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Explaining Divergent Outcomes of the Mizo and Bodo Conflicts in the Ethno-Federal Context of India’s Northeast

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

The thesis is a comparative investigation into the varying outcomes of conflict between two cases of identity movements and armed struggles- those of the Mizos and Bodos- in India’s Northeast region. The Mizo case is considered as an example of successful ‘ethnic accommodation’ while the Bodo conflict in the state of Assam continues to pose serious challenges to the stability of the region. The study seeks to understand the role that the architecture of asymmetric federal arrangements in the region played in contributing to the variation in outcomes between the two cases.
The thesis presents an account of longue durée processes of state formation that have contributed to the shaping of ethnofederal institutions in the Northeast. The thesis situates Northeast India in a political geography historically characterized by low population densities and the presence of two crucially linked topographies- hills and valleys – in which control over people rather than territories were the focus of successive rulers. It demonstrates that the high costs of rule and rising geopolitical concerns of the British government in its eastern frontier in the early 20th century, resulted in the institutionalization of fixed boundaries in the hill areas of the region. This, the thesis argues, facilitated the shift from a historically fluid hill-valley dynamics into more rigid and reified categories. These developments in turn determined the nature of identities, social cleavages and the ways in which political entrepreneurs subsequently deployed them in their struggle for power in each case.
Using this framework, I thus show that divergent colonial and post-colonial state formation processes in the areas now known as Mizoram and Bodoland (in Assam), determined by the position of the two ethnic groups in the transformed hill-plains dynamics, are fundamental to understanding the research puzzle. The thesis demonstrates that colonial territorial institutions in the hill areas of Assam had a direct bearing on the construction and mobilization of the ‘hill tribe’ identity of the Mizos and were reflected in the architecture of postcolonial institutions of territorial autonomy accompanied by special rights for Mizos as well as minorities within these hill regions in the Northeast. As opposed to this, Bodos, by virtue of their plains-dwelling status were not considered suitable candidates for territorial forms of autonomy after independence. This difference, the thesis argues, is crucial to analyse the subsequent variance in the conflict outcomes in the Mizo and the Bodo cases. In the latter case, a movement for recognition of a territorialised identity eventually led to the creation of a Bodoland Territorial Council, but unlike Mizoram, absence of any safeguards for local minorities within this institutional arrangement further aggravated the conflict.
Based on extensive elite interviews and field observations, conducted in Mizoram and Assam over the course of 12 months, I thus analyse the effects of longer term historical processes of state formation on the strategies employed by political actors in the present and their impacts on ethnic conflict or accommodation. In conclusion, the thesis reflects on the limits of ethnofederalism as a general solution to ethnic conflict in India’s Northeast, and discusses the distinctiveness of the region within the wider context of Indian federalism.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date2017


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