The Northeast Imbroglio – Whither the Way Out?

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[An overview of the present Northeast scenario]

Considering the animosity the AFSPA has generated among the people of Northeast India, it serves no one’s interest to continue with the statute in the region. Neither is it compatible with the democratic ideals the country is founded on. Besides what we have today in the Northeast is downright lawlessness than any insurgency as such. The governments, the central and those of the states of the region, have to face the hard reality that they have a chronic failure of administration and there is no military solution to it. The answer may lie in beefing up the law and order machinery and ironing out the problem firmly.

In a sense, insurgency today has become a necessary tool for politicians of all hues in the Northeast to extract more funds from the centre, not for the welfare of the people by a mile, but to quench their insatiable greed. Even when it is far too evident that almost every other insurgent movement in the region has lost the wind out of its sails, politicians seem to find it imperative to stroke the flames alive. Instead of the rule of law, it is a powerful nexus between politicians, criminals clad as insurgents and businessmen that reigns supreme in the region. In such an environment it is hardly fair to expect government officials – who make easy prey for intimidation – to function honestly and put their lives at risk. Neither would the armed forces overtly admit what they know as truth – that there’s no well-defined insurgency worth the name left to fight. It would mean losing another theatre that would earn their members medals and other field benefits.
The nexus between politicians and criminals has to be broken before any constructive process can be undertaken to mitigate the dilemmas of the region. The carrot-and-stick policy embraced by Government of India – development work as an incentive for peace combined with counter-insurgency operations to keep militancy under check – is obviously not paying off. Development is of no consequence unless its fruits reach all sections of the people alike, especially the marginalized communities. The vast investigative machinery the central government has at its disposal – the CBI, Enforcement Directorate et al – can play a lead role in strengthening governance by mounting an operation, without fear or favour, to book the powerful and the mighty involved in large-scale loot of public resources. Without money and back-up from wealthy elites the insurgents would have nowhere to go, let alone fight. They may try squeezing ordinary citizens for subsistence, which is an activity the state police can certainly curtail.

The immediate need of the hour is to launch a massive training programme for police forces of all the Northeastern states in counter-insurgency operations, under the auspices of the army. Such a programme could be taken up on priority at the Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJS) at Vairangte in Mizoram. The states also need to recruit youth with necessary aptitude and calibre into the police forces. Such young recruits, well-trained and motivated, can have a positive influence on the youth in general and help wean them away from militant inclinations. Large-scale recruitments – to the police and paramilitary forces as well as the three branches of the country’s armed forces – would also help alleviate unemployment among the most militancy-prone section of the youth.

Until the police forces can fully take over the counter-insurgency operations, the army and the paramilitary forces need to display better accountability in their conduct. There is no justification for the armed forces personnel to flout the basic norms of civilized behavior because the AFSPA is in force – the purpose of the statute is to protect them from false complaints, not to license them to rape or murder. Thanks to such conduct by some reprobates among its officers and men the army has lost a lot of its esteem in public perception. The call of the hour is to enforce strict discipline, instead of the authorities remaining in a denial mode. The argument that the army is operating in an unfamiliar environment will not hold ground. Adaptation is what good soldiering is about. Educating the troops on behavioural aspects and exemplary punishment to the culprits should curb any criminal tendency in the ranks.

It is also time that the authorities got tough with the insurgent leadership in their peace negotiations. Firstly there is no point in negotiating with all and sundry. Before commencing any negotiations the authorities concerned need to make sure whoever they are negotiating with are truly representative of the group or groups they claim to belong to. The talks should be inclusive and the leaders should be held responsible to honour their commitments. The practice of giving bail to arrested leaders merely on promises of peace serves no purpose. The government negotiators should be persons of proven capability who could achieve results, rather than keeping the process going for appearance’s sake. None of the insurgent leaders are in a position to bargain is a hard fact they are quite aware of. Deny them the freedom from prison-hood and they would have no option but to relent.

The rounding-up or surrender of the insurgents in itself does not close the chapter on insurgency. There has to be a multi-dimensional strategy in place to address variety of issues ranging from rehabilitation of ex-combatants to creating employment opportunities for the vast number of unemployed youth who make potent insurgent material to reviving development projects long stalled by conflicts.

Prioritizing the rehabilitation of the former insurgents is just about as significant as apprehending them. The development projects should be designed to generate as much employment among the local youth as possible. There is also the need for a socio-scientific setup in place to help integrate the former insurgents back into the society, because of the high prevalence of drug addiction and AIDS among their lot.

The development projects undertaken have also necessarily got to be people-and-eco-friendly, because of the myriad problems of the region. They must aim at long-term benefits rather than quick gains to display impressive statistics. Large-scale displacement of population has to be avoided at all costs and resettlement of those displaced must always take priority. Issues like that of the tribal population displaced by the Gumti Hydel Project in Tripura can prove a thorn in the flesh.

Improvement of the educational facilities within the region – starting more institutions of higher education and improving the quality and capacity of the existing ones – and opening more venues for students from the region to study in other parts of India are long term measures that would not only prove a bulwark against insurgent tendencies but help integrate the region firmly with the country. The states outside the region could contribute significantly in this national endeavour by reserving vacancies for students from the Northeast and offering special scholarships to them in their institutions and universities.

Winning the hearts and minds of the people of the Northeast has to form an integral part of the peace process there and it need not be confined to the geographical borders of the region. There’s a notable presence of youth from the region in most Indian cities now. These are brave young men and women who have overcome the turmoil of their home states and struck out to embrace the dream that is India. Gone are the days when a Mizo in Aizawl might tell you that he had gone to ‘India’ when he had made a trip to Calcutta (Kolkata). Now it’s the turn of the people elsewhere to make the youth of the Northeast feel at home in their midst and to wash away any sense of alienation the latter may feel, having been segregated for so long for no fault of theirs. A young male in Delhi who casually refers to a girl from any of the Northeast states as ‘chinkey’ certainly does not help matters. People making such derogatory remarks deserve to be penalized as much as insurgents of the Northeast do. Racism must not find berth in the sociopolitical milieu of modern India.

The Northeast has tremendous potential for tourism. Development of this sector with improved infrastructure can pave the way for economic uplift of all classes. Besides opening a vast market for the region’s already-popular handicrafts, it will facilitate far wider people-to-people interaction.

A law-and-order situation conducive to development, economic progress and above all, better educational opportunities for the youth that will provide them adequate career openings are the factors that, in the ultimate reckoning, could be expected to sound the death knell of the insurgency.

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