A situation gravely mishandled
India’s northeast is the most combustible region. Some 250 ethnic groups are arrayed against one another and New Delhi to fight for their identity, some seeking even an outside-India status. Religion-wise, the proportion of Hindus, Muslims and Christians is more or less the same. Infiltration, mostly from Bangladesh or what was East Pakistan, has only aggravated the problem. Even the Assamese who were given a separate state in 1955 when India was reorganized on the basis of language have become a minority in Assam itself.
The Bodos, an ethnic group which hurled part of its state, Assam, into communal conflagration—the Bengali-speaking Muslims were the target—are far from peace because they have even attacked the relief camps. The Bodos want to get back their land which the infiltrators and outsiders have occupied since the British left in 1947. They also demand a Bodo state of their own, like any other distinctive group in India, even though they wield a lot of authority through their autonomous council.
When some ethnic groups separated from Assam and constituted their respective states—Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura, the Bodos preferred to stay with the state of Assam. But the administration at Guwahati has not been able to cope with the diversity that the Bodos represent. The violence they have committed and the sufferings which Bengali Muslims have undergone have made Prime Minister Manmohan Singh say after his visit to Kokrajhar, the hub of Bodos, that “Assam is a blot on the nation.” Yet why should Assam be singled out for the mess by New Delhi? In fact, the blot is on the center which is inept in handling the situation in the northeast.
New Delhi’s pet formula is that whatever happens in the northeast is a law and order problem. Already, the army is in overall command for maintenance of peace and has under its all paramilitary forces. Even the state police have to look up to the army which has repeatedly said that the problem is political. Apart from sending some home ministry officials to the northeast, there is very little that the center has done to sort out what is the northeast.
To administer with a free hand, the army has the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a draconian measure which authorities a soldier to kill a person on mere suspicion. Since the overall command has become refuge for the harassed people and the inefficient governments in the region, the administrations, wanting in all respects, depend on the armed forces. Therefore, it is not surprising to hear repeatedly that the army was late to reach the trouble spots. Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi has publicly said that the army came late and the center withdrew nearly half of the paramilitary units when they were badly required.
It is difficult to say why the army took three days to reach Kokrajhar when it is legally bound to come to the aid of civil authorities after a magistrate has sent a requisition. One report is that the army did not want to get involved in communal riots while another is that the overall command at Assam was seeking permission from the ministry of defense before acting. If these reports are correct, they raise a very basic question. That is, the army is not bound to assist the civilian authorities, as it is enjoined in the law, but would deal with each case on “merit.”
The matter requires a consensus among political parties but they are busy quarrelling among themselves and avoiding the real issue. Frankly speaking, political parties have no idea how to deal with the situation. Both the Congress and the BJP governments at the centre have been found themselves out of depth whenever they have tried their hand at a solution. Nagaland is the largest state in the region. Since independence, there has been a ceasefire between New Delhi and Kohima, both sides negotiating over a status which has the trappings of independence, without diluting India’s sovereignty. Both go over the same exercise of finding a solution, without anything concrete emerging.
Arunachal Pradesh, bordering China, is a state within India. Yet New Delhi “accepts” Beijing issuing a separate visa for people of Arunachal Pradesh and, for some reasons, for people of Jammu and Kashmir. Never has New Delhi stopped those from visiting China who have a separate visa from Beijing.
Manipur is under curfew after the sunset. Years of this practice have inured people to such restrictions. But there is Irom Chanu Sharmila, who is on fast for the last 10 years, demanding the withdrawal of the AFSPA. Since New Delhi’s dependence in the region is on the armed forces, it refuses to even relax the rigours of the act. A few years ago a committee appointed by New Delhi suggested the withdrawal of the act but the armed forces had the last word and the centre gave in. Meghalaya faces the problem of ethnic identity. But people there have tasted peace and do not want to go back to the days of violence. Insurgency is there but New Delhi feels satisfied that the neighboring countries, both Bangladesh and Myanmar, no longer now provide insurgents any shelter.
One problem accentuating the situation is infiltration. The Congress itself encouraged it in the fifties to increase its vote tally. Then Congress president Dev Kant Barua told me that they would have Ali (Muslims) and Coolie (Bihar’s labour) from their places and win at the polls.
The Congress should have at least implemented the accord between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and All Assam Students Union (AASU) to detect foreigners and delete their names from the electoral rolls. Assam Chief minister Gogoi does not want to do so because foreigners give the Congress an edge in elections. The last two elections in the state which he has won have been primarily because of the “voters” from across the border.
The Bangladeshis come to India for economic reasons. Had there been work permits, they would have got them and returned to their home after work. But there is yet no such provision. In any case, their problem should not be mixed with the northeast complexity which is still awaiting New Delhi’s serious attention.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist.