India’s northeast has had a chequered history of youth movements and has been home to some of the recent strong pro-democracy movements in the country. Being young in India’s northeast necessitates acts of social interventions of various kinds. In this conversation, Dr. Kaustubh Deka and Dr. Soibam Haripriya reflect on the locality of youth movements and the long history of the culture of protest in the region, as well as its larger resonance. They place this youth movement in the context of other movements in the region through questions of commonalities regarding key values, strategies and an understanding of democratic futures, and also reflect on the vision of some of these movements. This allows for a reflection on the seemingly contradictory narratives of protest against the Indian nation-state project and participation in electoral democracy unfolding in the socio-political discourse in the northeastern region of the country, marked through the body of its youth.
Dr. Kaustubh Deka: Since both of us are from northeast India[i] and we have grown up witnessing youth activism in the region, while we discuss this broad and complicated issue, I was thinking that we should begin by talking about the larger context of youth that has become so crucial in the context of social change in northeast India.
Dr. Soibam Haripriya: The situation is similar for Assam, where both of us are based, and Manipur, where I am from. Youth are particularly engaged in the question of democracy because of the context of militarisation, and having a law like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act[ii] — a law through which one can be killed on the basis of mere suspicion, which puts them in a precarious position.
Dr. Kaustubh Deka: For those outside, one of the typical perceptions of the region is that youth from the region are politicised and usually at the forefront of protest politics. It is partly true that in the northeast there exist a variety of movements where the youths have played a crucial role. It is important to understand the larger context — the anticolonial struggles in these parts that have continued in the postcolonial decades where the youth are seen to be a crucial social class. Youth politics became legitimised because of this history. It is significant to stress the richness of this history, to the extent that in Assam, the formation of the first Students’ Association in 1916 predated the formation of the regional branch of the Indian National Congress (1921). This pioneering role played by students as an organised force in the anti-colonial struggle created a certain legitimacy for them in the popular psyche.
Dr. Soibam Haripriya: Yes, there is a historical connection to the youth movement and student movement (not to use the terms interchangeably). In the northeast, the 1970s was a time of student movements against what is seen as demographic imbalance. Meghalaya saw a similar student union-led agitation. In Manipur, in what is remembered and commemorated now as Chaklam Khongchat Numit (hunger march), students protested the artificial famine created by the government in collusion with the business class. This agitation, which occurred in 1965, was met with violent retaliation by the state, where a few students were killed on the spot and one succumbed to the injuries later. This incident is instrumental in the setting up of the All Manipur Students’ Union (AMSU).
Dr. Kaustubh Deka: For the larger audience, it is important to unpack this whole “uniqueness” or “exceptional nature” of the northeast. There is a unique situation one observes in a place like northeast India: geopolitically it is located in a transitional zone, and socially and politically it is at the margins of the nation’s imagination of itself. The militarisation of the region is crucial to understanding the position of ordinary young people at a university. When I visited Manipur University a few years back, despite being from the region, I was taken aback to see armoured vehicles inside the university campus. I realised that while growing up in Assam I have seen university campuses with the presence of paramilitary security check posts inside the campus, and therefore the militarisation of educational spaces has become normalised to the extent that we do not realise its peculiarity. This context is crucial, and many societies of South Asia going through a military transition or volatile phase will relate to this — how it makes the youth rebel or conform;
Dr. Soibam Haripriya: You are right. The region is a geographical periphery and a political periphery, and therefore it is also the periphery of an imagination. The process of demilitarisation of university campuses — demands for a safe space for education and a space for critical thinking is raised time and again but for reasons that you also enumerate such voices does not reach the mainland India and that is why we need this conversation today. Of course, there is conformity, as you rightly said, but there is also resistance. The resistance is seen as “troublemakers” — this kind of simplistic reduction can be addressed when we reflect on these movements in the region.
Dr. Kaustubh Deka: When we discuss literature on youth movements, one point we often find across the board is the focus on the location of youth movement — university campuses are often said to be one of the most significant locations where these networks are built. If we take stock of some of the significant youth-led social movements or youth protests in the region, we have to talk about the immediate post-independence decades, with the movements led by youth against price rise, and demands for industries. Now the youth are talking about environmental concerns, issues of ecology, gender equality and so on. People’s identity consciousness also evolved through various youth-led movements, where young people talked about recognition of language, identity, ethnicity, etc. Against this backdrop, the role of universities keeps changing. Recently we saw the mobilisation against the Citizenship Amendment Act[iii] (CAA) proposed by the government of India (it was subsequently passed). A large section in northeast India felt it was detrimental for the “indigenous” societies. The opposition to it began with university-based mobilisations, that spread to other parts of society. The northeast and Assam took a significant lead, and later it spread to different parts of the country.
Dr. Soibam Haripriya: The anti-CAA protest is something we can reflect on as primarily a youth-led protest (not to say that only youths were part of the protest). It was an intergenerational mobilisation, as there were young people on the streets but also people from various groups coming together, and intergenerational mobilisation is something we can learn from. The anti-CAA protest is an investment in the idea of what it means to be a citizen. The pandemic gave rise to different forms of mobilisation.
Dr. Kaustubh Deka: Since you mention the pandemic, it will be interesting to see how this will affect youth mobilisation and youth politics, and what new trends are coming up. My own university (Dibrugarh University) was one of the hubs of anti-CAA protests. The impact of the pandemic was visible, as it brought a halt to the momentum of the whole protest, and after that the whole equation changed. The dependence of people on the state intensified, and at the same time state surveillance on citizens heightened. This brings me to the reflection of new emergent trends; the youth is also adapting to these changes. You must be observing the same in Manipur, in northeast India, that in the past few years there has been a new type of protest in the form of music and new forms of poetry/ literature; young people are making their point in a new language so to say. In today’s discussion, we have centred our discussion around organised groups, youth organisation and youth as a collective, but youths are also making their impact felt through their strong individual initiatives. It is bringing refreshing change in the whole gamut of youth politics/ youth protest.
Dr. Soibam Haripriya: While we are talking about music, I would like to mention the exemplary work done by groups like Imphal Talkies. Officially they began with an album that they produced in 2009 called Tiddim Road. I mention this because investment in democracy is something we have been talking about today, and one of the works of Akhu Chingangbam, founder of Imphal Talkies, has been his project called A Native Tongue called Peace. I find it interesting because it is a peace project that cuts across ethnic/community lines. The project is officially over, but he continues to engage with children orphaned by violence by using music.
Dr. Kaustubh Deka: Not only is it another form of protest, I would say, but it is one of the most timely and pragmatic ones. There is an unleashing of aspiration; there is now outmigration from the region not just due to displacement but also driven by this aspiration. So, the youth in the region right now are expressing themselves through both these domains of anxiety and aspiration. New kinds of youth expression are reflecting this complexity that is present in the region right now. It is reflective of the complexity that is there in the lives of youth burdened with anxiety but trying to find some meaning and a brighter connotation of their lived reality at the same time. That is how our youth is moving on. That is what one should try to engage with, try to make more sense of and where the conversation needs to go towards.
Dr. Soibam Haripriya: How we as individuals, political organisations or civil society groups can be invested in these aspirations of the youth can be by supporting such initiatives.
Dr. Kaustubh Deka: For me the takeaway from today’s discussion would be to relook at the figure of youth in northeast India as a heterogeneous category, as an intersectional category and as a social category, which resonates with the larger lived reality of the region, beyond the specific geographical boundary of northeast India but with similar societies where youth have a transgenerational effect. If we talk of our own lifetime, when we were young the northeast that we saw was in many ways a different place than today. Our realities are changing rapidly, and this puts the youth in a volatile situation. That flux is something one must be aware of. I would urge that we must engage with the topic of youth and social change in a more nuanced manner, because we have to understand the context more and we have to try to also connect with the larger background of democracy, the larger issues of acceptance and the larger issue of social change.
Dr. Soibam Haripriya: You are right, the youth are in a flux everywhere, but we were trying to bring out the particularities of the realities of the northeast. I thank Heinrich Boell Foundation for giving us the platform to have this conversation.
The views and analysis contained in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. The authors are solely responsible for the information provided.
[i] The northeastern region, consisting of the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura, shares international boundaries with Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China and Nepal. This region has experienced the fallout of the nation-state project and has been marked by armed conflicts as part of self-determination movements.
[ii] The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, is an act of the Parliament of India that grants special powers to the Indian Armed Forces to maintain public order in "disturbed areas". The act has attracted widespread criticism for causing human rights violations, and there has been longstanding demand in the region for its abolition.
[iii] The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, was passed by the Parliament of India on 11 December 2019. It amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 by providing a pathway to Indian citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians, and who arrived in India before the end of December 2014. It thus adds into the provisions of acquiring Indian citizenship given by the Citizenship Act of 1955, namely norms of birth, descent, registration, naturalisation and by incorporation of foreign territory into India. Significantly, before this amendment there was no provision in the Indian Citizenship Acts to grant citizenship particularly to migrants or refugees. Critics, however, point out that by making special provisions for citizenship on the grounds of religious persecution, the act has introduced religion as a new principle for the first time into the Indian citizenship laws. The act also reduces the aggregate period of residential qualification for citizenship for those eligible from 11 years to six years of residency in India in the case of the aforementioned non-Muslim migrants from these three countries. Most states of northeast India that are under special provisions for tribal areas as per norms of the Indian Constitution are declared exempted from the purview of this amendment.