India’s North-east: Time to really ‘Act East’

-Pranjal Kumar Phukan

What has changed 70 years after the British set up the first Naga autonomous council? What have years of exile, election boycotts, failed plebiscites, armed rebellion and ceasefires, and peace talks yielded?

When you try to answer such questions, it is like struggling out of sleep only to fall back into the same nightmare. Many things have changed in India’s North-east; much has changed for the worse. Although the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is a menacing presence, the Army or paramilitary forces do not blanket a region once riven by insurgencies.

Over the past three decades, India has moved away from attacking North-east rebels militarily to tackling them politically and economically. Yet, there are at least 128 armed groups in seven North-eastern states. Gurbachan Jagat, a former director-general of the Border Security Force and senior intelligence officer who was Governor of Manipur from 2008 to 2013, says that state’s 400-km border with Myanmar is very poorly guarded and an open conduit for drugs and guns.

Connectivity has improved somewhat – I used to travel ten hours by rickety buses from Silchar to Aizawl in the early 1980s; you can now fly to the Mizoram capital. But the roads are not much better, and the Seven Sisters are still tethered to India by the very slim 26-km long Siliguri Corridor. (Sikkim became a part of the North-eastern region in 2002). The region is still one of India’s poorest, and heavily dependent on central dole-outs.

UdayonMisra, a social scientist in Guwahati, says infrastructure has been neglected throughout the North-east. “When you talk about a Look East policy, you want to connect more to Southeast Asia, but there is no connectivity within the North-east.”

Not one of the eight North-eastern chief ministers belongs to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Most of them have held office for a long time – Assam’s Tarun Gogoi (14 years), Sikkim’s PawanChamling (21 years), Manipur’s OkramIbobi Singh (13 years) and Mizoram’s Lal Thanawla, who has held office cumulatively for over 20 years. The consensus is that the most popular and successful of them all is Tripura’s Marxist chief minister Manik Sarkar. A straight-talking and fiercely honest man, Sarkar has been in power for 17 years but gets by on a monthly party salary of Rs 5,000. “Tripura has built up a tradition of accountability,” Misra says.

Outside of Tripura, and despite thousands of crores of rupees in central budgetary support and multilateral funding, corruption is corroding everything that moves. Jagat says secretaries in the central ministries that are pumping money into Manipur never bothered to visit the state to monitor their projects.

Manipur rebel groups extort money under the guise of ‘taxes’ from every business. Tolls are levied on every truck coming in from Assam or Nagaland. Manipur has 90,000 government employees, and they have to pay a small ‘income tax’ to the militants. At the slightest pretext, the rebels blockade the lifeline highways. “Everybody was happy: the militants got their cut; the security forces were happy: they got their cut; and the politicians were happy – they got their money from corruption and cases, plus off the budget. Hardly any project was completed except for three buildings like the high court and the secretariat,” the former governor said. The Khuga dam, whose foundation stone Manmohan Singh laid when he was a member of the Planning Commission in 1981, rocketed 2,500 per cent in cost and was inaugurated in 2010 when Singh was prime minister. Jagat notes that Manipur’s capital Imphal still lacks a sewage system.

Nor have the guns fallen altogether silent. Twenty soldiers died in a well-planned ambush this June on a hilly road in Manipur, not far from where 20 soldiers died in a nearly identical ambush 33 years ago. This time the attackers were from the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) Khaplang faction. In 1982 they were from the NSCN’s rival Isak-Muivah faction. The NSCN (IM) is now top dog and signed a Framework Agreement with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in August. The NSCN (K) has repudiated the IM faction’s 1997 ceasefire and is hiding in camps in Myanmar, which the Indian government claimed to have attacked in a “surgical” cross-border strike after the June ambush.

Ravindra Narayan Ravi, the soft-spoken Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and Modi’s chief interlocutor with the Nagas, crafted the framework deal with the NSCN’s leader ThuingalengMuivah. It is what it says: a framework that will lead to a full accord when all the stakeholders have bought into it. It is true that the 1997 ceasefire has held longer than the 1964 ceasefire did, but how will a new peace pact be different from the 1975 Shillong Accord which fell apart?

Ravi says it is because the Modi government has decided to pursue conflict resolution. His predecessors tried conflict management.

“Our belief all these years was that the North-east is far too complex and it is better to manage it. You can’t resolve the issue. So it was episodic intervention,” he told me during a long chat in his office.

“When you engage one particular outfit, you wish to pacify it. In the process of managing one entity, you create some other problems. All these societies are extremely heterogeneous. You have ‘n’ number of onion layers. If you pursue ethno-nationalistic politics, you are opening a Pandora’s box.”

The onion layers can make your eyes water. The Naga rebels are split into seven groups. The NSCN (IM), which elder Naga peace activist NiketuIralu describes as the “most ruthless, the most well-funded, the most well-armed”, wanted to talk with the Indian government on the principle that the Nagas are sovereign and any settlement must integrate Naga-inhabited areas across the North-east. The rebels forced Iralu to shut down his Reconciliation Commission. “They want to be with India but not within India,” says Ravi.

Even if it were to happen, a Greater Nagaland would be a messy jigsaw puzzle. About four million Nagas straddle India and Myanmar; they are split into about 70 tribes, each speaking its own dialect. “Not as bad as Papua New Guinea – 600 islands and 1,000 tribes,” Iralu laughs. “Crazy world. Why Almighty God should allow so many tribes to increase I don’t know. God must have made a mistake in making so many Naga tribes. He made a second mistake – to give them the desire of being one people.”

An erudite man, Iralu compares the Nagas variously to the Kurds in the Middle East and the Tibetans, who are fighting the mighty Chinese. He also speaks of the history packed into Nagaland.

If peace endures, will Nagaland’s economy change? Not very likely. Rich forest, mineral and tourist potential lie untapped with the government so heavily subsidized. So everybody has a stake in stoking the fires of unrest. Development takes a back seat. “The heaviest toll is on accountability. So long as you have a disturbed situation, people tend to blame every unfinished task on the unrest,” Ravi says.

Last month, a World Bank report painted a dark picture of the ‘remote’ North-east’s economy. More than 80 per cent of the region’s population lives in rural areas, subsisting on low-value agriculture (lush Manipur, for instance, has only one paddy crop). The Bank said 32 per cent of North-easterners live below the poverty line, compared with the national average of 21.9 per cent.

The World Bank noted that a third of electricity in the North-east was lost due to old and inefficient infrastructure. “Today, the annual per capita power consumption (of about 290 kWh) in the North East is less than one-third of the national average. The peak demand for power in the region (2,528 MW in 2015) is just over one-fourth the peak demand in the state of Haryana, which has about half the population,” the report said. More than half the households in the region do not have electricity.

It would help if the region could truly move away from its blood-soaked past. Between 1980 and 1983 I watched the Assam agitation against illegal migrants from Bangladesh, spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the AsomGanaParishad (AGP) slide into a frenzy of communal savagery which peaked with the slaughter of more than 2,000 Muslim men, women and children in Nellie in February 1983. The Congress party won a Pyrrhic victory in the 1983 state assembly election, capturing 91 of 109 seats. Just over two years later, the Assam Accord paved the way for an AGP government to take power.

The Assam Accord recognized migrants who had entered Assam prior to January 1, 1966. It disenfranchised all those who had entered the state between that date and March 24, 1971, and said all those who had entered Assam after this date would be “detected and expelled”.

But, 30 years after that accord, ethnic tension is again starting to climb in the same pattern. Last month, a Supreme Court lawyer, Upamanyu Hazarika, completed an investigation of border areas in Assam that looked at security, cattle smuggling and illegal migration. Hazarika had been tasked by the court to carry out his inquiry in the matter of ‘Assam SanmilitaMahasangha vs Union of India’. Besides recommending steps to reduce cattle smuggling, Hazarika also cited eminent civil engineer IndrajitBarua, who he said had investigated voter records in several polling booths in the Boko assembly constituency.

“He has also undertaken a statistical analysis of the change in demographic pattern and by extrapolating population growth figures has arrived at the finding that indigenous population will become a minority by 2047,” Hazarika wrote in his report to the court. The Hazarika report has had predictable consequences. Already, the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh has asked for a debate on the findings, and AASU is stirring from its slumber.

Appeasing different ethnic groups has a long history in Assam. When the British left, the state had only two ethnicity-based autonomous councils. Today it has 24. In 1995, on the eve of the 1996 elections, the then state government created five new councils. In 2005, on the eve of the 2006 elections, 12 new councils were created.

Identities have even been manufactured, Ravi says. “In 2005 the Assam government created the ThengalKachari Autonomous Council. The ThengalKacharis do not even exist in the Census list of tribes and number fewer than 20,000. But this was a potential vote bank.”

So is there a silver lining?

Yes, if you look at Tripura. There, the once-majority tribal now number just 31 per cent of the population. In June 1980 I travelled to Tripura to report on the massacre of Bengali Hindus by tribal militants in Mandai village. Today, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar told me, economic development has brought peace and progress even though about 18 militant camps still exist across the border in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Tripura’s Marxist governments have pushed decentralisation and development. Sarkar said the state has 1,800 cooperative societies. The panchayat system is working well. Before he took office in 1998 his predecessor Dasarath Deb introduced the Jana ShikshaAndolan (people’s education movement).

Sarkar aims to make Tripura self-sufficient in food grain in the next three years, and electricity-surplus sooner. Tripura is giving Kerala a run for its money. It is now India’s most literate state at 94.65 per cent, and the country’s second-biggest rubber producer. Hemmed in on three sides by Bangladesh, Sarkar says he is pushing for a link to Chittagong port in Bangladesh. “That would make Tripura the gateway to Bangladesh and Southeast Asia,” he says.

Most promising of all, gas has been discovered in Tripura and neighboring Mizoram. Despite the numbers, Sarkar does not sound satisfied with progress so far. “Much more needs to be done,” he says.

Despite the violence and venality, Manipur is home to Mary Kom and novelist, poet, playwright and National School of Drama Chairman RatanThiyam. Every morning hundreds of young people play and exercise in the KhumanLampak stadium in Imphal. The MeiraPaibi movement has enlisted nearly every adult Meetei woman and is a powerful counter to alcoholism, drug addiction and corruption. There is hope.

This report appeared in India Today’s 40th Anniversary special edition.

(Author is recipient of prestigious Peter F Drucker award for his outstanding contribution in management from University of Swahili –A fully chartered University by the Government), Panama. He can be contacted at