Connected by a stretch of land not beyond 40 km with the mainland of India, northeast India is indeed a distinctive piece of land. With the number of tribes and languages spoken running into a few hundreds, integration in this part of land is a theoretically improbable idea.
But this part of India has been united since time immemorial; it stood together against 17 Mughal invasions and was successfully able to block their eastern advance. It is the land that even after division from one unit into seven came to be known as seven sisters. A paradise in itself this magnificent piece of land has of late been the centre stage for insurgency, identity politics, at times communal clashes. The most “hospitable people of India” as referred by Khuswant Singh when he had to comment on the Assamese, the largest community in northeast along with the sister tribes have seen years of turmoil post independence. As we look to discuss the core issues behind these problems we will find few unsolved errors, few misconceptions, many illusions and sadly a lot of problem solution mismatch.
Before jumping into the discussion of problems and needful solutions it will be helpful if we pay our attention towards the ruling of the erstwhile Ahom Kingdom, a kingdom that ruled Assam (erstwhile northeast for 600 long years and for once never came under foreign rule). The Ahoms were immigrants from the Yunnan province, belonging to the great Shan race that entered the northeast after crossing the Patkai hills in 1215 A.D and by 1228 set up their kingdom that expanded and protected its territory till the British annexure in 1826. The Ahoms were a martial race, indeed stronger than the local inhabitants of the valley but while ruling this piece of land which they referred as mung dung chum khum (land of golden gardens) they used their diplomacy more than their military.
The Ahoms tried to create an atmosphere of unity within the northeast keeping every tribe self identity intact, as such the confidence of every tribe was bought by the promise of less threat to identity, land and food. The Ahoms used diplomatic engagements and seldom took to war to bring all the local kings and rulers under one umbrella. All local kings were allowed to exercise their complete autonomy and during times of war etc they used to fight common forces together. This helped them in earning the uniform of a unifier and a protector rather than a conqueror. This mix of diplomatic approaches helped them rule this otherwise unconquerable land for 600 years, governing this part of India has been a challenge for the otherwise powerful New Delhi. The powerful India that speaks for global peace and efforts to eradicate terrorism from its roots has failed miserably in curbing anti national activities and clashes for sovereignty within its own territory.
When the power to rule over the northeast was transferred to the Indian government, which wasn’t an informed choice made by the people of northeast the step motherly attitude of New Delhi towards the sister states proved to be disastrous, claims for sovereignty started within years of declaration of independence in 1947. The reasons for this were never understood by the ones sitting in Delhi, you cannot simply infuse on one person the sentiments of nationality by making him speak your language, or sing your national anthem. That feeling of brotherhood has to come from within and that becomes even more difficult to achieve when the men in uniform who are supposedly the protector of our lives patrol around to subjugate the voices of rebellion for this further fuels the voices from within. Delhi has tried to divide the entire northeast and apply the British policy of divide and rule, but as time has proved to us, dividing does weaken a section but then unification happens for the greater cause and then governing becomes an even bigger challenge. In northeast the number of insurgent groups is almost equal to the number of tribal groups because on division into tribal groups each tribe is now fighting for its own identity thereby increasing the challenge before Delhi to deal with numerous insurgent groups majorly the NSCN-IM , ULFA, NDFB just to name a few. The claims made by these insurgent groups are mostly on the lines of identity and indigenous advantage. But just as the number of such groups increase the claims overlap and the probability of reaching an ultimate solution satisfying all groups diminishes and thereby leaves the fuel burning. A very different approach of dividing the groups into factions, a pro talk and an anti talk faction and trying to solve issues by making the talk group sign a piece of paper is no solution at all for the reasons for which this group emerged and took to arms can never be settled when one faction with arms and more importantly carrying the peoples sentiments are still in the jungles.
Along with the turmoil and unrest the people of northeast has also seen problems the solution to which lies only in the hands of Delhi, but because of Delhi’s reluctant approach in solving such issues the people have further alienated their mentality from the concept of nationalism. One such issue is that of the unabated Bangladeshi infiltration. Initially coming in few hundreds and thousands the issue of illegal immigration has taken such a disastrous shape that today the tribal’s in Tripura are a minority and several districts in Assam has a majority of these immigrants. As this problem continues in the northeast, unlike other places here more than a question of livelihood it is a fear of existence that rocks the indigenous communities. Considering that most of the immigrants coming from Bangladesh are Muslims who are not a victim of communal clashes the legitimacy of such migration doesn’t exist. Today in Assam the percentage of Muslims has increased to 31 percent in 2001 from just 24 percent in 1951. Several districts with no historical evidence of any significant Muslim presence enjoy a majority today of Muslim immigrants. As such the issue of identity is further aggravated. Questions are often raised on New Delhi’s seriousness to solve these issues. If the western border can be sealed within 3 years why can’t New Delhi block the eastern border after 64 years of independence and nearly four decades after Bangladesh independence? The Assam assembly elections of 2011 has proved beyond doubt that the immigrants enjoy a political mileage and are often protected by political parties for their own vested interest. Many anti national elements and mostly Islamic fundamentalist groups have supposedly been entering India through this porous border and causing threat to the national security. How serious this issue is what I believe Delhi must decide, but to act immediately is something for which no decision is required.
Secondly as china builds huge dams in the upper regions of Brahmaputra and satellite images clearly depict the same Delhi’s attitude was again highly unexpected. A powerful nation that has in itself declared Arunachal a part of their territory and has defeated India convincingly in the battle of 1962 so much so that Nehru was recorded as saying “my heart goes with the people of Assam”, and the Chinese military reaching the Assamese town of Tezpur gives testimony to the fact that china’s claims cannot be taken lightly. In this chapter again India failed in gaining the confidence of the north-eastern by their reluctant attitude of approaching Beijing regarding the Arunachal issue and their soft stance on the issue of dams in the upper stretches of Brahmaputra in china. If India decides not to act now regarding this issue it might be just too late. And acting doesn’t mean beefing up the military along the eastern border; India will have to take the people of northeast into confidence only then will China’s claims be diluted completely in international forums. Just as the northeast cries against the big dams in china India’s wish to construct dams in Subansari going against huge public opinion in such a seismically sensitive zone sets no indifference in their attitude towards the northeast and this again reinstates the step motherly attitude of Delhi while dealing with Subansari as against Narmada. With china clearly showing their interest in this part of India, the news of northeast insurgent groups getting funds from China and Chinese military help cannot be negated.
Owing to these factors the mentality of the north-eastern people are slowly getting shifted away from the idea of nationalism. With the youth having to face racial profiling in various major cities of India and the characteristic discrimination faced by the north-eastern people with regard to opportunities in their land, the faith in New Delhi is slowly slipping away. If we don’t accept the north-eastern as what they are it will be foolish to believe that they will have that sense of nationalism and brotherhood from within.
As we look forward to solution we must understand that we have committed several mistakes already in our approach for finding a solution. A solution must decisively be able to erase a problem. In the case of northeast we don’t see that happening. The Armed forces special powers act, an act devised to give greater powers to the military to tackle terrorism has proved to be greatly counterproductive, along with gross human rights violations and abuse of power the AFSPA has at times fuelled the victims kin’s to join the insurgent groups, while dealing with the Bangladeshi immigration issue we haven’t shown our seriousness in doing so, the borders constantly patrolled by the BSF has off late been the gateway of cross border terrorism. To call a solution a solution we must ourselves be convinced that the people of that region are going to accept that, because acceptability of a solution is what determines its effectiveness. So to take from the Ahom example, India must use its diplomacy more than it’s military to solve the issue. It must give every tribe and every community the autonomy to protect and preserve their own culture and tradition, if every tribe believes that their interests are protected better by being part of an Indian nation then nationalism will itself develop and more so because the claims for sovereignty will be erased by the content of the masses. To do so, New Delhi must be a responsible player in the northeast. It must actively participate in all the developments of northeast and at the same time try and not be a dictator in the eyes of the people. For that the policies that New Delhi adopt must be more flexible and must cater to the needs of all north eastern people, its viewpoint must not be restricted only towards a Indian nation but towards the building of a greater society through greater autonomy to all and in return achieving higher confidence from each one involved. That every tribe can write its own destiny, that every community gets the power to utilize its own resources and that the identity of every community must be respected should be the writing on the wall. If resource utilisation, and opportunity and fear of extinction is what the indigenous are questioning than Delhi needn’t prove that through deployment of military but can do so through better dialogue and at times by bowing to the demands because bowing always doesn’t mean submission, at times it shows acceptance and a broader mentality and signifies ones courage to actually solve an issue, which is currently the need of the hour for Delhi to prove to the people of northeast.