‘Act Northeast’ before ‘Act East’

As Isak Chishi Swu’s death complicates the Naga question, the Centre’s Northeast policy must be based on holistic development of the region as a unit as against meek responses to ethnic claims.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:33 pm IST

Published - July 06, 2016 01:21 am IST

ON THE MARGINS: “There can be no denying the fact that the region is still backward in many respects vis-à-vis other regions of the country and suffers many serious disadvantages.” Picture shows Isak Chishi Swu at Dimapur. — FILE PHOTO: PTI

ON THE MARGINS: “There can be no denying the fact that the region is still backward in many respects vis-à-vis other regions of the country and suffers many serious disadvantages.” Picture shows Isak Chishi Swu at Dimapur. — FILE PHOTO: PTI

The >demise of Isak Chishi Swu, Chairman of the Naga rebel outfit, National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) , and President of the outfit’s ‘government’, the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland (GPRN), is a great loss to the Nagas, particularly to those in Nagaland.

Swu belonged to the Sumi (Sema) Naga tribe of Zunheboto district, Nagaland. He started his career of a rebel in the Naga National Council (NNC) under Angami Zapu Phizo holding different important positions. He left the NNC in 1980 disagreeing with the signing of the Shillong Accord by the outfit with the Government of India and formed the NSCN with Thuingaleng Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Ukhrul district of Manipur, and S.S. Khaplang, a Naga from Myanmar. In 1988 the NSCN split into two factions, the NSCN(I-M) led by Swu and Mr. Muivah, and the NSCN(K) led by Mr. Khaplang. Swu represented the sober, humane and clean face of the Nagas as well as of the NSCN(I-M). He was a god-fearing person. His demise reminded me of a western titled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which I saw a long time back in my student days in Bombay. The film was a story of three characters engaged in a treasure hunt. In the hunt of the NSCN(I-M) for Naga destiny Swu represented ‘the Good’.

Radhabinod Koijam

Swu and the Naga movement I met Swu for the first time in Kohima in 1966 when I joined my elder brother, R.K. Singh, who was a panel advocate of the Nagaland government, for law practice. My brother had his chamber at Kohima town on Assam Rifles Road opposite the private residence of the late J.B. Jasokie, Chief Minister, Nagaland. Swu was staying nearby and used to visit us often. I, as a young man then, was impressed by his mild manners, humility and concern for the welfare of the public.

> Also read: Nagaland: a long road to peace

In his final days, Swu’s last wish was to die a man whose dreams are realised. Thus came the hurried signing of the accord which came to be known >as ‘the Framework Agreement’ on August 3 last year . The question is whether the contents of the Framework Agreement (still hidden from the public) will remain the same after his departure. No one except a few from the rebel outfit and some from the Government of India could tell. No one, however, may ever tell.

After NSCN(I-M) and NSCN(K) more factions like NSCN(K-K), NSCN (Reformation), NSCN (Unification), etc. sprang up. The faction, NSCN (K-K), led by Khole Konyak, a Konyak Naga from Mon district and Kitovi Zhimomi, a Sumi Naga of Zunheboto district, merged not long ago into the NSCN(I-M).

Many Nagas have questioned the NSCN(I-M)’s mandate to negotiate the Nagas’ destiny with the Government of India. Swu’s departure may complicate the matter further. What would be the fallout on the festering demand for Eastern [Frontier] Nagaland State is a big worry. Will the rebel outfit with a new chairman be able to unite different rebel factions and command respect and trust of different Naga civil society groups? It may not be acceptable to a large section of Nagas to consign the legacy of Phizo and the struggles of his NNC — from the days of Naga Club through the visit of the Simon Commission to India to the 1951 Naga plebiscite — into oblivion.

The Government of India’s approach towards Northeast India would be healthier if it was based on a policy framed for holistic development of the region as a unit as against meek responses to claims or demands of different warring ethnic groups. The Northeast is home to more than 500 ethnic groups whose identities, customs, cultures and aspirations are dissimilar. Looking for solutions to problems on ethnic lines is a sure way to breed problems of greater complexity. A comprehensive plan with flexibility that is prepared on the ground in broad consultation with stakeholders for development of the region is the need of the hour. There can be no denying the fact that the region is still backward in many respects vis-à-vis other regions of the country and suffers many serious disadvantages. The region, wrongly or rightly, feels neglected, and abandoned to the periphery of national consciousness.

During a recent discussion I had with S.C. Jamir, former Chief Minister, Nagaland, and the incumbent Governor of Odisha at the Raj Bhavan in Bhubaneswar, he did not approve of the government’s current approach in dealing with the NSCN(I-M), something he has conveyed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well. If the Centre devises any package, it should be comprehensive, based on a vision and a policy framework that encompasses the entire Northeast and not one or a few ethnic groups. India is a big and powerful country, he said; its government should not act or appear to act under duress. It should, however, be considerate, compassionate and benevolent. The government, however, seems lost on how to deal with the region and is happy to leave it heavily militarised with police and Army officers in control backed by the much decried, inhuman Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Indian politicians as well as the bureaucracy seem gripped by a fear psychosis when it comes to issues of the Northeast. The shadow of China looms large. The Northeast needs a body of thinkers and policymakers who would identify the problems confronting the region and dissect them for wholesome and lasting solutions. Appropriate institutions should be built and special facilities, if need be, should be provided to implement their decisions.

Need to empower institutions Last month the leaders of North East Democratic Alliance demanded greater empowerment of the North Eastern Council and the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) and appealed to the Prime Minister to institutionalise budgetary provisions so that 10 per cent of the fund of the Non-Lapsable Central Pool of Resources is mandatorily deposited with the Ministry of DoNER. In fact these institutions should be so redesigned and empowered as to be the pivots for all-round and speedy development of the region on a par with the rest of the country. In absence of connectivity, inter-regional as well as intra-regional, through all-weather roads, rail and air; facilities for intensive skill development training; demilitarisation of the region through neutralisation of the militant outfits through honest, open, transparent and comprehensive dialogues; and mechanisms to check and control drug trafficking, gun-running and money laundering in and through the region, all talk of an ‘Act East’ policy via the Northeast would be a big farce.

The transition of the policy from the erstwhile ‘Look East’ policy to the present ‘Act East’ policy without any positive activities, developments and achievements on the ground took almost a quarter of a century. Blind pouring of money alone will not integrate the Northeast into the mainstream. The region will remain a boiling pot until the time the Government of India looks seriously, sincerely and with an open mind towards the Northeast to develop it as an integral part of the nation.

Radhabinod Koijam is a Senior Advocate, former Chief Minister, Manipur, and President, Research and Strategic Development Organisation for the North East.

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