Dialogue  July-September  2007, Volume 9  No. 1

North-East: The Way Forward

D.C. Pathak

The entire North-East including Assam remains security sensitive for reasons attributable to the varying aspects of insurgency some of which have cross-border dimensions. Other important factors contributing to this are the downslide of economic development that has caused a lowering of per capita income in comparison to the national average and an entire range of unresolved issues of governance. While Nagaland seems overtly quite, the prolonged exposure of the people there to a parallel governance is a major cause for concern. Assam ,Manipur ,Meghalaya and Tripura on the other hand continue to witness acts of violence. Nearly three dozen groups have used illicit arms in this region. Although the gains of democracy can be said to have been made viable in the North-East by the institutionalization of periodic elections, the security issues have continued to overshadow the prospects of economic development. However, the end of the cold-war and the onset of economic globalization are generating new atmospherics for inter-regional economic cooperation around India some of which can be harnessed for speeding up growth in the states of the North-East. In a nutshell ,if the air ,road and communication links of the North-East with the rest of India are strengthened this region can benefit from India’s ‘Look-East Policy’.

It may be useful to flag a few issues relating to the domestic political and security strategy in the North East. Some lessons from the past are relevant for the present. In retrospect, for instance, the Shillong accord of 1975 between the Government of India and the Naga National Council(NNC) has typically shown how peace talks with only a particular group of insurgents in a land of tribal divisions at the grassroots do become problematic. The creation of the North Eastern states had still left the task of addressing the tribal psyche there as a big challenge requiring further work on the strategy of governance and the socio-political approach. This has a bearing on the eight year old peace talks with the NSCN(IM) which have not restrained the underground from keeping up the tax collection and extortion drive as also increasing their arsenal. New ways have to be found to enlarge the voice of the peace constituency.

The democratic leadership in the region has generally failed to stand up to the insurgents and has in fact indulged in assuagement of the latter. Even when an attempt was made in Assam in 1985 to get agitating AASU into the democratic mainstream through elections, political expediency rather than an intelligence-based assessment guided that move. The militants in the North East have been led to presume that they were dealing with a soft state. In Assam, for instance, the government of the day did not insist on ULFA surrenderies depositing their arms with the result that there was no abatement of the atmosphere of violence. Infact the strategy of using the armed surrenderies against the insurgents has only perpetuated the gun culture. This approach of setting up one armed group against the other needs to be discarded forthwith. Illicit guns can be neutralized only by the guns of the State.

A source of potential trouble in the North East is the fact of demographic change that has come about on account of the migration of the Bangladeshi Muslims over the years to a point where a belt of 20 Kms from the Bangladesh border in Assam and elsewhere has acquired a new strategic significance. The history of the demand for inclusion of Assam in East Pakistan at the time of the Partition, the reality of ULFA leadership deriving its strength from its base in Bangladesh and the more recent emergence of separatist organizations like the MULTA, are indicators of how this entire belt could become vulnerable to a new kind of security threat. Innovative methods are needed to deal with the external instigation and support that has been reaching the various insurgent groups over the years.

The issues of governance in the North East range from an ineffective delivery system run by the bureaucracy that does not hesitate to collaborate with corrupt politicians, to the lack of an integral response to insurgency. Further thinking is needed to check seepage of development funds, put in place an administrative machinery that is committed to the region, and make the counter-insurgency operations people-friendly. The preoccupation with counter-insurgency work has come in the way of adequate attention being given to the handling of the security-development interface. Security of individual officials, heads of development projects and the Treasury functionaries must be ensured and entrusted to an appropriate Central Police Force. The Deputy Commissioners in the North East should find a way of associating local civil society groups in monitoring the progress of development projects in the district. A comprehensive skill development initiative is necessary to enhance levels of ‘employability’ in the North East and prepare the ground for increased economic engagement in the region. The opportunities in the unorganized sector ranging from BPOs, travel and tourism, retail and agri-product, call for investment in raising the skill levels of the work force. This is both possible and practical.

All central agencies (Army, Assam Rifles, CPOs) should be encouraged to buy locally produced and developed goods for their maintenance needs. Once this policy is made public, local entrepreneurship and Corporate investment for utilizing the opportunities will be forthcoming. The pace of economic development in the North East will be quickened if the Planning Commission, the North East Council and the Ministry of Development of North East Region (DONER) come together to establish a ‘single window’ for deciding the outlay and monitoring the outcome of all Central and State development projects. This will allow for an integral approach to the North East region as a whole.

India’s relations with South East Asia and ASEAN countries have grown considerably over the last decade. ASEAN countries have recently been negotiating and concluding multi-facted and multi-layered economic cooperation partnerships in the region. We need to show an innovative response to the realities of the new age and the new economy. In the first few decades after our independence India did not attain the full promise of relationships with the neighbouring countries partly because of the divergence in economic ideology, political outlook and security assumptions prevailing in the cold war era. Now that India is jointly developing and India-ASEAN vision 2020, we look forward to more India-ASEAN summits. In pursuit of specific socio-economic goals in the region, India is strongly supporting Mekong-Ganga Cooperation(MGC) bringing together Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and India. Sub-regional cooperation is also accelerated by the BIMST-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation). Currently India is closely collaborating with ASEAN countries in various fields such as trade and investment, science and technology, tourism, human resource development and transport and infra structure. Some of the joint projects and joint studies can be rooted in the North East in order to develop employment opportunities there.

To sum up, the unrest in the North East has continued because of a mix of three primary factors- persistence of ethnicity-based feelings of separatism in some parts; dissatisfaction with matters connected with the governance and economic progress; and instigation received by some of the insurgent groups from across our borders. In recent years the interaction of the North East seems to have generally diluted the separatist urge amongst the people at large. Principally this is happening because of increased communication that is reducing the perceived remoteness, the gradual integration of India with the global economy and the resultant opportunities that the youth of the region have for working outside of their home ground, and the added leverage of India in the international sphere that helps to put a brake on the anti-India influences working from outside. The disgruntlement of the people of North East presently arises more from the fact that the government is seen as being incapable of ensuring economic justice on account of corruption and lack of commitment. The obvious imperfections on the part of the security forces there in handling counter-insurgency operations with due regard to the humane parameters, add to the feelings of alienation.

The strategy of dealing with the North East needs a renewal and re dedication in order to meet three prime requirements. First, the government should give focused attention to the new generation in the region which is now enjoying far greater access to the mainland than was the case a few years ago. As the economic opportunities within and outside the region grow, this interaction will grow too. The inter-state movement within the region for training, work and business will tend to bring the youth out of their local ethnic groupings and in the process reduce cross-culture conflicts within the region. Secondly, a people friendly and participative governance must be developed at the grass root level considering the primacy of the district as its basic anchor. This is true of the country as a whole but is of special importance in the North East. The policy in the North East has to tilt heavily in favor of micro management of individual entrepreneurship and local co-operatives. The Deputy Commissioners should become the major instrument of the government to set off this process. Lastly, the counter-insurgency operations and the North East grid of the security forces must adjust to the increasing importance of security-development interface which necessarily poses a different kind of challenge in each state of the region. The incremental restoration of peace in different parts of the region makes it necessary that the entire North East is not put on the same grid of insurgency and violence and instead, the pockets of disturbance are identified and dealt with the plans specified for them. The roles of the Army, the Para military forces and the local police maybe redefined in recognition of the fact that large areas have been retrieved from violence over the recent years.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati