There are compelling weather systems developing in India’s east. The release on bail of United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa in Guwahati this past week is one such. Rajkhowa has asked for the release of several jailed colleagues in both India and Bangladesh for the peace process to move ahead conclusively.
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If it were to, it would bring to an end one of eastern India’s most violent and embedded insurgencies. And it could help transform Assam into a robust economic engine.
On the face of it, it might seem odd that Rajkhowa is putting on a show of bravado when, as a leader of a cornered, even discredited, group he ought to be on the defensive. But it shows the complicated nature of peace and conflict in these parts. A significant point is that the government of Assam did not oppose Rajkhowa’s bail. It is an acknowledgement that issues of underdevelopment and fear of the Assamese identity being swamped, which birthed Ulfa in the first place, are yet to be resolved. And the Assamese wish to sort it out to their own satisfaction.
This would be only the first significant step in Assam; the Bodo development and autonomy issue is yet to be resolved; Bodo rebels hold out.
In Nagaland, the two largest rebel groups, National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu, and a rival faction headed by K. Khaplang, have been in long-stuttering ceasefire talks with the government. Over the past two years, representatives of the two warring factions and lesser Naga rebel groups have met in civil society- and church-led peace and reconciliation talks. The political establishment in Nagaland is alive to this dynamic. The logic is straightforward: for the Nagas to meaningfully engage with Indian authorities and bring closure to the tragedies and ignominy since 1947—when Naga rebels opposed an arbitrary merger with India, leading to retaliation by Nehru—they must first reconcile contradictions among themselves.
It will be unwise at this point for India’s security establishment to crow about victory, that it has after decades managed to grind down several major rebellions in Assam, Nagaland, and the multi-ethnic cauldron of Manipur—which has recently seen the capture of Raj Kumar Meghen, chairman of a leading Meitei organization, United National Liberation Front; and some Kuki groups signing “suspension-of-operation” agreements with the state government. The reasons for grinding down range from scaled-up anti-rebel operations to rebels falling prey to the rigour of maintaining operations at high pitch, to losing initial idealism, to an India-friendly government such as the one led by Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh denying anti-India rebels sanctuary and even helping in the arrest of several.
In no case has it taken place exclusively on account of better development, lessening of kleptocracies, and the acknowledgement by the Indian government—and various political formations that run it—that regional and sub-regional identities in what is erroneously called North-east India have needs and minds of their own. (Mizoram is the exception, and that, too, bribed out of rebellion with an overly generous provision for government jobs.)
The reasons that led to the region’s myriad rebellions continue to exist—peace, intended peace, or not. Moreover, I have heard from several bureaucrats and police officers tasked with administering the Indian government’s will and testament at the grass roots in this region that, more often than not, those in-charge of the “North-east” in New Delhi—whether in the home or defence ministries, the key satrapies—are either disinterested or clueless about the complexities in this region beyond keep-China-out, and Delhi-knows-best. The relative spread of federal powers and responsibilities in what is known in these parts as “Mainland India” continues to be largely absent here. The driving imperative is that of an economy of conflict—a treasure trove of siphoned government funds and unfulfilled projects. The civic wrecks that are Guwahati, Kohima and Imphal offer only a passing—though significant—feel of the malaise.
There are several fine reports, such as the Vision 2020 document, that detail prospects of prosperity in India’s eastern extremity; of it being India’s bridge to South-east Asia. The region’s mineral and human resources are spoken of in seminars as the next big thing for India. From 1 January, the government of India has relaxed permit regulations for foreigners visiting Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, to draw tourists. Such laudable exercises are unlikely to get far until the basic causes of alienation and resentment are addressed.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
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