History of North-East India
Commonly known as the “Land of Seven Sisters”, North-East India is the easternmost region of the country. North-East India is a rendezvous of multiple communities, faiths, and cultures. Today it comprises 8 states namely Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura - often called “The Seven Sisters”, and Sikkim - referred to as the “Brother” to the seven states. It is believed that these specific names were given to this region due to their interdependence on each other. North-East India is officially part of the North Eastern Council (NEC), constituted in 1971 as the nodal agency for the development of the northeastern states. The entire region is connected to the mainland through a narrow strip of land known as the “Chicken Neck”, which was created in 1947. The city of Guwahati in Assam is regarded as the “Gateway to the North-East”. Bestowed with rich natural resources, history, culture, and traditions, Northeast India is a reservoir of bewitching diversity.
North-East India has witnessed many changes in society, economy, and polity throughout its history. The picture of North-East India we see today is very different from what it was in its antiquity. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find any well-documented historiography of the social and cultural past of this region. Proper documentation of events in these states only occurs during the British era. However, only its fragments can be found today, in the form of monographs and census data. Hence to reconstruct the past of the North-East, historians have had to rely heavily on oral traditions like folk tales, folk songs, myths, and legends, as well as study the symbolic representation of rituals and traditions, in the form of festivals and fairs.
It is believed that North-East India finds a mention in the epics of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, as well as the Puranas. Various tribes residing in these states, accept this lineage and continue to follow the prescribed traditions and rituals to date. The folklore associated with these regions further crystallises their belief. For instance, the Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh traces its lineage to Rukmini, Lord Krishna’s wife. Similarly, the Bodo tribe of Assam believes that they are the descendants of Hidimba, the wife of Bhima.
It was from the 19th Century CE, during the British Raj, that the territories of this area came to be recognised as “North-East India”. Prior to this, all territories of the northeast existed as different kingdoms and were ruled by different kings and chiefs. Unfortunately, the availability of written records in this region prior to British rule is very scarce. This was mainly due to the lack of a written script for most of the tribes, with few exceptions like the Ahoms of Assam and the Meiteis of Manipur. The Buranjis of Assam, i.e. the historical chronicles and manuscripts associated with the Ahom Dynasty, record the 600 years of their continuous rule in Upper Assam, and the rule of the Koch Dynasty in the western and southern parts of Assam. In Manipur, the history of the Meiteis is documented in various chronicles like the Ninghthou Kangbalon and the Cheitharol Kumbaba. The Manikya Dynasty was the ruling house in the Twipra Kingdom (now Tripura state) from the 15th to the 20th century CE. In Mizoram, the administration and political affairs were looked upon by the Chiefs of various clans. These Chiefs were considered the absolute proprietors of all lands within their territorial jurisdiction. Meghalaya was ruled by kings as well as local chieftains. While the Khasi and Jaintia societies were ruled by the king or Syiem and his ministers, the Garo societies were administered by the local chieftains called Nokmas. Similarly, the villages of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh were under the administration of their respective chieftains, while Sikkim was ruled by the Namgyal-Chogyal dynasty, from 1642 to 1975.
British Raj in North-East India
The long dynastic rule in the northeastern states of India helped to keep invaders at bay for a long time - including the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals as well as the British, until Burma invaded and established its control in Assam and Manipur. This resulted in a conflict of power between the Burmese and the British. Eventually, the British were able to annex Burma following a series of wars known as the Anglo-Burmese Wars. By the end of the first war (1824-1826), the British took over control of Assam and Manipur. This led to the signing of a peace treaty between the British and the Burmese, called the ‘Treaty of Yandabo’ on 24 February 1826. Following this, the British started annexing different territories of the region to expand their authority. This included the kingdom of Cachar- inhabited by the Kachari tribe, followed by the annexation of the Jaintia and Khasi hills, the annexation of Assam- which terminated the Ahom rule, and finally the annexation of the Naga Hills and the Lushai Hills. During this period, North-East India became a part of the Bengal province.
However, the northeastern states constantly challenged the British hegemony in India, mostly in the form of tribal uprisings. Towards the end of the 20th century CE, these uprisings took a more nationalistic form and finally integrated with the larger independence movement in the country. North-East India played a huge role in India’s struggle for freedom. Freedom fighters from all over the region participated in this movement against British imperialism. Some of the legends include Bhogeswari Phukanani from Assam, U. Tirot Singh from the Khasi Hills, Shoorvir Pasaltha Khuangchera from Mizoram, and Rani Gaidinliu from Manipur.
Towards the end of the 20th century CE, the territories of northeastern India were formed into different states. At the time that India gained its independence in 1947, there were only 3 states - Assam, and the princely states of Manipur and Tripura. Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland were part of the larger territory of Assam. Eventually, they got separated to form their own distinct states. Assam was the first to gain statehood with the rest of the country in 1947. This was followed by Nagaland in 1963, Meghalaya, Tripura and Manipur in 1972, Arunachal Pradesh in 1975 and Mizoram in 1987. Sikkim was added as a state of India in 1975 and finally integrated with other northeastern states in 2002. Unlike the process of state formation in the mainland, which took place primarily on a linguistic basis, the northeastern states were formed on the basis of ethnic and tribal identities. Each tribe identifies itself with its own distinct culture, traditions, festivals, and art forms.
The North-East Today
The 8 distinct states of North-East India cover an area of 262,179 Sq.Km. There are more than 200 different ethnic groups residing in these states. Each of these ethnic groups has its own dialect and script. Along with it, these groups also have their own extravagant fairs and festivals, traditional attires, delicious cuisines, unique handicrafts, exemplary literary works, and an enchanting trove of music and other art forms. Blessed with abundant natural resources as well flamboyant cultures, the northeastern states of India stand as the epitome of grace and heritage.