Dialogue  January - March, 2006 , Volume 7  No. 3

North-East Scan

Of Military Arrogance

Patricia Mukhim

Insurgency, militancy or whatever terminology we choose has resulted in the army rubbing shoulders with the civilian population more frequently than desired. One reason why soldiers have their cantonments is to prevent this direct interface with civilians. The armed forces are not trained to be civil. They are drilled to play it rough with the enemy/enemies of the country. In achieving that objective they are not expected to play by the rules. An army man can be as uncivil as is necessary. He could hit the enemy below or above the belt depending upon how quickly he wants to eliminate the person.
    The jungle and snow survival course is a tough call. It is meant to toughen up a soldier physical, mentally and psychologically. Counter-insurgency is, of course, a fairly new development. It has more to do with intelligence gathering and in quick and instant action while dealing with agent provocateurs. But this is secondary training. Fundamentally every soldier is regimented to fight a full scale war. That is the first and foremost impressionable brain-washing done to anyone called to the military. Counter-insurgency is merely superimposed on that first basic drill. It is difficult therefore to expect the military to deal with kid gloves while fighting insurgents.
    India has several insurgencies boiling on different fronts. What has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt is the inability of the police force to tackle these low-intensity wars that bleed the state. At the same time India does not have a specially trained force to deal with insurgencies only. So the army invariably steps in to ‘control the situation’ as has happened in Punjab, Nagaland, Manipur, Kashmir and Assam. This ad-hoc deployment of the army is a sore point with the state police because they are being shown in poor light. Insurgents are ruthless killers. The army is trained to develop a useful streak of ruthlessness too. Hence the two are evenly matched. Perhaps that is why insurgents find themselves hard hit in the aftermath of an army operation. 
    While insurgent outfits have sympathizers galore who willy-nilly subscribe to their ideology, the army has few well-wishers. We all suffer from the same psyche of cheering the army when they are battling it out with the Pakistanis somewhere in Siachen. But when a uniformed man kills somebody from the neighbourhood our human spirit rebels. There is a general negative mind-set that recoils at seeing somebody familiar being killed or tortured. But what defies logic is that when the killings or torture are carried out by insurgents like in Dhemaji where innocent children were killed, public protests were not as shrill or as vehement as they are with the Ajit Mahanta incident at Kakopathar.
    It is a patently unfair situation for people to yell for peace on the one hand, and then  stop short of telling those who wield the gun so mercilessly to stop their killing spree, merely because they are kith and kin or ‘sons of the same soil’. I am no flag-bearer of the Indian army but I can fully comprehend the discomfiture of the armed forces at having to deal with this kind of ambivalent public outrage. Sometimes you begin to wonder whether people really fathom the costs of bringing peace. In a war you count the body bags with great sadness. In a counter-insurgency operation the death of army or police personnel is just a piece of news. It is an impersonal event that evokes neither sorrow nor anger nor a sense of loss.
