North East India is the region situated in the eastern-most part of India comprising of the eight states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. The entire region is connected to mainland India through a narrow strip of land referred to as The Siliguri Corridor or Chicken’s neck that was created in 1947.
There is not much written record about the northeastern states of India prior to British rule, mainly because of the lack of a script for most of the tribes in the region, excepting the Ahoms of Assam and the Meiteis of Manipur. With the advent of Christianity, documentation started in leaps and bounds. The Welsh and American missionaries, who set foot on the northeastern hills, provided phonetic-based scripts to almost all tribes living in the Northeast with which the tribal oral tradition of thousands of years could be documented. However, by that time most of the important events were either forgotten or lost in time. What we know about the hundreds of tribes in the northeast is through the monographs and census data compiled by British administrators in the 1800s.
Before colonial India, all the territories of northeast were ruled by kings and chiefs. In Manipur, there are documents to prove the existence of monarchs since 33 AD who were known as Ningthou and Meidingnu. Upper Assam was ruled by the Ahom Dynasty for nearly 600 years, while the western and parts of southern Assam was ruled by the Koch dynasty. In Tripura, the Manikya dynasty was dominant from around the 13th century till the 20th century. In Mizo societies, it was the chief known as Lal which in Mizo means ‘lord,’ who looked after administrative and political affairs. In Meghalaya, the king or Syiem along with his ministers or myntris/dollois formed the administrative institutions of the Khasi and Jaintia society, while local chieftains known as Nokmas headed political institutions among the Garos. The Namgyals were the Chogyals or kings of Sikkim till the 20th century while administration of Naga and Arunachal villages was under chieftains known by different terms depending on which tribe they looked after. A slide depicting the various political institutions of every state is given.
In the latter part of the 19th and 20th centuries, the whole of Northeast were formed into states. Assam was the first to gain statehood along with the rest of India in 1947. Subsequently, Nagaland gained statehood in 1963, Meghalaya, Tripura and Manipur in 1972, Arunachal Pradesh in 1975, Mizoram in 1987 while Sikkim was added as an associate state of India in 1975. Earlier, the seven states of North east were referred to as the Seven Sisters. In 2002, the seven sisters were blessed with a brother in the form of Sikkim being added as part of Northeast. Here is a slide where we show you north east India cities/capitals along with the year of statehood.
There are over 200 different ethnic groups and an even larger number of dialects spoken in the entire area that is totally different from mainland India. In some states, people speak over 10 languages and around 50 dialects. The state of Nagaland for instance, comprises of over 30 Naga tribes and each tribe has its own unique language and every village has its own dialect. A member of the Konyak Naga tribe of a village would not completely understand the dialect of a fellow Konyak from another village, let alone the language of an Ao Naga or a Sema Naga. We can imagine the chaos such incidents may have caused in communication. By and by, the Nagas developed a creole language presently known as Nagamese, a broken version of the Assamese language and by the 1930s, Nagamese came to be understood by most Naga tribes in Nagaland. Major languages of the north east are English, Assamese, Nagamese, Nepali and Hindi.
The north eastern part of India is a region of extreme diversity, consisting of people from various communities and tribes and perhaps this diversity was one of the reasons for the rise of rampant political turmoil in the region. People began questioning their identity and their ethnic affiliation; they began fighting for acceptance, wanting to be heard. And amidst all that confusion emerged the so called revolutionary groups across the Seven Sisters states, who sought the betterment of ‘their people’ and who likened themselves to ‘saviors’ of the society defying either the Central or the State government. Nagaland saw the rise and popularity of the Naga National Council (NNC) during the 1940s and 1950s which culminated in the existing factions of NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K). Similar groups emerged in Assam with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) while Meghalaya saw the rise of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) and the very recently formed Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA). The Arunachal Dragon Force (ADF), also known as the East India Liberation Front was an insurgent group in Arunachal Pradesh believed to have now been neutralized by the state police. Of all Northeastern states of India, Sikkim has yet to see the rise of any militant group. Ironically, the formation of independent states did nothing to slow down the growth and spread of these groups.
But unlike what is portrayed in the past and probably even at present, the Northeast region of India is not all political uprisings and upheavals. There are numerous other factors that define this scenic and hidden part of India and this map of Northeast illustrates just that. Whether it is the natural picturesque beauty of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh or the traditional women’s market in Imphal, Manipur, known as Ima market, the seven sisters have withstood the test of time. Despite the changes and all the mayhem and fears in the minds of the people, when you travel to a little hammock in some remote part of Nagaland, a woman will be quietly humming to herself an old folksong while weaving a sarong for herself, the arts probably passed down to her by her mother who was in turn was taught by her mother. Most Khasis in Meghalaya may have embraced Christianity and abandoned most of their tribal institutions and beliefs, but thousands still make their annual autumn trip to witness and partake in the Nongkrem dance, an age-old traditional dance performed by the royalty and members of the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya.
Change is inevitable, and like all things, Northeast India has undergone tremendous changes and will continue to do so till the end of time.