(Khalsa College, Amritsar)


The Government of Free India had to face a number of very serious problems at its inauguration at the stroke of midnight hour on August 14, 1947. There were–and there are–problems here, there and everywhere. India’s unknown North-East in the backwaters of civilisation with its one million primitive denizens is one of these problems.


The N. E. F. A. or the North-East Frontier Agency is little more than a name to many in India and abroad. Many more have never heard of it. A 35,000 square mile area ‘in the shape of a horse-shoe, surrounding Assam proper and having an international border more than 800 miles long with Tibet and Burma,’ the N. E. F. A. is an unknown world, ‘of beauty, vigour and awakening’ with a somewhat mysterious system of administration. Only a fringe–about 5,000 out of the 35,000 square miles of verdant hills, charming dales and dense forests of the North-Eastern frontiers of India beyond Assam–had an administration in any sense of the term during the British regime. The Government of the day contented themselves ‘by occasionally marching columns of troops through the foot-hills to flourish the Union Jack. They did not always pass without encountering stiff resistance.’ The policy was in part the outcome of a desire to leave the tribals alone and in part because of the difficulty of access. The area was nevertheless nominally administered by the Governor of Assam on behalf of the Viceroy and there was a semi-military police force–the Assam Rifles–to maintain law and order if the ‘tribesmen got too out of hand and raided each other or people in the plains.’


The sixty odd tribes–the main tribes are well over fifteen in number and the rest, their sub-divisions–on India’s North-Eastern Frontier, each with its own deity and own dialect thus lived a life of splendid isolation until two years after Independence. They were thus denied the benefits of civilisation.


The decision of the Government of Free India to extend their rule to this strange land was, therefore, a rather bold one. The tribals ‘had never before experienced anything but the rule of the brute-force which inter-tribal wars in all their horrors typified...’ To introduce a regular administration straightway was out of the question. A start was, therefore, made with the rudiments thereof. The N. E. F. A, was a department of the Government of Assam till 1950 when it was made a new administration under the External Affairs Ministry with the Governor of Assam administering the territory on behalf of the Government of India. Early in 1954, a senior I. C. S. official was appointed Adviser to the Governor to help him in the administration of the N. E. F. A. Steps were taken at the same time to strengthen file administration and to organise a new all-India Service, which has since been formed under the name of the Indian Frontier Administration Service (I. F. A. S.).


The N. E. F. A. bounded by Tibet on the north, by Burma on the east and south and by Bhutan on the west, actually comprises an area of 32,000 square miles in round figures. It is divided into six administrative units–(i) the Kameng Frontier Division, (ii) the Subansiri Frontier Division, (iii) the Lohit J Frontier Division, (iv) the Sian Frontier Division, (v) the Tirap Frontier Division and (vi) the Tuensang Frontier Division.


Caution and gradualness have been the watchword of Free India’s North-Eastern Frontier policy. Tuensang, the last of the administrative units noted above, was for example, given a regular, administration as late as November, 1951. About 3,000 square miles in the region are still a no man’s land to all intents and purposes.


The N. E. F. A. is administered by the Union Government of India through the Governor of Assam assisted and advised by an Adviser with experience of border administration and tribal areas. The six Divisions of the Agency are each in charge of a Political Officer with a military background. A number of well-qualified and responsible officials help the Political Officer in various nation-building departments, such as education, public health, agriculture, engineering and the like. A small contingent of the Assam Rifles posted in each Division functions as the police and guards the international frontiers along Bhutan and Tibet.


The population–between 8,00,000 and 10,00,000 according to the Report of the N. E. F. A. Administration, 1953-54–is divided into a number of tribes. The tribals, the sturdy children of the bills that shelter them are a simple and open-hearted, but proud and sensitive folk. By and large they are good-humoured, though shy. They are intelligent, quick to learn and by no means conservative or backward. Agriculture, handicrafts and domestic work constitute the principal means of livelihood. Singing, chatting, dancing and drinking of home-brewn liquour are the principal varieties of recreation. The various tribes are in different stages of evolution from the most primitive Tagin to the more modern Noktey. If the former are totally unaware of anything but their immediate surroundings, the latter, through generations of contact with the people of the plains have changed their dress, their way of life and their scale of values. Agriculture is the principal occupation of the tribes. All the tribes, with the exception of the Apatanis, the Monpas and the Sherdukpens, practise the ‘jhooming’ or the shifting method cultivation.


The N. E. F. A. abounds in valuable fauna and flora. Wild elephants, buffaloes and tigers are found in large numbers, Sambhars, bog-deer and barking deer are also found. The domestic mithun is quite common. It is the chief measure of wealth and the principal medium of exchange among the tribals.


The dialects spoken by the tribes belong to the Tibeto-Burmese and the Tai groups of the Indo-Chinese family of languages. None has a written script of its own. The policy of the Government is therefore to introduce the Devanagari script in the N. E. F. A. The dialects spoken are of a limited value. Locked away as the people are in almost inaccessible hills, they have no words for objects like ocean or horse. Nor can abstract thoughts be expressed through them. The Government policy is to teach Hindi to the people when ‘the limit of the language is reached.’ Government anthropologists are at present studying closely the history, manners and customs etc., of the tribals.


The N. E. F. A. policy of the Government of India is based on Prime Minister Nehru’s directive issued after his tour over some parts of the Agency in 1952 and bears his personal imprint. Administrative reorganisation of the N. E. F. A. followed his visit. A senior and tried I. C. S. was appointed to advise the Governor of Assam on the N. E. F. A. affairs. New staff were recruited to work under him. Attempts are being made to rectify previous mistakes. The new policy, experts and observers agree, have already produced encouraging results.


The Government of India did little more than open new administrative outposts here and there during 1947-52. The idea was to extend Government control–nominally at any rate–over the tribal areas. Fourteen outposts were opened during this period. Six of them are on the Indo-Tibetan and the Indo- Burmese borders. The number of outposts rose from 8 in 1947 to 22 in 1952 and to 66 in 1953-54. The present policy of the Government aims at the consolidation and development of the areas already brought under administration rather than the extension of Government control to new areas.


The budget of the Agency provided for an annual expenditure of twenty-five million rupees in 1953-54. An additional thirty million was allocated for development under the First Five Year Plan. The achievements of the administration have been quite creditable so far. They appear all the more praiseworthy when one remembers the thousand and one difficulties that confront the local authoritiesthe difficult nature of the terrain, the inaccessibility of the interior, the absence of regular transport and the like. General Monsoon, who does not allow more than 65 dry days out of a total of 365 in the year, the law and order situation all over the

N. E. F. A. in general and in the Tuensang Frontier Division in particular dictate the pace of progress.


The N. E. F. A. administration’s policy of development may be described as the golden mean between two extremes. Of the two views on the matter one advocated that the tribes should be preserved as specimens without being exposed to the corroding influence of the changing world.’ The other favoured a process of transformation and assimilation with the object of modernising the tribals. The Government of India have rejected both. They have adopted instead a policy of gradual change with an eye to the genius of the people. This policy is the outcome of a sincere desire to help the tribals to respect their own ways of life and their own customs. Nothing unaesthetic and impracticable is to be imposed. It would be a real tragedy if the exquisite tribal jewellery or some of the excellent handloom textiles were replaced by machine-made substitutes. The tribal culture is, however, to be preserved not for the sake of preservation alone. For one thing, it is so virile that its obliteration would be a real loss. For another, an effective reply to the Naga National council’s 1 gibe of a ‘dhoti civilisation’ 2 lies in proving that neither the Government of India nor the rest of the country has any intention of super-imposing a strange culture on the N. E. F. A. and its people. The Research Department of the N E. F. A. at Shillong (Assam) is collecting tribal myths and legends. An account of the tribal religions is under compilation for dissemination in order to dignify and raise the tribals in their own estimation. 3


A new officer in the N. E. F. A. is taught, among other things, the need for keeping a cool and equable temper in his dealings with the tribesmen. The directive on the matter makes interesting reaching:


‘It is most important that no member of our administration could ever so forget himself as to slap, push or strike a tribesman. Any infringement of this rule should be severely dealt with. These are a proud and independent folk and they do not like any display of aggressive authority. They resent being shouted at and remember and brood over a hasty or inconsiderate word.’ The officials are not to assume that as the ‘tribal people become educated and enter into contacts with the outside world, they are necessarily bound to abandon their traditional faith...he is, of course, at perfect liberty to change his religion if he so desires, (but) it need not be necessary for him to do so...(the Administration) should provide a climate in which the old religions can grow and reform themselves from within so that ultimately there will be in N. E. F. A. religious concepts that will be truly tribal in character, yet have a wider view and a purer concept of God and man.’ 4


The officials are further instructed to study and try to understand the religions of the areas where they are posted. An attitude of sincere respect to the tribal religions is enjoined. The officials must never indulge in an attitude of superiority towards tribal religious customs. Shri Jairamdas Daulatram, an ex-Governor of Assam, aptly points out–‘...just as Hindu society in Assam recoiled against the approach of the Christian proselytizing programme, so also will one day the tribal people recoil against our approach to them (tribals), if we fail to understand their life and culture in their true light and miss the spirit of their belief simply because its forms and terms seem to be different from what we are familiar with.’


Officials are specifically instructed to maintain a courteous, friendly and respectful attitude towards the tribals and to maintain their religious structure in tact. They are to avoid scrupulously the use of insulting terms, such as,  ‘superstitious,’ ‘heathen’ ‘the devil dance’ and the like or patronising ones like ‘backwardness’ and ‘uplift’. Proud peoples that they are, the tribals resent being trifled with. They value a word of honour so much that a breach thereof is fraught with the gravest consequences.


Dense forests, high mountains and swift-flowing streams make communications in the N. E. F. A. extremely difficult. Many places in the Agency can be reached only after marches of 15 or even 20 days from the nearest administrative centres. The villages are sparsely populated. Communications in the interior village are difficult and hazardous in the extreme, involving treks over narrow ledges along steep hills and precipices sloping vertically down to ranging torrents hundreds of feet below. The great earthquake of 1950 and subsequent floods wrought havoc and changed the courses of rivers and even the physical features of the hills at places. Some villages were washed away. Fields, which were once rich in paddy and other food crops became permanently water-logged. Due to heavy landslides and cracks, some mountain paths, which were the only links of communication among the tribal villages, had to be abandoned.


Difficulties of communication raise an almost inseparable barrier between village and village and between tribe and tribe. The tribals have in consequence lived for generations in small, isolated groups. This isolation has created a feeling of self-sufficiency and a tendency to live exclusively. Corporate or formal tribal unity–let alone inter-tribal unity–did not exist anywhere in the N. E. F. A. Basic unity rests mostly in the village even today. Such narrow loyalties, needless to say, obstruct the implementation of development projects in the Agency.


The Agency administration can yet take a legitimate and excusable pride in their record of achievements. The development work in the Agency under the First Five Year Plan made considerable headway. On the medical side, there is a great demand for dispensaries and hospitals. About 125,000 patients were treated in Government hospitals and dispensaries during the year 1952-1953. Every hill man–and hill woman–is provided Free treatment by the Government. The Agency had 7 hospitals, 30 dispensaries and 2 mobile medical units in 1951. The numbers rose to 18, 44, and 24, respectively in 1953-54. They must have gone higher up by now. The Agency had in the same year 13 itinerary medical units and 27 anti-Malaria units under a whole-time Agency Malaria Officer. Control measures had extended by the time over nearly 300 villages. The number of doctors, nurses and compounders has gone up several times since 1951. The figures quoted below tell their own tale.


Year                 Doctors                        Nurses                         Compounders               Midwives

1951                    42                                1                                        22                             -

1953-54               117                            16                                       112                            19


Three Lepers’ Colonies run by the administration provide indoor treatment.


Considerable progress has been made in the educational sector. Primary education of the basic type, with emphasis on agriculture for all tribals, is the aim of the administration. During the year, 1953-54, 65,000 tribal students were under instruction in the 172 schools run by the Agency administration. A Teachers’ Training Institute at Margherita in Assam gives some preliminary training to the newly-recruited teachers before they take up their work. Agriculture is one of the compulsory subjects in the school curriculum. Students are taught besides the three R’s some crafts, such as carpentry, cane and bamboo work, soap-making, weaving, spinning, knitting and the like. Vernacular is the medium of instruction in the lowest forms, where teachers with a knowledge of the local vernacular are available. Hindi is a compulsory subject in the upper forms. Social service is among the more important subjects of the school curriculum. The young learners are encouraged by the award of stipends and a free supply of slates, pencils, ration and clothing. A number of night schools have been opened for those who cannot, for one reason or another, attend the day schools. Eight cottage industries training centres in the Agency impart the necessary training to the tribals in carpentry, blacksmithy, spinning, weaving, tailoring, cane and bamboo work, leather work, soap making, stone-masonry, pottery and bee-keeping. These centres can train in all about 250 tribals a year.


The N.E.F.A. has a chronic food-shortage. Food deficiency has led in the past to tribal feuds and their evil consequences–head- hunting and slavery to mention only two. Food is therefore one of the major problems that faces in administration. The problem is being tackled by the introduction of permanent rice-cultivation, introduction of commercial cash crops, supply of improved varieties of seeds, tools, implements etc., and the training of agriculturists in the improved manurial and cultural practices. Great emphasis is laid on the development of new land. Thousands of acres of land brought under cultivation for the first time during the First Five Year Plan period have added not a little to the N.E.F.A’s production of food crops. Five hundred thousand rupees in round figures have been spent so far on land development, subsidised conversion of shifting to terrace (permanent) cultivation and on the supply of improved varieties of seeds, tools and implements. Useful information on improved agricultural methods is disseminated by exhibitions and magic lantern shows.


A Community Development Block at Pasighat in the Siang Frontier Division and a National Extension Service Block at Namseng in the Tirap Frontier Division have been making satisfactory progress. The former, inaugurated on October 2, 1952 covers 184 square miles comprising 30 villages. It had built 42 miles of fair-weather road and 9 miles of all-weather road in the area by 1953.54. The villagers have readily responded to the administration’s call for co-operation. Their contribution in labour and materials amounts to more than two thousand rupees in terms of money. Two Junior Basic Schools and eight Adult Literary Centres have been started. Considerable progress has been achieved in other directions as well.


The National Extension Service Block inaugurated on October 2, 1953, covers 150 square miles of territory with a population of about 10,000. It has done much valuable work in the fields of road building, education, public health and agriculture. Lack of good roads is one of the major headaches of the N. E. F. A. administration. Thirteen and a half million rupees, i.e., about 46% of the three crore allocated to the Agency under the First Five Year Plan, was to be spent on roads. The target was to construct 2707 miles of roads, bridle paths and porter-tracks during the First Five Year Plan period. A little more than two crore of rupees out of the three crore provided for in the First Plan was actually spent. The balance too would have been spent but for communication difficulties. A sum of more than nine and a half crore of rupees has been allotted to the N. E. F. A. under the Second Five Year Plan. The administration hopes that it will be able to spend the whole amount; particularly since the communication difficulties have been partially overcome by the work done during the First Plan period.


Difficulties of terrain and transport, inferior quality and shortage of staff, an inadequate supply of labourers and contractors and weather conditions hold up work. How difficult the transport problem is may be easily realised when one remembers that I. A. F. Freighters based on Sibsagar in Assam drop annually six thousand tons of supplies all over the Agency. The shortage of a personnel in a very real sense handicaps progress in the N. E. F. A. A doctor or a teacher’s life in the N. E. F. A. ‘living alone among tribal people, cut off for months on end from civilisation and relying in some cases on air dropping for food supplies, is not every one’s cup of tea.’ Immediate steps must be taken to make a career in the N. E. F. A. attractive to young Indians from the plains. A greater publication of the tribals themselves in development activities and more employment for them in the technical and non-technical fields of administration are, however, the best solution of the personnel problem in the N. E. F. A. Both, it may be noted, are among the chief objects of the Second Plan.


The activities of the Naga National Council headed by A. Z. Phizo and demanding a free Naga homeland had some repercussions on the Nagas in the Tuensang Frontier Division. The Naga National Council opened an office at Chingmai in the Tuensang Frontier Division in August, 1954. A mail-runner was killed by the Naga terrorists in October. A series of attacks on Government employees followed. Normalcy was, however, quickly restored.


The sturdy hill men of the N. E. F. A. have nothing but praise for the Government of free India and are eager for the amenities of a civilised life–hospitals, roads, schools and the like.


1 A militant organisation of the Naga tribe demanding self-determination. The Nagas are a hill tribe living in Assam, Burma and the N. E. F. A.

2 The civilisation from the plains of India. ‘Dhoti’ is the piece of cloth tied round the waist by the majority of Indians (men).

3 What exactly the policy of the N. E. F. A. administration is, was recently summed up by a senior official of the N. E. F. A in the following words–‘It would be presumptuous of me to go to these people and tell them that I am more cultured than they are, or that I have a better way of life, because perhaps I have not. Amongst some of these tribes, when a hut is burned down, it is not the loss of the owner alone. It is the loss of the whole village and all help to re-build and re-furnish it. On the other hand, these people did not know what a wheel was till 1954.’

(The Statesman, Calcutta and Delhi, 15-3-1957)


4 Government Directive to N. E. F. A. officials.