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Innocents caught in the crossfire

Violent conflicts between tribal communities, and between militant groups and the Indian State, have plagued the northeastern states of Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur for so many years that children born in Manipur after 1980 have never known the meaning of peace. In the absence of comprehensive official studies, K S Subramanian uses his own field experience and that of others to record the devastating effect of the conflicts on women and children

Manipur, Nagaland, and Tripura in the northeast are affected by active political conflict today. The whole of Nagaland and Manipur and significant areas in Tripura are under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 as amended in 1972, in view of the ‘disturbed conditions’ prevailing there. This law empowers ‘‘any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the Armed Forces’’ to shoot to kill on suspicion, destroy armed dumps, arrest any persons without warrant and search any premises without a warrant. No prosecution, suit or any legal proceeding against any such officer shall lie without the previous sanction of the central government.

The normal operation of the law and order and development machinery is not possible in such conditions. Human rights violations are common. Paramilitary forces, excluding army units, outnumber the civilian police in the entire region (see table V). Though the Assam Rifles is said to be the oldest police force in the country, it is actually a paramilitary force under the Indian army.  

Few human rights organisations have made a serious study of the impact of violence on the lives of ordinary people, especially women and children, in this region. Security analysis is a complex area, which should include the human rights of women and children as an essential component. In the northeastern context, there have been excessive political conflicts and human rights violations and tardy or negative state response. The conflict in the region began after the induction of the army into Nagaland in 1955. The insurgency in that state is often considered ‘the mother of all insurgencies’ in the region.

Conflict in the region is aggravated by drug trafficking, money laundering and arms trafficking in addition to migration. Neighbouring Bangladesh has the world’s highest population density of 1,000 persons per square kilometre but the northeastern states are thinly populated with porous borders. Political conflict leads to cross-border population movements. Tripura, once a tiny tribal majority state, was transformed by migration from Bangladesh into a non-tribal majority state, which caused ethnic violence.

Table I:  Conflict-affected states in the Northeast: Incidents of violence, 1997- 2001

States 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Arunachal Pradesh 10 2 45 74 46
Assam 427 735 451 536 458
Manipur 425 255 281 245 265
Meghalaya 14 16 52 73 70
Mizoram 1 -- 4 14 1
Nagaland 380 202 294 195 128
Tripura 303 586 616 826 370

Source: Annual report 2001-2002, Ministry of Home Affairs, GOI

Table II:   Conflict-affected states in the Northeast: Strength of police forces (2001-2002)

States Police Stations Area (sq km) Population, 2001 (in millions) Total police forces deployed
Arunachal Pradesh 66 83743 1.09 13800
Assam 240 78438 26.6 112846
Manipur 57 22327 2.4 30968
Meghalaya 26 22429 2.3 19162
Mizoram 31 21081 0.9 15600
Nagaland 45 16579 2.0 34774
Tripura 44 10486 3.2 28764

Source: Annual report 2001-2002, Ministry of Home Affairs, GOI

Table III: Conflict-affected states in the Northeast: Offences against Women (Indian Penal Code), 1991 & 1998

States Rape Molestation Kidnapping & abduction Eve Teasing Dowry Deaths Cruelty by Relatives
  1991 1998 1991 1998 1991 1998 1991 1998 1991 1998 1991 1998
Arunachal Pradesh 32 32 33 46 30 38 1 1 0 0 0 8
Assam 427 744 190 648 819 1117 10 12 14 32 199 739
Manipur 13 13 47 13 81 60 1 0 0 0 0 0
Meghalaya 27 42 17 12 5 16 0 0 0 1 0 0
Mizoram 44 84 45 53 1 4 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nagaland 1 13 1 4 1 14 0 0 0 0 0 0
Tripura 57 73 82 73 68 39 4 0 7 10 41 115
Total 601 1001 415 849 1005 1288 16 13 21 43 240 862
Jammu & Kashmir 124 178 282 516 415 629 143 361 9 9 3 18
India 9793 15031 20611 31051 12300 16381 10283 8122 5077 6917 15949 41317

Source: NHDR, 2001, GOI

Table IV: Conflict-affected states in the Northeast: Offences against Women and Children (Special and Local Laws), 1998 (per million population)

States Total


Against Women Against Children Against




Arunachal Pradesh 52.0 111.0 8.9 0.0 0.0
Assam 137.0 132.0 8.7 0.0 0.0
Manipur 269.ss0 36.0 2.9 0.0 0.0
Meghalaya 75.0 31.0 4.8 0.0 0.0
Mizoram 1427.0 156.0 54.4 0.0 0.0
Nagaland 369.0 20.0 2.5 0.0 0.0
Tripura 961.0 89.0 4.5 0.0 0.0
India 4534 135.0 6.0 26.4 4.4

 Source: NHDR, 2001, GOI

Table V: Strength of civil police, armed police and paramilitary police in the Northeast

 State Civil Police Armed Police Total India Reserve Battalions
Arunachal Pradesh 2987 2913 5900 2
Assam 22977 30946 53923 5
Manipur 4743 9241 13984 3
Meghalaya 5955 2626 8581 2
Mizoram 2948 3852 6800 2
Nagaland 7367 9020 16387 2
Tripura 7786 4596 12382 4
Total 57263 64694 121957 21

Source: (GOI, 2001-2002)

Table VI: Security situation in Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura 

Sr.No.        Head               Nagaland
1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
1 Incidents 380   202 294 195 128
2 Extremist Killed 206 69 118 84 65
3 Extremist Arrested 129 64 39 81 80
4 Security Forces Killed 38 14 04 04 01
5 Arms Looted 37 13 15 --- ---
6 Arms Recovered 50 18 16 86 96
7 Extremist Surrendered 15 36 06 25 59
8 Civilian Killed 97 26 26 13 16


Sr.No. Head                      Manipur                                           Tripura
1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
1 Incidents 425 255 281 245 265 303 586 616 826 370
2 Extremist Killed 151 95 78 102 170 17 26 22 38 30
3 Extremist Arrested 435 267 142 117 577 154 399 335 798 547
4 Security Forces Killed 111 62 64 51 26 50 25 42 17 36
5 Arms Looted 74 58 147 140 16 47 06 26 14 23
6 Arms Recovered 211 95 65 78 74 95 154 76 137 95
7 Extremist Surrendered 13 01 01 33 07 437 03 57 95 373
8 Civilian Killed 233 87 89 93 65 220 229 248 360 237

Source: GOI, MHA, 2001-2002

Table VI indicates higher levels of armed police and paramilitary police deployment (including India Reserve Police deployment) as compared to civil police, which aggravates the security situation in the region. The tables point to serious lack of security for ordinary people in Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura arising from the number of violent incidents. The following assessment of the impact of violence on the human rights of ordinary people in these three states is based on fieldwork and discussions by the author supplemented by documentation by human rights agencies. 


Manipur is a strategic state bordering Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram to the north and west, with an extensive border with Myanmar to the east and south. Political violence and confrontation between armed opposition groups and government forces is a dominant feature in the state leading to serious violations, by both state and non-state agents, of the rights of ordinary people, especially women and children.   

In 1980, the whole of the state was declared a “disturbed area” under the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur Special Powers) Act, 1958. The Act confers on government armed forces broadly defined powers to shoot to kill. This law fosters a climate that enables law enforcement agencies to use force with impunity. Unlawful killings of suspected members of armed opposition groups have resulted from the systematic use of lethal force as an alternative to arrest. Civilians, especially women and children, have been among the victims. All children born after 1980 in the state are innocent victims of a state of siege and have never known the meaning of peace.  In 1997, the Supreme Court of India upheld the validity of the law, but human right agencies hold that it violates Article 6(1), 9 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Redress for victims of human rights violations, including a growing number of children, has, for many years, been impossible to obtain in Manipur, although the Supreme Court had suggested measures to protect against human rights violations under the above law. The population of Manipur (about 2 million) can be divided into two main groups, the Meiteis and the hill tribes. Most of the Meiteis live in the smaller valley area of the state, while the hill tribes live in the surrounding, much larger, hill areas. The hill people can be subdivided mainly into Nagas and the Kuki-Chins or Kuki-Mizos (together consisting of 29 major tribes and 14 minor tribes). People from other tribal groups have also migrated into the valley region from neighbouring states.

Manipur has eight districts, three in the valley and five in the hills. The valley districts are Jiribam, Thoubal and Bishnupur. The hill districts are Churachandpur, Chandel, Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong. There are 30 administrative sub-divisions and 31 community/tribal development blocks. The density of population is 579 per sq km in the valley and 34 in the hills. The Autonomous District Councils under the Indian Constitution administer the hill districts while the decentralised Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) have been set up in the valley region. About 37% of the nearly 2 million people are children up to 14 years of age.

The Meiteis constituted the ruling establishment in the former princely state of Manipur. In the late-1940s, the Meiteis were deprived of the benefits available to tribals after their conversion to Hinduism. But the hill tribes continued to receive such benefits. This led to a feeling of discrimination and generated bitterness in the Meiteis. Historical memories of their past glory and delay in the formation of the new state of Manipur added to the discontent. A militant revivalist movement premised on the state’s return to its pre-Hindu identity arose, coupled with a demand for secession from India. Population growth and the struggle to earn an adequate livelihood compounded the problem. Electoral politics has only added to the political instability with opportunistic alliances in government. Manipur thus has more than 30 major and minor armed opposition groups operating against government forces.  

The United Liberation Front (UNLF) was founded in the 1960s by Samarendra Singh to achieve an independent socialist state. A breakaway group led by O Sudhir Kumar set up a government-in-exile in neighbouring East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), called Revolutionary Government of Manipur (RGM), with the objective of liberating the state by armed struggle. Following the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, the Meitei secessionist groups received a setback. Some accepted the amnesty offered by the state government but some others, led by N Bisheswar Singh, went to China in 1975 in search of support. On his return in 1978, Bisheswar Singh set up the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to achieve independence by armed struggle. Other armed underground organisations also came into existence in the late-’70s and the early-‘80s. In 1980 the Indian government imposed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in the valley.

In the hill region inhabited by Nagas, the Naga militant groups, mainly the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Muivah), remain strong. An ethnic conflict has erupted between the Nagas and the other major hill tribe, the Kukis, mainly over the land issue. A number of Kuki militant groups have emerged, especially the Kuki Nationalist Army (KNA) and the Kuki National Front (KNF). Other groups such as the Paites, the Hmars and the Vaipheis have also launched identity-based struggles. Human rights violations perpetrated by these groups as well as by the armed forces of the government aggravate the distress of the common people.

Every person born after 1980 has lived under this Act, admitted to be abnormal in Indian law and considered a violation of international humanitarian law. Children have been witnesses, survivors and direct victims of armed conflict between the state and the various armed opposition groups. Civilians, not engaged in armed conflict, have been frequent casualties and are often children and youth. Pre-school education is affected by poor functioning of schools, especially in remote areas. Funds for teaching aids are disbursed infrequently. The right of the indigenous children to receive education in their own languages, to be familiar with their own histories and cultural values, has been denied. The violent political context thus affects the implementation of an entire range of educational, nutritional, health and other services. Funds earmarked for nutritional supplements have not been disbursed for many years. Many case studies exist on the impact of conflict in Manipur on women and children.


Nagaland is unique for its enduring conflict, which has had a deeply damaging impact on the security, survival, development and participation of women and children. The conflict between the Indian government and the militants in this tribal-dominated state (88% of the population is Scheduled Tribes) began as soon as the Indian state came into existence in 1947 and has lasted to this day.

The Naga people were never part of the freedom struggle launched by the Indian nationalists. Historically, they had enjoyed a separate identity even during British occupation of India. This experience, coupled with considerable misunderstanding on the part of Indian nationalists, is seen by many to be at the bottom of the trouble between India and the Naga people. The history of the conflict between India and the Naga movement for independence is a complex and tortuous one. Several factors have contributed to the persistence of the conflict even after the formation of the state of Nagaland in 1963, the introduction of a democratic political setup in the state, and the holding of regular elections.

No comprehensive study has yet been made of the various impacts on ordinary people including women and children, of the conflict between the Indian government forces and elements of the armed Naga underground. However, anecdotal and journalistic accounts do reveal a serious picture. Women and children became the main victims when in the past village after village was burnt down, concentration camps were set up, forced labour imposed and large-scale internal displacement of populations occurred along with everyday incidents of torture, rape and killings.

Women have borne the brunt of this conflict which has created a large number of young widows and orphans. Naga villages today are crowded with single mothers struggling to support their children. Many of the women and children, themselves victims of violence, are burdened with other victims of torture as dependents for life. Rape victims are especially vulnerable, as they cannot marry again easily and have to live with both the mental trauma and the social stigma.

In the absence of a comprehensive survey, we may briefly examine the experience of one village in the state to bring out the dimensions of the impact of conflict on women and children.

The village of Khonoma, not far from the state capital Kohima, was the birthplace of perhaps the best-known Naga leader of modern times, Angami Zapu Phizo. It is estimated that about 70 men of the village, mainly in the age group of 25-45, were killed in the hostilities during 1956-1975. Assuming that, on an average, each man killed left behind a young widow and three children (that is, four dependents in all) who had to eke out a living somehow, a figure of 280 dependents emerges for the village. Even if one assumes that each family has a plot of land, the figure of 280 dependents is still too large for a single village to support. Multiply this by 1,056 villages in the state as a whole and the figure of dependents in the state is 95,680 (or 73,920 households). This figure relates only to the period 1956-1975. The years following the Shillong Accord of 1975 (which was not accepted by some Naga groups) have seen further large-scale killings as a result of the fratricidal blood-letting among the Naga underground factions which emerged. Briefly, the impact of all this on the Naga family structure is follows:

  • While the ‘woman of the house’ is highly regarded and is the mainstay of the traditional family economy, in the event of the sudden death of the husband, she has to shoulder the entire family burden, which reduces her to a life of hardship. Most of these women are young widows and despite some help from the clan, they feel bound to rear their children the way their late husbands would have liked.
  • The lack of a father affects children in many ways. They feel bound to respect their fathers’ memory and ‘sacrifice‘ for the cause and regard Indian security forces as their main enemy. Many young men, hardly in their teens, take to the gun and join the underground thus entering a vicious cycle of killing and getting killed.
  • After the fighting, some men find it necessary to go to work on the land, while others would need to go to school. Still others end up as illiterates.
  • Internal displacement resulting from the conflict forces many to go and live in the jungle where they are unable to retain their traditional loyalty to their native village and its cultural ethos and this results in a loss of identity.
  • The struggle for survival after a life of conflict results in many becoming victims of disease: beriberi, diarrhoea, hypoproteinemia, water-borne illnesses, and typhoid, swelling of the joints and vitamin deficiencies. Salt is difficult to get for those forced to live in the jungle. Eating cold and uncooked food in order not to attract enemy attention causes vitamin deficiencies.

The splintering of the underground movement, which began in the 1980s, led to fratricidal killings and has had its own distinct consequences. One estimate puts the loss of life as a result of the conflict during 1997-99 at 440, abductions at 211 and defections from one faction to another at 470. Another estimate places the figure of killings during the 1990s at about 2,000. Assume two children per victim and a total of 4,000 youths are fast growing up to ‘take their place’ in society. Many of those killed were potential leaders at the village, district, and state levels. In a state with a total population of only about 1.2 million, the loss of leadership potential this implies is significant.


Tripura, like Manipur, Nagaland and Assam, faces the problem of an armed tribal militancy directed at the state government. More than half the total area of the state has been declared “disturbed” under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. The administration is largely dominated by non-tribals who are seen as biased against tribals in the framing of policies and their implementation. An example often cited is the Dumbur hydroelectric project, which led to large-scale displacement of tribal families when good tribal land was submerged to generate a few megawatts of electricity for urban areas with non-tribal populations. Anti-poverty programmes have not resulted in reduction of poverty. These factors have led to divisions along tribal and non-tribal lines and raised issues of ethnicity, identity and sub-nationalism among tribal youth. The state’s political framework has not provided an effective platform for expression of these issues, and insurgent groups in nearby states have become role models for local tribal youth.

From the 1940s onwards, a series of ethnic movements emerged to articulate the tribal cause. The limited expansion of educational opportunities in the 1940s created a new group of educated tribal youths, discontented at being denied posts in the administration. The princely state had preferred to employ Bengalis. Tribal youth organisations emerged and served as a vehicle for the development of Tripuri nationalism and communism.

In 1967, a new tribal youth organisation, the Tripura Upajati Juba Samithi (TUJS), was formed. It demanded, among other things, the introduction of an autonomous district council for the tribal people, the recognition of Kok Borok, the indigenous language, as an official language and the restoration of tribal lands alienated by non-tribals. In 1977, the TUJS became an electoral force to reckon with. It did well in the elections in 1982 and 1985 for the Tribal Autonomous District Council (formed in 1979). Later on, the TUJS provided impetus to the formation of a guerilla group titled Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), headed by Bijoy Hrangkhal, which became the fountainhead of the two main militant groups operating in Tripura today: the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT).

The setting up of the Tribal Autonomous District Council resulted in an anti-tribal uprising in 1980 in which over 2,000 people, mainly tribals, were killed. In the subsequent period, despite the strengthening of the Tribal Autonomous District Council to empower the tribals, tribal discontent has not been assuaged mainly on account of political failures.  Recent years have seen an increasing number of violent incidents perpetrated by various militant outfits such as killings and kidnappings for ransom. The Government of India has had to deploy hundreds of central military and paramilitary units in the state.

There is a serious paucity of information and analysis on the status of women and children affected by conflict in Tripura. Some fieldwork-based observations are as below: 

  • When the conflict peaks there is large-scale burning of houses and other dwelling units, resulting in serious displacement and dislocation of people, especially women and children. Children have had to be put up in makeshift camps for long periods, which has had an adverse impact on their schooling, food security, and particularly their health.
  • The children of indigenous communities, always neglected, have been very badly affected.
  • The psychological and economic impacts have been significant. Field-level studies are needed to assess the situation.
  • Cerebral malaria is a major affliction among women and children. Ongoing armed conflicts prevent access to medical care.
  • The central paramilitary forces deployed in the state have recently launched a community action programme, which includes visits by medical and paramedical staff, which has been welcomed, especially in interior tribal habitations.
  • Many tribal habitations are inaccessible due to the difficult terrain as well as the adverse security scenario.

Tripura is the only state in the northeast where the indigenous tribal people, once the majority population, have been reduced to a minority as a result of the influx of refugees from across the international border with Bangladesh. The indigenous people, who accounted for 95% of the population in the 1931 census, were a mere 31% in the 1991 census. In addition to controlling land and having a monopoly on trade and business, the immigrants also dominate government jobs. The conflict situation, relating basically to the land issue, has persisted from around the 1940s to the present. Demographic and political forces have further conspired to thrust political power firmly into the hands of non-tribal immigrants. The aggravated disadvantage lends a sharper edge to the ongoing militancy of indigenous communities. These developments have had an adverse impact on women and children. There is a particular need and scope for a comprehensive study of this impact.

The impact of the conflict on women and children in the region during the last several decades is a subject that calls for serious examination by official and non-official agencies.

Select References

  1. Baruah, Sanjib (2005) Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India, OUP, New Delhi
  2. Bhattacharyya H (1999) Communism in Tripura, Ajanta Publications, New Delhi  
  3. Chasie, Charles  (2000) The Naga Imbroglio: A Personal Perspective, United Publishers, Guwahati
  4. Government of India  (2001-2002) Annual Report
  5. Government of India (2002) Planning Commission, National Human Development Report 2000
  6. Government of India (2005-06), (2001-02) Ministry of Home Affairs, Annual Reports
  7. Government of India (2004) National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (NCSCST), Seventh Report 2001-2002
  8. Hazarika S (2000) Rites of Passage: Border Crossings, Imagined Homelands, India’s East and Bangladesh, Penguin
  9. Misra, U (2000) The Periphery Strikes Back: Challenges to the Nation State in Assam and Nagaland, OUP, New Delhi
  10. Rustomji, Nari (1973) Enchanted Frontiers, OUP
  11. Rustomji Nari (1983) Imperilled Frontiers, Oxford
  12. Subramanian, K S (2000) ‘Employment Generation in the Northeast’, Kurukshetra, Monthly Journal of the Ministry of Rural Development, New Delhi, Volume 48 No 10 (July) 
  13. Subramanian K S (Jan 2001) ‘Human Rights of the Tribal People: The Basic Issue in Tripura’, Mainstream, Republic Day Special Number
  14. Subramanian K S (2003) Development Policies and Programmes in the Northeastern Region: A Case Study of Tripura (Institute of Applied Manpower Research), New Delhi 
  15. Subramanian, K S (2004) ‘Manipur Fiasco and the Crisis of Human Rights in the Northeast’, Mainstream, New Delhi, September 18.
  16. Subramanian K S (2004) ‘Human Rights of Women and Children in Nagaland’, Mainstream, New Delhi, November 7.
  17. Tezpur District Mahila Samiti (1995) North East India: Future Perspectives

  (K S Subramanian, formerly of the Indian Police Service, was Director-General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development, Government of Tripura) 

Infochange News & Features, February 2010