Dialogue  July-September, 2006, Volume 8  No. 1

Astha Bharati, Delhi

Seminar on “Problems of ethnicity in North-East India”

Venue: India International Centre, New Delhi

July 6-7, 2006

The Seminar, organized by the Astha Bharati, was inaugurated on July 6, 2006 at 10.00 AM by Professor Mrinal Miri, founder President, Astha Bharati and former V.C., NEHU. The session was chaired by Dr. Jayanta Madhab, President, Astha Bharati. The Valedictory address was delivered by Shri B.P. Singh, former Home Secretary, GoI. Professor V. Suryanarayan chaired the session. Dr. Jayanta Madhab presented the summary of the seminar/deliberations. Fourteen resource persons presented papers/deliberated on various aspects of the theme. They included Dr. B.B. Kumar, Shri E. N. Rammohan (former D.G., BSF), Ms. Patricia Mukhim, (Journalist and Social activist, Shillong), Prof. Niru Hazarika and Dr. Nani Gopal Mahanta (both from Guwahati University), Professor Udayon Mishra (Dibrugarh University), Shri O. N. Shrivastava (former Governor, Nagaland and Manipur), Shri N. Changkakoti (former D.G.P., Assam), Dr. B.D. Sharma (Retired IAS, former Vice-Chancellor, former Chairman, SC &ST Commission, Social Activist), Shri Pradip Phanjoubam (Editor, Imphal Free Press), Professor V. Suryanarayan (Retd., Madrass University), and Professor A.C. Sinha (formerly of NEHU).. The Papers of Shri H.N. Das, Chief-Secretary (Retd.), Assam and Shri Subir Bhaumik, BBC Correspondent, were read in absentia. The working sessions were chaired by Shri Sanjoy Hazarika, Senior Journalist, Shri Natwar Thakkar, noted Gandhian, Professor Udayon Misra and Pradip Phanjoubam.

The seminar was attended by distinguished scholars, academicians, journalists, administrators and social activists. They included Shri Ved Marwah, former Governor, Shri Dinanath Mishra, former M.P. (Rajya Sabha), Prof. (Mrs) Sujata Miri, Dr. R.K. Dwivedi, Dr. Gulshan Sachdeva (JNU), Sarvashri Devdutta, Ram Bahadur Rai, Prakash Singh, IPS (Retd.), Binod Kumar, IAS (Retd.), K.K. Mitra, D.C. Pathak, IPS (Retd), D.K. Arya, IPS (Retd), S.P. Talukdar, Shri S.P.Rai, Shri Ram Naresh Pd. Singh, Dr. Suresh Sharma, Dr. Shankar Sharan, Dr. Radha Banerjee, Dr. S.K. Pandey, Sarvashri Surendra Kumar, D. Roy Chaudhury, Arun K. Singh, Anil Kamboj, Ved Prakash and others.

Statement of the Seminar

In the two day seminar on the “problems of Ethnicity in the North-East India”, papers were presented on a wide range of ethnic identity issues relating to NE India. The seminar was successful in bringing together a variegated group of experts ranging from academics, policy makers, economist, retd. Governors social activists, media people and retd. Government civil and military officers who had served in the region in various capacities. The deliberation of the seminar was mainly on two issues- First, why are ethnic identities proliferating in NE India – and what are the challenges they pose to the stability and development of the region? Second, what viable actions or vision plan can be taken up to mitigate the problems?

The seminar deliberated on the genesis and growth of ethnicity in the region, administrative and legal segregation of the hills and the plains by the British, their design to form a crown colony by separating hills (Coupland plan); the colonial myths of race, isolation, core-fringe conflict, hegemony, exploitation, etc., thus creating separatist mindset and weak participation in freedom struggle due to isolation. Creation of Nagaland waiving economic and viability criteria, and the benefits flowing to the Nagas, tempted others in the region. Nagaland was replicated throughout the region, which has spillover effect even in North Bengal.

Land security, needing utmost Government attention, is a vital issue for the growth of separate ethnic identity in the NE region. As a result of variety of factors such as nature of modernization and development, encroachments and occupation by the illegal immigrants, the tribal people are gradually getting alienated from their ancestral land. The issue of absentee land ownership is becoming very vital in states like Meghalaya where the tribal land has been transferred to big multinationals by various fraudulent means.

Democratisation of the District Councils and the traditional institutions and their positive role in development process, people’s participation in the development process, their involvement in decision making through effective Panchyati Raj system is necessary. It needs mention that the District Councils under the 6th schedule of the Constitution has not been able to make palpable impact in the region.

It was also deliberated upon that bad governance is a vital factor for such proliferation of ethnic violent identity in the region. Due to rampant corruption and inefficiency in the service delivery system, the major chunk of the development money is being eaten up by the ruling elite. The governance is adversely affected due to the tendency of All India Service officers managing to remain away from the region, and thus acquiring the name of “suitcase officers”.

It was more or less agreed by all the presenters that the challenges of ethnic proliferation in the region could not be neglected. If these issues are not handled properly, ethnicity will become one of the greatest sources of instability in the region. Identity politics that polarize people and groups, is creating fault lines between “us” and “them”. Growing distrust and hatred threaten peace, jeopardize co-existence, development and human freedom.

In the light of such challenges that ethnic identity proliferation pose in NE India, a wide range of observations and recommendations were made:

         1.    Ethnicity-related problems need multi-dimensional/multi-stage tackling, including that on intellectual and human rights fronts.

         2.    There is need to learn from the past mistakes. When negotiations are intended, it should be with all the factions of that particular society, e.g., Naga, and should finally be approved by the people with the consensus building amongst the civil society.

         3.    It should be ensured that the voice of the Civil Society in Assam, Nagaland and elsewhere finds expression in solving the ethnic problems. After all ULFA and NSCN-IM, which are negotiating with strength of arms, are in minority and continue to throttle the popular voice emanating through media and public fora. Here, it needs mention that the Civil Society in Assam and Nagaland has started voicing their concern against violence. Assamese self-critiquing has blunted the edge of the chauvinism and opportunism of Ulfa based on the personal agenda of its leaders.

         4.    The issue of common bond among the people of NE, through a process of dialogue, was also highlighted. The Civil Society can play a cementing role in this regard. In order to accommodate the burgeoning demands of the ethnic groups, it was suggested that a State Social or Ethnic Council could be constituted by the initiative of the Civil Society, which can look into the distinct socio-cultural issues and address the common concerns. It will be a dialogue forum where groups can raise their issues of concern. The inter- and intra- ethnic conflicts have led to social and cultural distancing and, at times, overt conflict and violence. This trend needs to be arrested by encouraging local mutual dialogue and discourse, rather than running to the Central and State govts to resolve the issues. In this context, it was felt that the urgent need to “recover the old sense of mutuality” which preexisted present fragmentation, mostly encouraged by the colonial rule to divide the people.

         5.    While peace efforts should be allowed and facilitated with utmost sincerity, the Governments – Central and the State –should ensure that the terms of cease-fire agreements are strictly adhered to and none falls prey to insurgents’ bullets.

         6.    It was felt that the Naga demand for sovereignty and Nagalim is unrealizable. Even if the NSCN (IM) accepts autonomy within the Constitution, it would keep the “Nagalim” issue alive to retain support among people. It was felt that the terms of Naga settlement would also influence the content and course of other ethnic demands.

         7.    It was also felt that though the Indian state has made mistakes in the past in dealing with the ethnic identity related problem, yet the Indian constitution has, by and large, been resilient and inclusive of urges and aspirations of various groups. The inclusive policy and approach and respect for the multicultural identity and diversity of NE should continue to form basic thrust of Central Govt’s approach on governance and economic development issues.

         8.    The participants felt that demands for demarcating inter state boundaries in the northeast and for redrawing the India-Myanmar border would lead to the opening of a Pandora’s box. It is suggested that every State Government should respect the constitutional boundaries and should be more sensitive to the urges of the territorial minority groups. Territorial and devise forums where these concerns could be articulated.

         9.    It was felt that the Central Government should (i) formulate proper policy regarding the ethnicity and insurgency related problems, (ii) learn to say ‘no’ to the impossible demands of the insurgents, e.g., the demands of inclusion of parts of Assam where not even two percent Nagas reside; (iii) ensure proper utilization of the funds flowing to the States; and (iv) initiate positive changes in the system of education with the help of the State governments, UGC and the Central Universities of the region.

       10.    The State Governments should ensure (i) the stoppage of extortions and pilferage of the public funds; (ii) gradual assumption of their duty of mobilization of local resources and sharing the financial burden more and more.

       11.    It is essential to answer every myth and lie, counter every wrong signal emanating even from the governments’ wrong actions, counter every propaganda of the insurgents and the media supporting them. It needs intellectual activism and active involvement of the conscientious citizens and the media.

       12.    The inter- and intra- ethnic conflicts have led to social and cultural distancing and, at times, overt conflict and violence. This trend needs to be arrested by encouraging local mutual dialogue and discourse, rather than running to the Central and State govts to resolve the issues. In this context, it was felt that the urgent need to “recover the old sense of mutuality” which preexisted present fragmentation, mostly encouraged by the colonial rule to divide the people. Govt should not be hustled into agreement on contentions issues like Nagalim, sovereignty, etc., which require patience and consensus building that are time consuming.

       13.    The political parties and the civil society in the North-East should ensure that (i) the State governments properly deliver; (ii) blame game - blaming Delhi for every local failure; as for example, the failure of the State governments to pay salaries of their oversized workforce on the name of Centre’s ‘lack of concern’ – stops; (iii) local and intra-regional conflicts, as far as possible, are resolved peacefully and democratically with local/regional initiative, (iv) ethnic cleansing is stopped; (v) inter-tribal and inter-communal hatred is discouraged.

       14.    The combined strength of the police force of the States of the region is large. They should play greater and effective role in controlling insurgency and violence so that need for and dependence on Army and paramilitary forces is reduced to the minimum. It was also urged that the Government of India abandon some of its exclusive military principles and coming out of its bureaucracy-centric policies. It should involve people from Northeast and elsewhere, who know and can deal with the situation better than those who are deciding the future of NE.

       15.    Growth of infrastructure in the region was considered the most important factor for speedy economic growth of the region.

                                                                                                                                                      —B.B. Kumar


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati