Northeast - Integrating the Seven Sisters
The ravishingly beautiful and picturesque landmass of our country, which adorns the mantle of the northeastern states, may distance wise be even less than Chennai or Trivandrum is from New Delhi, yet it remains emotionally detached from the rest of India. The reasons are more than intriguing. The perceived distance has more to do with the mindset of the average Indian rather than the actual physical distance.
Today, one finds people from the Northeast in appreciable numbers in all parts of the country, in every walk of life to include trade, government organisations, IT, media and defence. The numbers are increasing every day
For a plethora of reasons, perceived or otherwise, peace and normalcy remain elusive. Terrorism and insurgency have yet to recede fully although life continues as if normal. Not that it is normal by any standards but whatever the ground realities, life does go on. Probably in concert with the worldwide phenomenon of rising aspirations of human beings, Human Rights and civilised societal ways have taken a front seat and their denial or absence creates upheaval and discord.
Northeastern India continues to be in the grip of terrorism and insurgency for the last 50 years. The intensity, type, and level are different in different states. The time has now come for an absolute integration of this region with the rest of India. The Government has made concerted efforts to address the problems at different levels and the efforts have already started showing results. Due to these efforts, the ties and links with the rest of India are growing every day. It would be unwise to assume that the Northeast is being neglected in any way. This has been made possible through a multi-prong approach. The problem has been tackled militarily up to the extent that it was required and also, politically, economically and socially. The resultant effect is amply manifest in an attitudinal shift, which is a positive deviation from the response hitherto.
The great people of this region have understood that their future rightly rests with India. For this paradigm shift in the outlook of the people, one of the main reasons is India’s growing prowess – economically, militarily and socially. The people have realised the futility of continuing with a struggle, which has lost direction and has misplaced aims and objectives. Electronic and print media have made them realise that despite their vast potential they are depriving themselves of opportunities, which can bring about a sea change in their economy and lifestyles. Wisdom has dawned that these seven sisters were always an integral part of India and will remain so for eternity.
The lifeline of the Northeast states was now extended to over 1,600 km. Earlier, the distance between Calcutta and Agartala (Tripura) was a little over 400 km ““ this is one single factor that has very seriously affected the economy.
Today, one finds people from the Northeast in appreciable numbers in all parts of the country, in every walk of life to include trade, government organisations, IT, media and defence. The numbers are increasing every day. As a matter of fact, integration is almost complete notwithstanding traces of discontent and discord. It is a known phenomenon that insurgency may be completely eradicated but can never touch the x-axis. In other words, it can never be brought to zero.
How did we achieve this stupendous task? There is a need for every Indian to know and to be proud of the fact that our sovereignty over this region stands vindicated notwithstanding a slow and steady pace with spikes of violence in between periods of peace, stability and prosperity.
Before we try to understand the genesis of the insurgency in the northeastern states known as the Seven Sisters, it would be prudent to identify the reason and causes which engulfed the proud people of this region in a human conflict resulting in self denials. Some call it exploitation of the have nots and a tampering with ethnicity. These are not the only reasons. These are certain irreversible causes, which have historical and geographical perspectives. In addition, political, economic, social, ethnic, and cultural reasons give a fillip to existing inadequacies, encouraging a movement to start and grow.
It would be seen that relative geographical location is one of the main causes of this unrest and instability.
Partition further accentuated the problem. A psychological and a physical barrier was created. The creation of East Pakistan deprived the region of geographical contiguity with the rest of India. North East India had a land link only through the Siliguri corridor, 200 km long and 21 to 65 km wide. All our communication lines pass through this corridor. The only port of Chittagong which hitherto serviced the entire Northeast also fell prey to the misdeeds of partition. The entire region had become virtually landlocked. The lifeline of the Northeast states was now extended to over 1,600 km. Earlier, the distance between Calcutta and Agartala (Tripura) was a little over 400 km – this is one single factor that has very seriously affected the economy.
Typical of the British policy of divide and rule, this was yet another master stroke by them. This time a divide was created by placing a physical landmass, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), between the people of India and the people of the Northeast. Compounding the problem further, British inner line policy created a rift between the people from the hills and the plains. The mistrust so created, fuelled discontent and human conflict. This coupled with mountainous jungle terrain and an unprotected International Border (IB) gave an ideal ground for insurgents to carry out their nefarious activities with impunity.
China is adopting a typical Mao Tse Tung style Indirect Approach. They have used the indirect approach remarkably well to keep us engaged on more than one front.