    On the other side of the spectrum, when a civilian loses his life at the hands of the military, public reaction erupts at high decibels. Ajit Mahanta was called ‘ a simple farmer’ who would have had the least to do with the ULFA. ‘So why was he called an ULFA link man or sympathizer’, people queried? The next question is, ‘How on earth did the army commit such a blunder and kill someone who was never associated with the ULFA?’. But who really knows the truth? Is the army intelligence mechanism so flawed? What are the reasons that make an army man a hyper-active trigger-happy killer? Is he acting out of fear or vindictiveness? Is it possible for the army to commit mistakes? And if so how can the army rectify such actions.
    Army high-handedness and arrogance is of course a much-hated trait. Lack of respect for civilians and their laws surface every now and again when the two come in close contact. Army personnel enjoy immunity from civilian laws because they have their own military courts. But when their boorish behaviour affects civilians then I believe they should be tried by the civil judiciary. I am referring here to the incident at Tinsukia where the wife of an army officer threw her heavy weight around and abused her husband’s position to wreak her kind of vengeance on the local residents when she did not get her way. This sort of action is unprecedented.
    While we are no strangers to the fact that army officer’s wives tend to behave like they wear the uniforms, right down to using their husband’s official vehicle and chauffeur for personal outings, instances such as the one at Tinsukia are rare. Such incidents tend to aggravate the already fragile relationship between the armed forces and civilians. It further adds to the psychological alienation that already exists between the military and civilian population. Boorish behaviour is symptomatic of bad upbringing. People with good breeding do not throw their weights around, more so when they are dealing with subordinates or the less powerful. If the incident is treated lightly it could be repeated by other officers’ wives in future.
    However we cannot bad-mouth the Indian army because of the actions of one or two individuals. That would be equivalent to denigrating all Indians merely because a few do not conduct themselves with dignity. In any case, uncouth behaviour is not a characteristic of the army alone. People in the civil services too tend to bully and talk down to their subordinates. They expect a red carpet wherever they put their dirty feet on. Hence it would be wrong to associate the Tinsukia affair with army high-handedness. The offender here is not a uniformed personnel even though she used them to get her act together. Why those soldiers should obey the orders of their officer’s wife is of course reminiscent of the lines, “Their’s not to make reply/ Their’s not to reason why/ Their’s but to do and die’  from Tennyson’s poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. 
    Counter-insurgency in India’s North East is not a closed chapter yet and is not likely to fade into oblivion simply because people want peace. Peace has a cost. But I have grave doubts whether people are willing to pay this price. From the look of things, every other person thinks it is someone else’s duty to bring peace and the ball gets thrown back and forth. As long as insurgency exists the military will have to continue its operations in civilian areas. The state is duty-bound to ensure public safety as far as is practicable. If the police cannot handle insurgency the military inevitably has to step in. There are no two ways about it. So asking the army to vacate its position is somewhat futile. Rather it is more judicious for civilians to be non-partisan and to co-operate with whoever is involved in sincere attempts to put down the enemies of a safe and free society. That is a cost we must all be prepared to pay. It is a painful price because those who are training guns and throwing bombs on us are our own flesh and blood, our own brothers, our own sons and daugthers.   

Messengers in Peril

Patricia Mukhim

    Some weeks ago a journalist investigating a scam in the Assam Forest Department was brutally murdered. Perpetrators of the crime are obviously part of the loop of crime and sleaze surrounding the department. There is the timber lobby, politicians, bureaucrats and what have you. They are a deadly cocktail by any standards. Following on the heels of this gruesome killing is the attempt on the life of another senior scribe from Manipur. Media persons, it appears are being coerced to conform and comply to the wishes of a wide range of actors, all of whom want to have it their way. How is this going to affect the media climate in the North East?
    Sadly, media professionals are so caught up with their duty they have no time to organize public protests. What is even more distressing is the blasé character of the reading public. Those who eagerly await their morning newspapers prefer to slink away into the darkness of anonymity when journalists are in trouble. The verdict seems to be that journalists do what they have to do only for themselves. It is difficult to understand why in this country journalists are typified as a specimen that have to fight their own battles, defend their own causes and look after  their own security, even while they faithfully cover the struggles of the under-dogs day after day. 
    North East India is afflicted by two very pernicious forces both of which want to either gobble up media space or to gag the media. The former demand that their statements be reported verbatim. The latter want the media to look the other way while they commit a crime. Both are difficult propositions for any media person worth his salt. Media reporting is not about faithfully reproducing government press releases or about espousing the cause of revolutionary groups. It is about investigating and enquiring into those areas that people actually want to keep hidden. A press release does not mean anything because it tells us only what the author of the release wants us to know. There are other things beyond the release which a discerning public should know and the task of the media is to actually ‘pry beyond the headlines’.  
    While sting operations are the order of the day, that task is also making journalists live on the edge of a precipice. Danger lurks behind every investigative journalist doing his job  conscientiously. There are very few people in the profession today who are willing to stick their necks out and voice the truth without fear or favour. If these few are ruthlessly massacred and the murderers are at large what will become of the profession? This is a question that should actually engage the minds of all those who value freedom of the press.
    In a region  contorted by major scandals and a stockpile of small arms that are available a dime a dozen, media persons will be coming under the firing line more often than not. They have to report unpleasant truths. There is no running away from that. But in doing so they put their lives on the line. Critics will argue that a media person has chosen his profession not the profession that has chosen him and therefore they cannot be whining if they have to suffer while in the pursuit of news. That would be a cruel argument. Newspapers are not just pages of papers with juicy news in them. Their publication requires a whole team of courageous, hardworking scribes who slog and strive while the world sleeps so that when the world awakes to a new day it can have its quota of news. Journalists are not footloose and fancy free guys as they appear on the surface. There is much hard work, sweat and tears that go into the making of a newspaper. It is therefore incumbent upon the reader to try and fully comprehend the larger dimension of the fourth estate. Only then can the media have allies on its side.
    By looking for allies one does not imply that the media should lean to the right or left or to look for softer options. One is only suggesting that the reading public have as much responsibility to defend press freedom and to continually fight for the space within which this freedom can operate. This is about the only sacred space available in a democracy. If this space is usurped by those with guns or with the power to throttle the voice of truth, there would be no option for the media but to fold up its tent and say goodbye to investigative journalism. That is an option if it is what the public wants. But whether that is healthy for a democracy is the moot point. I believe that will lead to a nasty democracy worse than any kind of fascism.  
    Those who desire to stomp democracy out usually target the media. They dread to read the truth about themselves because this truth threatens to tarnish their ‘good name’. But,  conversely, if the truth is hidden under a bushel as it were, it would deprive a large section of people of the opportunity for growth and progress and a healthy living environment. In Assam today the tentacles of a vicious timber mafia are devouring every layer of government. Loss of forest cover endangers the human race. But it hurts especially those living within the environs where the forest cover is more depleted. Can there be a more heinous crime than killing the green cover? Then why is the public outcry against this crime so muted in Assam? Are people tired of making an issue out of a real issue because there are too many non-issues in the pan? A journalist has sacrificed his life to unearth the truth. Should he have died in vain?
    Coming to Manipur where the situation is desperately fluid and bullets fly thick and fast, certainly it is no joy to be a pen-pusher. The risks are all too apparent. Scribes are accident prone. Yet one must salute these brave souls for their ‘never say die’ attitude. In Manipur, media persons are not the only ones at risk. Recently the Deputy Commissioner of Ukhrul district was reported to have been threatened by vested interests for not playing ball with them. He was allegedly asked to pay money from some development scheme to people handpicked by the local politician. Strong arm tactics and the law of the jungle have become Manipur’s raison d’etre.  
    Thankfully the media fraternity of Manipur is a cohesive unit. They have to be in order not to become dead meat. However, in a climate that is life-threatening and getting riskier everyday the fraternal cohesion of one state is not good enough. A North East Journalists’ Forum that takes cognizance of issues other than bread and butter needs to be put in place. The united voice of journalists from this region must combine with those of others in Kashmir and the rest of the free world. Only then will the space for free speech be guarded.

The Indefensible Fence

Toki Blah

Once again the state of Meghalaya comes into the news and again for all the wrong reasons. This time it is on account of the raging controversy over fencing of the border with Bangladesh. We made a noise over infiltration and influx from across the border and apparently the Centre took it seriously enough to take steps to check this menace that threatened the social and political demography of Meghalaya. New Delhi’s answer to the problem was the erection of a fence along the entire Bangladesh Border, a la LOC, Kashmir. It was a measure that was to be supplemented by rigorous patrolling by the BSF and other paramilitiary forces. In short, a typical police approach to a political problem but if the Centre expected accolades and applause over the move, it must by now be sorely disappointed. Stiff local resistance and objection to the fencing operation emerged and its political sensitivity was of such proportions that a normally subservient and submissive DD Lapang Government dug in its heels and defied the Centre by calling for an immediate halt to the ongoing fencing work. In the process ,proving once again how a threat to the Kursi can result in surprisingly efficient spine stiffening responses .  
    It was communities along the border that clamored most against the border fencing. “Off with the Fence” they yelled, and the reason is not hard to find. The fence was erected 150 meters inside Indian territory. Most of the arable and cultivated land fell beyond the fence and this created two major problems for the farmers of the area. Firstly, direct access to their land was now no longer possible as fence gates, often far in between , severely restricted such movement. Secondly , the gates closed at sundown and the locked up farmers watched in chagrin and impotent fury as Bangladeshi crop raiders impudently harvested the fruit of their day’s labour. A fence put up to keep out the intruder ends up boxing in the owner. It is a ridiculous situation made worse by the pigheadedness of its creators. Then there is a third reason , a well kept open secret. Open porous borders mean profitable smuggling escapades where everyone, border guards and smugglers together are joint entrepreneurs in a lucrative non official cross border trade. So what’s some cross border infiltration compared to making a few bucks ? “Down with the Fence and lets get on with business !” These guys could teach our politicians a thing or two about what the Look East Policy is all about.  
    The fence is not as effective as it looks on the planning boards of the Home Ministry in New Delhi. The Fence cuts across sharp undulating terrain far removed from the flat table in the Home Ministry office. Numerous rain channels, nullas and streams run from India into Bangaladesh. During the monsoons these rivulets become raging torrents cutting their own banks and hurling huge boulders and tree trunks with the momentum of their swollen anger. Man made structures such as barbed wire fences and their concrete pillars become puny pieces of flotsam to be knocked and carried away with impunity. The entire Indo Bangla fence after each monsoon becomes perforated with thousands of punctures through which infiltration takes place with impudence. In the light of the above the fence remains a security creation of the mind totally at odds with what is actually happening on the ground. It reflects a central mindset that has not changed in the last 50 years. The NE demands a control over influx so lets give them a border fence.
    So what is this Indo Bangla fence? It is strands of barbed wire dividing two countries. Whoever manages to get on the other side becomes by default , a citizen of that country. The corollary to this is that since the fence is impenetrable, therefore only genuine citizens must be on either side of it. This is the Center’s answer to our influx problem! As a control mechanism against influx the fence is a farce. As a solution to the demands of Meghalaya it remains a joke. In actuality the fence will simply facilitate fencing in infiltrators who are already inside India. It does not address the post facto effect of infiltration and neither does it hold much promise of controlling future intrusion. Then there is the diplomatic profile of the fence in so far as neighbourly relations between Bangaldesh and India is concerned. We speak of the need to develop good neighbourly relations with the Bangladeshis . This single thoughtless act has managed to underscore India’s perceived image as the regional neighbourhood bully. It completely destroys Meghalaya’s hopes for trade transit through Bangla ports. I hold no torch for Bangladesh nor espousal for the visibly anti Indian administration in Dacca. But I just cannot see how a fence will help mitigate suspicions and there is growing realization that there definitely must be other ways to sort out bilateral issues other than through the erection of a fence!
    In a nut shell this write-up does not deny the existence of danger to the integrity of the NE from the threat of continued unchecked influx of illegal migrants from across the border. What it questions are the thoughtless, insensitive, and wholly undiplomatic measures undertaken to address the problem. On the one hand we speak of a Look East Policy that calls for closer interaction with our Eastern neighbours and then immediately contradict ourselves with an International fencing exercise. For once the Lapang Government may have actually championed a just moral cause. There is a problem no doubt but in the same breath there surely must be more sensitive; other responsive and less threatening methods on how to deal with the problem. I recall the Government of Meghalaya announcing the introduction of a three tier card system as a Control measure against influx. The main feature of the scheme was public participation in identification of infiltrators and a voluntary exit provision for those who are not authorized to stay in Meghalaya. The ID card system calls for an ID Card to identify all genuine permanent residents of Meghalaya together with those to be classed as purely temporary residents , in which tourists and unskilled labourers were to be included . It also envisaged a work permit for those with skills who require and have a genuine reason for a longer stay in the interest of the state and its people . These surely are more reliable, participatory and sustainable means for the detection and control of influx. The only trouble on this issue is that the Dy Chief Minister of Meghalaya, who is to decide on the matter, has been sitting on the file for the last one year.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati