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If last fortnight’s flashpoint with Bodo militants suspected of slaughtering Muslim settlers to avenge perceived electoral slight is not alarming enough, consider what sustained communal conflagration can do to Assam. Photo: AFP
If last fortnight’s flashpoint with Bodo militants suspected of slaughtering Muslim settlers to avenge perceived electoral slight is not alarming enough, consider what sustained communal conflagration can do to Assam. Photo: AFP

Next government must look North-East

The new govt must order a remapping of textbooks to include the region's history, politics and geography, and have the courage to diminish leaders who stall peace processes to consolidate their positions

Call me a north-east India pest if you will. But it’s lunacy to give up on a region of nearly 50 million people, comprising a landmass that is nearly a seventh of India, and located in a geopolitical sweet spot to rival that of the so-called Af-Pak theatre. Neither should the next government.

Think development, think wealth.

A joint venture thermal power project in Bangladesh provides power to eastern India. Similar projects could so easily provide power to north-east India along the Bangladesh periphery. Commercial road and rail access through Sylhet to Kolkata and beyond could transform Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Or similar access from Tripura, that cuts across Bangladesh, to reach eastern India in a day, instead of three or four days, a legacy of partition. Imagine what an energy network spanning India, Bangladesh and neighbouring Myanmar could do for north-east India in terms of industry and incomes.

Such strengthening of relations is also crucial with Myanmar, the country that can raise parts of north-east India from relative obscurity to a thriving future—offering oil and natural gas, access to East Asian markets, access to South-Western China. And, if a project to link the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Thailand through the Isthmus of Kra comes through—the project has picked up public relations steam in China—then it would likely be called Asia’s Suez.

Think strategic value, riding on the precept that trade and investment are salves to suspicion.

The distance from Guwahati to Kunming, the commercial and strategic hub of South-Western China, is just over 1,100km, about an hour-and-a-half by a conventional passenger jet, perhaps 30 minutes in a supersonic attack aircraft. Lhasa is 389km away. Chinese military aircraft, missiles and personnel are ranged against India from this arc.

Sylhet, a major Bangladesh security and trade hub, is less than 150km south of Guwahati, much less from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. In comparison, New Delhi is nearly 1,500km to the west of Guwahati, Beijing a little over 2,700km to the north-east.

India’s military realizes the importance of this region, and is tasking fighter and transport squadrons, missiles and masses of soldiers and equipment in this area of operations. In comparison, administrative machinery performs dismally.

Think stability.

If last fortnight’s flashpoint with Bodo militants suspected of slaughtering Muslim settlers to avenge perceived electoral slight is not alarming enough, consider what sustained communal conflagration can do to Assam. Consider the cumulative impact of insurgencies driven by ethnic identity that weaken India’s ties with Manipur and Nagaland, coupled with communalism that can tear out Assam’s heart.

It’s time for firm, and yet compassionate, action in these gateway states of north-east India. It is foolish to look at greater gains in South-East Asia or along South-Western China without swift and sustainable decisions here.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 must be repealed. But more needs to be done. The next government in New Delhi needs foresight and courage to arrive at honourable closure to several ongoing peace talks, and begin peace talks that emerge from suspension of operations against several rebel groups.

The next government in New Delhi must have the political ability and courage to diminish the warlords of mainland India and north-east India, some of them chief ministers and veteran politicians who deliberately stall peace processes to consolidate their own positions.

The next government should order a remapping of textbooks, at least for the two central boards, to include the history, politics and geography of north-east India. I grew up learning nothing about the Brahmaputra river system even as I was officially educated about the Gangetic system. My textbooks did not contain a single reference to a person from north-east India, a single noteworthy historical, economic or cultural fact about north-east India.

It hasn’t changed much. The notable references to north-east India I found in my daughter’s textbooks for classes IX and X were to the existence of the Brahmaputra river system, that the Himalaya extends to Arunachal Pradesh in the east, and that Myanmar shares its border with four north-eastern states.

If ignorance and disrespect is mandated, then it should surely be of little surprise that those from north-east India are treated with ignorance and disrespect when they visit mainland India.

Finally, India’s leadership should have the courage to apologize for past mistakes. Surely a strong Indian leader will not feel a sense of dishonour, but confidence, generosity and a sense of renewal, to apologize for India’s terrible policies and atrocities in north-east India?

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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