Thus, it would be seen that relative geographical location is one of the main causes of this unrest and instability. This region is surrounded on three sides by foreign countries – Bangladesh from the south and west, China (Tibet) and Bhutan from the north and Myanmar from the east.
The 4,960 km long IB constitutes 99 per cent of the periphery of these states. One of the main reasons for any insurgency to be successful is to have ‘External Support’, and this is an ideally situated region for the purpose. This aspect was fully exploited by China in the ‘50s through the ‘60s. Even now, China is adopting a typical Mao Tse Tung style ‘Indirect Approach’. They have used the indirect approach remarkably well to keep us engaged on more than one front. As a matter of fact they have already achieved partial encirclement. We are fully engaged with Pakistan on our west. In the north the Maoist movement has created enough instability. The relevance of Nepal to the Northeastern states has increased over the recent years due to the recent upsurge in Maoist activities, the emergence of the Kamtapur movement in the Siliguri Corridor and the increased activities of the ISI in Nepal. The 1,800 km Indo-Nepal porous border is being extensively used by the ISI intelligence operations – this border needs to be sanitised.
Bangladesh is believed to have 145 training camps of terrorist groups belonging to some of the Seven Sisters States on its soil, which is an ominous development.
The Maoist movement has not only threatened our states of Uttranchal, UP and Bihar with instability but has presented an opportunity for a ‘Red Corridor’, cutting through the states of UP, Chattisgarh / MP, Telangana (AP) to Kerala. Due to political instability, caste wars, and feudalism, Bihar – north of the Ganges – is an ideal ground for insurgency /naxalism to grow.
To the southwest of the Northeastern states, Bangladesh has been propped up as yet another ‘Terrorism Support and Export Centre’ patterned after Pakistan. Bangladesh is believed to have 145 training camps of terrorist groups belonging to some of the Seven Sisters States on its soil, which is an ominous development. Their intentions are suspect and very evident from the fact that they have a serious objection to our fencing of the IB. Meghalaya, Cachar (South Assam) and Tripura have an IB with Bangladesh with the terrain and people being most inhospitable and hostile. The cruelty and barbarism practiced by Bangladesh has few parallels. This, however, should not deter us from countering this menace.
Tripura is yet another very vulnerable state. 7/8th of Tripura’s boundary abuts Bangladesh and 1/8thwith Cachar (South Assam). Due to unfortunate geographical circumstances, its security considerations should never be neglected, delayed, postponed or pushed under the carpet.
Arunachal has an IB with Tibet and Myanmar. Nagaland and Mizoram have an IB with Myanmar. Apparently, we have no problems with Tibet but China refuses to recognise the McMahon Line, so the stalemate continues. Also, critical differences remain over the 90,000 sq km area of Arunachal Pradesh, though after death of Mao Tse Tung the Chinese involvement and support to militant groups has considerably reduced. In any case, Arunachal is not known to have any effective indigenous insurgent group, although the people of Arunachal Pradesh are vulnerable to exploitation by NSCN groups using the lower slopes as safe havens. Myanmar has always been a friend to India but unfortunately, the writ of Burmese insurgent groups runs in the region bordering the Indian states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The terrain is ideally suited for infiltration and exfiltration by insurgent groups. We have the best of relations with the Burmese Army. Arunachal, more or less, kept itself away from any type of insurgency movement but any form of political machination can push this state also towards extremism.
Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh have an IB with Tibet (China). The development of a most modern infrastructure in Tibet by China, although good for Tibet, could be a cause of concern to us.
Northwest Assam has a common border with Bhutan, which is a landlocked country. It also has border with Tibet. Presently, we have the best of relations with Bhutan. Joint operations against the ULFA and other insurgent groups located in Southern Bhutan are a testimony of regional cooperation against terrorism.
Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh have an IB with Tibet (China). The development of a most modern infrastructure (roads and other allied facilities) in Tibet by China, although good for Tibet, could be a cause of concern to us. China has developed a road network right up to the IB and we are still far behind. We have got to develop these areas on priority.
Mizoram has an IB with Myanmar and Bangladesh. It had the fiercest insurgency in this region under the militant leader, Laldenga, who later on became the first Chief Minister of Mizoram. Mizoram has been the most pragmatic state of our country. It realised the futility of continued unrest and opted out of insurgency and has been nurtured into a very dynamic, mature and buoyant democracy, especially so under the leadership of the present Chief Minister, Zoramthanga, a graduate of Imphal University. Incidentally, Zoramthanga was No 2 to Laldenga while in the Mizo National Front when it was an underground organisation. Mizoram, to a great extent, has resolved its problems with Myanmar by having a free trading zone of 20 km but it has to guard against the drug menace from the east and the creeping invasion from the west. Cachar District (Assam), which is to its west has been flooded with migrants and they are inching forward towards the less populated zone i.e. Mizoram. the demographic pattern of the state has already been affected. Today Mizoram is the most peaceful state of our country but it is better to avoid complacency.
Assam, the mother of all Northeastern states, is today in turmoil. The main reasons are basically two i.e. carving out of six states out of one and secondly its border with East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). It has common boundaries with all the six states. Assam was sparsely populated and this void was filled by a mass scale influx of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan. This not only disturbed the demographic balance but in a number of districts resulted in demographic inversion. This has facilitated the emergence of a large number of insurgent groups including Muslim Fundamentalist Militia backed by the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Currently, there are as many as 34 insurgent groups who have been identified, though the ULFA is the main player.
We have very large numbers of ex Defence Services officers who have vast experience in this field, who understand the pulse and the ground realities.
The ominous part of this development is the post 1990 mushrooming of insurgent groups along tribal, religious and cultural lines. We need to put a stop on further migration and de-recognise the status accorded to a segment of refugees who have migrated after a particular agreed upon date. Political expediency needs to be shown. To stop further influx of refugees, the border with Bangladesh is required to be very effectively policed. Notwithstanding the above, peace in Assam will always be contingent upon stability in the other six states. Therefore, more teeth need to be given to the statutory coordinating body, the North East Council. Human Resource personnel with the requisite background, who have dealt with countering insurgency right from its inception, need to be inducted. We have very large numbers of ex Defence Services officers who have vast experience in this field, who understand the pulse and the ground realities. Induction of ex Defence Services officers in all disciplines in all types of cadres in civil administration can be the single most important factor for affecting an overall bonding and integration with rest of India.
Meghalaya faces a major problem due to the illegal migration of Bangladesh Muslims into the state, in particular into the Garo Hills. The anti outsider feeling amongst the local populace often leads to violence. The aspirations of Garo, Jantia and Khasi hill tribes are soaring high with increased economic activity, due to large scale tapping of natural resources. These aspirations if not met adequately can lead to insurgency. It will be pertinent to mention here that the state is surrounded on all sides by active insurgencies. The thick forests of the state provide an ideal transit route for the underground groups. Meghalaya should be considered as a ‘mountain of peace’ and should be used as a platform for sending out peaceful vibes in all directions.
The main bone of contention of Manipur insurgent groups is the demand for a Greater Nagaland (Nagalim) by NSCN (IM) that includes Manipurs Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Senapati and Chandel districts.
As mentioned earlier, Tripura’s 7/8th border is with Bangladesh. The insurgency in Tripura is mainly due to a large influx of Bangladesh migrants. The influx started with a demographic invasion and has now acquired the status of ‘demographic inversion’. This has resulted in pressure on tribal lands. A nexus between major political parties and insurgent groups is very evident. These groups are easily aided by ISI through the 865 km porous border with Bangladesh. Bangladesh has also provided safe sanctuary to the militant groups. Tripura has now emerged as one of the leading states to provide a safe corridor for smuggling of arms into the Northeastern states. In the year 2002, the Tripura Governor initiated a package of counter insurgency measures, which have started yielding results. However, Tripura will continue to be unstable as it is surrounded by Bangladesh on 7/8th of its periphery. A proactive policy is considered the only solution for lasting peace.
Manipur has an IB with Myanmar, the interstate boundary with Nagaland to its north, Assam to its west and Mizoram to its southwest. The state has no major problem from Myanmar except that it has become the biggest transit hub for drugs. The main bone of contention of Manipur insurgent groups is the demand for a Greater Nagaland (Nagalim) by NSCN (IM) that includes Manipur’s Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Senapati and Chandel districts. Redrawing of interstate boundaries at this juncture will only lead to further unrest and instability. In a coalition era, such an initiative will always be opposed from one quarter or the other. This is a typical problem of clash of ethnic interests. In a democratic and secular state there is need to shun caste and creed based politics. The fallout is evident in these states. Although the Prime Minister has assured the Manipur Government that its state boundaries will not be redrawn, such ethnic and tribal contiguity will continue to be the bone of contention between Nagaland and Manipur. In case adequate statecraft is not exercised by the two states, a reverse flow of insurgency is very much on the cards.
The key player to fuel insurgency in Nagaland was China till the late sixties and thereafter the indirect approach through East Pakistan was extensively used.
Nagaland to its east has Myanmar, Manipur to its south, Arunachal Pradesh to its northeast, and Assam to its northwest. The Naga insurgency is the mother of all insurgencies in Independent India. It started in the mid fifties and continues till date, although in a state of suspended animation, with a ceasefire accepted by both sides and extended from time to time. The ethnic conflict between two rival factions of the NSCN remains one of the most intractable problems of Naga Insurgency and sporadic internecine conflicts between the two groups continue. The insurgency in Nagaland continues to thrive through safe-havens provided by Bangladesh and Myanmar to NSCN (IM). The key player to fuel insurgency in Nagaland was China till the late sixties and thereafter the indirect approach through East Pakistan was extensively used. The Naga people in general want their state to remain peaceful. It is high time both NSCN groups reconcile. It is better to shun extra territorial demands. Another important reason was the lack of political imagination, which has been reasonably addressed, in the recent past. The Prime Minister has even offered to talk to any terrorist / insurgent group without any precognition. Unimaginative policies, indifferent attitude, ignorance and not respecting tribal ethos and customs by successive governments, in particular and the Indian people in general, have created a cultural divide between the Northeastern states and the rest of India.
It would be of interest to know that there are over 220 different clans and over 415 dialects spoken in the Northeast. The British attempts to Christianise and educate them were largely successful but old tribal affiliations and rivalries continue. After independence, the initial overtures of the government clashed with the interests of the tribal community. This ignorance of ethnicity and continued neglect of development slowly pushed this region into the grip of full-fledged insurgencies. In this context, it is pertinent to mention Nehru’s farsighted views during a discussion about statehood for Nagaland. He had said, “The traditional machinery of Naga self-governance at village, range and tribal levels should be strengthened.” He even suggested that tribal names be given to the legislative assembly and the council of ministers. A top-heavy administrative system, as in other states, would be wasteful if adopted in Nagaland. The Nagas should be allowed to develop along their own lines; and select an organisation with tribal ethos.
The genesis of the problem has been made amply clear and transparent. The need of the hour is to address the problems and reasons identified in a logical, compassionate and systematic manner.
Another glaring problem has been that the political boundaries do not coincide with the existing ethnic and social boundaries. If we take a look at the demographic mosaic of Northeast India it shows that this region is a meeting point of various races; Mongoloids, Aryans and Austeric ethnic races. The Northeast states have not been able to cater to the demands of all the ethnic categories clamouring for recognition of their distinctive identity. That the region has been split into seven states already since independence bears testimony to the fact that the Central Government is not wholly unaware of this fact and yet it has not come to terms with it, which led to the mushrooming of insurgency in the area.
The alienation of the Northeast has come about due to the failure to recognise the peculiar historical, social and cultural factors of each area with the common effect of isolation. The situation is further accentuated by the influx of foreigners giving rise to ethnic parochialism and an identity crisis, which is fomented by fear of cultural submergence, economic deprivation and social insecurity. Attempts to create ethnic identity in the region have suffered, making the people susceptible to insurgents’ adaptations. The government, while showing excessive concern for the sensitivities of many ethnic and religious grouping, failed to bring them into the national mainstream. An unfortunate conciliatory approach adopted towards separatists was perceived as a sign of weakness and gave a fillip to secessionist and fissiparous trends.
A special service known as the Indian Frontier Administrative Service was established in 1957, to administer the Northeastern states. This service was doing a commendable job of adequately administering the Northeastern states with due regard to cultural and tribal sensitivities of the people. For reasons best known to the government, the Indian Frontier Administrative Service was abolished in the later half of the sixties and replaced by a top-heavy Indian Administiative Service (IAS).
The genesis of the problem has been made amply clear and transparent. The need of the hour is to address the problems and reasons identified in a logical, compassionate and systematic manner. Prosperity and peace in neighbouring countries will automatically curb the menace. Sanitisation of the IB is a must by physical means and the creation of artificial obstacles wherever possible. Expediency and urgency needs to be shown to stop Islamisation emanating from Bangladesh in all directions. The Northeast should become a hub for a Look east policy. It should become a gateway for ASEAN countries. Good governance coupled with doing away with the notified area clause and extension of transfer subsidies by yet another five years is recommended. Tourism, health, and IT should be included in the concessional package.
The Kamtapur movement needs to be nipped in the bud. Any complacency will threaten the most sensitive lifeline of the Northeastern states i.e. the ‘Siliguri Corridor’.
This article was first published in IDR Vol. 20 (2) Apr-Jun 2006.