India’s North-east: A view from not-so-recent past

NOTE: Since India’s North-east is getting some much needed attention in national and international media of late, I though let me republish a couple of pieces I had occasions to write in the past six-seven years. Often ours–those of us who reported on the North-East for much of the past three decades–have been voices in wilderness. But we persevered nonetheless.
Read on for whatever they are worth–at least one thing is sure. These are thoughts of some one who had the singular good fortune of spending 23 years on-ground in the region, observing, mingling, making friendships of a life time and of course reporting.
Smile, Seven Sisters



In the collective consciousness of India, the Northeast is like a long forgotten, distant relative: one who exists somewhere; who is at the bottom of the priority list and about whom many misconceptions abound in the family. Little wonder then that most Indians carry a stereotypical image about the seven sisters and its people — violence, disasters, ethnic clashes are what instantly come to mind when any reference to the Northeast is made. True, violence is omnipresent. Disasters and ethnic clashes are more frequent here. But that’s only half the picture. The other half hardly gets the space it deserves in the nation’s thoughts.

A Bhupen Hazarika or a Ratan Thiyam is an exception to the general lack of information on the region’s achievers, its successful high-fliers. But if non-Northeasterners are guilty of indifference towards the region, we, in the Northeast, are equally culpable of not taking pride in our own triumphs and achievements. We have got into a collective habit of always looking at the downside; to bemoan what we lack.

Mainstream India stereotypes the seven states of the Northeast as centres of insurgency and violence. It’s time we dismantle this absurd cliché and showcase the great achievements of its multicultural ethos and communities

We, for instance, do not take pride in the fact that a Bodo from the backwaters of a small place like Gossaigaon reached the pinnacle of his ips career to head the elite National Security Guards (NSG) and subsequently the Border Security Force (BSF). Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary may be an ips officer from the Kerala cadre but doesn’t he belong to this region? Doesn’t HT Sangliana belong to the Northeast? Yes, the same Sangliana, a Mizo, who became the much-feared top cop in Karnataka, on whose life at least three feature films were made and who is now a Lok Sabha mp from Bangalore. The Mizos can justifiably take pride in the fact that they have two Lok Sabha mps when there is only one Lok Sabha seat from the state! Isn’t former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh from this region? The same Lyngdoh who won the Magsaysay award in 2003 for his exceptional moral courage to call the spade a spade in Gujarat?

And yet, we in the Northeast do not seem to take these achievers as role models. We, or at least many of us, perhaps do not know that there are several nris from the Northeast who are doing well in their respective fields abroad. The late Jupiter Yambem went from distant Imphal to New York to head the famous revolving restaurant atop the now destroyed World Trade Centre. Jiten Gopal Borpujari from Jorhat was in the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Deepak Jain, who used to be a student of Guwahati University, today heads the prestigious Kellogs Business School. Isn’t this something to be proud of?

This beautiful region of pristine landscapes and multiple cultures is full of people who are doing interesting, positive and constructive work. Do we know that a schoolteacher from Salakati in Kokrajhar district, Malti Rani Narzary, has adapted the traditional Bodo designs to the needs of modern fashion and created a market for them in places like Delhi and Bangalore? Narzary’s craft is now being retailed in the Taj Groups’s chain of hotels.

Steeled Symphony: Mothers of Manipur protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Imphal
Do we know that 12 Manipuris are leading players in the football league in Goa and Kolkata? Or a farmer’s cooperative in Kokrajhar is extracting fragrant oil for a French perfume company in a big way?

Do we know that half-a-dozen footballers from Manipur are leading players in the football league in Goa and Kolkata? Or a farmer’s cooperative in Kokrajhar has taken to patchouli farming (shrub/leaves of the mint family) in a big way and is now running a plant that extracts fragrant oil that is used to make globally famous perfumes in France? Are we aware that an ordinary entrepreneur in upper Assam now supplies shampoo bottles and sachets to Hindustan Lever and provides livelihood to 30 families after taking a big, risky bank loan of Rs 90 lakh?

There are 110-odd journalists from this region working in various media houses in Delhi and doing well. At least half-a-dozen others are excelling in places like Hyderabad and Pune. Arnab Goswami, an Assamese, heads Times Now, toi’s foray into TV news. Why, even in management and business circles, Nazeeb Arif, secretary general of the Indian Chamber of Commerce, is a boy from Assam. Rupam Borah is an important decision-maker in the competitive world of advertising. Three successive chairmen-cum-managing directors of India’s largest company, ongc, have been from this region.

Even the state governments, often criticised for being corrupt, slothful and indifferent to the needs of the common people, show results in the most unexpected manners. Two examples should suffice: community education in Nagaland and computer literacy programmes for schools in Assam.

Community education is a novel initiative of the government of Nagaland that has developed a synergy between the community and the government. This programme has created a sense of ownership of public institutions and better management of limited resources. The Nagaland Communitisation of Public Institutions and Services Act, 2002, to cover power, water supply and education sectors empowers the community to own, manage and control government schools by vesting them with legal powers and responsibilities (see more in a separate story). In neighbouring Assam, an ambitious computer literacy programme named after Rajiv Gandhi has started imparting free computer education to more than four lakh students in 630 government higher secondary schools.

Ratan Thiyam is a renowned name in theatre circles worldwide. The latest to make a splash in the international arena is an unlikely Tibetan monk. Ngawang Tashi Bapu, who has been nominated for a Grammy in the ‘Best Traditional Music Category’, is based at the Centre for Himalayan Culture and Studies at Dahung, in Arunachal Pradesh. Lama Tashi had been the principal chant master of the Dalai Lama’s Drepung Loseling Monastery in south India before returning to Arunachal to take up his present assignment in early 2004.

We in the media have failed to focus on our achievers and positive events because that takes time, energy and money. Instead, we concentrate on law and order, killings, insurgency and all things negative

The multi-phonic chants for which the Lama has gained so much acclaim are a ‘’totally different kind of music,’’ as he says. It’s a genre that is beginning to make waves in the West. Lama Tashi will fly to the US next week for the 48th annual Grammy Awards function, where Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Sheryl Crow, U2, Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton are also expected to participate. In Dahung, Bomdila and Tawang, the younger monks are holding special prayers for their musical guru so that he can return victorious.

Most of us in the media have failed to focus on them since profiling achievers, writing about positive events and doing development reports takes time, energy and money. Instead, we tend to concentrate more on law and order, killings, insurgency and all things negative. Doing a report on killings and interviewing an underground leader on e-mail is definitely easier than traveling to distant corners of this difficult region and reporting from the spot. Besides, we give disproportionate importance to what politicians say.

Let us learn a lesson from the brave mothers and women of Manipur, who tought the Northeast and the entire nation the great art of relentless non-violent struggle: in the anti-liquor struggle, in the self-identity movement, in the huge, protracted protests after Manorama’s rape and murder by Assam Rifles men, and in the concerted fight against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which goes on till this day. When the police fires indiscriminately, the mothers stand as vanguard; when a woman’s dignity is violated, mothers strip themselves in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters. From the fine, classical arts to the classical struggles in Manipur, are we ready to uphold this great narrative of hope and courage for the whole world to see?

First Published Feb 2006
Neglected, Deprived North-east:  
Is it the Whole Truth?
There are two very popular and convenient views in New Delhi about India’s north-east.
One view is that the region, comprising the seven states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh,
Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura, is the country’s pampered child.
That the Centre has been pouring in disproportionate amount of money into the region,
which is ultimately misutilized. The second school of thought holds that New Delhi and
New Delhi alone is responsible for the economic backwardness of the region and that the
neglect by the Centre is monumental.
The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.
The region has indeed suffered from so much neglect and apathy in the past that it is
next to impossible to catch up with other parts of India. Therefore to say, as former
Mizoram Governor, Amlok Ratan Kohli said at a seminar that “the north-east is a spoilt
child of the Centre,” is also a bit exaggerated.
Yes, all the seven states in the region are granted a “special category” status by the
Government of India which means these States receive 90 per cent of Plan assistance as
a grant, and just 10 per cent as a loan, as against the norm of 30 per cent grant and 70
per cent loan for other States. As former journalist and first minister heading the
Department for Development of North Eastern Region (DONER), Arun Shourie was
wont to remark: “Funds are never a problem. Proper and timely utilization of the
allocated money is.”
And yet every state in the northeast is facing bankruptcy. Consider some more facts:
Fifty-six years after Independence, five of the seven state capitals in the region are not
connected by rail. Itanagar, Kohima and Shillong (all State capitals) do not have a proper
airport even now. The entire North-east has to import essential goods worth nearly Rs.
2,500 crore annually since the states in the region have not modernized their agricultural
Nearly 55 per cent of India’s tea production, 60 per cent of its plywood (till the timber
felling ban came) and a substantial part of its oil is produced in the region but not even a
tiny percentage of the profits is re-invested here.
Vital sectors like education, health care and communication are still in the primitive
state in the region.
Nothing illustrates the neglect of the North-east by the Centre like the figures of funds
released by All India financial institutions. Between 1996 and 2006, out of the Rs
72,000 crore plus sanctioned by these institutions, Assam got a measly 221 crore,
Nagaland received Rs. 4 crore and the rest of the states went without a single paise. All
the states in the region are today heavily in debt; Assam’s internal debt in fact stands at a
staggering Rs. 10,000 crore plus. Another development indicator, the credit deposit ratio
of commercial banks for all the states in the region at 26.9 is substantially lower than the
all-India average of 62.3.
Who is to blame for this mess? Not the Centre alone surely. After all, 10 per cent of each
of the Central ministries’ budget is earmarked for development of the region. Where does
the money go then? In reality, the isolation and backwardness of the North-east has as
much to do with the Centre’s failure to monitor the funds utilization as with failure of
local leadership and the lack of initiative on part of its own people.
For years, a section of the leadership and the educated elite among the North-Eastern
states, have become willing partners with the ‘exploiter’ class from Delhi. Today, the
entire North-east is dependent upon rest of India more than it ever was. There is no
internal revenue generation worth the name in these states, private enterprise is more an
exception than a rule and a majority of the population is dependant upon the
government one way or the other. Insurgency, political instability and unending violence
keep the region on a perpetual boil.
A high-profile study group constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2002 to draw
up a 25-year vision on development of the North-east has made some interesting
observations on the current state of affairs in the region. It blames corruption,
insurgency and “contractor Raj,” for the turmoil in the seven states of the region. “A
parallel system of governance by the insurgents on the one hand and ministers, MLAs,
the bureaucracy and police on the other, is responsible for the political instability and
backwardness in the North-east,” SK Agnihotri, Chairman of North-east Study Group
(NESG) has said. Former IAS and IPS officers like K. Saigal and KPS Gill besides retired
Lt. Gen SK Pillai were members of this group.
The group felt that the entire system of governance is in a state of collapse in the region.
“Whatever money comes into the region for development ends up in the hands of a
chosen few,” former senior bureaucrat Saigal said. The militants then get a major share
out of this, he pointed out. This happens mainly because of an inappropriate
development model, the group said wherein, the money gets concentrated in the hands
of contractors and suppliers instead of trickling down to the masses.
The region is clearly trapped in a vicious circle, which, despite best attempts, no one has
been able to break so far.
Economist Jayanta Madhab, formerly with the Asian Development Bank traces the
region’s problem to the country’s partition. “Northern India suffered heavily in terms of
lives lost during the turbulent period of partition, but the east and the North-east took a
body blow in terms of infrastructure and links to the mainland,” he points out. In one
stroke of his blue pencil, Sir Cyril Radcliffe isolated the region from the rest of India. As a
result, the region’s seven states are now connected to the main body through a 20 km
wide ‘Chicken’s neck’ corridor running through North Bengal. This has added to the
isolation of the North-east. For example, in the days of pre-partition era, residents of
Tripura could reach Calcutta overnight. Today, it takes a minimum of 60 hours to do the
same by road.
So the region’s first problem is isolation. Physical isolation has aggravated the already
existing mental quarantine. The British, as a deliberate policy followed the dictum leave-
them-alone in splendid segregation. The new rulers in post-independent India refined it
further by applying the yardstick out-of-sight-out-of-mind. The result: armed uprising in
many parts of the North-east. Contrary to general perception outside the North-east,
most of the insurrections in the region, except the Naga insurgency, are direct fallout of
this neglect of the area by the ruling class both in Delhi and in the region. Large-scale
misuse of Central funds has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots
resulting in frustration among the youngsters. This frustration has often found
expression in the swelling ranks of the militant organization across the region. At last
count there are some 40-armed militant groups operating in the region.
According to conservative estimates, there are 20 lakh educated unemployed youths in
the region. So far the government has been the main employer. With time, however, jobs
in the government are becoming few and far in between. Naturally, with hardly any
employment available outside the government, the youths do not need much
encouragement to take to arms since it provides easy money when you have a gun in
hand. Insurgency today, therefore, has become a big business in the North-east. One
educated estimate of the turnover in this ‘industry’ puts the figure at something like Rs.
250 crore annually!
The question is: Why has it happened? There are no clear-cut answers, but endemic
corruption and poor management of funds are the two main reasons identified by many
analysts. The funding pattern, evolved over the years has given rise to a nouve rich class
comprising mainly of the corrupt politicians, a section of bureaucrats and businessmen
in the region.
The other issue is, people in the North-east have been indoctrinated by their leaders to
look at themselves as victims of a conspiracy hatched by Central leaders and people of
rest of India in general. The truth is, no one has the time or inclination to do so. The
reality is several other states in the country are also suffering neglect and poverty as
those in the North-east. In some cases like Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar, the human
development and poverty indices are worse than those in the North-east. For example,
Orissa’s poverty ratio at 47.15 per cent is far higher than Assam at 36.09 per cent. Or
Bihar’s poverty ratio at 42.60 per cent is much above any of the north-eastern states.
Even the credit deposit ratio in Bihar, Orissa or Jharkhand, is lower than the north-
eastern states. So why should the north-eastern states only get special attention, asks one
section of planners. My answer to that is: the North-east needs extra and focused
attention simply because they are the bulwark against balkanization of India. Having
said that, even the people of the North-east must admit that over the past decade,
matters have certainly improved in terms of more funds, focused attention and more
awareness about the region. And yet, we keep complaining about step-motherly
treatment. We, in the North-east must ask ourselves: Are we protesting only for the sake
of protesting?
So, have we lost the North-east forever? Many optimists, like me, are convinced that the
North-east has several things going for itself to catch up with the rest of the country.
Unlike most other states, the North-east has a very high percentage of literacy. This itself
should be a major strength. All that this pool of manpower resources needs is proper
direction. Take the natural resources available with the region. Arunachal Pradesh has
so much of water resources available that it can produce about 30,000 MW of electricity
through hydel projects. This energy is not only sufficient to feed the region’s states but
also to export to the neighbouring countries as well.
Another point that the North-east has in its favor is the proximity to South-east Asia.
Identified by economic experts as the boom area of the 21st century, South-east Asia is
best accessed from North-east India. The big question however is, who will do this? Not
retired mandarins. Not people from MHA. Not people from rest of India.
Ultimately, it is the civil society, well-meaning politicians and committed bureaucrats,
who will have to take up the lost cause and bring the North-east out of its current mess.
Only then the rest of India will start looking at the North-east more seriously. Only then
others will start treating the North-east not as an exotic faraway entity but as an integral
part of the idea that is India.