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Mirage of a promised land: Deepening ethnic divides scar the Northeast

By Professor  

The legitimacy of ceasefires and talks has allowed the regime of intimidations, extortion and armed threats to flourish

Northeast, for far too long, has been a hotbed of insurgency.

How has India’s Northeast changed over the last seven decades? Physically, the map of the country’s most critical geostrategic region has undergone several changes internally and has settled some international border issues externally. The region was originally made of two major administrative blocks: Assam and North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) with the Union territories of Manipur and Tripura. Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland were all part of Assam and only much later did Sikkim enter the nation and then the region. It turned into what is today the ‘Northeast’, an amorphous bunch of territories with no homogeneity whatsoever. The birth pangs of the reorganisation of the states over the first five decades have been acute and if some of India’s international borders in that region remain disputed, the inter-state borders have witnessed far worse strife. The subnational assertions and demand for statehood and greater autonomy continue to plague the region and are the source of the most violent insurrections. If insurgency and armed separatist movements dominated the past half-century, what seem to be taking over are deepening ethnic divides.

AFSPA: The region is often imagined only through the prism of conflict and the draconian emergency act AFSPA or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958. This act gives immunity to the Armed forces in counter-insurgency operations and has allegedly encouraged a culture of impunity — killing innocent people for awards and citations and carrying out extra-judicial killings. The unprecedented 16 years of Satyagraha by Irom Sharmila in Manipur against this act has been the most daring resistance in this region’s contemporary history. But the inability of the Indian government to repeal or amend this act (despite a Prime Minister and Home Minister saying it should be repealed) and remove the Disturbed Areas Act, has been the darkest blot on the democratic experiment of independent India. It is as if India’s deployment of Army brigades is only to ensure that the geographical territory of the Northeast is somehow retained, even if it comes at the cost of alienating and abusing the inhabitants of that region.

Peace Process: The term ‘peace process’ has been the operative phrase in the Northeast. Peace in real terms may have eluded most across the region, but this ‘process’ and the ‘roadmap’ and the ‘agreements’ have been at the core of its politics. One must concede that several protracted ‘peace processes’ have brought down violence to what the government calls “acceptable” levels. When was violence ever acceptable? The guns have fallen silent in many of the theatres in the region. However, the legitimacy of ceasefires and talks has allowed the regime of intimidations, extortion and armed threats to flourish. It is probably the only region where hundreds of members of banned terrorist groups (as classified by the government) have surrendered and found their way into electoral politics. Criminal cases against them have been ignored at the cost of subverting justice. But this is also a democratic experiment of allowing people to join the ‘mainstream’, a narrative that fits well with the government’s understanding of ‘development’.

Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Partition of India has had an irreversible impact on the economy of this region. At one stroke, it became a landlocked ‘state’, its rail links to the sea cut off, signalling an end to a flourishing trade that once fed into the Empire’s economy. The Look East Policy (LEP), now Act East, has not been able to overcome the logistical difficulties or present a cogent roadmap for the region’s integration with South East Asia.

Though the LEP was never meant to exclusively serve the region, there were huge expectations that it would transform the fortunes of this zone as well as the perception. Since those remain unfulfilled, the people have slowly but steadily started to take things in their own hands in enterprising ways. While a thriving culture of corruption integrates the region with the rest of the country, there seems to be a new generation that has moved on without the trappings of the past.

Looking forward, the region seems to have come to terms with the idea of an India which has many ‘Indias’ and this is just one of them. There is a growing awareness of ‘discrimination’ that is there within the region as against the assertion that the rest of the country discriminates against the region.

The writer teaches Journalism in OP Jindal Global University and is the author of Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters