Dialogue  January-March, 2007, Volume 8  No. 3

The North-East needs New Approach

J.N. Roy

1. There are two ways of looking at India’s North-East and its problems which have kept the region in ferment ever since Independence. The first one is that given the history and the circumstances so far the matters have been appropriately handled, the situation is manageable and there is no cause for worry. Another point of view is that the issues facing the states and the region after Independence have not been handled both at the level of states and the Union Govt. properly resulting in uncertainty, instability and continuing conflict; and that the internal dynamics and external dimensions have not been effectively addressed. Many status quoists and “pragmatic” practitioners of politics would embrace the first proposition fearing the unknown consequences of a change of course. Those who feel that the things have not gone on well during the last sixty years and division and conflict define the current scenario, therefore, calling for a change in the course and terms of engagement between the states in the region and the role of the Union Govt. One can thus have his choice. However, one thing is unmistakable. A general sense of dissatisfaction pervades the political, economic and social environs finding expression in use or threat of use of violence to achieve political and social goals.

2. Sixty years down the line since Independence in the North Eastern states the problems of alienation, ethnic/identity related pressures and violence persist despite various measures and policies adopted by the central and state govts. Infact, the situation, claims of recent improvement notwithstanding, remains problemetic. From one insurgency till mid 1960’s there are now more than dozen significant groups in operation. It is proof enough that there is a need not only for introspection but also shift in attitudes towards governance in the region in its various dimensions. Situation is complex and there are no simplistic solutions but a change of stance is implicit in the past failures. Conditions in Manipur and Tripura are difficult. We have to seriously look beyond the security paradigm to improve the situation and governance.

3. Before attempting any fundamental changes, an effort should be made to understand regional/state and local level realities and perceptions. On the eve of Independence, the govt. started with a handicap in that the British had restricted access to the region and we had no experience of its problems. Therefore, we went along with and reinforced the policies and methods of the colonial rulers e.g. the divisive concept of excluded, partially-excluded and inner line areas etc. found acceptance in schedule VI of the constitution.

4. Besides, the advent of Independence and partition creating East Pakistan, accentuated political aspirations and expectations and questions of ethnic identities on the one hand and disrupted centuries old economic and communication lines and activities on the other. These reinforced mindsets of isolation and neglect. These urges acquired differing directions and dimensions in various areas. It spawned a culture of competitive and overlapping politico-ethnic demands, misgovernance and corruption; use of idiom of violence to coerce concessions and finally to alienation and blame game of shifting the responsibility for all the ills and short comings to the central govt. The result is that the present political and intellectual discourse is mostly mired in “negativism” and “grievance”. There is no effort to look at the positives; encourage pride and self-esteem, and it readily embraces colonial theories like ‘core’ and ‘periphery’, unrealistic ethnic views etc without subjecting it to critical intellectual tests. This kind of intellectual discourse needs close attention, because it tends to reinforce the sentiments of isolation, neglect and loss of self-esteem. Unfortunately our liberal “chatterati” in Delhi and elsewhere also endorses the “negatives” as it has peripheral understanding of the area and the issues. There is no point revisiting the claims and counter-claims. It is time to discuss the steps and measures to improve the situation in all respects, including, attitudes, perceptions, economy and governance. Some measures may require a drastic shift, if the local level consensus can be built up, and new models can be attempted. Terms of engagement overall need change. Managing the present – ignores the long-term strategic imperatives.

5. Micro level nostrums can follow macro-level initiatives. Some local experts feel that in the NE they are looking at limits of governance with security as the driving force. Maladministration and rampant corruption in the delivery system have thwarted the efforts of economic development, and ethnicity/identity related violence has not only created strong vested interests but also invested the governance with a security bias. It is obvious, that we learn from our past mistakes and attempt new approaches, attitudes and models. However in democracy no sweeping changes are possible over-night. Change of course will have to be gradual and consensual. In order to succeed the bottomline should be that all changes and measures must be products of local level dialogue, consensus and agreements and not imposed from above. Association of civil society in resolving problems looks promising in Assam while in Nagaland it has received a setback.

6. The problems relating to governance and corruption and land security, need utmost govt., attention as these have contributed to the proliferation of ethnicity related demands and violence in the region. Growth and lack of infra-structure are two other inter related issues needing hard-nosed solutions. While ethnicity related problems need multi-dimensional/multi-stage tackling, involving patience and the civil society, those of bad governance and corruption need a determined approach of accountability and results. There cannot be fit-all-sizes solutions, but some necessary steps can SET THE TONE FOR CHANGE.

7. Some suggested measures and postulates may include:

         a.    De-mystify and De-romanticise the North-East vision. The attitude of looking at the region as one regional entity should be given up and its multi-cultural identity should be given due recognition and respect. ‘Infact the concept of North-East as a composite entity is resented in NE as a racial slur meant to differentiate their Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Mongoloid racial origins and features. They question why a ‘North-East’ Policy’? Are there South, Northern and Western region based policies?

         b.    All the seven or eight states should be dealt with as independent entities; like other states in the country. A notion that they are special should go. Common issues like power and communications etc. can be coordinated locally or by the concerned Centeral govt. deptts as in other parts of the country. This will involve immediate abolition of the North-East Council (NEC) and the DONER. Sooner the better. They have neither delivered nor achieved anything of significance. Allegations of vested interests, nepotism etc., abound. Abolition of these intermediaries will also improve the state accountability in developmental activities and enhance their self-esteem. Besides each state has different problems and situations. Peaceful Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram cannot be clubbed with disturbed Manipur and Tripura.

         c.    Another related issue is to revisit the romantic vision of Verier Elwin in governance based an protection of the tribal cultures, population and areas from the “rampaging” plains people and their culture. Basic question is who protected the identity of such groups before the advent of British rule in 1826? In over thousand years of recorded history, none of them lost their identity or existence till the colonial rule introduced elements of dividing the hill tribes and plain tribes, and plains and others. It led to social distancing and mutual fears and apprehensions. The fact is that unlike other parts of the country the tribals in the NE have always been self-governing sovereign entities needing no protection. If Naga’s own version of history is believed, others needed protection from them. Singphos, the smallest tribe in Arunachal has practiced Buddhism for centuries without any threat to its existence or identity. We need only respect the multi-cultural diversity of the region and get out of the “protective” mindset. It has only created vested and preferential pools of interest. Besides, most of the important groups like Nagas, Khasis, Mizos, Garos, Kukis, have embraced Christianity, modernity and education which has nothing to do with their old traditions and culture which we endeavour to protect. In brief they are capable of taking care of their own future and need no outside intervention to protect the romantic version of their culture and traditions. The present generation wants peace, progress and jobs. This trend and its implicit interdependence should be encouraged. Vision projected should be of commonality of interests and not exclusivity.

         d.    A message should go that the centre is looking beyond the security paradigm. Recourse to violence will be dealt with sternly, but mostly by the state govt.’s and the police. For sometime, security coordination, due to prevalent culture of violence, will present a problem – but meeting this challenge should increasingly become a local responsibility, assisted by the centre to the minimum. Appointment of mostly army and police officers as governor’s in the past was not a proper message. This should change. Similarly the current attitude of All India officers in the states, aptly described as “suitcase officers”, should also be taken care of-rather sternly. There has been enough molly-codling.

         e.    The issue of connectivity with the rest of country is real and has become an important psychological factor in the thinking of the region. Bangladesh govt. is unlikely to provide the, transport-corridor and the “Look East” intercourse will take time to acquire substance. The problem has to be addressed both at the physical and psychological levels. Its complex. Security environment precludes fast growth of industries and entrepreneurship. A well developed, Railways and road transport network within and outside can be the immediate possibility. Air connectivity has limitations and is mostly a psychological and elitist relief.

          f.    The states and societies in the region should be encouraged to resolve their identity/ethnicity – related problems by intra-internal dialogue and civil society interventions and not run to the Central govt. for solutions. It should be made clear that they have to find their own solutions and the Indian Constitution has proved inclusive enough to take care of all reasonable aspirations. In this tumult of grievances and demands little credit has been given to the accommodative culture of the Constitution, even indulgence to undeserving ones. This aspect needs highlighting and recognition. Despite exclusivist, ethnic demands there is considerable amount of commonality by way of language, folklore, traditions and cultural practices. There is an urgent need to recover the old sense of mutuality which pre-existed present fragmentation, mostly encouraged by colonial approach of divisiveness.

         g.    To take care of unique ethnic/minority issues every state govt. should constitute a bipartisan state level Social or Ethnic Councils as an advisory body consisting of civil society leaders to debate these issues and problems and find solutions. The centre should not view each ethnicity related assertion as necessarily secessionist or anti-national and intervene. We should encourage the civil society to deal with such problems. The militant groups do not want such forums as it exposes their myth of popular support.

         h.    It is too late to jettison the schedule VI entities like the Distt. Autonomous Councils (DAC) etc. as these have over the period acquired strong vested interests and symbols of autonomy and “identity”. There are presently ten DAC’s under schedule VI and several under state laws in the region. However, the functioning of the DAC’s should be closely audited for their relevance and effectiveness in addressing the local needs. If found wanting, it should be examined if their functioning can be altered to be lead agencies in for development work and implement the schemes like the Backward Distts Initiates (BDI) Rashtriya Sam Vikas Yojana, Backward Region Grant Fund, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Panchayat Raj Scheme etc. Implemented with local/state concurrence these may prove more effective, integrative and honourable. However the changes in the roles of DAC’s will require local consensus as these have developed strong political vested interests, and an uneasy relations with the state political apparatus. Infact time has come to examine the very rationale of Schedule VI after creation of predominant tribal states like Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh etc. It should be examined if these objectives can be achieved by the time tested methods of reservations on the lines of SC/ST reservations.

          i.    The ethnicity/identity related issues, have tended to acquire undue importance and influence. At the best the ‘ethnicity’ is a fluid concept and at the worst divisive and a blackmail. It should be seen and dealt with in perspective and in practical terms. While it should not be ignored, but it should also not be overplayed.

          j.    As far as possible the central govt. should not get formally involved in negotiations with the secessionist and militant groups with out clear terms of engagement. These are used to mainly gain legitimacy, breathing time to regroup and to undermine the rule of law and constitutionality. Even where it becomes necessary, e.g. Nagas and ULFA, etc. it should be made clear that:

                 a)    Negotiations will be with all factions of that particular society and the final agreement subject to the approval of the people with the consensus building amongst the civil society, and

                b)    If demands concern other ethnic groups or the states, then these must be resolved by mutual discussions and dialogue and the central govt. will not involve itself in such exercise.

         k.    Experts from NE Region suggest steps which bear repetition:

                (i)    the central govt. should formulate a clear policy on ethnicity and insurgency related problems, and nullify the precept that “violence pays” ,

               (ii)    learn to say ‘no’ to the impossible demands of ethnic entities and insurgents,

              (iii)    ensure proper utilisation of funds flowing to the states, and stop pilferage of public funds,

              (iv)    insist on gradual assumptions of duty by states to mobilise local resources and share financial liabilities,

               (v)    govt. should respond publicly to every myth, lie and propaganda of insurgents and their supporters, including the media. Failure to contest the Naga assertions of sovereignty and Nagalim and ULFA’s claims of sovereignty has tended to convey an impression that it is perhaps justified. There is some virtue in these matters to be open and frank, rather than promote false hopes and expectations. Youth have now different aspirations than insurgents.

              (vi)    On the issue of inter-intra ethnic conflicts mutual dialogue and discourse should be encouraged, with the civil society and central intervention should be avoided.

             (vii)    Insist on state govt’s and political parties to “deliver” and discourage the “blame game” vis-à-vis Delhi. Local level political opportunism should not be allowed to compromise national interests.

            (viii)    The local police should be enabled to handle all security related problems. Para-military, and in rare cases army, will only assist the local police to tackle insurgency and violence. There are no militarisistic solutions. Admn. and police should be strengthened to stand and be counted, even if it involves temporary risk.

               (ix)    Lastly, the prevalent political culture of expediency, leveraging links with the insurgent groups and compromises on national security issues should be discouraged to start with and then ended after reaching a political consensus.

It may seem difficult to achieve these objectives in current circumstances and political culture but stakes are too high in strategic terms with difficult neighbours to the North and South of the region to postpone or be soft on these issues. There is nothing new in the above suggestions and each one can be argued for and against. But what is important is to sincerely revisit the terms of engagement which the Union govt. has with the region and the states within the region have with each other. Sofar the approach has been to somehow manage the situation, postpone unpleasant decisions, be it the issues of Naga Talks, illegal migration, ethnic demands; and hope for the best. As stated earlier, no drastic change of course is possible. What is, however, important is to start the process of change of course for the better, with consensus, and patience. We will have to dare to succeed. Things are changing both in the region and around it. Peace and normalcy are required to achieve growth and strategic goals. And it cannot wait.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati