989 primarily at the hands of Indian security forces. While IOK has found plenty of coverage in the international mainstream news circuit, other secession movements in India usually are in the least completely unheard of and at the most an afterthought.

Author Ryan D. Griffiths states in his book on secessionism that “India is one of the most secessionist-prone countries in the world”. According to the book, “Separatist Movements in India” by the MUSLIM Institute, there are at present more than 36 secessionist movements in India, 22 of which are large-scale in nature. Since independence, India has not only faced various separatist movements, it has also fought several secessionist civil wars, and has also witnessed the secession of Bhutan (which became a sovereign state in 1971).

India’s multi-racial and multi-ethnic nature has become its own weakness and the BJP, which seeks to establish a Hindu only nation, is further ostracizing India’s minorities in realization of this goal

The regions, Indian states and otherwise, afflicted by active separatist movements include Assam, Bodoland, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, West Bengal etcetera. A myriad of political and militant organizations lead the endeavor of establishing a separate nation in said areas.

The most potent of these movements, besides the one in IOK, include the Manipur secessionism in Manipur, the Naxalite insurgency in many areas of India, and the Assamese nationalism in Assam – I will be discussing these three movements in this article.

Read more: Kashmiri Flag removed: Nagaland demand their own Flag & Constitution

Indira Gandhi’s centrist policies in the 1970s and the emergency she declared from 1975-1977 which resulted in a crackdown on political opposition and civil liberties fanned the flames of secessionism throughout India.

Other causes of these movements include but are not limited to the colonial behavior of Delhi, high poverty rate, an influx of illegal immigrants, ethnicities discerning themselves completely distinct from the Indian identity, hard-line approach by security forces against secessionist groups, etc. Although these movements have a storied past, the BJP’s anti-minority and pro-Hindu orientation have and will further reinforce the cries for independence.


According to the 2011 census, Assam has 15 million Assamese speakers and 9 million Bengali speakers. Assam is also home to the Bodos tribe which is the biggest tribe in the state (5% of the population). Around 61% of the population is Hindu and 34% comprise of Muslims while the remainder are Christians, Buddhists etcetera.

These ethnic and religious variances have traditionally been the reason for many instances of communal violence and strife in the state. Bengalis have historically migrated to neighboring Assam since colonial times but this migration remained unabated after 1947 and proliferated after 1971.

Threatened by these foreigners, the local Assamese and Bodos launched campaigns to remove the immigrants. The Assam Movement (1979-1985) led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) against illegal immigrants (mainly Bangladeshi) demanded that the government remove illegal migrants from Assam and ensure safeguards for the Assamese people.

The IOK secession movement was incepted in 1988 due to lack of civil rights and democratic reforms. Over a 100,000 people have been killed and over a 100,000 children have been orphaned in IOK since 1989 primarily at the hands of Indian security forces

There were many incidents of violence during this time including the Nellie massacre that took the lives of 2,191 people. The primary secessionist outfit in Assam, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) was born out of the very same Assam Movement. They targeted Bengalis primarily and aimed to deter their migration into Assam – this stance, however, changed later and they now avoid targeting any potential allies in helping them create an independent homeland.

They were outlawed by the government of India in 1990 but the organization remains active even today. In fact, groups are typically labeled as terrorists if they call for sovereign independence, and they will not be negotiated with unless such demands are scrapped. This uncompromising stance of Delhi has led to cyclical violence with ULFA and other secessionist groups.

The group has targeted government officials and has been subject to several Indian Army operations. By the early 1980s, the whole of India’s northeast succumbed to massive violence. “Separatist movements intensified in Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, later spreading to both Assam and Tripura”.

Read more: Nagaland declares separation from India

After years of government apathy, negligence, and a failure to redress the issue of illegal immigration, the Bodos launched an armed insurgency in the 1980s to carve out a Bodoland state from Assam – this movement has however died down. Religious extremist groups like the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) also rose in the 1990s, which demand an Islamic homeland to this day.

In 2012, massive violence erupted between Bodos and Bengali speaking Muslims. Over 100 people died and 400,000 were displaced from their homes. In May 2014, a series of attacks, allegedly by Bodo extremists, on Bengali Muslims took place – around 32 people died. Assam is one of the poorest states in India, with a poverty rate of 31.98%, despite being rich in resources.

There is a serious concern that Delhi has traditionally plundered the resources of the state and has not given back to the people of Assam. Although historically Delhi has mismanaged the insurgencies in Assam, the BJP’s pro-Hindu orientation is further deteriorating the situation. The BJP has been ostentatiously vocal about ridding India of “Bangladeshi infiltrators”.

In 2013, the BJP, on orders of the Supreme Court, was asked to update the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The NRC now classified as an immigrant anyone who entered the state after March 24, 1971. Subsequently, 1.9 million have been declared illegal migrants.

Furthermore, the appeal courts have been labeled as “opaque” and a “miscarriage of justice”. The BJP has been criticized of purposefully antagonizing Muslims with this NRC as refugees who are Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or Christian will have an opportunity to apply for citizenship once the Citizenship Act has passed – only Muslims cannot apply. This decision has led to protests in Assam and will deepen the communal schism in the state.


Manipur, like Assam, is a northeastern Indian state. The Meitei (synonymous to Manipuri) constitute the majority of the state’s populous. The two major tribes present in the state are the Nagas and the Kukis and the two primary religions include Hinduism (41.39%) and Christianity (41.29%).

Manipur was a princely state when in 1949 its Maharaja was coerced at gunpoint to sign a Merger Agreement with the Union of India. After this watershed moment, a separatist insurgency erupted that was met with the severe vehemence of the Indian security forces. However, eventually, due to the undying violent protests, the Indian government was forced to make Manipur into a separate Indian state in 1972.

The demand for Manipur secession has had vicissitudes but is still persistently continuing today. The Manipur natives state that the security forces have committed human rights violations while attempting to suppress the insurgency, which has led to cyclical violence. To this day, many Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis etcetera do not see themselves as “Indian” and state that they are worlds apart – many locals discern more commonalities between themselves and Southeast Asians.

The group has targeted government officials and has been subject to several Indian Army operations. By the early 1980s, the whole of India’s northeast succumbed to massive violence

The violence and chaos in the state led to the emergence of more than 100 different militant groups over the years (formed on tribal and ethnic lines) some of which demanded autonomy while others secession. The first separatist faction, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), was founded in 1964. Other groups such as the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA), Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) were formed between 1977 to 1980.

In response, the Indian government enacted the vilely infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in the region (which is still in force in Manipur, Assam, and other regions). This act gives impunity to security personnel from any legal action and has been criticized for decades by locals and humanitarian groups as it allows security forces to be despotic in their actions.

Due to the different ethnicities present in Manipur, ethnic and tribal clashes are also commonplace. In fact, the Meitei have their own nationalism, while the Naga and Kuki have their own iterations – and they are all “deeply committed to preserving their own cultural autonomy”.

Read more: Susceptible nuclear program of India

Therefore, in Manipur, Naga nationalism competes not just with Meitei nationalism, but also with its Kuki counterpart – this is, unfortunately, a perennial struggle. In 1993, heavy conflicts between the Nagas and the Kukis led to the deaths of many. From January 1993 to September 1993, 400 people were killed – men, women, and children were brutally chopped to pieces. Communal violence is still present in the insurgency-laden state.

The government has been engaged in peace talks with the Nagas but this has angered the Meitei and other ethnicities. For example, in 2001 the Meiteis came out on the streets and burned the Assembly building with legislators still inside. In response, security forces killed 18 protesters.

There is a fear that violence might upsurge again due to the current (2019) talks between the government and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) led by Isak Chishi Swu – and hence security has been further bolstered. Manipur accounted for 50% of the violence in India’s northeast in 2018 with 127 violent incidents.

The protracted fighting has ruined the lives of many in Manipur with the Indian Army saying that an early solution to the insurgency problem in the state is extremely difficult – it appears it is an immutable problem. Manipur’s economic condition is far from copacetic as it has the third-highest poverty rate (36.89%) in India. On October 29, 2019, dissident Manipur political leaders declared independence from India and that they would form a “government-in-exile”.

The external affairs minister in the self-declared Manipur State Council, Narengbam Samarjit, stated that the exiled government would push for recognition by the UN.


The Naxalites are a group of far-left radical communists that support the Maoist ideology. Manmohan Singh labeled the Naxalites as the “single biggest internal security challenge” to India. The insurgency began in 1967 in West Bengal’s Naxalbari village. This village was the sight of a tribal peasant revolt against local landlords.

Although, this rebellion was suppressed, “it became the focus of a number of communist-led separatist movements that sprung up in remote, often tribal areas in India”. Initially, these movements emerged in India’s northeast but later extended its reach to many other parts. The groups under the Naxalite umbrella claim to represent the socially, politically, and economically disenfranchised and marginalized people – mainly the tribal people and Dalits.

Their main groups include the People’s War Group (PWG) – established in 1976 – and the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist-Janashakti – formed in 1992. The latter has a presence in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Chhattisgarh. The Naxalites believe that to subvert the Indian government and its exploitive system, it needs to sustain a peasant-led revolution in accordance with the Maoist doctrine.

For example, in 2001 the Meiteis came out on the streets and burned the Assembly building with legislators still inside. In response, security forces killed 18 protesters

They primarily employ guerilla tactics against their targets, which include businessmen, landlords, security forces, and politicians. They are also known for targeting communication, transportation, and other infrastructure to disrupt services. They have come to control large swathes of territory in states like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa etcetera.

The ongoing phase of the insurgency began in 2004 when PWG merged with the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) is its armed militant wing. At its peak, in 2007, the Naxalite insurgency was active across “half of India’s 28 states” which comprises around 40% of the country’s geographical area – this is known as the Red Corridor.

Due to the strict government crackdown, the number of Naxal-affected areas has reduced in recent times, however. Interestingly enough, the Red Corridor consists of some of the most neglected, poor, illiterate, and overpopulated areas of India such as Jharkhand, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and so on.

This government apathy helps the Naxalite cause to recruit the antagonized poor of India who feel exploited by Delhi. The Naxalites look for support from the hundreds of millions of tribal people in India, who have suffered greatly due to India’s rigid caste-system. One author comments that the primary reason for the expansion of Naxalism is the widespread exploitation of the underprivileged and scheduled castes.


In 2009, the government launched a counterinsurgency operation that led to an escalation of violence and casualties of many civilians. More than 100 people lost their lives throughout India that year.

Over 20,000 people – mainly civilians – have been killed since 1980 due to the insurgency and counterinsurgency efforts. As is often heard about Indian security forces, there are many accusations leveled against them vis-à-vis sexual abuse and extrajudicial killings of innocent tribal people among other gross transgressions. Even human rights groups have been targeted for reporting such abuses.

The Naxalites too have been accused of illegal behavior including kidnapping and torture. A third actor which has surfaced in the midst of this conflict are the government-backed vigilante groups that target Naxalite sympathizers – one such right-wing group called Salwa Judum has been accused of rapes and murders but was eventually outlawed.

The state of Chhattisgarh has especially been ensnared by violence even to this day. The government deployed over 100,000 troops to uproot the decades-old Naxalite insurgency in the state but the violence and its monolithic nature results in deaths every year. For example, in 2018, 9 security personnel were killed in Sukma, Chhattisgarh. The recent most violent incident saw the deaths of 19 police officers via a Naxalite IED in Maharashtra on May 1, 2019.


I have briefly elaborated on only three of the many ongoing secessionist/insurgent movements in India. These insurgencies and movements, unfortunately, do not get the “airtime” they deserve on the mainstream media whether Indian or international. It is not shocking that India’s unfree and controlled media purposefully does not report objectively on these movements as to not further ruin India’s international repute (which has become very muddied after the Jammu & Kashmir article blunder).

India is by no means a true democracy as its minorities are completely exposed and unsafe. They have treated minorities’ grievances with neglect and have tackled decades-old insurgencies with brute force akin to IOK – which has further alienated its minorities. While the Western world is hasty in passing judgment against Muslim countries especially Pakistan when it comes to human rights and the sort, India usually manages to avoid the condemning gaze of the world.

India’s multi-racial and multi-ethnic nature has become its own weakness and the BJP, which seeks to establish a Hindu only nation, is further ostracizing India’s minorities in the realization of this goal. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that India is currently on the path of self-destruction.

I will end with a telling quote and although it predates partition (1947), it holds true even today:

“There is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious.” – John Strachey (1888)

After concluding his Masters and receiving the Top Graduate award, Sarmad continued his passion for writing and became a researcher for Lahore Centre for Peace Research. Sarmad has several publications in international journals and magazines in the fields of Terrorism/Counterterrorism and International Relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.