Event ReportsPublished on Nov 18, 2004
India's North-East remains a challenge for the policy makers. Keeping together this diverse region, which is home to more than 250 tribes, speaking more than 190 languages and dialects, and addressing the long drawn conflicts to preserve ethnic identities and over land and other resources is an arduous task. Recent months have witnessed a lot of debate on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) introduced by the Central Government to counter insurgency in this region.
Interaction on the North-East' the Problems and the Options
India's North-East remains a challenge for the policy makers. Keeping together this diverse region, which is home to more than 250 tribes, speaking more than 190 languages and dialects, and addressing the long drawn conflicts to preserve ethnic identities and over land and other resources is an arduous task. Recent months have witnessed a lot of debate on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) introduced by the Central Government to counter insurgency in this region. 

A day long interaction on the North-East was organised by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) at its headquarters at New Delhi on November 18, 2004, under its International Terrorism Watch Project. It was an effort to engage in a process of collective introspection on issues concerning the region and identify viable policy options. This interaction would hopefully be the beginning of an ORF exercise for a sustained engagement and interaction with the North-East. 

As Mr. B. Raman, Distinguished Fellow ORF, and Head of the International Terrorism Watch Project (ITWP), pointed out, the idea was not just more discussions and paper presentations, but an objective introspection on why things have gone wrong for so many years. Mr. Raman also said that action oriented thinking was required to address the problems in the North-East.

Some of the key points that emerged out of the workshop are as follows:

  • Insurgency or terrorism is a political weapon and is often the result of accumulated anger due to political, economic, and social causes.

  • Poverty, unemployment, lack of connectivity, inadequate health care and educational facilities, feelings of neglect and non-participation in governing their own affairs have contributed to the insurgency in the region. Inadequacies in governance and administration, public perceptions of widespread corruption and a lack of accountability have also contributed in equal measure to the creation of feelings of alienation in large sections of the local population. Policies often do not reflect the local ground realities and do not adequately address local sensitivities and the implementation of whatever policies there are has been unsatisfactory. 

  • The feelings of alienation and anger in the region are not just against Delhi. They are also against the local political leadership and administration at the district, the taluk and the state levels.

  • A wider representation not just of civil society, scholars and others, but also of professionals is required at any forum addressing the concerns in the North-East.

  • There is a worrisome lack of interest in the North-East, a lack of understanding of their problems and a lack of appreciation of their concerns in the general populace in the rest of the country. We need to encourage domestic tourism from other parts of India to the North-East just as we have been encouraging domestic tourism to Jammu & Kashmir. Study of the North-East and its people should find an important place in the school curriculum. Facilities should be provided to the people of the North-East to travel to other parts of India and study there. We need to understand the North-East more. There is a need to demystify the North-East at all levels and remove from the minds of the people in the rest of India, wrong perceptions and prejudices about the people of the region and understand that the people in the region are living with normal aspirations, normal developmental needs, and normal problems. This can help in the emotional integration of the people of the region with the rest of India. 

  • There is a need to understand the emotional and psychological aspects of the problems of the different states of the North-East. The North-East is not an organic whole. It consists of different States and different regions, each with its own distinctive languages and dialects, culture, its own problems and concerns, its own motivations etc. Any meaningful policy for the North-East should address the specifics of each state and region. Constantly projecting before the people of the region the model of a 'national mainstream' which they should emulate is unwise and could be counter-productive. The objective should be not to expect them to submerge their regional and individual personalities in the so-called national mainstream, but to work with them in order to find solutions which would make the national mainstream and the regional sub-streams compatible with each other. 

  • We must expedite the opening-up of the economy of this region. It must open up towards the rest of India as well as towards the East of India. The North-East should have as important a role in India's Look East policy as South India. There should be an active involvement of the leaders, officials and non-governmental intellectuals of the North-East in the formulation and implementation of India's Look East policy. The idea of opening it up to the East through South-east Asia and Bangladesh has been debated for a long time without visible results on the ground due to a lack of follow-up action. .

  • Accelerated economic development and the consequent prosperity are an important antidote to feelings of alienation. Nagaland returned to relative peace after the conclusion of the Shillong Accord in 1975 though the differences with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac Swu-Muivah) still remain. Mizoram has been peaceful since the Government of India and the Mizo National Front reached an agreement in the 1980s. We missed a wonderful opportunity of helping these two States to develop rapidly so that we could project them as show cases of the peace dividend if alienated people give up recourse to violence. We have neglected even the basic infrastructure development in the region. For example, even the roads built during the Second World War in this area have not all been made usable, let alone constructing new roads. Even now, it is not too late to draw up time-bound plans for the rapid economic development and opening up of Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh and implement them energetically to convince the people in the entire region that peace pays. There has to be accountability of the local governments as well as departments of the Central Government responsible for development of the North-East if funds are being misused. A check on corruption is a must.

  • We need to focus especially on the social sector. Improvement of medicare and education are important. Redesigning a ferry into a floating hospital that will take health services to the people in times of floods is an innovative idea. One has just started building this at Dibrugarh, a part of which is complete. More such simple, but innovative ideas that could touch the hearts of the people are called for.

  • In the economic sector we need to examine what investments have been made and whether we have made any headway in acquiring productive assets. There is a considerable potential for tourism in the region. The Central Government should invest in tourism with the help of the state governments. The tourism infrastructure if put in place can also attract a lot of domestic tourists.

  • There has been ad hocism in dealing with matters and problems in the region and there has been a lack of consistency in policy-making, whether it relates to counter-insurgency, economic development, redressing of the local grievances etc. Since the North-East is sparsely populated and has consequently very few representatives in the Parliament, its voice is not heard as loudly as it should be and it does not receive the same attention as the rest of India. There is a moral responsibility on the part of the political leadership and policy-makers in the Centre and the rest of India to see that the people of the region do not suffer due to their lack of political clout in the Centre. A holistic and consistent policy would be possible only if it is based on a national consensus and the leaders and intellectuals of the North-East play an important role in the formulation and implementation of such a policy. 

  • There cannot be an exclusively security-oriented solution to a complex problem involving aspirations, emotions, fears, feelings of neglect and non-participation, pride in one's own identity and culture etc. At the same time, without security and law and order, there will be political instability and all plans for economic and social development will remain non-starters. How to maintain security and law and order without adding to the feelings of alienation is a question which needs attention. Respect for human rights, immediate attention to complaints of violation of human rights, and prompt action against those who are proved to have wantonly violated the human rights of the people should be as important a component of any counter-insurgency strategy as strengthening the capability of the security forces to deal with insurgency. There should be no conflict between law enforcement and observance of human rights. Human rights should not only be observed, but should be seen to be observed by the local people.

  • The Police should have an effective counter-insurgency capability. One of the Task Forces set up by the Group of Ministers after the Kargil conflict to revamp the internal security set-up had reportedly recommended that the CRPF should be nominated as the national agency to counter insurgency and enforce internal security. Whether or not it is the appropriate agency is a different matter, but the point is that there must be a dedicated counter insurgency agency manned by the police at the state and the national levels for operations of this nature and the involvement of the army should be minimal.

  • The problem of illegal immigration from neighbouring countries, especially Bangladesh, is real and cannot be glossed over. Along with illegal migration come problems of militancy, fake currency, drugs and weapons. Identity cards and work permits for those who come for work is a must. We need an immigration commission, a commission that will look at all the existing laws relating to migrants

  • Misconceptions at conceptual level with regard to the construction of nationalism is also important to address. Why do some groups identify with a particular nation- state and some do not? For a county like India where there are many groups that have so many aspirations, conflicting nationalisms are a problem. To maintain a balance is a very difficult task and at the academic level there is a need to study the root causes of these conflicting nationalisms.

To sum up, this one day interaction was only the beginning of an ORF exercise to identify the different dimensions of the problems of the North-East as seen from New Delhi. As the next step, we hope to take a group of intellectuals and moulders of public policy to the heart of the North-East for a dialogue with representatives of different sections of the North-East in order to understand their perceptions so that they could be adequately reflected in policy-making. 

(The writer is a member of the staff of the International Terrorism Watch Project of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). She is based in New Delhi. E-mail address: [email protected] )

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