Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Reshaping India’s North-East policy

The first step towards peace will be acknowledging the mistakes and policy flip flops of the past

Narendra Modi’s overture to Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders immediately after being designated the Prime Minister of India suggests that Modi wants to bequeath a legacy of peace and stability in South Asia. Stabilizing relations with India’s neighbours along its eastern borders will also allow Modi the chance to win an internal peace dividend in India’s North-East, and help turn it into a vibrant regional trading hub.

The North-East will pose a complex challenge but there are three good reasons why Modi could succeed. First, the constituency for peace has expanded manifold in the region over the past few years. Ravaged by violence over the past several decades, people in the North-East have increasingly grown disenchanted with militancy. Peace in the region is therefore an idea whose time has come. Second, unlike Pakistan, India’s eastern neighbours are far less hostile to Indian interests and can be persuaded to act decisively against insurgent groups that use their territories as safe haven. Third, much of the problems in the North-East are a result of decades of Congress misrule. As a non-Congress Prime Minister, Modi will start with a relatively clean slate and will carry greater credibility while dealing with key conflicts.

Some of the major changes in India’s North-East policy occurred during the era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s first prime minister. Vajpayee made several breaks from the past, instituting several autonomous councils in the region, set up a separate ministry for development of north-eastern region and earmarked 10% of funds from each ministry for the region. In hindsight, some of these policies could have been better thought out but the fact remains that Vajpayee was successful in signalling that the Centre’s approach to the North-East had changed.

To be fair to the Congress, there have been leaders within the party who have attempted to modify its NorthEast policy if not to alter it completely. The most successful among them was Rajiv Gandhi, the last prime minister before Modi to win a clear majority on his own in 1984. In the first half of his tenure as prime minister, Gandhi had won remarkable peace deals in the region, undoing the disastrous legacy of his own family and over-riding the interests of some of his own party men from the region. Gandhi’s lasting legacy has been the Mizo peace accord, which brought the Mizo National Front guerrillas to the electoral arena and led its chief Pu Laldenga to replace a Congressman as the chief minister of Mizoram. Mizoram since then has been the most peaceful state in the region.

Rajiv Gandhi applied a similar strategy to end the six-year-long Assam agitation against infiltrators, signing a peace accord with student agitators, who went on to defeat the Congress in state assembly elections subsequently. The peace accord, however, failed to bring lasting peace. The Bodo movement flared up soon and was mishandled. The problem of illegal immigration was sought to be ignored.

The simmering tensions in western Assam owe as much to the failures of those years as they do to the flawed Bodo peace accord (, signed in 2003 during the Vajpayee era. Modi inherits a mess not just in western Assam but also in the Naga hills of Manipur, where Naga activists have been clamouring to break away from the state to form a greater Nagaland.

There won’t be easy solutions to these issues but the first step towards solving them will be to acknowledge the mistakes and policy flip flops of the past. The appointment of the former general V.K. Singh as the minister for development of the North-East is already causing uneasiness among those who resent New Delhi’s militaristic vision for the region. Modi will have to allay such concerns and frame a holistic and coherent NorthEast policy to succeed where others have bitten the dust. Only then will he be able to bridge the chasm between the North-East and the rest of the country and cement his reputation as a statesman.

Can Modi bring peace to the North-East?