India Should Look East, to Northeast India


Ever since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, representation has been among the gravest and most persistent issues confronting India’s Northeast. It is a tragedy that this part of the country – a land of mesmerizing beauty, a rich cultural legacy, and the diversity that India so loves – has not been able to win sympathy among the ruling elites in New Delhi in the six decades since Independence. Instead, the people of Northeast India have largely been seen as separatists. Even today, the perception remains that the region is somehow antithetical to Indian democracy, a perception that has often been exploited for political purposes.

True, secession was a serious issue in the early days following Independence, giving rising to scores of outfits such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). But while insurgency activity remains, times have changed, and the changes need to be recognized by both the Indian government and the public. There has been a noticeable shift in the way the people of Northeast India view their relations with the rest of the country. Rather than secessionism, the demand now is largely for regional autonomy and affirmative action.

Indeed, talk to the new generation in Northeast India today and you may hear of dissatisfaction with poor infrastructure and mounting unemployment, but you will struggle to find talk of separatism, at least among the general public. Visit Maniput and you may find protest against the “draconian” Armed Forces Special Power Act or demands for a Greater Nagaland; in Meghalaya, you might hear criticism of the proposed railway line, which locals fear will lead to an influx of non-tribals; go to Tripura and Bodoland and the talk may be of illegal immigrants. Yet it is very unlikely that you will hear the anti-India slogans that once were so common.

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Today, the people of Northeast India realize that their aspirations can be accommodated within the Indian constitution, as has exemplified by the example of Mizoram. From a state once known for its famine, compounded by rampant poverty, illiteracy, and insurgency, Mizoram is now a model for development. This occurred only when the insurgents (led by the legendary Laldenga) realized that the Indian constitution was flexible enough to accommodate them.

The insurgents who remain in Northeast India are those who are deprived of education and employment. They join these groups not because they associate themselves with the “separatist ideology” but because of their helplessness in the wake of rampant poverty and underdevelopment. Yes, they do have ideological conflicts with the government (largely on inter-community relations and territorial claims). But these differences don’t mean they are necessarily anti-India.

Writing in South Asia Politics last year, Subhash Kashyap rightly observed: “If we really want to develop better social communication between the people inhabiting the North East and those in the rest of India and create a climate of real pan-Indian fraternity, the New Delhi colonial mindset of regarding the North-East territory as being theirs-the approach that it belongs to them-must change and be transformed into generating among those in the North East – tribals and others – a feeling and belief that the whole of India belongs to them.”

Sadly, India’s touted two-decade old “Look East Policy” has failed to consider the country’s own east. Far from relishing the fruits of government policy, the region and its inhabitants have long been deprived of even basic services such as primary health, sanitation and education. While governments have issued grand calls to boost the tribal economy, promote regional handicrafts on the international market, develop cross-border trade, and open new trade routes like the one at Moreh in Manipur, a light bulb and a running tap remain luxury items. For New Delhi, it seems that “east” begins where India’s Northeast ends.

New Delhi needs to stop making policy on the basis of preconceived notions, and instead make Northeast India an active participant in the policymaking process. Only then can it meet the region’s aspirations and protect the national interest.

Alas, for years the natives have been kept out of policy, and this is the root cause of their alienation. Even when talks did take place, they failed to consider the region’s diversity. Meghalaya is very different from Nagaland, just as Mizoram is very different from the Cachar Hills.

Meanwhile, the Indian government needs to involve civil society in the peace talks it holds with the insurgent groups. Its failure to do that only encourages a polarization and the emergence of more insurgent groups. After all, it is civil society who best represents the victims of the insurgency.

Kashyup adds: “The basic problem in the North East today – as in the rest of India – is that of tremendous governance deficit. The youth in the North-East have the same problems, ambitions and are success oriented as the youth elsewhere.”

But those same youth, like the generations before them, are forced because of ill-conceived and myopic state policies to prove their “Indianess,” even when they march in New Delhi to make clear that they do not wish their state of Arunachal Pradesh to be part of China.

“Indian nationalism,” writes Dr. Shashi Tharoor, “has always been nationalism of an idea, the idea of an ever-ever land-emerging from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history (and) sustained by a pluralist democracy…the only singularity about India is that there is none.” Indian nationalism cannot be defined (and thus identified) by geography, religion, language or ethnicity. The pluralistic nature of Indian society, one proudly inherited over thousands of years, cannot afford to curtail these vibrant and diverse tentacles of language, culture, or tradition into one single definition.

Further evidence of the changing attitudes among the people of Northeast India lies in the high voter turnout (the highest in the country, averaging more than 80 percent) in elections at all levels in the last ten years. A people seeking to disassociate themselves from a country surely would not want to participate in the elections of that country.

New Delhi must now reciprocate. It should do so by ensuring the safety of Northeast Indians in the nation’s cities as a confidence building measure; drafting policies aimed at inclusive growth along the lines of the rest of India; harvesting the tourism and handicraft potential by encouraging regional players; establishing centers of higher education and health to ensure participative development; and giving the region more effective political representation in the capital.

Infrastructure development alone will not suffice; people-to-people connections are also needed for capacity building. Buildings are of no use if the capacity to use them is not there. One reason why government schemes are not very successful in the region is because there is hardly any interaction with the general public. Consequently, the central government is often viewed as tyrannical. It is because of this that buildings and roads constructed under the banner of “infrastructure development” tend to symbolize “tyranny and authoritarianism” in the eyes of the Northeast Indian public, a view that is exploited by the insurgents. Much could be achieved if New Delhi strengthens communication with all stakeholders in the region.

The government role does not end with the allocation of funds. It must ensure also that they are effectively allocated. Northeast India suffers from rampant corruption. This isolates and enrages the general public. This unrest and feeling of helplessness has fueled the terrorism in the region.

Of course, the people of Northeast India must also shed the mentality that they are treated differently by default. Often, this is not the case. By remaining inside their own cocoons of “identity,” they indirectly contribute to their own sidelining. The new generation has the responsibility of convincing the remaining separatists that there is a better alternative.

It does take two hands to clap, but the first move is New Delhi’s to make.

Mukesh Rawat is a New Delhi-based freelance writer and spent seven years in various parts of Northeast India. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @mukeshrawat705.

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