Dialogue  October-December, 2009, Volume 11 No. 2


North-East Scan



The New ULFA Equation


D. N. Bezboruah*



On the night of November 1, Bangladesh Intelligence officers were reported to have arrested self-styled ULFA Foreign Secretary Sashadhar Choudhury and ULFA Finance Secretary Chitrabon Hazarika from a house in Dhaka. What is intriguing is that at the time of their arrest. There were a whole lot of other ULFA cadres on the top floor of the same house who were left untouched. For about three days there was no news of the whereabouts of the two ULFA leaders. Then there was news from human rights organizations that the two ULFA leaders had been moved to another house in Dhaka and kept under detention all the time. And yet, the arrests had not been put on record. There was understandable speculation that the arrests might have been part of a stage-managed charade, and that the two ULFA leaders had actually surrendered. On the night of November 4-5, however, the two ULFA leaders were reported to be trying to enter India near Gokulnagar in Tripura on the Indo-Bangladesh border. They were apparently spotted by the BSF troops who asked them to surrender. They did, and were brought to Guwahati. For once, everything seemed to be very neatly handled. There were no hiccups anywhere.

     What is even more interesting is that within three days of the arrest of the two ULFA leaders, their families had already got in touch with a Guwahati lawyer to work on the requirements of their legal defence. Quite naturally, the speculation about the possibility of the hawks in the ULFA top brass also having finally opted for talks with the Union government got stronger. This was bound to happen with the Government of India having very recently agreed to hold talks with the pro-talks faction of the ULFA. It will be recalled that the Alpha and Charlie companies of the ULFA’s dreaded 28th Battalion had broken away from the ULFA and announced a unilateral ceasefire in June 2008. Their leaders like Mrinal Hazarika, Jiten Dutta and Prabal Neog had even agreed to stay with their cadres in designated camps while the Centre made up its mind about having talks with them. Not only had they abjured violence and given up arms (as the Centre had constantly demanded as a precondition for talks) but peace had been excellently maintained in the districts of Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia where the 28th Battalion had often shown its might, during more than  one year of the unilateral ceasefire. The Centre really had no reason to refuse to talk with the pro-talks wing of the ULFA that had already given up the demand for a sovereign Assam.

    There were other strong compulsions for the ULFA to call a farewell to arms as well. The leadership was fast losing control and command over the grassroots-level cadres who had long felt that they were risking their lives to extort money for their leaders who were solely concerned with their own creature comforts. This hiatus had increased over the years. The usual ULFA claim that it is still being able to recruit youths of Assam means nothing at all. The unemployment rate in Assam is about the highest in the world, and all the development that the government keeps talking about is only on paper. The ULFA is able to offer a college or school dropout Rs 2,000 to join the outfit. In a couple of years, a recruit can hope to be provided with some firearm that makes extortion and loot much easier. And most youths have been left with no sense of values that enables them to realize that the kind of extortion and loot they are engaging in is undiluted crime of the worst kind.

      The ULFA was getting to be more and more of an unwelcome guest both in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Recently, its camp in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar near the general headquarters of the NSCN(K) was surrounded by Myanmarese troops cutting off all escape routes to the 80 to 100 ULFA militants there. And ULFA cadres were already beginning to be hounded in Asom and Bangladesh. What is even worse news for the ULFA is that the Indian security forces have been positioned along the border with Myanmar to prevent the entry of fleeing ULFA cadres to India in the event of a crackdown by Myanmar. The situation is not at all comfortable for the ULFA in any of its familiar haunts.

      Be that as it may, the two ULFA leaders who had surrendered on the Tripura-Bangladesh border were handed over to the Assam Police and duly produced before the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Guwahati who remanded them to police custody for ten days even though the police wanted them in custody for 15 days. The CJM also directed the police to have the health of the two ULFA leaders examined within 48 hours. This was possibly done to deal with the common plea of prisoners that they are unwell, and should be admitted to a hospital from where escape is much easier than from a prison.

