The irony in the northeast is that armed insurgencies coexist with the enthusiasm for the electoral process

The debate on the politics of the northeast has rested on the region’s alienation and marginalisation from mainstream politics. The astounding number of organised insurgencies in the region, party politics notwithstanding, gives credence to the idea that the northeast has substantial grievances against the Indian state. Yet, in last month’s assembly elections in the insurgency-hit States of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura, the incumbents were voted back into power and voter turnout was unprecedentedly high — Tripura had a voter turnout of 93 per cent, followed by Meghalaya at 88 per cent and Nagaland at 83.2 per cent.

The States of the northeast in general have experienced much higher voter turnouts in both Lok Sabha and Assembly elections compared to the national average for the past two decades. Similarly, the incumbent governments in the northeast have been continuously winning re-election bids. In Tripura, Manik Sarkar has won his fourth consecutive term, while Neiphiu Rio in Nagaland has won for the third consecutive term. Mukul Sangma in Meghalaya is entering his second term. Likewise, Pawan Chamling in Sikkim, Tarun Gogoi in Assam, Okram Ibobi Singh in Manipur and Pu Lalthanhawla in Mizoram (intermittently) have been Chief Ministers in their respective States for more than ten years now.

Some celebrate the high voter turnout and political stability (amidst relative peace) as an indicator of northeastern people’s leap of faith in New Delhi’s politically accommodative strategies. Others lament that the northeast has continued to be peripheral in India’s national political imagination and therefore successful elections in the region should not be seen as an extension of legitimacy for the Indian state.

How does one explain the existence of well-developed electoral politics in the northeast with the robust presence of several insurgent groups? Do not high voter turnouts in these States indicate voter preference for electoral democracy and a rejection of the violent path of politics? We use the coincidence of elections in these three culturally, historically and politically distinct States in the northeast to understand the linkages between party politics and insurgency in the region.

Historically, the northeast has been thought of by New Delhi as a region riddled with exceptions in three different areas — the people’s racial and tribal difference, their geographic isolation which enabled a perceived non-participation in the national movement and finally, the spread of Christianity as a dominant religion in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland.

The Indian state has been hard-pressed to bring the region under its sovereign reach with the consequence that electoral democracy has gone hand-in-hand with long-running and highly coercive counterinsurgency campaigns in most States, some of which (like Mizoram and Nagaland) date back to the 1950s.

Democracy works well

The democratic health of any country is not only indicated by robust voter turnouts, regular elections, but also by the State’s ability to further the rights of people, deliver public goods and maintain peace. The strong pro-incumbent trend coupled with high voter turnouts and regular elections suggests that democracy works well in the northeast. Yet, we see the persistence of insurgent groups in all three States under discussion. So we ask a related question — why does the success of the democratic process not diminish these insurgencies?

We suggest that there are two distinct political processes at work in the northeast — the party political process demonstrated through electoral politics and the non-party political process found in the form of long-running insurgencies. Both these processes mutually support each other. The non-party political process has evolved in reaction to grievances against the Indian state and in synergy with electoral politics.

Party politics in the northeast was well-institutionalised by the 1970s, as were severe counterinsurgency campaigns in Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. The Congress began recruiting local elites early on into their Pradesh Congress Committees.

Even though there were regular allegations of vote-buying by the Congress in some districts of Nagaland, the Congress regularly came to power in most northeastern States until vibrant student movements allowed for regional formations like the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front (Assam), Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (in Meghalaya) and the Naga People’s Front (Nagaland) to emerge. The local elites, propped up by a national party, were brokers for stability and were meant to rein in the insurgencies, if not crush them completely.

Over time, violent counterinsurgency gave way to ceasefires, negotiations and policies of surrender. This allowed many northeastern insurgent groups to scale down their political demands from outright secession to limited autonomy within the Union of India. This was granted to them under the Sixth Schedule in the form of autonomous districts. The pacts with insurgent groups have also led to former insurgents being incorporated into mainstream politics. In this manner, many former insurgents like Bijoy Hrangkhwal in Tripura and Pu Zoramthanga in Mizoram have been playing crucial political roles in the region.

However, as in some countries of Africa and Latin America, insurgencies in the northeast have also acquired a momentum of their own. In Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, insurgent groups are often reported to act like mafias or cartels running extortion, drugs, kidnapping and small arms rackets. The rents extracted from these illegal activities often sustain the groups’ organisational needs and create incentives for new recruits. Massive unemployment in the region makes insurgency a lucrative career amongst disaffected and marginalised tribal youths within the northeast. On top of this, the State’s coercive techniques add fuel to the fire. In the northeast, therefore, the insurgent groups persist despite an established political process due to both factors — availability of alternative sources of rent and the State’s strong-armed responses that aggravate disaffection.

Not happy with Centre’s politics

Finally, we note that the electorate in the northeast is still distinctly critical of politics dictated by the Centre. This is primarily because of the patronising actions of national parties (mainly the Congress) and the influence of local traditional institutions in the region. High voter turnout in the northeast should not be mistaken for compliance with New Delhi. An election in the northeast is seen by the Centre as an exercise in generating legitimacy, but it may be seen differently in the region. In the northeast, assembly elections are contests to control the politics of the State, as is the case in any other State in India.

(Vasundhara Sirnate and Rahul Verma are Ph.D students at the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley)

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