Dialogue July-September, 2011, Volume 13 No.1
Freedom Day as ritual
For over three decades, the people of Assam have been prevented from participating freely in the Independence Day and Republic Day public functions by terrorist outfits like the ULFA with support from other militant/terrorist groups of the State also endorsing the diktat issued by ULFA to forbid people from participating in these functions. And out of fear of the ULFA fiat and the knowledge that the State administration would not be able to protect anyone except VIPs particularly on such days (as also on other days) people have stayed away from such public functions. They have also refrained from hoisting the national flag on these two days at their homes, and schools that used to observe these two days in an effort to inculcate patriotism and respect for the national flag among children, have also refrained from observing these two days in schools. After all, who would accept responsibility if any of the children were mowed down by militants’ guns while returning home? It was very easy to give the sound advice that if all schools decided to defy the ULFA diktat, the diktat would not work. True, this is logical and sound advice, but in such situations it is fear that has the last word in people’s reasoning. Besides, events have proved that the ULFA threat was very real. On Independence Day 2004, the ULFA opened fire on the official Independence Day parade at Dhemaji in eastern Assam, taking a toll of 14 lives in cold blood. All those killed were women and children. Earlier, a bomb had been blasted at one corner of Judges’ Field in Guwahati during the Republic Day parade, but there were no casualties. However, in a knee-jerk reaction, the State government put an end to all parades at Judges’ Field and moved such parades to the Latasil ground very close by. The Latasil ground is about a fourth of the Judges’ Field in size, and parades held in that cramped space are a bit of a joke, but the government has not yet evinced the courage to hold parades at Judge’s Field again. This has much to do with the motivation of the ritual that impels the State government to conduct these two public functions — the very topic of this article.
The ULFA diktat telling people to boycott the Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations has had a very damaging effect on an entire generation in Assam. This diktat has been in force for over three decades. Children born in the early 1990s and thereafter have not witnessed the hoisting of their national flag either at home or at school. At best, they have seen such flag hoisting on television. In fact, many children are not sure which colour is at the top and which at the bottom. Many are not very sure of the exact colours either. The flags stitched for the recent Independence Day had a colour more reddish than orange at the top and a colour that threatened to be blue rather than green at the bottom. One cannot help wondering whether there was a directive from the government to make the top colour more red than orange that gets so close to saffron. In any case, the ULFA and other militant/terrorist groups succeeded in forcibly making the children of the State reject their national flag even before there was any question of that national flag being replaced by another. It is a tragedy for children not to have a flag that they can call their own and be proud of. And after all these years of the ULFA’s ‘revolution’ the people of the State will continue to have their own flag, since the question of Assam becoming an independent country according to the plan of ULFA does not arise. This was indeed a cruel joke to play on a whole generation.
The three-decade-old situation in Assam raises the question as to the usefulness of the Independence Day and Republic Day functions that have been held all over Assam at considerable expense for the last 30 years as well. For whose benefit were they staged? Quite obviously, they were held as rituals for the benefit of the government — for ministers, MLAs, bureaucrats, government officers and their wives (one seldom sees any children at these state-run functions). They are rituals in a dual sense. They are rituals for the observance of the two historically important days and they are also ritualistic proof of the fact that the ULFA has at least not succeeded in preventing the government from celebrating these days. But whatever rituals they represent, they are not observances of the two historic days for the people. If anything, the freedom of people to move around was curtailed even a day before Independence Day this time. The Latasil ground is very close to a popular vegetable market. On 14 August, people were stopped well ahead of Latasil for police and military checking and the direct route to the riverside market was closed forcing people to take a longish detour to arrive there.
As for the Independence Day, attendance was sought to be ensured by issuing invitation cards. One was not free to land up at will and participate. Along with the invitation cards was a car parking sticker. This was a way of saying, “Do not come walking. And do not drive your car yourself either, because once you have to park at some distance, you become a pedestrian for the remaining distance.” Where is the freedom of any kind for Freedom Day in any of this? Here is a government that seeks to perpetuate the burra sahib culture of the British days rather than a democratic culture. You belong to the crowd that the district administration wants at the function only if you arrive in a chauffeur-driven car. If you drive your own car (as even ministers do in the most advanced democracies of the world) to attend such functions, you are a pariah. And this is the way the government hopes to produce democrats even 64 years after Independence—by inviting select people to an empty ritual meant for the establishment alone year after year? Where is the freedom in all this? Would it not have been far better for the government to instruct all schools to celebrate Independence Day, to provide the security necessary for being able to do this in adverse conditions and for ministers to attend such school functions? The police and the paramilitary participating in these parades could provide security in schools. What is so great about a parade that is so shabby that it is almost a joke as parades go? Where did our freedom fighters say that Independence Day could be observed only with badly done parades? Have we so run out of imagination as not to be able to celebrate our freedom any other way? In fact, the parade itself represents an extension of the empty ritual that we must strive to end if we intend to make the celebration of our independence a genuine expression of joyous participation.
Voiceless in Delhi
Democracy is more than a five-yearly election extravaganza. In ademocracy its not only the elected representatives who matter. Citizens too have a role and an important one at that. Unfortunately our democratic system has not created the space for active public participation in governance. As a people we have no role in crafting out our State Plans. There is no platform for public consultation on important legislations. It’s almost as if the elected are ordained with divine wisdom which does not reside with the common citizen. This is utterly ridiculous!
For the North Eastern region, it is a common assumption that the politicians we elect from the region are our champions in New Delhi. Right? Wrong! The 26 MPs we elect have their own agenda, their own vote bank that they represent even while speaking in parliament. Last year Shri PD Rai, the lone Lok Sabha MP from Sikkim organized a meeting of MPs from the region at Gangtok under the aegis of the NE MPs Forum. The idea was to activate the Forum and to learn to speak in one voice for the common concerns of the region. Several issues were discussed but despite the enthusiasm and activism of the articulate Rai, an IIT & IIM alumni, the Forum has not made much headway. The voice of the North East is, therefore, dispersed and creates more dissonance than harmony.
Another erroneous assumption is that MPs cutting across party lines will converge in the larger interests of the region. Is that pragmatic or politically viable? We know it is not. If we look at the issues of large dams in the region and the impact they would have on populations living downstream, the resettlement of displaced people and the environmental consequences of large dams, there is really no one to speak on behalf of the region in parliament. Congress MPs will not do it because they will not go against official policies. The NCP is a coalition partner so its MPs will not take up this issue. Other party MPs are like solitary reapers ploughing their own constituencies. Independent MPs are too few to make a dent. So in the end the 26 MPs do no service to the region. They might be doing something for their respective states. But is that good enough?
It is evident that political leaders have failed us. Some might contest this statement vehemently but the point is that in a democracy it is not just elected representatives who are expected to be heard. There is a huge constituency of stakeholders who wish to engage with the Centre and get their voices heard at the right forums. Suppose we, the people, wish to take up issues with the Ministry of Health or Human Resource Development or the Planning Commission or even the Home Ministry directly because our MPs will not do that on our behalf, who do we go to? The state governments have their liaison officers to fix up appointments, who do the civil society groups of the North East have as their connecting link in Delhi?
Sometimes we are fortunate to have a person like Shri GK Pillai, the just retired Union Home Secretary who was literally our eyes and ears in Delhi. Several pressure groups antagonistic to certain facets of governance or simply wanting to be heard have been given an audience by Shri Pillai. If they wish to meet senior people in other ministries, Pillai fixed an appointment on their behalf. In a sense he was our points-person in Delhi. Is his successor willing to go this extra mile considering that he has never before worked in the North East? Shri Pillai we would recall was Joint Secretary Home in charge of North East in the late 1990s. Above all else, Shri Pillai’s heart resonated with the North East. When someone from the region made a plea fore the larger good of the communities, such as asking for an all weather road to connect interior villages of Manipur to the sub-divisional headquarters he was quick to respond to their needs. I have not heard of any other Secretary level officer who would go out of his way to make the North East feel important.
There are several ministries in New Delhi which have funds for important projects in the North East. The Departments of AYUSH under the Ministry of Health or the Department of Biotechnology under the Ministry of Science and Technology, have funds which fall under the purview of the Non-Lapsable Pool of Central Resources (NLCPR). These funds are administered by the Ministry of DoNER. But institutions have complained that accessing these funds by going through the circuitous route of MDoNER is frustrating. Some Departments which are headed by more sensitive Secretaries have, therefore, decided to come to the region and hold consultations with different stakeholders to cut the red tape. They have been able to identify genuine institutions who are doing excellent pioneering work but which remain aloof from Government because of the red tape and corruption that any application for funds entails. I will never forget how the head of a particular institution which is running several professional courses for youth in the region, had applied for some assistance to upscale the institution. He had to go through a tout who knows the right people in North and South Block. He sheepishly admitted that even though he was averse to paying money under the table, he was compelled to pay the tout so that to get the much needed funds for his institution. No kidding!
Recently at a meeting of intellectuals in Shillong, the operative phrase was that Government of India listens only to two categories of people (1) the politicians, but only if they belong to the same party as the ruling government in Delhi and (2) to gun toting rebels. Civil society simply has no identity as far as the Government of India is concerned. But is that partly the fault of people of this region? Do we have a credible think-tank along the lines of the Centre for Policy Research, based in the national capital, which plays a distinctive role in policy advocacy and policy formulation for the government?