   The three statements made in Guwahati by the two leaders are interesting. One is that they did not surrender and that they were actually arrested by the Bangladesh government. They added that they would never surrender. It is important to bear in mind that there is no extradition agreement between India and Bangladesh, and this has been dished out as one of the reasons in the past why Anup Chetia, long incarcerated in Bangladesh, could not be handed over to India. How was it then that four days after being arrested in Dhaka, Sashadhar Choudhury and Chitrabon Hazarika could be so promptly handed over to the BSF in India? Anyone can see that even when two countries do not have an extradition agreement or treaty nothing really stands in the way of handing over an arrested individual who has committed criminal or treasonable acts in the other country. It is just a matter of the relationship between the two countries. There will perhaps be attempts to explain away this surprising act of Bangladesh by saying that this has been possible because of the recent change of government in that country. This cuts no ice at all since India’s demand for the custody of Anup Chetia had been made even during the earlier tenure of Shaikh Hasina as Prime Minister of Bangladesh. He is still in Bangladesh, even though there is sometimes talk about handing him over to India.

    The Second statement of the two leaders is that there can be no question of the ULFA having any talks with the Government of India. This statement would tend to upturn the speculation in some quarters that the Dhaka arrest of November 1 was a charade enacted to prepare the ground for even hawks like Paresh Baruah to endorse talks. But the latest statements of Sashadhar Choudhury and Chitrabon Hazarika would seem to rule out the possibility of any softening of stand on the part of Paresh Baruah and his followers. However, there have been several instances in the past of statements by the  ULFA going counter to the actual line of action followed subsequently. And right now there is stronger reason than ever before for taking the statement of the two leaders – that the ULFA would not come forward for talks with the government – with a very large pinch of salt. We have seen in a little more than a year how the ULFA has lost its sting ever since the leaders of the two companies of  the crack 28th Battalion formed the pro-talks wing of the ULFA and withdrew from the outfit’s activities. The number of ULFA cadres that prefers talks with the government seems to be growing every day. This was expected because one cannot sustain a revolution for long without a cause. The million-dollar question is: what happens to the hawks if the doves in the ULFA outnumber them? Would it be wise for the hawks to wait for the doves to make them irrelevant? Or would it be much better to participate in the talks with the government like the doves and thus have something to cling to when the farewell to arms becomes a fact of life? The third statement relates to what has brought about a very rapid and sharp swing of public opinion against the ULFA. It is the nexus of ULFA and Pakistan’s ISI. November 7 was perhaps the first time that ULFA leaders had categorically denied the ULFA-ISI nexus. After all, with the recent happenings in Pakistan, it is so easy to identify the ISI as everyone’s enemy. But the people have not forgotten how the ISI gave the ULFA leaders different identities, put them on planes in Dhaka and flew them out to Pakistan for training as terrorists. So no one is going to accept the statement of the two arrested ULFA leaders on the absence of links with the ISI. 

    The public mood can be partly gauged from the fact that the call given by ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa for a 12-hour bandh on November 9 with the demand that the two leaders be produced before the media has not been taken very well – least of all by the media. The question being raised is: how can an ULFA leader give a call for an Assam bandh  from Bangladesh for two ULFA leaders who were arrested in Bangladesh by the Bangladesh administration? Fair question, that.  



Demographic, economic and environmental hazards of the NE Region in the wake of unabated infiltration from Bangladesh

Patricia Mukhim*


Illegal immigrants according to David W Haines and E Rosenblum are those people who have entered a country illegally without any papers. This would define the large population of Bangladeshis who enter this country every day for several decades now. It is a different matter that some have over the years become legal migrants after they have succeeded to acquire the necessary papers through subterfuge. That a significantly large number are today in the voters’ list in Assam poses a problem that seems to defy solutions unless the state comes up with some radical interventions. Yet the fact that some political parties in Assam depend heavily on the votes of these illegal immigrants or legal migrants confounds the problem further even as the state becomes complicit in the issue.
    The most powerful observation about the changing demographic profile of Assam comes from a report prepared by Lt Gen SK Sinha, former Governor of Assam. Sinha observes,  “The influx of illegal migrants is turning the lower Assam districts into a Muslim-majority region. It will only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made — the loss of lower Assam will sever the entire land mass of the north-east from the rest of India and the rich natural resources of that region will be lost to the nation”. This report was presented to President KR Narayanan in 1998. Although the 42 page report is mired in controversies it presents a graphic picture of  the ground realities obtaining in the state of Assam. However, it would be wrong to surmise that Assam alone faces this problem. All the states which share a border with
Bangladesh, and others, namely Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Nagaland, face similar problems but on a different scale.  

    In Meghalaya the plains of Garo Hills have almost been inundated by influx from Bangladesh. The easy access that people of Bangladesh have to Garo Hills from Ghasuapara, Baghmara, Rajabala etc makes its difficult to control influx. While it is  fact that the large number of migrants from Bangladesh into Garo Hills are themselves of Garo origin the number of Muslim migrants is on the rise and this is visible especially in Tura, the district headquarters of West Garo Hills where trade and commerce appears to have passed over into the hands of the migrants. The same is the case with Dimapur in Nagaland. Business transactions are controlled by the migrant population who have in time married local women. The coal mines of Jaintia Hills, Garo Hills and West Khasi Hills are also worked by the Bangladeshi migrants who are ready to do all kinds of work in the most trying circumstances and for amounts that the local labourers would be unwilling to do.                                                                     
    The basic strength of the migrant population lies in the fact that they have no sense of pride in themselves and are willing to undergo hardships and live in the worst conditions without any identity as long as they can get some work to feed themselves. Many ingratiate themselves with their employers by showing extraordinary work culture. But as soon as they have established a toe-hold and have a better means of livelihood then they begin to move to get their paper work done. In a country known for its corrupt bureaucracy and where even the local governing councils are open to bribery, getting the necessary papers to establish their Indian identity is not difficult. The Indian law says anyone who has resided in a place for twelve years becomes a permanent resident of that place if he can produce the necessary papers to show he is an Indian coming from elsewhere. In Meghalaya we have several such permanent residents who have brought some paper from Assam or Bengal, now residing as full fledged Meghalayans.                           
     According to Sinha’s observation and other studies, 57 of Assam’s 126 constituencies have shown more than 20 per cent increase in the number of voters between 1994 and 1997 whereas the all-India average is just 7.4 per cent. The Muslim population in Assam has shown a rise of 77.42 per cent over what it was in 1971 (there was no census in Assam in 1981). The 2001 national census estimates that out of 26.6 million people in Assam, 30.9 per cent are Muslims. The census data shows that the proportionate growth of the Muslim population in Assam, in comparison with other religious communities, is second only to Jammu and Kashmir (67 per cent Muslims). It also points out that six of Assam’s 27 districts are now Muslim majority. The district of Barpeta tops the list with 9,77,943 Muslims and 6,62,066 Hindus. The other five districts are Dhubri, Goalpara, Nagaon, Karimganj and Hailakandi. Incidentally, these districts share their border with or lie close to Bangladesh. It is significant to note that at the time of Independence, only Dhubri was a Muslim-majority district.  By conservative estimates, at least 1.5 million Bangladeshis are said to be living in the state even as there are at present 20 million Bangladeshis residing in India.                                         
    Gen Sinha attributes all the above factors to population movement from Bangladesh which, he says, will reduce the indigenous people of Assam to a minority and at some point will lead them to demand seccession from Assam. Political parties which have benefited most from Muslim votes have countered these findings and stated that Sinha’s contentions are too radical because he casts aspersions on the loyalty of the Indian Muslim population. A F Golam Usmani, MP and president of the United Minorities Front accused Sinha of trying to incite communal passions stating that the report is full of inaccuracies. Interestingly, there is no academic study conducted so far, based on empirical evidence to reiterate what Sinha has found. Nor is there a second study following Sinha’s one to corroborate his findings. This therefore allows politicians to play up with the issue without being challenged and to label SK Sinha as a BJP nominee who already has a preconceived idea about the Bangladeshi influx into Assam.                                                                                      
    The illegal influx from Mexico into the US despite stiff security at the borders shows that migration is one of the most serious problems between countries today. In 2006 there were thirteen million Mexican migrants residing in different parts of the US. So to talk of border fencing and such like is to tackle a gigantic problem by using an ineffective tool. The presence of the Border Security Force (BSF) and the existence of international borders in some areas has not deterred people from Bangladesh from crossing over if and when they choose to. Experiences from Dawki where Bangladeshis cross over with dry fish and other items from their side and buy other things from the Indian market to carry back with them informs us that it is this crossing over has become so casual that the BSF despite its vigilance cannot keep a check on. From the Indian side of the border several items like betel nut, betel leaf, rice, sugar etc cross over to Bangladesh under the watchful eyes of the BSF. This of course reminds us that there was a thriving border trade between the Khasi and Sylhet right from the days when Bangladesh was East Pakistan.                                                                
    Even if suppose there is fool-proof fencing along the Assam or Meghalaya side, illegal migrants can still come in through National Highway 31, the highway linking West Bengal
and Assam as Kalyan Purakayastha, chairman of the Dhubri Municipal Board. , pointed out. But whether as Purkayastha suggests the check gates should be handed over to the army for keeping a check is a debatable point. It is a fact that the linguistic, religious and ethnic affinities between the people on both sides of the border makes the task of detection of foreigners doubly difficult.                                                                                                             
    The other fact is that the security forces manning the borders are stretched too thin to be able to contain influx. In Assam the BSF are guarding a frontier of almost 70 kilometres whereas a battalion deployed along the international border in Punjab guards a border of 30 kilometres only. SK Sinha had pointed out to this grave disparity in his paper. While guarding the international borders is a tough task the problem is compounded when the border is a river or sea. According to the BSF, patrolling the Brahmaputra is one of the most difficult and treacherous tasks and it is impossible to have a fool-proof method in place. Besides, in winter, the Brahmaputra divides itself into several channels which makes the task of the BSF water wing more difficult.                                                  
    But guarding the border is on part of the problem. It is the IM (DT) Act of 1983 which placed the onus of identifying an illegal migrant on the detector and not on the migrant is found to be the most controversial instruments before it was struck down by the Supreme Court. This needs to be replaced with a new legislation where the migrant would have to authenticate that he/she is a genuine citizen. Given such a deep divide, the influx problem in
Assam, which everyone acknowledges is a product of economic compulsions, continues to defy an easy solution.                                                                                                                   
     Illegal influx poses several problem of which the most serious is economic in nature. Illegal immigrants who are not on the census are therefore not counted on important statistical data on which resources are allocated. All development  packages are constructed on the basis of a credible census. If that actual number of beneficiaries on the ground far exceeds those enumerated then obviously the resources are stretched too thin and governments cannot possibly make a difference. This hidden population consumes what rightfully belongs to citizens. Yet this has happened in
Assam for more years than can be counted. It is no surprise then that the areas which are contentious because of the large presence of illegal migrants are also some of the poorest. The development indices in these ‘char’ areas are some of the lowest.         
    With the introduction of poverty alleviation schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) the problem seems to have accentuated. If the yardstick for identification of beneficiaries is, ‘the poorest of the poor, then a very large section of the migrant population fit that bill. So the bulk of beneficiaries would then be from amongst this population even while the genuine citizens miss out the benefits of one of the most dynamic pro-poor programmes innovated by the central government thus far. The NREGs has benefited the states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra immensely. In the North East this programme is likely to cause more problems than solutions. It is believed that the benefits of the NREGS are today felt in Bangladesh as the migrants from that country regularly remit funds they earn from this side of the border.                                                                                         Similar is the case with the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) scheme which also targets rural health care. If 6 of the 27 districts already represent the characteristic features of Bangladesh then the NRHM interventions in those districts will automatically benefit non-citizens even as the larger rural citizenry of Assam continues to grapple with the problem of health care which does not reach them.                                 
    Low wage labour provided by the illegal immigrants is their greatest strength. In a state and region where infrastructural development is at its peak, the requirement for cheap labour cannot be overstated. But cheap labour and the ability to work in the most dehumanizing conditions is not the forte of the North Easterner. In a sense  we can say that the Bangladeshi migrant spoils the labour market and encourages the employers to flout all the labour laws provided they receive their wages for subsistence. Illegal migrant workers have no demands and are not likely to form unions or create such other problems for their employers. Hence they become the objects of choice of contractors across the North East. Bangladeshi labourers are also highly skilled in masonry and carpentry works.                                                     
    In America some of the most menial jobs such as that of house maids, agriculture and horticulture labour, packing and masonry are done mostly by illegal immigrants who are mostly Mexicans. It solves a lot of problems for employers. These people are not listed as legal employers and agree to work for low wages. In the case of India too a quick scan will reveal that even in Assam many people employ Bangladeshi women or young boys for house work because the others refuse to work under stringent conditions. The Assamese land owning population who still carry out rice, vegetable or mustard farming on a large scale have to depend on the cheap labour provided by illegal Bangladeshi migrants. This reduces the cost of production and raises the profits for the owners. So there is a vested interest here in protecting the migrant even while shouting hoarse over influx when talking at particular forums. Perhaps this hypocrisy is what is exacerbating the problems in states like Assam, although the situation is similar in Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland.                                                                                   
    Nature abhors a vacuum they say. So if there is unabated influx from Bangladesh it follows that Assam or the North East provides economic space to illegal immigrants. It is important to plug such spaces to curtail the flow further. But the fact that this country has not yet begun the exercise of giving out a fool-proof biometric identity card to its citizens on the plea that foreigners must first be detected and deported, also poses the chicken and egg problem of what should come first. Had the governments of Assam or Meghalaya come up with a citizen’s identity card in 1971, the problem would have been kept under some control and would not have spun out of control the way it has today.                          
    While occupational mobility is restricted while the ‘illegal immigrant’ is in that status the fact remains that once he secures proper documents he becomes an equal competitor to the indigenous citizen in any occupation and that includes government employment. Once an illegal immigrant is financially established he begins to bring in his other family members. The reference point for a migrant will always be his family, household, community and country. His loyalties are also follow in that order. A Bangladeshi will never develop any love or loyalty to another country. His commitment will always be to the country of his birth. It is this aspect which poses a different kind of problem for India especially in the wake of the several armed insurgencies which are actually deriving sustenance from Bangladesh soil.                                                                                  
    The fact that the garments industry in Bangladesh has been severely hit by the global recession would also means that there are several lakh unemployed people today in that country just as there are as many as 50,000 unemployed gem cutters in Gujarat many of whom have migrated there from Orissa and have now returned home to nothingness. How will this sudden unemployment of so many Bangladeshis play out in the North East? This is something that requires a vigilant eye.                          
    Demographic change: A nation’s population change is determined by the confluence of three quite separable elements: fertility, mortality, and international migration. It is not known whether adequate studies have been carried out to show if the fertility rates in those 6 districts of
Assam are higher than in others. Equally, it is not known whether the fertility rate had outdone the mortality rate in those very districts. But definitely there is a clear case of visible demographic change in particular districts of Assam. That this has the potential to spread and bring about further changes in culture, religion and ethos is only  a matter of time. What is evident in Assam today is that those who have the potential to influence thinking and decision-making have themselves migrated to the US, UK,  Australia etc. They are conscious of the problem but are seeing it more as something to be dealt with by those who continue to live in Assam. Yet all of us are grappling and have little exposure to a successful model where illegal immigration has been successfully tackled. The US is the most prominent model but even this country is unable to come up with definite mechanisms. On the contrary it has ended up granting citizen status to sizeable number of Mexican immigrants because US pragmatism sees census as an important indicator of the manner in which a country evaluates itself and its human resources and also in the distribution of other resources.                                                                    
     Studies in the US have shown that demographic change also influenced voting patterns. Traditional Republican vote banks have changed as a result of a younger population of migrants who have shown preference for Democrats. In Assam, the Congress party is seen as sympathizing with Muslim voters. Now whether those voters are illegal immigrants or otherwise does not seem to matter to the party. This is perhaps one of the most dangerous trends today. The declining fertility rate amongst a large section of the Indian population and the option of many for the two-children or one child family is replaced by a high fertility population which does not practice family planning either because women have no access to that facility or because of the insidious plans of demographic aggression as argued by Baljit Rai in his book, “Demographic aggression against India”: Muslim avalanche from Bangladesh.                                                                                                            
    Environmental impact: Across the world aliens as illegal immigrants are called can be potential carriers of diseases because they are not screened before entering the country. They can thus be carriers of diseases and communicating those diseases in the country they illegally inhabit. There are serious public health issues as well. How can the State of Assam manage the mounting garbage generated by a fast growing population. How can it supply clean drinking water to this population outside the census? Above all how does it manage with a population that is inhabiting all the areas that have traditionally been river beds which could be ravaged by floods whenever the river changes its course? This situation is evident in North Lakhimpur and other areas of Upper and Lower Assam
as well. Yet when the floods strike these people who violate the law of nature demand the attention and help of the Government.                                                                                                       
     India is a third world country that is trying to tackle diseases endemic to its soil and people. While this is a great challenge India with its huge force of medical scientists is doing its best. But the situation is such that new challenges face us everyday  from across the border. The bird flu it is stated was very much a problem imported into India from Bangladesh and Myanmar by chicken brought from across the border. Needless to say these inter-border infectious diseases are more difficult to control because of the absence of necessary checks. In fact, the spread of diseases across continents though human carriers is one of the grave challenges of globalization. While people coming through legal channels can be scanned if they carry the swine flu virus, illegal immigrants walk in with all their diseases. Many of these illegal immigrants are part of the food catering industry such as restaurants, dhabas etc. If they are carriers of infectious diseases and also handle food they can be a cause for the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis etc.                                                                                                                                     La
    nd is a scarce resource and forest cover is dwindling but it is also a fact that a rapidly growing population of unskilled categories requires land not only for housing but for subsistence farming as well. Where will this land come from if not from evacuating once forested lands? This pressure on the environment is what has led to serious climatic changes resulting in erratic rainfall and flash floods. This uncounted, unplanned for population which also comprise a number of lawbreakers is affecting the quality of life in Assam Air pollution, water pollution, energy consumption (gas, coal, wood, and electricity), deforestation, soil erosion and agricultural degradation, over-fishing, and threaten the sustainability of natural resources.                                                                      Nature has a natural way of coping with the population within a given territory but it cannot cope with carbon footprints generated by several million people who should otherwise live in another country and environment. Something as simple as the air we breathe which we take for granted is soon going to be in short supply because we have no more trees to manage the oxygen cycle. Climatologists have predicted that by 2050 a large part of
Bangladesh would be under the sea. Where do the people go then if not to the hills and plains that surround their country? This is a threat that the North East in general and Assam in particular has to tackle. As natural resources become scarce and prices rise, the economic stability of the country is undermined.                               
    Simply protecting our natural resources is not enough unless we seal our borders and come up with more stringent laws to deal with illegal immigration. Assam has had a blood bath on this issue in the early 80’s. We do not need another bloodbath to resolve the illegal immigration issue because violence detracts from the issue and diverts the attention of the government and people. This is a problem which requires that the thinking population should converge upon and begin spreading the message to the masses. If politicians can be made to see that it pays to take up the issue of Bangladeshi immigration seriously they will definitely address it. Meanwhile it is important to lobby with all shades of politicians and thinkers, academicians, NGOs, ordinary citizens that this is a problem requiring to be addressed on a war footing.



Manipur: War on a Quicksand

Pradip Phanjoubam*



Manipur is today veritably the wild east, where the only language which is heard and respected is that of the gun. Laws are made on the spot and executed as promptly and arbitrarily. They vary from case to case too, depending on the whims of those writing it. And yes, to take a little poetic liberty, these laws almost without exception are written with gun-power.  

    The sad thing is, at this moment, there seems no end to this dreadful state of affairs. The spiral of militarisation continues to accelerate endlessly and with every act of militarisation grows the need for more militarisation. It is despairing to reflect on when a resolution to the problem would be ever reached prompting this spiral to reverse, for at this moment it does seem such a reversal is mere wishful thinking.                    
    This militarisation process also has become more and more entrenched into civil spheres. The state government’s move to raise a civil militia in the guise of the Village Development Force, VDF, is just the latest example. Making matters worse, these moves are so inextricably enmeshed into deep-rooted social issues such as unemployment and poverty. Sometimes these entanglements are a natural consequence of the economy of the place and at other times the weaknesses of the economy are taken undue advantage deliberately to cause these entanglements.                                                                                                  
    Needless to say this happens on either side of the dividing line of the conflict. On the one hand the place is left aghast by the revelation of the extent of child soldiering by a number of militant organisations, which it is now apparent has been happening all along but was kept under wraps by parents and guardians petrified about the future of their children should they go public. There have also been other forms of human trafficking in which racketeers smuggle off children of poverty stricken parents with the promise of a good future and money for them.                   
    On the other, counter insurgency policies such as that of the VDF are managing to ensure the distinction between combatants and civilians are getting fuzzier on an incremental scale, promising to make it impossible anymore to classify the conflict either as a civil strife or a war. The tragedy potential this state of uncertainty holds is for anybody to imagine. 
    The tragedy is already beginning to knock at the doors of Manipur. The immense “collateral damage” in terms of innocents killed or disappeared on suspicion of links with militants or else in fratricidal wars between militant factions, or for that matter the campaign of covert “fake encounter” elimination of people suspected to be militant sympathisers by the government forces which is causing a huge stir in the state currently are some of the consequences of this blurring of the line between combatants and non-combatants in this unseemly war.

     The VDF issue has also made another writings on the wall distinct. Gone are any considerations of long term consequences or of any assessment of the justness of action. When the idea was first floated two years ago, there were plenty of hue and cries all over, including amongst opposition political parties. Today, there is virtually a dam burst of young men everywhere in the state vying for these jobs, however lowly paid they may be and however uncertain the service conditions promised are. Even the political parties which once protested the idea are now compelled to call for free and fair recruitment process to these posts, knowing full well how unwise electorally it would be to stand in the way of the stampede of young job seekers.

    The ever expanding spectre of an unemployed future have made hordes and hordes of young blood willing to put themselves up as candidates for what are essentially a mercenary career. The government has no qualms about not only allowing this to happen, but to actually take advantage of an extreme and haunting insecurity that has become the hallmark of a great section of youth who, thanks to a virtually defunct government education system, have not been adequately equipped with the skills or knowledge to be confident they can have a better and more respectable alternative to these jobs.                                                                           
    The supreme irony in all this is, a number of those making a beeline to become a village defence volunteer for a lowly salary, would probably have been with equal ease wooed to the other extreme of fighting the system that they now are rushing to join.                                                             
    The situation has spelled out quite clearly for everyone that Manipur’s endemic conflict today has spilled out of the insurgency-counter insurgency arena and penetrated deep into the very fabric of the society. Whichever way the ball bounces, the people of this strife torn land seem to be condemned to a war fought on a quicksand. Regardless of who makes the move in this hopelessly stranded stalemate, all would sink to a common doom inch by inch.                                             
    Yet, everybody persists on seeing only from their own perspectives alone and continues to refuse to acknowledge there is anything as a larger canvas, the making of which demands more than at any other time for everybody to open up and begin thinking out of the box and look for answers out of the increasingly claustrophobic box the place is crammed into.


Manipur in Limbo                                                                                                    
If the situation in Manipur today can have any single line definition that can sum it up, it would definitely be “everybody to his own device.” And if it is a single word, it would have to be “anarchy” if not “madness”. 

    In their own ways but not always in dissimilar fashions, both “anarchy” and “madness” are about a complete destruction of emotional and intellectual bridges that connect people to people and on a larger canvas people to government. Hence, a madman is often defined as somebody nobody else can understand or communicate to. There is a total emotional and intellectual disconnect between him or her and everybody else.                                                                                                        
    The picture of Manipur today is not much different. The communication bridges that keep a society intact and sane today are virtually non-existent leaving every individual and every institution in isolated compartments and up to their own devices. An honest question today as to who is in power and whose hands the law rests in would probably defy any answer. Even if it were to be acknowledged the prolonged conflict situation in the state has thrown up multiple nodes of power, these nodes still are expected to share some concerns and language to communicate to each other.

     In the crudest sense, a general strike or a highway blockade, two forms of disruptive protest that Manipur has become so familiar with, are meant to be a radical language through which the protesters try to send across some messages to the government in the expectation of a response. In this same lexicon, even a crackdown on the protestors is an indication the message has registered and the government is responding. Be it by way of conceding to demands or opposing it, the moot point is, either of the two responses confirms there is a communication bridge still intact, and thus all hope is not lost yet.

   The more dreadful state of ennui is for either side not to even acknowledge they have taken note of each other and continue doing whatever they were doing independently and uninfluenced by the other. Manipur is precisely at such a state of madness at this moment.

      There is currently a strike by three students’ organisations demanding justice in the July 23 daylight “fake encounter” killing by Manipur police. This strike has already deprived thousands of school children of education for two months and the government simply is satisfied pretending nothing worth its intervention is happening. The protestors too continue stubbornly to push on with their strike holding the careers of thousands at ransom.

      Similarly the media is on a boycott of government related news over an issue of maltreatment of two journalists by the police, and this protest too seems to have not registered with the government. Everything remains where they were in a depressing state of limbo and lifelessness. Can this be forgiven of any government supposedly in charge of public welfare? Is the Manipur government not expected to act or react to the chaos created all around in some way or the other? Can doing nothing even in the midst of a crisis in the hope of the crisis blowing over on its own be in any way equated with good governance? Needless to say some of the damage being done by this inaction would be irreversible.

       Love and hate they say are the two sides of the same coin. Both are also inevitable attributes of life. From this perspective, the more sinful thing is to be indifferent to life and to its callings – in other words to be given to inaction. This thought echoes a tenet of the teachings of the Hindu scripture Bhagavat Gita. But it is also there very much in other literatures in many different ways. You can either burn in hell or revel in eternal bliss in paradise, but the worst thing is to be left suspended in between, in a state of absolute ennui or limbo as Dante calls it in Divine Comedy.                                                                                                                          
    Hell and heaven at least involves a deliberate human exercise of volition and will, rightly or wrongly. Limbo is a state of denial of life. It benumbs the human spirit and brings everything to a terrible state of stagnation. Nobody needs to explain how this feels like to somebody in Manipur today for this indeed has become the hallmark of the place.          
    Let the SPF government, led by Congress chief minister, Okram Ibobi, be reminded again that peace is not merely an absence of overt violence. Inaction may ensure a no risk situation in the short run, but this is no peace. It is also no guarantee for security in the long run. Ask ordinary man or woman on the street if they want the current state of governmental inaction to continue and the government will have the answer in a flash. It is surprising that the answer has not become obvious to Manipur’s current set of leaders already.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati