Dialogue April-June, 2010, Volume 11 No. 4
Talks about Talks
D. N. Bezboruah*
On April 24, the newly-constituted Sanmilita Jaatiya Abhibartan or national all-party convention convened by intellectuals and civil society activists of Assam held day-long discussions on the prospects of talks between the Government of India and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) at the ITA Centre for Performing Arts in Guwahati. The deliberations acquired special significance in the context of several top-ranking ULFA leaders being in prison now after having been handed over to India by the Bangladesh Rifles at the international border and ULFA C-in-C Paresh Baruah’s precise location being unknown. With some of the ULFA battalions deciding to give up an armed struggle in favour of talks, the outfit is divided rather unequally between a large number of cadres who are in favour of talks and a small number led by C-in-C Paresh Baruah who will have nothing to do with talks since they believe that the only thing that needs to be discussed is the issue of sovereignty, something that the Centre is not willing to discuss under any circumstances. So the Sanmilita Jaatiya Abhibartan felt the need to hold exhaustive discussions on everything that needed to be done to bring the Centre and the ULFA to the negotiating table. This is not the first time that such an initiative has been taken. It will be recalled that an initiative taken earlier by Dr Indira Goswami had led to the formation of the People’s Consultative Group (comprising almost entirely of ULFA supporters) to prepare a blueprint for the talks and to chalk out the modalities of holding the talks. The PCG had a round of preliminary talks with the government. Thereafter, lack of enthusiasm on the part of the government and a split within the PCG brought that well-intended initiative to an end.
The convention of the Citizen’s Forum of April 24 adopted resolutions on carrying out a drive for mobilization of public opinion for peace talks with the ULFA in each district; discussion on the core demands of the ULFA; release of all jailed ULFA leaders and safe passage for them for peace talks; high-level talks between top ULFA leaders and top government officials; putting on hold all cases against ULFA leaders till the peace talks are over; and the formation of a committee to give the right direction to the peace process. There was unanimity over the perception that the ULFA issue is a political one and should be solved politically and not with military might. Most of the speakers felt that any issue, including sovereignty, can be on the agenda of peace talks, and the government has no reason to feel squeamish about just a discussion on sovereignty regardless of its decision not to grant sovereignty to any State or region. Several speakers also felt the ULFA has to bury the differences within itself. Given the recent developments within the ULFA, this would indicate a desire among the participants at the conclave to see the hard-core anti-talks faction of ULFA resolving differences and participating in the peace process. What was strange, however, was that the leaders of the pro-talks faction of the ULFA like Mrinal Hazarika and Jiten Dutta, who had laid down arms and even started living in designated camps, were not invited to the convention.
Two days after the deliberations of the Citizens’ Forum regarding peace talks with the ULFA, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi put the ball back in the ULFA court by saying that the ULFA should first respond to the resolutions adopted by the Citizens’ Forum (before things can move any further). He said that it was necessary for the government to know what the ULFA thinks about the forum and also if the outfit’s leadership acknowledges the initiative taken by it. “We are ready for talks, but they should shun violence and send a written proposal for peace talks first,” he added. This approach of the government is marked by a certain déjà vu. This is not the first time we have heard of such a stand. Nor is it too difficult to assess what the attitude of the ULFA hawks might be to all forums and citizens’ groups that seek to bring the outfit to the negotiating table. We saw what happened to the People’s Consultative Group constituted earlier to bring the outfit and the government together. All such initiatives apparently endorsed by the ULFA have been no more than the means for the outfit to buy time and regroup whenever the going has been tough as a result of the government’s counter-insurgency measures. However, this time there is a difference. The other leaders of the ULFA except Paresh Baruah are in jail and the ULFA C-in-C himself is out on a limb without the kind of support base to enable him to dictate terms. In fact, people within the outfit as well as outside who think that talks should be held even without the participation of Paresh Baruah have increased substantially. Both the Centre and the State government have made it clear that talks will be held even without Paresh Baruah. Not many people are happy about the government holding talks with the ULFA without Paresh Baruah or with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) without its leader Ranjan Daimari. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said a few days ago that talks could be held with such militant outfits even without their leaders. He said talks with the ULFA could be held without Paresh Baruah and with the NDFB without the presence of Ranjan Daimari. He gave the precedent of the Centre holding talks with the Naga rebels of the 1950s sometimes without their leader Phizo being present. But even Dr Indira Goswami said the other day that she is uncomfortable about the idea of talks with the ULFA held without Paresh Baruah as a participant, considering that he has the bulk of the ULFA arms. Perhaps Paresh Baruah now thinks that a touch of petulance and tantrums would pay off very well. It will not. But the ULFA top brass wants him mainly because it is he who controls the arsenal of the ULFA as well as most of its prodigious funds. The ULFA top brass cannot permit the C-in-C to abscond with all this, and would like the government to nab him like it did the other leaders.
A few days ago, the Bangladesh Government also handed over to India Ranjan Daimari, the NDFB leader who had masterminded the serial blasts of October 30, 2008 in Guwahati, Barpeta Road, Bangaigaon and Kokrajhar that took a toll of about 100 lives in all. What Daimary had started as the Bodo Security Force in 1986 became the dreaded NDFB in 1994. During his interrogation, the well-educated Daimari is understood to have expressed his anguish over the carnage that the serial blasts had wrought and the toll of lives the bombs had taken. He said he had never expected the damage to be so extensive. Now that he is in police custody, will the Centre decide to have him attend the eventual talks with the NDFB? And should the government not put in the extra effort needed to apprehend Paresh Baruah and have him sit at the peace talks?
The real question is: how keen is the government to hold talks with the ULFA? Regardless of the government’s official statements, it is well known that there is powerful vested interest that does not want the talks to succeed or even to be held. After all, more than three decades of a total lack of industrial activity in the State has turned militancy and terrorism into a major industry. This is not an industry that calls for any investment of one’s own; nor does it have any end products that have to be marketed. The money looted, extorted or siphoned out of public finds is easy money on which there is no tax to pay. This vested interest has strong representatives from all walks of life. They will not permit the status quo to be disturbed. Hence the question is not so much whether the people of Assam or the government or the ULFA wants the talks. The crucial question is whether this vested interest that has turned terrorism and militancy into an industry wants the talks and whether the talks can be held in spite of their machinations. The one factor on our side is that the Assembly elections are due next year and the Chief Minister obviously wants to demonstrate to the people of Assam how he brought the ULFA and the NDFB to the negotiating table despite the odds. There is nothing that will get him the votes of the indigenous people of Assam as surely as this achievement. The Bangladeshi votes are there anyway. He can thus make a clean sweep of the elections.
Terrorists, insurgents, freedom fighters or what?
Patricia Mary Mukhim*
Definitions are important because they bring clarity to an issue. An insurgent is defined as a person who takes part in an armed rebellion against the constituted authority or government, especially in the hope of improving conditions. A terrorist on the other hand is seen as an alien force implanted in a particular country, to bleed that country. The above are definitions one was able to extract from an official of the Home Ministry at a conference held in Shillong last year. In the North East we have one more category of armed militants who call themselves National Workers and who demand to secede from the Indian Union. They include the NSCN (IM), NSCN (K) NNC, ULFA, NDFB, PLA, RPF, PREPAK etc. These outfits run their own governments through taxes collected from the people. Even extortion falls in the category of taxes and none of the groups are apologetic about this. Despite claims of having signed a temporary truce with the Government of India (GoI), the groups continue to shoot, kill and extort. And the GoI could not care less! Is it because the last category are difficult to put into a framework? But that is precisely where the problem lies!
In the course of their operations all of the above groups have bled the state by killing with impunity the security forces and non-combatants. They have retarded the economies of the region and set back the clock of progress. And not one of them is repentant of their crimes. It is therefore galling to the extreme that people responsible for large scale bloodshed are, after a time, treated like heroes. In Assam the surrendered/arrested ULFA leaders were given a hero’s welcome complete with the gamosha and garland. Recently the NSCN (IM) Secretary General TH Muivah was treated like a visiting prime minister of a foreign country by the Centre. The Manipur Government, which for historical reasons, has jurisdiction over Somdal the birthplace of Muivah in Ukhrul District was told by the Union Government to gear up the security apparatus and to ensure Muivah’s safe passage.
Considering that the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur are not under ceasefire with the Government of India, intellectuals argue that Muivah is by all definitions a renegade in any other state except Nagaland where the ceasefire has been operational since 1997. They remind of the Naga assault on Kukis and other fringe tribes in the 1990s which resulted in hundreds of deaths, including that of innocent children. Nagas wanted to clear out Kukis from parts of Senapati district so that they could have a homogenous homeland. Unfortunately for the Nagas, the Kukis are no walkover and put up a brave fight until things were brought under control.
The largely undefined space within which all ruthless underground leaders, now turned over-ground peace activists, operate is problematic. What is causing the problem is none other than the Union Home Ministry which behaves like a grand old patriarch imposing its views on the states and then leaves them to pick up the bloody pieces, in this case the dead bodies, when a fall-out such as the one at Mao Gate happens. It is amazing that the Centre should use such ad-hoc ploys for short term gains in the manner that a malevolent interloper would do, without bothering about the consequences.
Let us now turn to Assam where very recently another hard core insurgent accused of the October 30, 2008 bomb blasts, Ranjan Daimary was also handed over by the Bangladesh authorities to their Indian counterparts. There is a plea from several quarters that Daimary should be given the most stringent punishment for the heinous crime he is said to have masterminded. So much so, this threatens to yet again accentuate the tribal, non-tribal divide. It brings to the fore yet again the age-old prejudices that the caste and non-caste Asomiyas have had vis-a-vis the tribes. Although this is hidden under the thin veneer of ‘Assamese’ inclusivity, the fact is that Asomiyas are intrinsically exclusive and not accommodative of tribal aspirations or that of other non-Asomiya communities.
Look at the composition of the present civil society initiative of Asomiya intellectuals headed by Mr Hiren Gohain to broker talks between ULFA and the Government of India. The group comprises only one Bodo intellectual/writer and one Muslim representative. There are no representatives from amongst the Bengali speaking community which constitutes nearly 20% of the population of Assam nor the other 20 % which makes up the ‘tea tribes’ (I use this nomenclature for want of a better name). What about the other tribes such as the Karbis, Dimasas, Mishings etc. Do they not have a say in the future of Assam? Just because the ULFA comprises only the ‘Asomiyas’ (those whose mother tongue is Assamese, besides the other exclusive traits) does this mean that groups negotiating peace should also be largely Asomiyas?
They say history is a great teacher and those who refuse to derive lessons from it are condemned to suffer the pitfalls. The Bodos were very much part of the Assam Movement but when the Assam Accord was signed they were nowhere in the picture. Three blue-blooded Asomiyas penned their signatures on the Accord. Was this not the reason why in 1989 a section of Bodos launched into a full-scale rebellion against Assamese chauvinism where nearly 600 people lost their lives? These are the setbacks of exclusionary practices. How can 10% of the population of the state be taking upon themselves the task of speaking for the 90% and still believe they are the ‘peoples’ voices?’
While the Asomiyas seem to have forgiven and forgotten the Dhemaji blasts of August 2004 perpetrated by the ULFA, they also, ironically seem to have erased from their memories the series of killings between January and February 2007 where 87 migrant labourers were annihilated. It was a cold-blooded ethnic cleansing which many believed is meant to create a vacuum in the labour market so that people from across the border could fill it. What is gruesome is that human lives can also be graded in terms of their ethnicity. If they are not Asomiyas they are dispensable. Is that it? And, funnily, a very enlightened civil society group also revels in this belief?
Reports that no lawyers are ready to represent Ranjan Daimary in court because the October 30 blast he instigated had happened near the Court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate where some lawyers had died, smacks of vengeance. If this is how lawyers are going to argue then justice in this country will remain a far cry. Daimary appears to have already been condemned for his crime even while the top ULFA activists are represented by the best criminal lawyers. Again, is this because Dhemaji is so far from Dispur and those children who were killed at the time belong to a less privileged category? Hence even the discourse on death has different layers.
This double-speak on ‘terrorism’ is unwarranted. Yet it also exposes the deep divide in Assam’s multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. That terrorism should be viewed through these dividing prisms is so wrong. A terrorist is a terrorist and his case has to be measured against the heinous crimes he has committed. Arguments that Arabinda Rajkhowa and Shasha Chaudhury are treated with kid gloves mainly to lure Paresh Barua to the talks table do not go down too well. Paresh Barua can be dealt with when the time comes. In the intervening period members of the ULFA who are in custody must be given the treatment they deserve.
Now that Ranjan Daimary has also expressed a desire to talk peace and tone down his demands, the Government should simultaneously work at a peace formula even while Daimary goes through the due processes of law. It would be wrong to treat Daimary differently on the basis of the October 30 blasts and the rationale that he is not repentant about it. The Bodo Sahitya Sabha, the ABSU and other Bodo civil society groups have rightly aired their discontent over the manner in which Daimary is now being labeled (Ajmal Kasab of Assam, blood-thirsty hound etc) labels now pinned on the Bodo renegade. In fact the very idea of terming ‘some’ insurgents more brutal than others, of undermining their commitment to their own causes, or even of grading their crimes into comparatives already exposes a partisanship that is best avoided. No wonder the Bodos are even more convinced today that they will not get justice from Assam. The recent posturings of Asomiya civil society only reinforces their doubts and substantiates their claim for a separate Bodo State!
To compound the multiple complexities in the region, the Centre has often arbitrarily taken matters into its hands and brushed aside the concerns of the states and undermined their autonomy. In the current dialogue with the NSCN (IM), the constitutionally elected State Government of Nagaland has been left out of the discourse. Surely the Government of Nagaland would have some say in the future political arrangements of that State. But to forestall any interference by the Government of Nagaland, Mr Muivah the NSCN(IM) supremo ensured that a political conglomerate favourable to his megalomaniac tendencies was firmly installed in Nagaland.
In this murky scenario, to talk of peace and its dividends is rather premature. It will be a long time before the million mutinies, some raging others in ferment are resolved and one wonders if the Centre is even serious in its intent of installing regimes of peace in the North East or if it simply playing out its dangerously divisive games.
From oligarchy to democracy; tough transition
Patricia Mary Mukhim*
Democracy is a nice word. When married to the Indian Constitution democracy suggests a number of freedoms and rights. It talks of the right to equality, non-discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth insofar as access to basic facilities is concerned. The Constitution speaks of equality of opportunity in matters of public employment and in principle grants the citizens more rights than they sometimes anticipate. But talk of enjoying the numerous rights and you hit a blank.
Coming to what many term as the turbulent North East, which is actually a contradiction in terms because this region is peopled by some of the most genteel tribes, democracy is a difficult ideal to live by. The tribal population of this region awakened to consciousness into an oligarchical system of governance which perhaps is an evolution of the hunter- gatherer part of human existence. The male of the species has always been nominated to hunt for food while the female nurtures the off-springs and keeps the home fires burning. Oral history does not quite reveal why some clans are automatically elected to lead the rest of society. In Khasi society, the chieftain (Syiem) is always elected from the Syiem clan (jait syiem). His assistants or myntri are elected from the Lyngdoh clan. No other clan can claim that right. This is at the level of the Hima or the Syiemship (chieftainship) which comprises a number of Raij. Several villages in turn make up the Raij.
At the level of the village there is some amount of flexibility, in that any male who projects himself as a leader and is seen to shoulder a fair amount of responsibility is made the Rangbah Shnong irrespective of which clan he belongs to. Little wonder then that even in matrilineal Meghalaya, women have no ‘political’ role in village governance. Male members of the family are expected to carry their views to the Dorbar Shnong or the village council and adjudicate on their behalf. The head of the Dorbar continues to be a male and is called the ‘Rangbah Shnong’ (male head of the Dorbar Shnong). The word ‘Rangbah’ which means ‘Male’ precludes women from ever becoming the head of the Dorbar. This is part of the social consciousness and is embedded in the tribal psyche.
Democracy, therefore, is understood only as a sort of implant from the outside. But in a sense democracy allows women enough space to dabble in politics and even to contest elections if they so wish. While the rest of the country has adopted the Panchayati Raj system of grassroots governance, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram were excluded form its purview on the plea that these states have pre-existing, vibrant village governance models in place. This was Rajiv Gandhi’s understanding and one can safely assume that he like all other central leaders who have little time to understand the North East, never saw the gaping loopholes in the existing traditional institutions. In the eyes of the modern scholar traditional institutions do not have the elements of democracy in them. They blatantly exclude women from taking part in governance. As stated above they still follow the tenets of oligarchy. They comprise exclusively of tribals, which is a dichotomy since tribals no longer live in homogenous areas. Dimapur in Nagaland and Shillong in Meghalaya have nearly 50 % of non tribal population. But the non-tribal is excluded from any decision-making. But the decisions taken by the exclusive tribal Dorbar is binding on the non-tribal population. These inherent contradictions make governance a very thorny issue in the North East.
Democracy is known to flourish well only if people take an active part in it. But we would have seen how this system of governance has today become a game participated only by a few while the rest (the electors) only help these few to warm their seats for five years. It is evident that democracy plays no role in enabling rural farmers to access their rights. At the village level the traditional institution is all powerful. Even while implementing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) government officials have a difficult time because they cannot bypass the Dorbar Shnong in Meghalaya or the Village Councils in Nagaland. Whereas all government initiated schemes today insist on the full participation of women, in tribal areas this is problematic. There is a clash between the modules envisaged by the modern state and the anachronistic template of tradition-based societies.
Who would know better than women themselves about the kind of livelihood that is viable in their particular area? Yet they do not have a platform to articulate that. Implementing agencies whether they be of government or NGOs are wary of crossing swords with the Dorbar/Village Councils. These are still treated as holy cows. They must not be offended or else no agency can take up development programmes in those villages. When Village Employment Councils are formed they have to take the Village Headman into confidence. This is alright up to a point. The problem arises when the headman demands that things be done his way and not the way of the government or the development agency.
There is in fact a constant friction between the modern and the traditional even in day to day affairs. In the city of Shillong the Rangbah Shnong can be a government employee (even a fourth grade worker) but he rules the roost in his jurisdiction. Even an MLA or minister residing within that jurisdiction has to obey his diktat. The joke here is that there is no commonly binding constitution which guides the function of the Hima, the Raij or the Village. Each one is guided by its own arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts. What is good for one Hima, Raij or Village may not be good for another. With so many different codes of conduct, some diametrically opposed to the enlightened tenets of the modern state, clashes of interests are inevitable.
For instance, there are localities where the Rangbah Shnong decides that only Khasi construction labourers are allowed to work. The problem is that the labour charges of a Khasi are twice the amount charged by a labourer from Assam, Bihar or even from Bangladesh (the bulk of road labourers in the North East are in fact Bangladeshis). In the true characteristic of a tribal, the tribal labourer will take a day off at the drop of a hat for a range of reasons such as attending the funeral of a clansman/woman, a relative and what have you. In fact government employees are known to skip work to attend the ubiquitous funeral (there is someone dying in some locality every day, to whom one is either distantly related to by way of being from the same clan or by marriage; is an acquaintance). People who want quick work done at a competitive price, find the diktat of such Rangbah Shnong outrageous. But they cannot go to court for fear of social ostracism. Nor can a dictatorial type of Rangbah Shnong be made to quit because people are so used to raving at ranting at home but dare not speak out and challenge the Rangbah Shnong at a general meeting when he is seeking reelection.
Ironically even the government is sometimes by default run like a village council. Ministers make money right, left and centre. They acquire monstrous mansions, swanky cars, super modern gadgets from their foreign jaunts within five years of being ministers. They treat their constituents like subjects who should never ask questions about their unaccounted for wealth. The wealth is so obvious because it tends to reside around the mid-riffs. In contrast are the governed who are all skin and bones, undernourished and unable to have a decent meal twice a day. Their numbers are growing. In Meghalaya they make up 49% of the population. But they still have not taken up arms. I suspect the time is not far off when the guns boom; this time for real and not just for effect.
The Khasis believe in a legendary python that is cared for by the wealthy. This python has to be fed with human blood twice a year. Hence it is imperative to kill human beings to feed this ravenous snake. This python only feeds on the blood of the Khasis. Those who practice this snake worship are called ‘Nongshohnoh.’ Whether the nongshohnoh is for real or a figment of Khasi imagination to refer to exploitative elements is debatable. But today more and more people are referring to MLAs and ministers are the real nongshohnoh. After all they too suck the blood of the poor by selling off the rice and wheat allocated for the public distribution system into the open market and pocket the money. This too is oligarchy because the rulers have to always be richer then the governed.
A Tale of Two ADCs
It does seem the much awaited, 20 years defunct, elections to the Autonomous District Councils, ADCs, in the five hill districts of Manipur, quite other than what was expected, is likely to run into rough weather because of planned resistance by certain powerful civil society organisations in these districts, in particular the United Naga Council, UNC, and its undeclared political wing the People’s Democratic Alliance, PDA. The resistance also has the blessings of many more frontal organisations in the hills, especially those of the Nagas. On May 6, a chakka bandh has been called by these organisations to protest what they say is an imposition of the elections against the will of the hill people, and the PDA has indicated it may extend its support to the strike.
Although it has never been adequately explained, from reports appearing in the media it seems their main objection is that the ADCs would be formed on the basis of the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1971. They claim the ADCs under this Act was what led the hill people to boycott ADC elections in the first place, and in its stead demand the implementation of ADCs under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Now after 20 years of boycott, they say the 1971 Act cannot be the basis of the revival of the ADCs.
We are of the opinion that the 6th Schedule politics should not be allowed to be entangled with the current ADC elections. The two may involve creating ADCs, but the ADCs under them are two different animals altogether. Even a cursory glance at the history of these two types of ADCs should clarify this. The ADCs under the 1971 Act, is a device that can draw equivalence with the local self governance under the Panchayati Raj in the plain areas, and not with the ADCs under the 6th Schedule.
The 6th Schedule was originally meant as a model to resolve the Naga problem, and sought to create autonomous entities within another state, in the hope that this would sublimate the issue of cessation or the bifurcation of another state – in this case, Assam. If the 6th Schedule had worked as intended, the then Naga Hills would have been upgraded from a district of Assam to an Autonomous District Council – a state within another state. We all also know AZ Phizo rejected this proposal.
In this sense, the debate over the 6th Schedule model should be treated as related to the issues being dealt currently in the 13 year old and still unresolved Naga peace talks and not with the 1971 Act of the Manipur government which envisages to give a handle to the hill districts, the same handle that the valley districts got under the 73rd amendment of the Constitution of India in the shape of the Panchayati Raj, to enable grassroots local self governance.
Perhaps the government should have called the ADCs under the 1971 Act as Hill Panchayats or by some such name so that they remained distinct and unrelated to the ADCs under the 6th Schedule. The former are a grassroots administrative mechanism while the latter are a political model for accommodating aspirations for political autonomy (or sovereignty), incidentally “within the Constitution of India”. Let the former not be sabotaged again so that Central and state developmental funds and opportunities that can only be channelled through such grassroots statutory bodies, can reach the hill districts more easily.
If as the Democratic Peoples’ Alliance MLAs are saying the ADCs under the 1971 Act are mere placebos for the 6th Schedule “state within state autonomy”, let them also remind themselves that the 6th Schedule autonomy was originally meant as a placebo for AZ Phizo’s dream of a “sovereign Nagaland”.
Let the DPA and others continue to demand the 6th Schedule if they must, but let this demand not be mixed up with the ADC elections currently in the process of being held. The two as we have pointed out are different issues. Just as the ongoing Naga peace talks will not be impacted by creation of ADCs under the 1971 Act, the DPA’s aspiration for more autonomy for the hill districts should not also be adversely influenced by the forthcoming ADC elections.
If on the other hand they still think it fit to sabotage the ADC polls and succeed in their plan, let it not be said again that grassroots development funds which are meant to be disbursed only through grassroots statutory bodies, are not reaching the hill districts on account of chauvinistic valley politics. But more important than identifying the causes of the extremely unproductive blame game in Manipur brand of politics, what is even more important is that the adverse circumstances of such sinister and short-sighted politics would be borne by the common, toiling, impoverished, inarticulate masses alone.
ADC Revival Controversy
While there is nothing wrong in the expression of dissent to any proposal of the government or for that matter nongovernmental institutions, there is something very inconsistent in the demand and now rejection of the government proposal to hold ADC elections in the hill districts to create local self governments in the manner and style of the Panchayati Raj in the rest of India and applicable also to the valley districts of Manipur. Those of us old enough would remember that these ADCs were very much in existence 20 years ago, but after the first term, the next elections to them were disallowed by various agitating civil society organisations saying the hill districts would rather have the 6th Schedule which gives more autonomy. At the risk of repeating some of the points earlier made in these columns, it is pertinent to do a brief sketch of the history of the 6th Schedule of the Indian constitution once again. This provision, even laymen with a little interest in the Indian constitution and its making, would know was meant for the then undivided state of Assam and in particular to accommodate the growing undercurrent of sovereignty demands of the Nagas under AZ Phizo. This is why, we say it is akin to the negotiation for an autonomy model under different euphemisms such as “state within state”, “shared sovereignty” etc, in the ongoing 13 year old peace talks between the NSCN(IM) and the Government of India.
The 6th Schedule proposal was rejected by Phizo and hence its provisions did not cover the then Naga Hills district of Assam, now Nagaland. It was however applied to the Khasi, Jantia and Garo hills, which together were much later to form a separate Meghalaya state. For some reason these 6th Schedule ADCs in Meghalaya were not abolished when Meghalaya attained statehood on January 21, 1972, hence they overlap almost totally with the Meghalaya state administration often causing frictions. It was also applied to the Chakma, Lakher and Pawi pockets in the then Lushai Hills of Assam, which again later were to become part of the newly formed Mizoram state. Arunachal Pradesh was then North Eastern Frontier Region, NEFA, directly under Central administration and Manipur and Tripura were separate principalities, hence they did not come under direct coverage of the 6th Schedule. It was only later in the 1990s following various ethic assertions that the 6th Schedule were finally agreed to be applied to Tripura and also to create some more ADCs under the Act in Assam as well. In the meantime, parallel autonomy models were also developed to accommodate the Bodos in the shape of Bodoland Autonomous Council in Assam and Hmar Autonomous Council in Mizoram. As to how successful these institutions have been is a matter of debate.
When it became evident the 73rd amendment of the Indian constitution to make provision for the Panchayati Raj local self governments, would not be accepted in the hill districts of Manipur, the government decided to introduce the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act 1971 which was later to be amended in 2008, to extend the local self government system to the hill districts. These are not “states within states” as the 6th Schedule ADCs were envisaged to be, but administrative mechanisms to extend local self governance system and thereby to avail Central government development funds which can be disbursed through these institutions only. In other words, although there are areas of convergence, the objectives of the two are different. Trying to equate the two, as a result of which the ADCs under the 1971 Act were abolished for the first time 20 years ago, as well as now when they are sought to be revived, hence seems more a political act of sabotage with aims that have little to do with promoting local self governance. Indeed, a cursory scan of local dailies of the last three months would reveal that the popular voices from the hill districts were of demands for the ADC polls to be held at the soonest, with unmistakable accusative tones that these statutory bodies in the hills were kept suspended with the ulterior motive of subduing the hill people. Now that the government has seemingly heard this voice, and has come forward to act on it, the tone has changed once again, taking a U-turn to point the accusative finger once again for “imposing” oppressive policies in the hills, but for precisely listening to the earlier voices. It is unlikely under the circumstance that the band is switching tunes of its own accord at such short notices. On the other hand it is more likely they are acting under the orchestration of a band master or masters interested more in the politics of sabotage than promoting equitable development or public welfare.