The Indian Story of the Northeast

Impressions from reading the monthly NE Newsletters published between January and September 2015 by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India


The publication of NE Newsletter (http://mha.nic.in/nenews1) is taglined with ‘news about development in the Northeastern states of India’. These states include Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and Sikkim. Firstly, how much does this information in black and white corresponds to the developments on the ground? Secondly, how much are the government and its agencies committed to the plans and projects for development?

Themes and Sections

The journal, managed by the NE Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs, is under the responsibility of an editorial board comprising a chief editor and three editors.

PRIMARY THEMES     ‘Development’ plans, military civic action programmes, announcement and celebration of national days, brief details of other programmes (under the aegis of departments from different ministries—most notably those of the Labour & Employment plus Communications & Technology)

SECONDARY THEMES     News of achievements by sportspersons from the Northeast, inauguration of small-scale industries, government campaigns for socio-economical plans, highway and road transport projects, counter-insurgency achievements

TWO COMMON SECTIONS ‘Developments with reference to Northeast region’ and ‘Activities carried out under civic action programme by central armed police forces’

Sample some of this so-called ‘development’ news.

In the September edition the development news was on a counter-insurgency programme. The one-point list mentioned it as: ‘Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreements signed with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland/Progressive (NDFB/P) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland/Ranjan Daimary (NDFB/RD) have been extended for a further period of three months up to 31.12.2015.’

In the August ed., two items are mentioned under this development-news section:

1)    A meeting with the Heads of anti-extortion cells of the various states was held on 18.8.2015 in New Delhi under the Chairmanship of Secretary (IS), MHA to discuss the measures to curb the activities of extortion and kidnapping for ransom etc. perpetrated by insurgent groups in the Northeast.
2)     Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs took a review meeting on 27.8.2015 with the officials of the Central Government and the State Governments at New Delhi to review the implementation of the recommendations of the Bezbaruah Committee (on the welfare of Northeast people in the mainland cities).

July ed.:

1)    (In) July, 2015, a meeting was held under the chairmanship of Union Home Minister with Chief Ministers of North Eastern states at Guwahati in Assam. In the meeting, security situation in the North Eastern states, strengthening & equipping of state police, effective guarding of international borders, prevention of natural calamities etc. were discussed
2)     The whole State of Nagaland has been declared as “Disturbed Area” under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 vide Central Government’s Notification No. 1750(E) further for a period of one year w.e.f. 30th July, 2015
3)     Three  Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreements signed with Kuki National Organization (KNO) has been extended for a further period of one year up to 21.7.2015

(Arrested) Development

Is it a coincidence that the development news frequently pertains to militancy in most of the cases? Whenever it is dealing with the Northeast, the union government has a tendency to look over the conditions from mere security perspectives. Many people as well see that any initiative by New Delhi as nothing but the maintenance of the region as a frontier that needs to be guarded militarily by hook or crook. This is not without reasons. It has started right from day one when many of these regions were annexed to the union. We have the infamous statement by the great Sardar Patel (about the brigadier) in the wake of resistance from Manipur prior to its forceful merger into India in 1949. Mizoram was bombed and the least said the better about the suppression of the early Naga movement.

If we talk in terms of concrete measures, the ceasefire and Suspension of Operation (SoO) agreements are knee-jerk reactions to the problems of rampant insurgency in the region. For instance, NSCN-IM was perhaps the first organisation to sign a ceasefire agreement with the union, which started way back in 1997*, but there is no solution in sight till now. Besides, there are now multiple factions of the same group, which are as influential as before. Also consider the fact, in the July issue, it is mentioned that Nagaland, like Manipur, has been declared as a Disturbed Area in a farcical regular extension of periods.

(* The official talk had started even before India got independence! In June 1947, a former Assam governor as an agent of the Indian union had held talks with a few Naga moderates. But that is history now; so are the 16-point agreement of 1960, the 1964 ceasefire agreement, the Shillong Accord of 1975 and others. Most recently the controversial framework agreement between the government of India and NSCN-IM, with its shares of more bricks than bouquets, was announced in August 2015. The only likely outcome, however, is Thuingaileng Muivah or Isaac Chi Swu or maybe, one of the senior kilonsers—whoever is alive a few years down the line—becoming a chief minister of the present-day Nagaland just like Laldenga did in 1986 for Mizoram.)

Everybody will win if the government accepts that it is a political problem that needs to be dealt politically. The current approach—through military tactics and terming the conditions as a law-and-order issue, a crisis of unemployment and whatever expressions it has stored in its templates—will not only promulgate the problem but always acts as a trigger to social volcanoes or unrests that the region is so familiar with. Here again, people see that the government is unreliable and dishonest. If not, we would not have been witnessing one of the world’s longest armed rebellions.

In this condition, the legal military establishment is organizing: (a) Awareness drives on joining and recruitment in the active services, (b) A fair on ‘Know Your Army’ and (c) a weapon and equipment exhibition in Senapati, Manipur and so on (August edition). The region is already highly militarized, regardless of how it is a countercharge to India’s claim of being the largest democracy in the world. Unfortunately, to sprinkle lemon sap to the wounds, the subservient state government cannot help but to recruit more personnel in the police and that in droves. Even the children are familiar with the monkey business of the commandos, VDFs and other police forces these days.  

Another common section in these newsletters is the ‘Activities carried out under civic action programme by central armed police forces’. This section contains various programmes taken up separately by the Assam Rifles, the Central Reserve Police Force and Sashastra Seema Bal. Each state has its clearly defined civil administration that is separated into multiple hierarchies. But no, they are inefficient and the Active Men in active services have to butt in.

All counter-insurgency operations and no free medical camps make Captain Jai a dull gunman. It is unclear who has inspired who, yet, the rebels—who are fighting for sovereignty and the right to self-determination—are also known for organizing such camps in remote areas of the region. Divided by claims for different nations, they are united by guns.

Detour to the East 

All’s not gloom and doom though. Especially, the government’s plan for transport and communication, perhaps the only laudable area, is making some sense in the mess. In this regard, a couple of reports, ‘Tripura buses join Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala service’ (September ed.) and ‘Highway projects in the Northeast’ (May ed.) are quite encouraging. The achievement of the ministries of Communication and Technology and that of Labour and Employment are listed assuredly as well.

Bodies such as the Ministry for Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER), which was formed in 2001, are also chipping in. ‘DoNER minister meets northeast students’ (June ed.) and  ‘“DoNER at Doorstep” announced’ (Apr ed.) offer some light into the matters. This ministry is responsible for overseeing, amongst others, the non-lapsible central pool of resources, the North Eastern Council, coordination between New Delhi and the state governments plus capacity building, advocacy and publicity. 

A few other news on establishing small-scale industries also provide some silver lining. But whenever we refer to industrialisation, it raises only questions than offer answers in the Northeast, where industrial sickness is a chronic ailment. Besides these stories of conducting training programmes and building small-scale industries do not mention how the number of unemployed youth is swelling regularly; maybe because it is focusing only on short-term solutions in specific industries. In Manipur where there is a population of less than three million, there are more than 700,000 educated unemployed people. To state the obvious, the existing condition of the states/provinces only aggravates the situation.

Economists explain that no region, even in a highly developed economy, has the complete resources in itself for raising an industrial plan and growth. It is a sort of amalgamation in a positive way that enables it to grow economically. In this situation, the Northeast is known for its numerous resources; it is only the excess adverse elements that have created a hindrance to its growth. To cite some examples, tea, timber and oil are well known; then there are abundant natural resources, hydroelectricity power, a large number of minerals, forest products, a rich biodiversity, tourism scopes, the recent discovery of huge oil reserves in Nagaland and Manipur and the list goes on.      

However, little has been done to cement the foundation. While conflict situations, or in officialese the low-intensity warfare and its consequences, have eaten into the fabrics of our society, the unremitting work on a weak foundation is also visible from the recently rechristened Act East Policy, which has been rolled out with little consideration for this region. Besides, all along, the union is largely focus on extracting the huge resources from oil to large hydro-electric potential without any return for the natives.

In the name of security, the people have been reduced to mere resources or subjects and who the military establishment can simply thrash and remove with impunity. This is again evident from the issues arising from AFSPA, fake encounters and other related incidents. No wonder, we are always lost in having no industry because of the lack of infrastructure and no infrastructure because of the lack of industry as much as we are confused about the precedence of peace over development or vice versa.

Another inevitable point is the development paradigm of the union, which is almost a carbon copy of the erstwhile British colonial approaches, has been a complete flop. The neocolonial mindset is apparent in, amongst others, the reorganization of the states and its certain forms of administration, obdurate methods of containing insurgency, the ever-widening class division and the accepted systems of modernization and bureaucratic impotency and so on. More than six decades of economic planning has failed to achieve anything remarkable; rather, a state like Manipur has been continuously nose-diving into the gorge of mayhem.

Add to these conditions, the predicaments of ethnic confrontations, demographic imbalances, its hallmark underdevelopment and we can see the big picture. Aizawl, Gangtok and Itanagar are quite confident that they are relatively peaceful—in fact they claim themselves to be different from others in the region—but their development level is no better than violence-torn states of, say, Manipur and Nagaland.  

On Our Own Hook

The union has a close partner in this crime on humanity: its lesser sideman, the state or the province. First of all, without going back to the causes, many of the states in this region have parallel governments without necessarily contributing to governance and administration. This is just a joke. Nothing good comes out when we used the expression ‘parallel government’. Alternatively, these states have been too incompetent for reasons that can be political or economical, but if we consider the existing establishment, it is sheer economics. ‘Overdraft’, along with ‘combing operation’, ‘ROP’ and ‘shootout’, has been in our vocabulary since childhood. The states have neither the financial resources nor the competency to solve the problems. Instead of any support, the regular grants and loans from the union have created highly corrupt societies and selfish people who cannot see beyond their personal interests.

Now they are special category states though there is nothing special about it. The classification only implies that these states are now privileged—getting a financial assistance for development plans from the union with 90% of the plan money as grants and the remaining as low-interest loans. In this scenario, the only contented people are our elected representatives and their sidekicks who include the contractors, bureaucrats, government officials and their ‘sub-sidekicks’, who are gladly looting the public exchequer in a sort of daylight robbery. And if we go by the commentators, the union is also contented to have submissive ruling groups around the hinterland and forbidden frontiers.

So what are the uses of information on development works with reference to Northeast region, the activities carried out under civic action programme by central armed police force and programmes undertaken by the North Eastern Regional Institute of Water and Land Management? Seemingly, there is a government and just that people might miss its presence, it requires being in the news consistently. What could be better than a regular newsletter? By the way, there is no information why the newsletters for the last three months of 2015 are not there on the website? Perhaps, those are stuck in the notorious Siliguri Corridor.

Though the government has specific departments like the Press Information Bureau, the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity plus other media-related agencies, the newsletter is a value-added mouthpiece to show the mainland’s concern for a region that has been self-victimising as the neglected daughter of a step mother. However, at the end of the day, we are back to square one with or without a monthly bulletin.

Only the natives can bring themselves out of the cocoon. Even if the ‘developments with reference to the Northeast region’ changes miraculously to actual development news, they have got the highest stake in containing the issues and move forward sans any inference or hindrance.



Missing Points

One of the inevitable information on these newsletters is the celebration of national days. In the Jan ed., as a part of the Republic Day, it is mentioned:

1 ‘Republic Day celebrations in Itanagar took place with Lt Gen (Retd) Nirbhay Sharma, (the) Governor of Arunachal Pradesh unfurling the flag and calling on the people to work together for development. A large number of people turned out to attend the function...

2 In Manipur, people defied threats by the insurgents to boycott the event and came out in large number to take part in the celebrations. The Chief Minister O Ibobi Singh unfurled the flag at Kangla fort while a total of 96 contingents, including those of security forces, schools, colleges, band platoons and other agencies participated in the Republic Day parade. 

However, as far as we can see, the only matter that is unique to these special days is the general strike called by various armed outfits without fail in the region. It is a kind of ritual that a few days before these days of alleged national importance, these outfits would announce the general strike, issue a press release to boycott the celebrations while inserting the propaganda about how India is a cunning fox, a deceptive entity and an unworthy union. Still on the paper, ‘people defied threats by the insurgents to boycott the event and came out in large number to take part in the celebrations’ in January 2015.  Apparently propaganda is not necessarily false but information that its proponents spread relentlessly to instill it in the minds of the receivers as the whole truth.

Till now, the government and its antagonists are on the same level in the department of propaganda. The former has public relations experts and the latter has self-styled publicity secretaries. Remember their similarities in organizing free medical camps and other such drives. This cannot be a coincidence how people are getting united by guns. As a layperson, however, they should go away and kill each other in some places where there is no habitation of people or animals whatsoever. That would be as well a great development.

Talking practically, the incumbent government should pay some heed to the Santosh Hedge Committee on fake encounters rather than dismissing it flatly sans any reason. The Supreme Court had directed to appoint this three-member commission following a public interest litigation over 1,528 extra-judicial killings in Manipur.  In 2014, PM Modi had bragged that his government will follow a zero-tolerance policy towards fake encounters and extra-judicial killings but the reality tells a completely different story though unsurprisingly. How about using this successful dismissal of a report as a development news in the next edition?

The previous UPA government did the same with the Jeevan Reddy Commission that unanimously recommended that the draconian AFSPA has no place in a modern democratic state. What is the role of bodies such as the DoNER and NEC in this context? Economic intervention hardly covers up the harsh realities of India’s inclination to use force against its own subjects. On one hand those who are at the helm of affairs at the provincial level are busy looting public money and on the other, those at the union level are occupied with the activities of, maybe, national stuffs that means zilch to the natives.             

Bottom Line

Postdevelopment theory would explain the kind of plan and growth India is envisaging in the region as a one-size-fit-all approach but which is driven by problems, irrelevant policies and west-centrism, in which New Delhi is the godfatherly benefactor and the region a mere beneficiary. In today’s context, there is no space for the native people even if the region is synonymous to indigenous societies. Once an egalitarian society, now it has been collectively reduced to an underdeveloped hinterland with the advent of modern economic systems. Of course, the changing worldviews especially in several urban pockets have necessitated a new meaning of development though ironically it is the least we are familiar with. What we know are the dreary process of construction here and there and the occasional announcement of schemes and projects labeled with ridiculous foreign titles like unpronounceable Jandhan Yojana and Mandhan Mozana elsewhere.

So instead of imposing militant-related ‘development’ information and  the military civic action programmes, it would do the natives a world of good if there is a clear-cut ideological framework in the latter’s interest in the first place. Perhaps what we need is not development plan in a Donor Economy, but a structural change in the way of living, which in this case the onus is on the people themselves and not on self-styled national saviours who are armed, ‘informed’ and claiming to work for the people. That’s empowerment of the people in policy-speak. There would be a way if there is a political will too.

Here, the newsletter is useful for only a group of people. It will be quite a reference for the secretaries and junior bureaucrats to pen the speeches of their masters who are indulging in the respective legislatures’ orgies. The few elected representatives, who can read or write, also stand to gain from the available records. In Manipur, the Congress-led government need not worry as the newsletters from the former UPA government are also available. Lastly, it will be a confidence booster for those who hold the government dearly, to show that their legends are not sitting idle. Otherwise, it is a mere bulletin published for public interest regardless of the irony that the majority has no knowledge of its very existence.

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