The North-eastern challenge

In a region like the North-east, where few groups actually constitute a numerical majority, the State has been involved in unending and fatiguing efforts to deal with a cycle of demands and counter-demands

June 09, 2014 01:24 am | Updated 01:24 am IST

The recent attacks and killings in Assam, Manipur and Meghalaya by armed non-State groups represent a challenge and test for the Narendra Modi government and the need to understand the frustrating complexities of the North-eastern region.

Things are not being made easy after strident demands by the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party MPs from Assam to rid the State of “Bangladeshis,” a phrase that many from the minority community say is aimed at targeting them, irrespective of nationality, and one that can swiftly turn into a security nightmare not just for governments in Delhi and Dispur, but also for ordinary people caught up in a storm. For a moment, the “Bangladeshi” issue has moved away from the headlines because of other events that have captured public attention.

A Superintendent of Police in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district was shot dead when his tiny unit was engaged in a fight with an armed group wanting a separate state for the Karbi community in the jungles of Assam’s eastern hills — the second major setback that the police in the State have suffered, an Additional Superintendent having fallen earlier to the bullets of an armed faction from the Bodo tribe.

Some 400 kilometres west of Karbi Anglong, blurred images emerge of a woman who was executed gangland style execution after she resisted rape by men from the “Garo National Liberation Army” in Meghalaya. The GNLA was launched five years back by a former police officer, who is now in police custody. But the group is still active, extorting funds, and carrying out strikes against security forces and civilians.

Rise of insurgent factions

The law and order situation in the Garo Hills, the home district of Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, is such that a top official says that his men could not have moved to the village of the murdered woman at night as they got word of a possible attack on police convoys. They got the news when the woman’s family walked into a police station and told them what had happened. This is a poor reflection of police capacity, underscoring the need for better equipment as well as strong political leadership.

These issues underline both the ethnic and social complexity of the North-eastern region, home to over 200 ethnic communities, as well as how political mobilisation and armed violence have changed in these past years. While the principal militant factions have been sitting at the negotiating table with New Delhi or in “designated camps” for years, be it the Nagas, Assamese, Karbis, Bodos and Garos, they are being sharply challenged by smaller, more violent, breakaway factions.

Armed with new weapons which are easily available in the illegal small arms markets in the region, combined with new technology and better connectivity, these groups are demonstrating the seamless manner in which they can move across State borders.

The level of violence is especially stark when contrasted with the extraordinary beauty of the countryside across all States, although the towns and cities, as elsewhere, are turning into ugly urban sprawls. The Bodo-Muslim riots in 2012, which displaced nearly half a million people, and the incident earlier this year when over 30 men, women and children were butchered by armed men in the Bodo areas are examples of such violence. All the victims this time were Muslim and the resonance of public anger — of minority as well as non-Muslim, non-Bodo groups — was visible in the overwhelming victory of a non-Bodo candidate in a Lok Sabha constituency.

Amid this fabric, what is often forgotten is the chain of interconnected events and the contemporary political narrative: thus, in the Bodo Territorial Council areas, the first attacks on Muslim and other groups took place in the Bodo areas in 1993. Earlier, few such incidents were reported. There were tensions over land issues but these had not spiralled into the bloodshed that followed later.

There is another process that the Modi government will be aware of — that of manufactured consent. In a region like the North-east, where few groups actually constitute a numerical majority — one is not speaking on religious but ethnic grounds here — the State has been involved in unending and fatiguing efforts to deal with a cycle of demands, counter-demands, agitations and resolutions. This has dominated the political discourse in the region. Thus, almost every State experiencing conflict is witness to a non-violent process by a group demanding greater powers — such as for a community or group of communities, putting forth an overall set of political demands such as greater autonomy or a separate State. Yet, this runs almost in parallel with violent movements for, ironically, either similar demands or, going a step further, for “independence.”

This began with the Naga movement in the 1950s and spread to the Mizo Hills, Manipur, Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya, although in the latter, armed movements rose against their own State governments in the 1990s.

In almost every movement, “outsiders” have been targeted — whether it is those from another State, of a different linguistic or ethnic group or the so-called “Bangladeshis.” Yet, today, in almost every State, major armed organisations which have thrown challenges to Delhi over the past six decades have abandoned the gun and are either negotiating with the Centre or engaging in ceasefire. The most visible sign of this was the landslide victory of a former leader of the United Liberation Front of Assam from the Bodo areas. He crushed the official Bodo candidate in the Lok Sabha election and took his oath of allegiance to the Constitution in Parliament — the very Constitution against which he had taken up arms earlier.

Yet, agreements and semi-agreements have been the pattern in the region. These have a history of spawning breakaway groups which claim to be “anti-talks,” yet want to be at the table with the big boys; they hit hard at easy targets, showing the difficulties that police and other forces face in moving through difficult terrain. The smaller groups too want a share of the funds flowing into the region and the power that goes with it.

Political will is critical to dealing with this. Small States like Meghalaya have been adversely hit by the disinclination of both government and Opposition leaders in taking a tough line on the “boys” in the Garo Hills. Earlier Chief Ministers had demonstrated political courage, authorising crackdowns that forced Khasi and Garo groups to the negotiating table. It is also not a mere coincidence that the armed groups concentrate on the coal-rich areas of the Garo Hills where extraction is highly profitable and where prominent political figures are said to have business interests.

Thus, a pattern has emerged over the past decades — New Delhi, to use a BJP catchphrase, has always tried to appease the largest group agitating or fighting for a cause or one which is prepared to talk. It has not tried to resolve the core issue or issues which involve a broader and deeper dialogue with other groups, and with non-government and civil society figures, scholars and organisations. Without that kind of work, through mediators and counsellors, no agreement can work or last.

Perhaps Delhi thinks it is just a matter of being politically “realistic” — but such realism has backfired time and again. This was most evident during the standoff between Telangana and Andhra. And the North-east, with its many divergent and parallel ethnic mobilisation processes, is a far more difficult place. This then is the problem with what one could call “manufactured comfortable consent” — such agreements rarely last,for they are designed for short-term gains such as placating a demand, winning an election, creating a new elite and giving the government some breathing space. Often, the agitators are not as representative as they claim to be.

Focus therefore is of the essence, and not haste.

No to rights abuse

The Centre should not be diverted by recent events and instead concentrate on speeding up the prolonged Naga negotiations (now on for nearly 18 years). The Delhi-Naga talks do not even have an official negotiator as former Nagaland Chief Secretary Raghaw Pandey quit before the election to join the BJP but did not get a nomination. Other negotiations also need to be pursued with vigour and vision.

The Modi government must send a clear and unambiguous message to its members and followers that they cannot take law into their hands over the issue of “Bangladeshis.” This could spread fear, tension, mistrust and worse in Assam. Due process must be followed — otherwise there is acute danger of violence, tragedy and abuse of human rights just because of a person’s religion. Isn’t the Pune murder of the young Muslim techie by Hindu thugs a warning and wake-up call? The media must play a sober role in this because definitions of “Bangladeshis” are often blurred and arbitrary. We need to abide by the recent judgment in the Meghalaya High Court which, while stating the obvious, defined a Bangladeshi as someone who came to India after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Many tend to look at much earlier cut off dates in their search for “illegal migrants.”

New Delhi needs to inform all State governments in the region — whichever the party — that the murder of innocents, of whichever ethnicity, religion or language group, and the abuse of rights by armed groups (or security forces) and local thugs is unacceptable. Such violations need to be met with a cabrated robust response aimed at showing results in a specific time frame.

(Sanjoy Hazarika is director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)

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