Saturday, October 09, 2004

India: Insurgency and Democracy

[The Mughals had little time for an area that a Muslim cleric described as comprising "another world, another people, and other customs". The British were "inclined, on the whole, to leave the tribesmen alone", said Verrier Elwin, the celebrated anthropologist, "partly because the task of administration was difficult and unrewarding". After India's independence, the government reached out to the region "in a spirit of comradeship", as India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, "and not like someone aloof" who regarded the people and their customs as "museum pieces". But still the relationship has not been free of tension.At this juncture, however, two events led to fresh complications. One was the effect of internal politics in Bangladesh, which made the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) adopt an openly anti-Indian posture to counter its rival, the Awami League, which had close relations with India from the time of Dhaka's liberation with India's help in 1971. As a result, BNP's assumption of power in Bangladesh has been followed by the renewal of the old East Pakistani policy of providing succour to the insurgent groups.]

India's northeast: Where insurgency exists with democracy :

The north-east has long been India's Achilles' heel, an area of alienation and insurgency made all the more intractable by an inability in much of the rest of the country to comprehend the region's distinctive ethos and aspirations.

Inhabited by tribes of Mongoloid origin unlike their Aryan, Dravidian and Austric fellow citizens in other parts of India and characterised by arcane customs that, at one time, included head hunting, the entire area has generally been acknowledged to be at a greater mental distance from other parts of India than almost any other region.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. The Mughals had little time for an area that a Muslim cleric described as comprising "another world, another people, and other customs". The British were "inclined, on the whole, to leave the tribesmen alone", said Verrier Elwin, the celebrated anthropologist, "partly because the task of administration was difficult and unrewarding". After India's independence, the government reached out to the region "in a spirit of comradeship", as India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, "and not like someone aloof" who regarded the people and their customs as "museum pieces". But still the relationship has not been free of tension.

Although the northeast today is far more integrated with the rest of the country than ever before because of modern communications, including radio and television, and its inclusion in India's democratic process, an unfortunate aspect of modern life, viz. insurgency, has reared its head, as the latest incidents of violence show. Its origin can be traced to the belief during the turbulent period at the time of independence that some of the tribes, too, can acquire their nationhood like India and Pakistan.

The Nagas were the first to raise the demand for independence and start a militant struggle to attain their objective. Soon others like the Mizos joined them on the grounds that none of these tribes were "Indian".

The chances of their success, however, were always limited because of India's overwhelming military strength. Even then, several of these groups, notably the Nagas and Mizos, managed to hold out in their remote strongholds because they could always retreat into Burma (now Myanmar) or seek refuge in the then East Pakistan. For nearly three decades after 1947, the Chinese also helped these insurgents.

However, after the improvement in Sino-Indian ties and the collapse of the East Pakistan regime, some of the rebels, like the Mizos under Laldenga, reached an understanding with New Delhi. The Nagas, too, realised after the death of their charismatic leader, A.Z. Phizo, that they would have to initiate a dialogue with the "Indians". These talks are still continuing. By the 80s, New Delhi had by and large brought the situation under control. It is not that the insurgency had died out. But the militants no longer posed a major threat to the Indian state.

At this juncture, however, two events led to fresh complications. One was the effect of internal politics in Bangladesh, which made the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) adopt an openly anti-Indian posture to counter its rival, the Awami League, which had close relations with India from the time of Dhaka's liberation with India's help in 1971. As a result, BNP's assumption of power in Bangladesh has been followed by the renewal of the old East Pakistani policy of providing succour to the insurgent groups.

The other event was the emergence of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) with a demand for an "independent" Assam. The ULFA's rise is not unrelated to the "anti-foreigner" agitation conducted between 1979 and 1985 by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU). Although directed mainly against the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the agitation created panic among the non-Assamese residents of the state, including those from West Bengal, by fuelling parochial sentiments against all outsiders. One sectarian movement breeds another.

So it was hardly surprising that the original inhabitants of Assam, the Bodos, also set up their own student and other organisations, with a demand for "independence". The latest outrages have been the handiwork of one of these militant groups, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

If these groups did not find shelter in Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Indian government would not have found it too difficult to neutralise them. It might not have been possible to eliminate them altogether in view of the clandestine connections that develop between insurgents and local politicians if lawless conditions prevail in a state for a long period of time. But they would not have posed as big a threat as their latest acts of terrorism have shown.

One reason why they could be de-fanged is the huge ethnic and religious differences that distinguish one group from another. In Assam, for instance, while the Bodos and Mishings were originally animists, the Ahoms, who migrated from Thailand in the 12th century, are generally Hindus and Buddhists. Such differences mark all the tribes. The Meiteis of Manipur, for instance, are Vaishnavites while Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland are largely Christian. In Meghalaya, however, the Khasis are Catholics while the Jaintias are Hindu.

All these religious identities, however, are recent acquisitions. Otherwise, virtually all the tribes were animists in the recent past, and many of them still are. In Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, they worship Donyi-Polo, a deity where Donyi stands for the sun and Polo for the moon.

In a way, the tribal mosaic of the north-east reflects the diversity of India in all its myriad facets. It is perhaps a subconscious realisation of this fact which has made the ordinary people of the region retain their faith in Indian democracy, making the insurgents, for all their terrorist acts, very much a marginal force.

Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst

Indo-Asian News Service 09/10/2004