Instead of Addressing Root Issues Successive Administrations of India Have Led with the Hammer, not a Handshake. This Lamentable Approach Has Always Proven to be Disastrous
While the Hindi Belt area of India gets disproportionate representation in our mainstream discourse, the Northeast has been exceptionally disregarded historically. What has been the reason for that? Is the situation any better today?
The reasons are very physical distancing followed by psychological distancing—and it began straight after Partition. Eastern India was connected near-seamlessly to Northeast India through a network of roads, railways and waterways. It was possible to go from, say, Kolkata to Agartala through present-day Bangladesh. Or by steamer from a jetty near Dhaka to Guwahati. Manipuri, Khasi, Garo, and Tripuri communities lived on both sides of the present-day border.
Partition changed all that. Almost overnight, the geopolitical fist of East Pakistan cut off Eastern India from Northeast India. All that connected this vast area—nearly one-seventh of India’s landmass—was the slim Siliguri Corridor which is just 20 km at its narrowest point. Northeast India generally became a place out-of-sight and out-of-mind for the government and policy mandarins in New Delhi. It became a place complicated by vast numbers of tribes and languages far from the Indic pale. A place considered by these paternalistic policy makers as one of nuisance: of rebellions and simmering ethno-political tension, without an iota of responsibility or recognition that the problems were largely of New Delhi’s making. For instance, Mr Nehru and his colleagues were acutely aware of the geopolitical significance of Northeast India—bound as it then was by East Pakistan, Tibet, China, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. He saw the Naga aspiration for autonomy in that light—and is on record in Parliament basically stating that on no account could political and territorial freedom be accorded such a small nation in a region with such massive geopolitical overhang. But little was done for decades beyond dictating New Delhi’s wishes—not exactly a model federal structure, far from the dignity and rights constitutionally due to all citizens of India. It was as if Northeast India was governed by a different set of rules from the rest of India.
This distancing permeated to education. In ‘Mainland’ India schools and colleges offered little about Northeast India beyond splashes of colour on a map, mention of the Brahmaputra or some ethnic dances showcased in Republic Day parades or cultural programmes. It took until 2014-15 for ICSE to include an optional course on Northeast India for higher secondary students!
The situation is better today from the point of view of people-movement and policy. There is more interaction. But the numbing xenophobia that many Northeasterner continue to encounter in mainland India is proof that much needs to be done. For heaven’s sake, Priyanka Chopra essayed the role of the boxer Mary Kom. Seriously? And, as far as policy application is concerned, Northeast India has China to thank for it. If China did not present a clear threat, it is doubtful whether India’s policy and security establishment would throw anything but crumbs to Northeast India. And, ironically, those very funds have for decades fed an economy of conflict in the region.
Poor infrastructure apart, has the disconnect with the Northeast also been on account of our prejudiced social conditioning? How do we bridge this gap?
By including the history and culture of Northeast India in every layer of education. By stopping to be paternalistic—and, as an extension, arrogant—towards the region and its people. By recognising that grab-all policy does not fit Northeast India. By developing Northeast India for altruistic reasons rather than for spreading politico-religious projects. By cutting the umbilical of mind-boggling corruption that ties New Delhi to every region of Northeast India. By utterly reforming institutions like the Ministry for Development of the Northeast Region (MDONER) and the North East Council. By creating emotional buy-ins like removing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 from all Northeast India—including all Nagaland and most of Manipur where it is freely applied even in the midst of peace talks and, in a situation, ironically, when the population has already moved body and soul into a post-conflict future. Surely, if Tripura can jettison AFSPA with the full agreement of the security establishment and do very well for over five years, other states can too? I have for years held this mantra: Repeal AFSPA to regain India. The atrocity in Mon, Nagaland in early December 2021 cries out for the repeal of AFSPA. This Act is a hammer-fist prophylactic for security forces, it makes absolutely no contribution to ‘peacekeeping’ that actually keeps that peace.
The protracted and sustained Naga insurgency has spawned multiple cottage industries, spilling well beyond the two states that find mention on your cover. What must be done to ensure that people develop a stake in peace? Is it at all possible to end the militarisation of society given the availability of small arms in the region?
The people already have a stake in peace—always have. The problem today is manifold. One is of rebel groups who claim to fight on behalf of people who have largely moved on from the root causes that spawned such rebellion: glaring misgovernance, disrespect of identities and aspirations, and Indian administrative arrogance, to name a few. The second is of rebel groups who have moved to ceasefire or peace talks with the government for years, even decades—like NSCN (I-M) but, by full government complicity, are permitted to recruit, arm and train cadres, and run parallel administrations and even seek to influence elections.
It is important to understand that the society is not militarized, but tiny fragments of the society, like underground or above-ground rebel groups in various degrees of war and peace talks, remain militarized. These groups run the cottage industries of weapons smuggling and sale, live off the narcotics and extortion pipelines. This brings us to a third problem: of local political satraps of all hues who use rebel groups and the economy of conflict for their own ends. Weapons aren’t cheap: In India, rebels and the politico-business fat cats carry them. If the central and state governments wanted, it could be cleaned up in months, if not weeks in certain places. The citizenry would certainly like it. In all my travels across Northeast India for several years I have rarely found a woman or man who carries or owns small or large weapons. ‘Militarization of society’ is in the 21st century Northeast India more seminarist myth than reality.
The Indian government’s position, irrespective of the party in power, has been to out-wait the insurgent groups (from Kashmir to the Northeast). It seems convinced that as long as the levels of violence are manageable (and acceptable), there is no need to invest in a resolution. Hence, talks have been used as a tactic to manage levels of violence. What is wrong with this approach?
Such an approach is cynical and lazy and hugely expensive in both lives and futures and the grossest misutilization of public funds. Every rebellion or militancy in India is rooted in misgovernance and lack of delivery of the criminal justice system. It’s another matter that sometimes, inimical neighbours in Pakistan, China and the now-diminished hard-line establishment in Bangladesh have leveraged these for tactical and strategic gain. Instead of addressing root issues successive administrations of India and various state administrations have led with the hammer, not a handshake. And this is our outreach with people we call our own! This lamentable approach has always —from Kashmir to the Northeast and in Maoist uprisings in the heart of India—proven to be disastrous, and has actually perpetuated rebellion and violence. Kashmir has been on the boil since the late 1940s. Parts of the Northeast have been on edge since the mid-1950s. The Maoist rebellion has seen various phases since the late 1960s. If the solution to conflict is more conflict and not conflict resolution, then perhaps it is our blinkered policymakers who are ‘anti-national’!
From the time the Nagas trekked to Yunnan to the present hold-out in Myanmar, China has frequently helped various NE insurgent groups with wherewithal and training. Is there a possibility of China deepening this cooperation to render India’s eastern flank more vulnerable, especially in the event of an India-China war?
That has always been a possibility. The Nagas—and, subsequently, other ethnicities—trekked to China after the 1962 Sino-Indian war or they might have been shanghaied for a flanking manoeuvre even back then! But the reality has evolved since then, and the peak rebellion years. Assuming that China will always look for chinks in India’s armour, one has to factor in several things. India has beefed up its China-focused presence with army, air force and elite paramilitaries in eastern and north-eastern India. Bangladesh and Myanmar have regularly aided India’s establishment in interdicting and managing rebels, as it were, who were earlier given safe havens. Such havens still exist in Myanmar, but they are less emphatic than even a year ago: India’s geopolitical pincers and the implosive nature of rebel groups have helped. Relatively small rebel outfits and splinters still run the Myanmar-China-Thailand route but they are way less influential than before. India’s greatest weapon is to develop the Northeast in a balanced, non-cynical manner. In that lies both absolution and security for Northeast India and India as a whole. China and Pakistan look for opportunities to foment trouble in the Northeast and in Kashmir. It is India’s fault that it creates such trouble in the first place for China and Pakistan to leverage.
Should one take United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia seriously?
In its current avatar, no. But it is a festering wound and can lead to complications for the health and well-being of Northeast India if India’s policy makers don’t rapidly get their peace-making and development act together. In that case, China playing witch-doctor won’t have much purchase.
Except the Naga insurgency, to an outsider, all other insurgencies in the Northeast seem driven by xenophobia. Is this an unfair comment?
Utterly unfair. In Assam, xenophobia was a product of poor governance and terrible politics. Within Assam, the Boro, Karbi and Dimasa rebellions were a product, ironically, of misgovernance by various administrations of Assam. Meghalaya—Shillong was once the capital of Assam! —saw itself utterly swamped by everyone but locals. Manipur is complex. Meitei nationalism is predicated on the arrogance of India, not Meitei xenophobia. Non-Meitei folk have felt unsettled by majoritarian Meitei politics and pro-Meitei, Pro-Imphal Valley policies.
When the Mizo rebellion flared up, triggered by famine fed on poor development and infrastructure, it was administratively a responsibility of Assam. The indigenous Tripuri populations of Tripura have since 1947 been utterly swamped by Bengali influx—it’s now nearly 70 per cent Bengali! Resentment grew from lack of opportunities and land-grabbing by non-Tripuri people, and the lack of acknowledgement that the indigenous had first dibs on their own land. Violence privileged political representation and development. This is the story in region after region in Northeast India. Indeed, across large swathes of Mainland India too.
You have alluded to the connect between the Maoist insurgency in Central India and the multiple insurgencies in the Northeast. How worrying is this?
It is not worrying in the present context. A former army chief of NSCN (I-M), Phungthing Shimrang told me frankly some years ago that they had helped Maoists with weapons and logistics. Then again, an earlier avatar of the Maoists, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War—not the mislabelled People’s War Group—received explosives training from Tamil Tigers. Communist groups in Manipur have maintained relations with Maoists in Mainland India. During their years of rebellion between 1996 and 2006, Maoists of Nepal maintained ‘fraternal’, logistics and weapons pipelines with various groups of Indian Maoists. This is all ebb and flow. Indian Maoists now call Nepal’s Maoists turncoats for embracing democracy! Phungthing and several of his colleagues are on the run from India. The rebellions in Northeast India are weakened. The Maoist rebellion in Mainland India is weakened. But if ebb turns to flow, who knows!
Coming to the process of writing this book, you have employed a very unusual technique of juxtaposing your notes with the current writing. Did you not worry that it would break the rhythm of the book and distract the readers?
Juxtaposing field notes with narrative is a deliberate decision. It is designed to add layers to a narrative, add layers to reality and truth as much as peel away those layers. It adds an immediacy to the story, and is designed to bring the reader in. Thus far, except for one reviewer for a Southern Indian paper—who combines the unlovely and proven traits of dishonest reporter, middling writer and worse analyst—nobody has taken exception to this narrative innovation. Certainly not most reviewers and—what really matters—readers. I’ve had people walk up to me at literature festivals and other gatherings and tell me they liked the technique. Fellow writers and senior journalists whom I respect have done so too. Perhaps some ‘writers’ can’t accept innovation to aid a story that must be told. I have no problem with that. Each to one’s own.