It is true that civil society is too broad a term and tends to take on cacophonous overtones. In recent times it has also derived some pejorative nuances because of its propensity to hold the paper gun to the government’s head. But isn’t the government also responding to those who hold real guns by agreeing to talk to them and even conceding to their illogical demands? These double standards unfortunately are so glaringly visible that they expose the underbelly of a soft state.
Well, maybe the way forward is to have a solid think tank comprising people from the region whose antecedents are clearly unsullied and whose academic and social commitments are indisputable. But is it possible to have such a body in a region where opinions and agendas are misshapen and sharply divided and where ethnic jingoism plays spoil-sport all the time. In the past people have tried to bring together such a think tank but failed precisely because Assam cannot think beyond itself and because other states still feel threatened by Assamese dominance. Yet Assam is one state that has probably marched well ahead of the others and often times felt the stranglehold of being clubbed with the other six laggard states. So maybe it’s time for the laggards to put their heads together and forge a new identity and come out with a robust body for policy advocacy with a close link to the CPR, New Delhi. Any takers?
The Law and the Outlaw
The imminent trial of the arrested United National Liberation Front, UNLF, chairman, R.K. Sanayaima, would begin sooner than later. The case is important for more reason than the obvious of the accused having transgressed the law of the land. It will demonstrate among others the status government of India accords the various nationalistic uprisings (or insurgencies) in the Northeast. That is to say, this case will demonstrate whether the Indian state sees these shows of extreme dissents as merely problems of law and order breaches or else radical political dissents arising out of historical and structural inconsistencies between the idea of the India and those who see themselves at its margin or else outside its fold.
A lot of future resolutions to the problem of insurgency in the Northeast and elsewhere in other parts of the country may indeed come to pivot around this case. Here is a case of an insurgent leader arrested in Bangladesh, though officially unacknowledged, and two months after his arrest and illegal detention, surfaced allegedly in Bihar, and according to the official version, arrested while he was trying to cross into Indian territory from Nepal.
The arrested insurgent leader is now being charge-sheeted. The charges against him can also be guessed. At its most grand, it would be waging war against the nation. The penalty for this, if proven, would be understandably tough. From all indications the arrested leader is also not shirking away from his role in the ideology he has been pursuing, or the fact that he had been the leader of an organisation outlawed under Indian law, his only caveat being that he was not waging war against India but defending an erstwhile sovereign kingdom’s right to self determination.
In past cases of such arrests, the modus operandi had been far too often of the arrested leaders claiming, obviously on the advice of their lawyers, that they had nothing to do with the organisations they were accused of heading or had no knowledge of the offences against the law slapped against them, and in the absence of conclusive proofs or witness evidences, eventually getting bail, which they then jumped. They got to be free again and continue their fight, but such moves morally demeaned the struggle they headed. In the present case, the table is being turned.
With the same conviction that he fought his war, the UNLF leader is now defending the reason why he fought the war. What the legal response would be is predictable and understandable. It can only go by the statute book. But what is to be watched here is the political response, or the statesmanship with which the Indian state would handle the situation. Would it too simply go by the statute book or look beyond and discover the larger picture. On the larger canvas of peace building and thereby resolution to the various insurgencies in the Northeast, the Indian state’s attitude and decision on the UNLF leader case would have a profound bearing. It would also answer the million rupee question of whether resolving insurgency in the Northeast is a military responsibility or a political and statesmanship enterprise.
In this way, the unfolding case is an important litmus test. It will also among others determine whether the establishment is looking for a victory in a battle or thinking of winning the war. One does hope it is the latter. One also hopes the arrested UNLF leader, for the very reason that he has chosen to stand by his conviction, is not treated as a common law offender but a political prisoner with all entitled dignity accorded to him, even if he is ultimately awarded the severest penalty for waging war against the nation. This is important, for it is now more than clear that the familiar tactics of delegitimizing insurgency by labelling it as criminal has not brought the intended result in all these decades. It only embittered the constituencies that threw up these defiant challenges to the establishment. It is now time to give these phenomena the legitimacy they always deserved, and then tackle it from this vantage. The trial of the UNLF leader R.K. Sanayaima in this regard can be the benchmark of a new and enlightened approach to resolving the question of insurgency not just in Manipur, but the entire Northeast and even beyond.
SADAR Hills in flame
Meanwhile, the tension over the demand for a separate district status to the Sadar Hills is getting thicker. The Sadar Hills District Demand Committee, SHDDC which has been leading the agitation remains unrelenting and the blockade imposed by it along the National Highway 39, an important lifeline of Manipur, is beginning to have a serious impact on life in the state. Essential commodities and other consumables coming from other parts of the country are beginning to become scarce in the markets in Imphal, and consequently in the other towns and villages of the state as well. Very soon, if the inflow of petrol and diesel remains disrupted, the familiar and depressing sight of long queues outside petrol pumps would reappear. Public transport fares would soon begin climbing steeply and likewise cooking gas prices too would begin climbing for the ceiling. The question is, why has this become Manipur’s reality? How have many issues in the state become so intractable and close-ended, showing no promise for an amicable end?
The Sadar Hills issue is now more than 20 years old. Yet there is no indication that it will be resolved immediately. The inability of the government, not just the present one, but each one in power during the last two decades and more, to put the problem to rest is, to be fair, not solely the government’s alone. It is on the other hand a characteristic of most issues related to ethnic identity. Although there are not many acknowledging it, and instead plenty insisting on calling it essentially an issue of administrative lethargy, the fact is, the biggest stumbling block before the issue has been one posed by ethnic contestations over territory informed by archaic notions of ethnic homelands.
The problem with these homelands is there are too many different notions of it depending on the vantage of different ethnic groups. The settled agriculturist, the hunter gatherer, the nomadic herders, the feudal mind and indeed the modern administration have different ideas of territory and its ownership. The territories thought to be part of these homelands also invariably overlap. This precisely is the problem preventing any easy resolution to the Sadar Hills district issue.
The proposed new district is to be created by severing this sub-division of the Senapati district. Doing this is not an easy proposition for the area under the Sadar Hills, and now largely Kuki dominated, is seen by the Nagas as part of their traditional homeland. Kukis and other communities in the area who are in majority interpret this differently.
As of now the SHDDC has taken the extreme step of blockading the National Highway-39, to press for their demands, but should their demands be granted, it can be certain the Nagas would resort to similar coercive measures on the stretch of the same highway they are in physical majority.
Indications of intents of such recourses have already come from civil organisations amongst the Nagas in messages published in the local media. There were even some veiled threats that there would be an ethnic bloodbath that would dwarf the Kuki-Naga feuds of the 1990s. So where does the state go from here? It is difficult to imagine Manipur is a state which cannot even redraw its district boundaries without causing social unrests. This would have had some logic if the state’s two broad regions, the reserved hills meant exclusively for tribals and the nonreserved valley open to everybody were to overlap after such demarcations. For in such circumstances, the new administration structure rather than becoming easier would become even more complicated.
However, if the divisions were to be strictly within each of the two separate regions, there ought not to have been any problem. The valley was once upon a time just one district. It is now four. The hills could also have been similarly divided for administrative convenience, but homeland politics has other visions and insecurities, therefore nobody is willing to listen to this argument.
Perhaps the government should factor these insecurities in its strategies and approach the problem from this standpoint. As for instance, it could experiment with things like naming the proposed Sadar Hills district as Senapati (South) and the old Senapati as Senapati (North). The point is to send out the message to those demanding as well as opposing the formation of this new district that the new district has no other intent than administrative convenience.
This would be in the manner Imphal district was divided into Imphal East and West. Then there is the question of Jiribam. This small patch of plains inhabited predominantly by non Schedule Tribe population could have been merged with adjacent reserved district of Tamenglong, but this, as pointed out earlier in this article, would create obvious problems as there would have to be substantial reworking of the administration mechanism in the district so as to accommodate general category population in a district reserved for schedule tribes.
The state is already facing this problem where seven general category valley Assembly constituency in the Thoubal district were included in the reserved Outer (Hill) Parliamentary constituency to balance out number deficits. It may be recalled, Manipur has two Parliamentary constituencies, one Outer Manipur and the other Inner Manipur. Outer Manipur constitutes of its hill districts which are generally the homes of Nagas and Kukis who are included in the Scheduled Tribes list in Schedule-5 of the Indian Constitution. Inner Manipur constitutes of the state’s valley districts which are the traditional homes of the Meiteis who are not Scheduled Tribes and this constituency is open to everybody to settle as well as participate in India’s democratic elections.
Residents of the valley districts who have come to be included in the Outer Manipur Parliamentary constituency, have now virtually ended up substantially disenfranchised. They can vote in Parliamentary elections, but none among them can aspire to contest for the Parliamentary seat for the seat is reserved for Scheduled Tribes. This is just one problem of general category population coming under any administration reserved for non-general category population. Not to be forgotten are the echoes of similar demands for new district status at Phungyar in Ukhrul district and Tengnoupal in Chandel district. While the voices of the latter two are still faint, as to whether they become threatening will depend on how the Manipur government handles the Sadar Hills district issue.