Secessionism and the State: A Question of Legitimacy


India is no stranger to secessionist sentiments. Since its very nascence, India has borne witness to various regional movements rallying for the right to self-determination and independence from the Republic. Given the sheer size and diversity of the Indian populous, it has been a consistent balancing act for the Indian state to address and placate Ethno-nationalist separatist groups.

Secessionism in India can be traced to two discernable periods. During the 1940s, as the British were withdrawing and leaders of the new state were canvassing for support – Kashmir, Travancore Hyderabad and Nagaland stated their intentions of not wanting to be included in the India of the then-contemporary imagination. To this list, Griffths (2016) adds Baluchistan, Khalistan, Sikkim and Pakistan1. The second secessionist wave of the 1960s and 1970s, saw Kashmir and Khalistan appealing for their freedom again. There were also steady movements stirring in the North-Eastern states of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Bodoland and Mizoram, each aiming to establish its own independent unit.

Secessionism in North-East India

The North-East has been far more susceptible to insurgency and instability than any other region. The diversity of identities and consequent demands made by separatist groups have posed ethnic and ideological challenges to the state for decades2. Despite the intense parallel movements in Assam,

Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland, the region has only witnessed one successful territorial secession,

i.e. in Bhutan. The Bhutanese secession of 1971, was facilitated by the status of Bhutan as a non-core state3 and the assurance of Bhutan’s dependence on India4, in light of the territorial threat posed by China.

Given the proximity of the states and their distance from the Hindi speaking – Hindu dominated capital in New Delhi, three common triggers have been identified by Griffiths (2016). These triggers have been used as fodder to gain endogenous support for agitation. The first pertained to the increasing centrist policies of the Indira Gandhi regime and poor socio-economic development in the North-East; this gave enough reason for the separatists to believe that the federal promise of democracy was farcical5. The second trigger was the entry of the Muslim Bengali-speaking East- Pakistan refugees in 1971. The lack of state action on this perceived encroachment further distressed the natives, as scarce resources and opportunities had to be reluctantly shared with unwelcome strangers6. The final trigger was the Center acting unilaterally and re-drawing state boundaries to make space for new states, causing pre-existing states to be stripped off their land.

Insurgency is seen as the last resort in face of a state which possesses a monopoly over violence. All insurgent groups claim to have been driven to violence and rebellion to protect their motherland. They maintain that the Centre refuses to constructively engage with their concerns7. Groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), have been clashing with the state and its appointed military and police personnel for decades. The use of counter-insurgency measures under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958), has been criticized deeply for absolving the military8 of human rights violations and further de-stabilising the North-Eastern belt.

State Response to Secessionism

The Center has been firm in its anti-secessionist stance. This can be seen in Jawaharlal Nehru’s message to Naga guerilla leader A.Z. Pihzo9 in the context of the Hydari Agreement of 1947 (quoted below). The legacy and history of a violent partition seem to have strengthened the government’s intention of retaining territory and protecting the unity of the nation.

We can give you complete autonomy, but never independence. You can never hope to be independent. No state, big or small, in India will be allowed to remain independent. We will use all our influence and power to suppress such tendencies.

Jawaharlal Nehru

The scope for discussing secession is immediately taken off the table, and groups irrespective of insurgent activities are labelled as terrorist out-fits unless they drop their claim to an independent dominion and their right to self-govern (Griffiths 2016). Only the Mizo secessionist movement, after two decades of instability and two years of civil strife, has been able to draw a concession from the Indian government by being allowed to form its own state in 1986 within the Republic.

The principle fear which prevents the state from having a softer stance on secession is that of setting a fatal precedent11. Talreja (1966) has argued that insurgency and secessionism in Jammu and Kashmir had reinvigorated similar sentiments in other regions, as can be noted by the increasing calls for Dravidastan (Tamil) and Khalistan (Sikh) in the 1980s. Thus, the state takes any and all measures to prevent and placate such movements, and if need be the also use its military powers to tame certain actors.

A Question of Legitimiacy: Self- Determination and Social-Contract

A philosophical enquiry is merited on the question of self-determination its inalienability as a right. Further, one must explore the powers of the state and ask the question of what is it which gives a state the authority to deny or limit such a right?

Chandhoke (2005) attempts an answer, and even though her arguments are made in the spirit of the Kashmir valley and its strife, her contentions still hold independent theoretical merit. She sets the context of secessions as a trade-off between the collective will of a group or ‘people’ to self-govern, and the territorial integrity of the larger state unit. Drawing from Buchanan (1999), she builds on to analogise the right of self-determination to the fundamental rights of the state, to say that they are not absolute. The right to secede is thus, reserved under special circumstances. 12 This assessment of the context and circumstance, under ideal conditions involves a dialogue between the state and its people since it concerns the well-being of both entities. However, secessions are anything but invited or ideal, and involve fundamental, often violent disagreements.

The Indian government has adopted the stance that, India as a post-colonial state has exhausted the right to self-determine with respect to the United Nations canon on human rights. Germany and Netherlands both reject India’s reading of Common Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which attributes the right to self-determine to all individuals, irrespective of colonial subjugation.13

To further explore a State’s authority to restrict the rights of and speak for its people, Chandhoke (ibid.) invokes the Hobbesian Social Contract. In her reading, the contract can be applied to the Indian democratic and federal context. Since the state derives its political legitimacy from the people, it must secure its right to self-preservation. There is a tradeoff between the freedom which the law of nature provides and the security provided by the state. In the context of secession, when the people perceive the state to violate the terms of this contract, they are no longer obliged to participate in the state; they can choose to rebel and re-elect their leaders. However, the contract theory offers an inadequate and a-historic perspective of the state-people dynamic and makes rebelling for the dissolution of the social contract14  a feasible prospect.

Conclusion: Balancing Perspectives

Secessionism in India is a political reality; it has the potential of being long-drawn and retaliatory. The people involved and the state does not share an easy relationship, and the dynamics of their negotiations are not fair and balanced. The government in its position as the protector of the state acts with the sole incentive to conserve the spirit of India. ‘Unity in Diversity, or as Hoeing 2010 puts it – Unity before Diversity, captures the essence of modern Indian state strategy. While the state may be acting in the interest of the public by preventing the political fragmentation of the state along ethnic lines; it is also responsible to best cater to its federal promise. According to the Hobbesian Social Contract, a state’s legitimacy is a product of its people’s confidence, and it can be recalibrated, i.e. new contract can be drawn. The Indian State in its conciliatory efforts has adopted the strategy of including separatist leaders in political procedures to represent their interests in the formal state apparatus. While this strategy appears to reconcile self-governance with the State’s need for legitimacy, it leaves one with the question of whether the scales of interest can ever actually achieve balance.


1 Griffiths 2016 notes Pakistan’s rejection of the Indian state and polity as the strongest of all. The call for the creation of an Islamic state was not only motivated by the belief that self-governance by the community is better, but also Muslim leaders’ conviction of the potential exclusion of their community’s interests in the formation of the Indian State.

2 Butt 2017

3 Bhutan and Sikkim were indirectly ruled and were given a protectorate status.

4 (Worden 1993) India as de-facto successors of the British signed the Treaty of Friendship with the Government of Bhutan which permitted Bhutan an autonomous and independent status.

5 Hoeing 2010

6 Dutta 2018 – quoting U. Bhaskar Rao (1947) on refugees in Assam – “He is dubbed a bundle of apathy impervious to the rehabilitation efforts bestowed upon him. And the severer critics proclaim, he is rebellious and obtrusive. Yet, how thoughtless and cruel all such comment is. It hardly takes into account the peculiar lineaments of the eastern tragedy.”

7 Sorens 2014 – “violence as the last choice”

8 Joshi 2016

9 Bartkus, 1999

10 Bartkus 1999, 58 – In his rhetoric, Nehru is successful in establishing a dynamic of power and nudges Pihzo to consider the possibility of a potentially violent state reprisal. Intimidation.

11 Griffiths 2016 – the risk of discussing secession with even one movement or group is regional fragmentation

12 Buchanan 1991 argues for the conditional and contextual application of the right to self-determine

13 Hoeing 2010

14 Hobbes 1988


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Chandhoke, Neera. 2005. “Of Broken Social Contracts and Ethnic Violence: The Case of Kashmir .” Crisis States Programme.

Dutta, Binayak. 2018. “Challenging Times, Challenged Body: Decolonisation, Displacement and Disease among East Pakistani Refugees in South Assam, 1947-1954.” In Playing with Nature, History and Politics of Environment in North-East India, by Sajal Nag, 260-277. Routledge Press.

Griffiths, Ryan D. 2016. “Chapter 6: India and Its Many Nations.” In Age of Secessionism, 162-192. Cambridge University Press.

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highlights-misuse-of-afspa-in-Manipur/article4921637.ece.) (Posted on 04 July 2016)

(accessed on 25 September 2020)

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of NLSIU, Lokniti or its members.

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