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India’s Northeast is an arena where a great tragedy has been unfolding for over eight decades, three of these prior to Independence. The original communities inhabiting the region are facing a sustained cultural, political and religious assault, largely as a result of the movement of disadvantaged communities from contiguous areas, particularly Bangladesh, and also through a process of large-scale conversions as a result of competitive missionary activity. The imminence of a loss of identity engenders emotional responses that have led to mass movements, widespread civil disorders, secessionist insurgencies and terrorism. Despite decades of turmoil, the region remains an area of general neglect in the literature. Only occasional research has shed small pools of light on the multiplicity of problems that plague it.

In July 2001, a national seminar was organised by the Institute for Conflict Management at New Delhi on the theme, "Addressing Conflicts in India’s Northeast", with the primary objective of exploring new perspectives on the multiplicity of conflicts in the region, and to assess the efficacy of conventional wisdom and past policies that have been applied to the resolution of various problems there. The intention of this Seminar was also to project voices and perspectives from the region, and to create a greater awareness in a psychologically insular Delhi, of the divergences in perception that may exist. The present Special Volume includes, among others, several papers that arose out of presentations at this Seminar, and is a continuation of the effort to focus on India’s neglected Northeast, and on the discourse on insurgency and terrorism that have arisen out of the apparently unending turmoil in the region.

The discourse on terrorism is also a discourse on development – though not, as many armchair theorists believe, in the sense that the supposed absence of development is a ‘root cause’ of terrorism, a doctrine that has been regurgitated endlessly and fruitlessly by the well intentioned, though there is little empirical evidence to support it. Rather, it is the absence of terror that is a pre-condition of development – and the question whether peace or development comes first can, in my opinion, be firmly answered in favour of the former. My experience in Punjab led me to conclude that there is a peace dividend: there was an absolute explosion of developmental energies – which may have been undermined by political corruption, incompetence and betrayal in later years – but that could not be doubted when the shadow of the gun retreated. Such a ‘peace dividend’ can also be reaped in India’s Northeast, but economic transformations will elude the region so long as violence thrives and undermines, at once, security, the sphere of developmental and entrepreneurial activities, and of governance.

The pace of development in the Northeast has also been undermined because both the bureaucracy and the political leadership have been unable to address the basic and in-built inefficiencies of the system. The region has been witness to many a Premier announcing what are popularly referred to as ‘Northeast packages’ – billions of rupees of Central largesse that is intended to ‘kick start’ the processes of reconstruction and growth. Available evidence, especially in the immediate aftermath of such announcements, has indicated that such ‘packages’ have had negligible impact on the ground. The provision of large sums of money to the Northeast has not been accompanied by the construction of an appropriate delivery mechanism that can actualise these large sums of money – where they are actually disbursed, since promises have not always been fulfilled – in terms of viable developmental schemes. Another problem arises out of the fact that models of development being followed – and that may have been successful – in other regions have, in the past, been applied mechanically in the Northeast. Such strategies have not secured their targets and objectives primarily because they have failed to address the unique characteristics and immense diversity of the region and its people.

The monumental neglect of the village in the Northeast – similar, but in many ways greater and more damaging than the neglect of the rural sector throughout the country – has been a crucial factor in its spiral into violence. Violence, in turn, has created an even greater hiatus between the dispersed communities of the Northeast and the agencies and institutions of governance and development, with few effective efforts to reverse the processes of neglect.

The primacy attached to partisan political, as opposed to developmental, agendas has also had the most unfortunate consequences, with the leadership potential of many individuals lost in, or destroyed by, the political morass. Given the nature of the electoral processes, short-term considerations have dominated leadership perspectives, and the long-term interests of each State and the region at large have not only been neglected, but have been actively damaged, with petty disputes overshadowing and undermining all progress. The substantial quantities of money that have flowed into the region have been spent in a manner that generates little of a positive nature, and signs of backwardness, even of further regression, are visible everywhere.

These trends can be reversed only through an appropriate indigenous response to the twin challenges of conflict and development in the Northeast. These response mechanisms will have to be initiated through a method of trial and error, primarily through competent officers in the field learning and unlearning their experiences. They will have to take into account large volumes of feedback from the people inhabiting the areas of conflict, wherever these are, and will have to accommodate micro-variations within such areas, strengthening what is positive, and confronting and countering the elements and forces that have trapped the region in cycles of violence and poverty.

Nevertheless, lessons of both success and failure in other parts of the country must also be examined and assessed for their relevance to the unique circumstances of each conflict in the Northeast. While there is no simple ‘formula’ that can simply be imported from, say, Punjab or Kashmir, or even within the region, from Mizoram into, say Assam, or from Tripura to Arunachal Pradesh, there are elements of strategy and tactic that can usefully be identified from the various campaigns and initiatives in different parts of the country.

To take an instance, terrorism in Kashmir has little in common with the insurgencies of the Northeast. The former is clearly in the nature of a proxy war sustained, today, almost entirely by Pakistan’s territorial ambitions. Increasingly, however, evidence has been surfacing with disturbing regularity of the expanding role and intervention of Pakistan’s covert agency, the Inter Services Intelligence, in the Northeast, and of a widening network of subversion and support for all manner of extremist causes. Not only are there evolving linkages with the terrorists in J&K, there are commonalties of method in the mobilisation, support, training, arming and funding of groups in both regions, with safe havens and camps located across international borders in areas often sympathetic to, or dominated by, pro-Pakistan agencies, populations and governments. Paresh Barua, for instance, today controls the operations of the ULFA from the safety of quasi-official hospitality at Dhaka – earlier under a regime that was deemed ‘friendly’ to India, and currently under one thought to be less so.

The insecurities, ambitions and machinations of our neighbours, consequently, are and will remain a persistent problem. The greatest danger to security in the region, however, is the incessant influx of foreigners into the Northeast. And it is a problem that appears to defy all solutions, thus far, though this substantially – though not entirely – is the consequence of an abysmal failure of political will, rather than of objective constraings. It is a problem, moreover, that will bedevil security in the entire South Asian region in the years to come.

Assam, in many ways, constitutes the key to peace in the entire region. If there is peace in Assam, it can be extended to the other States as well. But the conflict in Assam is not a military problem – and has never been one. Assam is a settled society, with a strong civil society component that was established centuries ago. Conflicts in such a society should never be handled by the military until they go beyond a certain very high threshold – and it is my belief that this threshold was never reached in Assam. They must be resolved through the instruments of civil society itself, and the police is one such instrument.

Some decisions provoke a disaster because they are fundamentally wrong; others because they are inappropriately timed or implemented, and both these patterns have been recurrent in the Northeast. Last year’s so-called ‘territorial extension’ of the cease-fire agreement with the NSCN-IM is an example of a failure on both these counts, though it was the latter category of error that was overwhelmingly responsible for the chaos that followed in Manipur, and the grave dangers of further destabilisation throughout the Northeast that emerged as a result.

One of the basic reasons why the government was totally ‘blind-sided’ on this issue is the inordinate focus on the ‘peace process’ in Nagaland over the past years, at the expense of other conflicts and problems in the region. The fact is, in recent years, Manipur has been far more the ‘killing field’ of the Northeast, and in the year 2001, for instance, violence in the State claimed nearly 256 lives, as against 103 in Nagaland. There has, moreover, been a complete collapse of the political leadership in Manipur. Yet, like a machine with its central mechanism broken, the engines of the ‘peace process’ continue to flay uncontrollably about, contributing, instead, to an escalation in both overt violence, and a far greater magnification of the potential for further conflict and instability. As with much of governmental activity, the critical link between the act, its intent and objectives, and the actual consequences it secures, is disrupted as a result of the insensitivity and myopia of key official players.

While it is not possible to go into detail here, it is important to note that the basic premises of the ‘peace processes’ in Nagaland, as in various other theatres of conflict both within the region and in the rest of the country are seriously flawed. While the government has announced that it will ‘talk to‘ all shades of political opinion, it is clear that the only groups who secure the Centre’s attention with any measure of seriousness, are the ones who kill in substantial numbers, or retain significant capabilities to kill. The greater their violence or potential for violence, the more urgent and attentive are the Centre’s efforts for a negotiated settlement. This sends out various rather unfortunate messages: that India’s government only negotiates on its knees; that groups that kill larger numbers of people are in some sense more ‘representative’ of the aspirations and desires of the same people; that terrorism and violence will be rewarded by government recognition and endorsement of this ‘representative’ status; that democratically elected governments can be short-circuited out of the loop as the Centre reaches out directly to the insurgent leadership; and that extremist violence is an acceptable ‘short cut’ to political power. These premises produce distortions that undermine the utility of the peace processes themselves.

It is important to note in this context that, the secessionist fiction notwithstanding, the ‘Nagas’ are not a single, politically and culturally homogenous group, with correspondingly homogenous political ambitions and aspirations. Indeed, there are approximately 40 major tribes and sub-tribes among the people categorised as Nagas, each of which speaks a different language (though all these belong to the Tibeto-Burmese group of languages), and many of whom have unrelenting histories of internecine conflict. The NSCN split into the Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions precisely on issues relating to tribal rivalries, and are substantially aligned on the basis of such identities even today. There have, moreover, been ‘conclusive’ peace agreements in the past as well. In 1975, the Naga National Council (NNC) agreed to accept the Indian Constitution and abjure violence, but a breakaway group created the NSCN in 1980. Today, with the complex incentives and massive profits involved in the criminal activities associated with insurgency, and with complex inter-State linkages and consequences, negotiated agreements with one or other local faction are far from a viable strategy to secure a permanent peace in the region.

The core of the crisis in the Northeast is, in fact, the inability of the States to develop, equip and maintain a viable apparatus to execute their own law and order responsibilities. This weakness is exacerbated by changes in political dispensation and continuous politicisation of the police, which undermine discipline and effectiveness. The result is that the law and order apparatus is virtually run by the Centre through para-military forces and the Army deployed in these States. There is a de facto abdication of the State’s duties under the Constitution with regard to matters concerning internal security. Unless these trends are reversed, crude and imprudent interventions by a distant, insensitive and often uncomprehending Central authority will continue to provide unending fuel to the fires that burn across India’s Northeast.

Much if not most of what happens in India’s Northeast is seldom noticed outside the limited confines of the region itself. There has been an election in Assam in the year 2001 and a new government is in place – and of course, these events were widely reported, as was the violence that preceded these elections. Since then, however, the State has receded once again into the shadowy netherworld of national consciousness. There is little sense or awareness of the fervency of expectation among the people who believed that the new regime may be more faithful to its electoral promise than its predecessor was seen to be; or of the increasing feeling of alarm among a people who fear the possibilities of a new tide of violence in the succession of attacks launched by the ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) in areas that had, for some time now, been more or less quiescent; or of the sweeping changes in counter-terrorism strategy that the new regime spoke of in its first weeks in office; or, indeed, of the administrative and economic vision that is currently being articulated, and that needs to be assessed in great detail, lest it result in continued failures that the State can ill afford.

This is a time at which the State’s efforts will need the greatest of support, irrespective of narrow party affiliations and interests. In this, the Centre would do well to remember that the key to peace in Assam is the defeat or political neutralisation of the ULFA. It is also important to notice that, though there has been a wild proliferation of militant organisations in the State over the past years – there are as many as 34 currently identified – it is the ULFA that is the backbone of the insurgency in Assam, and most of the important groups, including many that have apparently conflicting goals and ideologies from those of the ULFA, are in fact, trained, armed and supported by, and sometimes co-ordinate their activities with, the ULFA.

The sense of loss of control in Assam (and in the Northeast in general), notwithstanding, there are tangible, achievable, goals within sight, and significant advances have been made over recent years. Operations under the Unified Command structure have virtually brought the ULFA and its affiliates to their knees – though this was at a rising cost in lives. An overwhelming proportion of recent casualties have been among the ranks of the militants themselves, and their activities have been contained within small corners of the State, where they can still strike and manage to flee to safe havens across international borders. That is why much of the militant violence in the past year has taken a particularly aimless and brutal character, such as the repeated incidents of mass killing of poor villagers and woodcutters in forest areas in the Kokrajhar district along the Bhutan border. What is needed now are strong, narrowly targeted intelligence-based operations, within the ambit of the State police, to bring substantially criminalised movements which lost their political and ideological moorings years ago, to their logical conclusion.

Along with these, however, the Government will have to go a very long way to ensure the restoration of the integrity of the administration, to plug the ‘leakages’ that have consumed virtually the entire pool of developmental resources available to the State in the past, and to establish a measure of administrative competence and efficiency demonstrably superior to that of predecessor regimes. The administrative incompetence of the Centre and the State must not be allowed to waste away critical opportunities for peace which have been created out of the blood and sacrifice of hundreds of security personnel, but are destroyed by the crude and inaccurate picture Delhi has of events and ground realities on the country’s periphery, and by the partisan blindness of the local political leadership.

A great deal has been written about the need for ‘new directions’, for a ‘creative’ vision, and for the exploration of ‘radical alternatives’ in policy, to address the crises of India’s Northeast. While such explorations and an open and experimental orientation are essential to the enterprise of democratic governance in such a complex, pluralistic society, the fact is, the restoration of peace and order in the Northeast demands much less. If even the minimal requirements of good governance are met by a leadership that displays a modicum of sagacity in dealing with the conflicting aspirations of different ethnic and communal groups – entirely within the ambit of the existing constitutional and legal order – the remnants of ‘legitimacy’ and presumed ‘public’ sanction for violent resistance that the various insurgent groups currently benefit from, will vanish without a trace. And in their wake, so will the terrorists and their leaders.

K.P.S. Gill

January 16, 2002





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