Sunday, October 24, 2004

India : Study - Understanding the conflict in the North East

Peace cannot be built in the absence of war alone but has to be based on justice. Conditions therefore, have to be created so that the people of the region take control of economic decisions. Immigration cannot be ignored but one has to desist from the temptation of giving it a communal colour by focusing on Bangladeshis alone. The fact that poverty pushes the people of Bangladesh, Bihar and UP out of their region has to be acknowledged. But one cannot ignore the fact that, it creates serious problems in the region. The ideal is to attempt the integrated development of the whole region including Bangladesh, Bhutan, the north-east and Myanmar. Obviously it is an ideal and cannot be attained overnight. But confidence building measures would include loud thinking about this long-term possibility.


Treating the problems in the north-east simply as an issue of law and order is not the solution; economic and other causes of insurgency have to be dealt with. Generation of employment is essential and the issues of land and forests cannot be ignored for they are central to the economy of the region and the culture, religion and identity of the tribals. A possible solution is for the centre to tread the difficult path of negotiating with all the groups simultaneously and go beyond treating the problem as a question of the centre versus the rest.

Walter Fernandes

For several decades the decisionmakers in Delhi have asked: 'Can the north-east be saved for India?' Today one hears many in the north-east asking the same question in reverse, 'can the north-east be saved from the repression it has been suffering for decades?' Both the questions have the same source, the insurgency or armed struggle that the rulers in Delhi view only as a law and order issue. To counter it they have assumed extraordinary powers under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA).

There is one set of reactions to the blasts in Assam on August 15 and in Dimapur and western Assam in early October. They are the reactions of a minority. The views of most others were probably symbolised in July 2004 when a group of women in Imphal, Manipur, bared their bodies in front of the Assam Rifles camp and displayed placards such as 'Indian army take our flesh' and 'Indian army, rape us.' It was their way of saying 'enough is enough', after a 30-year-old woman was found dead the day after her arrest by the Assam Rifles. They demanded the repeal of the AFSPA, which has been in force in the north-east, as a whole since 1958, and in Manipur since 1980. It comes into force when the state government declares an area as disturbed and gives extraordinary powers to the armed forces, such as allowing them to arrest a person on the suspicion that he or she is planning a crime. If s/he is killed and declared a terrorist, the armed forces are not prosecuted and so they are not accountable to the civilian

There lies the source of abuse and disillusionment with the armed forces. One knows from the ongoing case in the Supreme Court that more than 2,000 young persons were killed and cremated anonymously in Punjab during the uprising in that state. The number of persons arrested and found dead has reached 26 in Manipur alone during 2004. In most cases the security forces claim that they were killed while trying to escape. That is why many in the north-east ask whether they will ever be freed from repression.

Most civil society members who ask this question condemn human rights violations by the underground too. For example, human rights activists are in the forefront of those denouncing the underground for recruiting child soldiers but they feel that the state as a legally constituted body has greater responsibility than the underground to protect people's rights. In practice, violations by the state keep multiplying and it is against this background that the non-violent struggle led by 32 organisations is continuing in Manipur. Women are prominent among them.

Women in many communities of the region have a long history of such interventions and of playing a significant role in times of war. Past initiatives, among the Meitei women of Manipur who are leading the present movement, is 'nupilan' or resistance to British rulers exporting rice from Manipur to feed their soldiers by depriving the local people of their staple food. Today they have formed themselves into 'meira paibis' or torch bearing women who are at the forefront of peace initiatives. One knows of Naga and Kuki women in Manipur meeting each other during the ethnic conflict between them in the 1990s in an effort to stop the killings [Brara 2002: 193-94]. When some Naga tribes went to war with another tribe, women from the opposing sides established networks to negotiate peace [Kikon 2002:170-71].

The bare-bodied demonstration of women in Imphal has to be seen in this context; of a sense of despair and as a creative initiative for peace. It was also a mode of shocking the world into taking notice of their oppression because women have suffered the most during the years of armed struggle. The attack often comes from the security forces in the form of rape. The underground also goes against women when, for example, they pitch their tent in a village and ask the villagers to feed them. The woman of the house has to often part with supplies she had stored to feed the family with during the year. And yet, many women's groups have continued their peace initiatives, the best known among them being the Naga Mothers' Association and the meira paibis.

Background of the Unrest

However, the centre tends to view the unrest only as a law and order issue. The AFSPA has been its response. It thus ignores the causes of conflict such as the neglect of the region by economic decision-makers, encroachment of land by immigrants, denigration of the local culture and attacks on people's identity. The basic cause is the failure of persons from outside the region, who control its economy, to invest in industry and the consequent high unemployment. This failure cannot be attributed to the absence of qualified personnel because the level of education is high in much of the region. Tarun Gogoi, the chief minister of Assam stated in August 2001 that his state had a backlog of 20 lakh unemployed persons. According to the state's economic survey, 2003-2004, the employment exchanges have 15,71,996 registered job seekers today against 15,24,616 in late 2001 (The Times of India, June 16, 2004). It is well known that employment exchanges underestimate unemployment because they exclude the rural and other sections of the informal sector, since most such unemployed persons are not registered [Rayappa 1992: 362-63]. So even 20 lakhs may be an underestimate for Assam. The other states would account for at least 10 lakhs more. Thus, a minimum of 30 lakhs or 25 per cent of the active workforce are unemployed.

As a result, despite the high level of education, land continues to be the main source of livelihood but immigrants encroach on it and cause shortages. The Bangladesh is are one such immigrant group but not the only one. A much bigger number comes from the Hindi heartland of Bihar and UP. The number of Bangladesh immigrants is about 12 lakhs in the north-east [Bhuyan 2002] in an estimated total of 30 lakhs. Common to the Hindi states and Bangladesh is the feudal system, the lack of land reforms and consequent poverty. Thus, most immigrants are landless agricultural labourers who know cultivation techniques. They occupy the fertile land of the region, cultivate three crops and prosper. Most people of the region, on the contrary, have lived in a single crop culture. The 'zamindari' that the British introduced in Assam and Tripura resulted in the sharecropper system. Tenants had to give to the zamindar anything between half and two-thirds of their produce, so they lacked motivation to go beyond one crop. The hill tribes practised 'jhum' which is limited to a single crop [Barbora 1998]. Another factor is the control of the markets by outsiders who refuse to allow local people to prosper. For example, in the 1990s, the state government encouraged shallow tube well irrigation. This project had many shortcomings but it resulted in a bumper rice crop in 2000. However, those in control of the market refused to buy the rice and farmers had to sell it at a loss and with it died their motivation to grow three crops.

Many local communities resent the fact that immigrants prosper on the land they encroach upon, while they are left behind. This has led to many killings. For example, most attacks in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam have been on the Biharis who have occupied land there. The insurgency in Tripura is attributed to the influx of Hindu Bangladeshis who occupied tribal land and reduced their proportion in the population from 58 per cent in 1951 to 28 per cent in 1991. By the late 1960s, indigenous tribals had lost more than 60 per cent of their land to immigrants. That is when the state announced the Dumbur dam which submerged 46.34 sq km of their land, most of it level, the latter makes up only 28 per cent of the state's total. The tribals protested but were forced off their land. By official count the dam displaced 2,558 families that had 'pattas'. Another 5,500 to 6,500 families that depended on common property resources were not even counted though they sustained themselves on the same, according to customary law. Many attribute impoverishment as the cause of the unrest in the state, which began around the same time. Besides, today urban environmentalists consider the tribals enemies of nature since their only livelihood alternative is shifting cultivation in the catchment area, which causes environmental degradation [Bhaumick 2003:84-85].

Thus, land encroachment by immigrants (not immigration in itself) and the refusal of persons from outside the region to invest in productive jobs are at the basis of the unrest. Sometimes the conflict is around jobs, for example, the Assamese-Bihari tension for 2,000 railway jobs in November 2003 but in most cases it is around land, which is the source of economic sustenance [Fernandes and Pereira 2004:83-84]. In saying that land and jobs are the basis of the conflicts, one cannot simplify the issue by calling it economic alone. The economic component is crucial but one cannot ignore the fact that, land and forests are the centre not only of the tribal economy but also of the culture, religious ethos and identity of tribals. Given their symbiotic relationship with the land and the close link between natural resources and culture, the affected ethnic groups view the land shortages also as an attack on their identity. Thus they view conflicts around land as defence of their culture, identity and livelihood [Acharya 1990:71-95].

The conflicts begin with attacks on outsiders and slowly turn into ethnic conflicts within the region. In the context of the land shortages caused by encroachment and the failure to invest in productive jobs, every group views the limited land and jobs as its exclusive right. So each community rewrites its history to claim an indigenous status and the exclusive right over resources in a given area. Ethnic conflicts are a direct consequence of such hardened ethnic identities and exclusive claims. Be it the Naga-Kuki conflict in Manipur [Fernandes and Bharali 2002:52-55], the Bodo-Santhal [Roy 1995] and Dimasa-Hmar tension in Assam (Telegraph, April 23, 2003) or the Tripura tribal demand for a homeland [Bhaumick 2003:84], all have their origin in the competition for land and jobs and result in massacres or the Assam-Bihar type of tension. Because of the ethnic consciousness that results from these conflicts, the local communities take their demands beyond land and jobs to livelihood.

Centre's Reaction

First, the response of the centre has been to reinforce the law and order machinery and view all unrest as secessionist, instead of solving the problems. Very little has been done for employment generation. In 1994 the region had only 166 large and medium industries. Many of them have closed down or have been declared sick, including all 12 in Nagaland [Ezung 2003]. The other alternative available to well educated youth is jobs in the administration but they too are declining. However, developments during the last few decades show that a focus on law and order does not solve the problems.

When the AFSPA was enacted in 1958, the main resistance was from the Nagas, while Mizo resistance was building up. Today, Mizoram has had peace for 17 years but the number of underground outfits has multiplied. There are at least two major Naga outfits, Assam has units such as United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and groups representing the Bodo, Dimasa, Karbi, Adivasi and several others. Manipur had two underground groups when the AFSPA came into force in 1980. Today it has nearly 30 such outfits.

There are at least three such groups in Tripura and two in Meghalaya. One does not always know their origin. Some of them have an ideology but there are allegations that some others have been set up by the central intelligence agencies in order to counter groups with an ideology. Many others are allegedly purely extortionist groups that use the underground fa├žade to their own advantage. It should be obvious from the enormous increase in the number of underground outfits that the AFSPA or a purely law and order view of the issues is not a solution to the problems of the region; social, economic and cultural issues have to be tackled.

Secondly, the centre tends to view the north-east only as a problem. The people of the region are different from those in what they call 'mainland' India. Many of them belong to the Mongoloid stock and are close to the peoples of south-east Asia. That can give the north-east a definite advantage if the difference is used as a gateway to south-east Asia and China. Instead, the centre seems to be obsessed with security and treats this diversity as a threat and the region only as a buffer zone against China. Within the region, a major obstacle to investment is the inner line permit that prevents even Indians from entering Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Only recently have foreign tourists been given entry into Nagaland but only in groups of four. More than once I have had the experience of a bus, in which I was travelling, being stopped by security forces at the Nagaland border and all the Nagas and their luggage being searched. But two of us non-Nagas were not examined, thus the local people are treated as foreigners in their own land.

The third point relates to the centre's negotiations with individual underground outfits. For example, the Bodo have two main groups, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) and the centre has negotiated and reached an agreement with the latter on a Bodo Territorial Council. It may be a good solution but by ignoring the other bigger outfit, it has ensured that the agreement will not work. Nagaland has two major outfits, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah) and (Kaplang) NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K). In the late 1990s the centre signed an agreement with NSCN-IM and ignored NSCN-K. The group that is ignored is bound to raise higher demands and make a permanent solution difficult.The solution would be to negotiate with all the groups together.

Fourthly, the centre deals with one issue or ethnic group at a time. The problems are inter-connected and tackling one at a time can create others. An example is the 2001 extension of the ceasefire with NSCN-IM to all the Naga inhabited areas in the neighbouring states. It resulted immediately in a conflict in Manipur where over half of the territory is inhabited by Naga tribes. The Meitei perceived it as a threat to the territorial integrity of Manipur. The agitation that followed has become as important a landmark in the history of resistance in Manipur as the present movement against the AFSPA. These and other piecemeal actions have in practice alienated all the factions from the centre.

Fifthly, the centre negotiates with the underground outfits and rehabilitates its cadres after reaching an agreement. In other cases it rewards those who surrender. For example, surrendered cadres of the ULFA have been rehabilitated with jobs or plots for small tea gardens. The BLT cadre are being integrated with the police or paramilitary forces. Besides, negotiations are conducted only with the underground outfits and civil society is ignored. A message is thus given to youth that those who join the underground will be rehabilitated and rewarded eventually. That renders the basic issues and civil society irrelevant and marginalises groups like the Naga Women's Association that are active in the search for peace. Human rights groups are even branded anti-national.

Possible Solutions

That is where one sees the need to re-examine the official as well as civil society approach to the issues facing the north-east. Treating the issue only as one of law and order is not the solution; the economic and other causes of insurgency have to be dealt with. Productive employment is essential and the land issue cannot be ignored, but they have to be taken together with the remaining social, cultural and identity issues. One has also to recognise that the people of the region have lost confidence in the centre so Delhi has to begin with confidence-building measures with the communities of the region and establish its credibility with them. It has to begin to trust its people and treat its cultures and communities with respect. If confidence-building measures are possible with Pakistan, one sees no reason why they should not be attempted with the people of the north-east.

That also involves treating the whole region as one. Dealing with one underground group at a time can only increase distrust between the ethnic communities of the region and make them feel that the centre is following a divide and rule policy in the region or even that it needs conflicts as a training ground for low intensity warfare. One has to add, however, that it is not going to be easy to deal with all the groups together because of the suspicion among them. For a unified approach to succeed the centre has to take a long-term view and not search for immediate solutions by dealing with one group at a time.

A possible solution is for the centre to tread the difficult path of negotiating with all the groups simultaneously and go beyond treating it as a question of the centre versus the rest. Instead, the centre has to give the message that it is ready to negotiate with the region as whole, if the groups first negotiate among themselves and come to some agreement, and then deal with the centre as a totality. That requires the involvement of civil society elements that have been keeping inter ethnic group peace networks alive during the last several decades of conflicts. It may take five or more years for the warring groups to come together but it has to be viewed as an investment in long-term peace and justice.

This is where economic issues find their place. Peace cannot be built in the absence of war alone but has to be based on justice. Conditions therefore, have to be created so that the people of the region take control of economic decisions. Immigration cannot be ignored but one has to desist from the temptation of giving it a communal colour by focusing on Bangladeshis alone. The fact that poverty pushes the people of Bangladesh, Bihar and UP out of their region has to be acknowledged. But one cannot ignore the fact that, it creates serious problems in the region. The ideal is to attempt the integrated development of the whole region including Bangladesh, Bhutan, the north-east and Myanmar. Obviously it is an ideal and cannot be attained overnight. But confidence building measures would include loud thinking about this long-term possibility. At present, the effort is only to increase trade with China and south-east Asia. If the centre is serious about confidence-building measures, Delhi can go to south-east Asia through the north-east and treat ethnic difference not as a problem, but as an opportunity for ongoing relations with this part of Asia. Basic to the approach is a move away from the present law and order view of the problems confronting the region. National security is important but genuine security is found not merely in defending physical boundaries but primarily in gaining theconfidence of the peoples within them.

Economic and Political Weekly 16/10/2004