More than 15 years ago, Krishna Prasad, now Outlook magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, me and a photographer colleague, T. Narayan had traveled through three states of the North-east following a massacre of non-trial Bengalis in Tripura. Apart from the killing, we tried to make sense of the region’s varied challenges and problems. Ethnic and communal divide, under-development, over-dependence on the Army, cynical politicians, reluctant bureaucrats and hapless common people–we encountered all.
When I was re-reading that extensive story (and accompanying smaller stories) we did in Outlook in March 1997, it suddenly occurred to me that I could find the situation eerily similar–with only minor variation and may be a change of setting, old actors replaced by new ones!
It pains me to see that the North-east hasn’t really moved forward despite all the claims to the contrary. Yes, there has been some development but the old fissures still remain and fires–small and big–continue to burn and be stoked by those who stand to benefit. Read on for whatever it is worth.
Neglected by the Centre and ravaged by the rebels, life is an endless nightmare
EVERYBODY in the North-east—people, politicians, policemen, armymen, everybody—believes the solution to its nightmare does not lie in handing over the reins to the Army. “This is a political problem, and a political problem demands a political solution,” iswhat you’ll hear in Agartala, Guwahati, Kohima, Imphal and everywhere else in-between. Yet, all it takes to see why the seven sisters are plunging into an abyss is to look at what happened when 90-odd Bengalis were butchered in communist-ruled Tripura in mid-February.
As some 34,000 people, correction, as some 34,000 Bengalis took shelter in 22 makeshift camps after militants of the All-Tripura Tigers’ Force (ATTF) had killed and rioted at will, Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, the Communist Party of India’s stalwart in the United Front Government, gave that great healing touch Indian politicians are famous for. He paid a ‘flying’ visit to the ‘affected area’. Good politician that he is, Gupta said there was no need to impose the ‘draconian’ Disturbed Areas’ Act which enables the Army to swing into action.
Yet, within 12 hours of his departure, the Army was demanding—and getting—the Act enforced in the worst-affected Khowai sub-division. “Our first task is to establish dominance in the troubled areas and avoid further ethnic clashes,” said Brig. B.S. Choudhary, commanding the counter-insurgency operations. By nightfall, troops were being airlifted from distant Punjab. With 3,000 soldiers on vigil, the counter-insurgency grid was in place. “The situation is totally under control,” said Tripura Chief Secretary V. Thulasidas.
For how long, he wouldn’t say. (By February 22, the Act was being extended to other parts of the state, too.) Cut to Assam. There, a month earlier, after Bodo Liberation Tigers set off a bomb under the speeding Brahmaputra Mail on new year’s eve to press their demand for a separate state, killing some 50 innocent people settling down to their supper, Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was making the usual post-dinner noises. He would, he said, continue to make efforts for a political settlement with the Bodos. But, sotto voce, he was asking for the Army’s help to launch a full-scale operation.
Never mind that the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which Mahanta led to power months earlier, had promised in its election manifesto to send the Army out of the state. Never mind that the CPI, a member of the AGP-led five-party alliance, didn’t—publicly at least—like the idea of calling in the Army to do the police’s job. But insurgency in the North-east has a strange way of pulling the rug from under realpolitik.
So, the same Indrajit Gupta made the same flying visit, and told the Assam government that there was no alternative: law and order had worsened far beyond the capability of the state police. Never mind that Union Home Secretary K. Padmanabhaiah was believed to have said that the state had “sufficient forces” to tackle the militants. Within days of Gupta’s departure, a Unified Command was in place, with an armyman in charge.
Just days earlier, Lt Gen. R.K. Sawhney, commander of the 4 Corps, had seemed like the reluctant groom. But within days, he too was getting used to the ‘peacetime assignment’. Two of the six regional commanders of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which is demanding a sovereign Assam nation, were neutralised in those wondrous incidents called ‘encounters’ in which the pursuers never die.
And having shackled his favourite foes, the Bodos (see interview), even Mahanta is happy: “The Unified Command has worked well in its first month. The desired results have been achieved. It’s the best possible arrangement.” For how long, he wouldn’t say. (The ULFA, which never targeted the Army before, is ambushing military personnel with rocket-propelled grenades and AKs; Bodos are settling around Guwahati.) Maybe it’s too simplistic to blame all the ills—and there are ple -nty of ills—plaguing the North-east on mere deployment of the Army. But not to put too fine a point on it, the Army is further alienating an already-alienated people. Says Manipur People’s Party President Okram Joy Singh: “Such has been the treatment meted out to us, that if there’s a referendum tomorrow, 90 per cent of the people will say they do not feel like Indians.”
The North-east is a region of India like no other. Bountiful and beautiful. As Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir puts it so eloquently: “God has created the infrastructure here, but man has not exploited it.” Closer to Hanoi than Delhi, as the crow flies, it’s been ill-served by insensitive politicians, national and local, whose minds tick merely in terms of votes-per-head. North-easterns cite Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s suspicion of people with ‘mongoloid’ features to justify the attitude of ‘door Dilli’ but then wasn’t Manipur the easternmost outpost of Hindu culture?
It has paid a heavier price for Partition than Punjab. Blood did not flow, multitudes did not cross over. But geo-political isolation as the scalpel scythed through the region, and its consequences in terms of insurgencies and inequities, has gone completely unappreciated. Under one per cent of its boundaries are contiguous with the rest of India; the remaining 99 per cent are international boundaries. “Partition cut us off from our roots and routes which were in and through East Pakistan now Bangladesh,” explains economist Jayant Madhab. “Except for Nagaland, all the insurgencies were because of the lack of economic development as the region lay cut off from the rest of India.” Dr Manmohan Singh’s liberalisation wand just hasn’t touched these parts.
IT’S a vicious circle,” says Mizoram Chief Minister Lalthanhawla. “Industries don’t come here because there is no peace. And there is insurgency because there is no development.” Finance Minister P. Chidambaram says he can only persuade industries to go to the North-east, he can’t force them. But asks Manipur Tourism Director P. Vaiphei: “Did insurgency lead to neglect or vice-versa?” So there is anger, fear, frustration, unemployment, drugs and AIDS here. Yet all Delhi—and its servile satraps here—can think of is bringing in the Army. There are no schools, colleges, hospitals, power plants, industries, roads, trains, airports; yet all the Northeast has got so far are vacuous promises, like Prime Minister Deve Gowda’s Rs 6,000-crore package, not a pie of which has reached.
Which is why it’s not difficult to see just how long the Army can keep the simmering discontent under the lid. When the Nagas launched a movement for an independent nation in the mid-’50s, New Delhi’s response was, as always, to send in the Army. It was expected to spell finis to the rebels, to crush them into submission. More than 40 years later, the Indian Government is trying to reach out to Naga leaders in Bangkok to sue for peace.
What’s more, the Naga struggle has spawned half-a-dozen equally powerful underground groups in the region. Over a lakh attended a rally in Imphal last October to question Manipur’s merger with the Indian Union in 1949. Says Prof. Gangumei Kamei, president of the Federal Party of Manipur: “Successive Indian governments are only continuing the British legacy of using the North-east to guard the frontier by using the Army.” Yet, there are those in the Army, like Lt Gen. S.S. Grewal, commander of the Dimapur-based 3 Corps in Nagaland, who permit themselves rare moments of candour. “Insurgency in the Northeast continues,” he says, “because there are people with vested interests who want it to go on.” Sometimes they can be politicians, sometimes insurgents, sometimes it can be the Army itself.
The opposition in Tripura, for instance, believes the ruling CPI(M) is abetting the ATTF. “The party is losing ground in its strongholds,” says former Congress chief minister Samir Ranjan Barman. “It’s creating fear among a section of non-tribals so that it can benefit in the revision of electoral rolls.” The CPI(M), expectedly, refutes the charge. Points out Gautam Das, editor of the party organ Desher Katha: “The Opposition, having been routed in all elections in the past four years, is desperate to malign the Left Front. Engineering riots is the easiest way to discredit our government. The National Liberation Force of Tripura (NLFT) is abetted by the Congress.” While the slug-fests go on for a few votes more, the victims lick their wounds. “We do not know who is behind the killings. And why. But my mother was shot dead in front of my eyes. Who will bring her back?” wails twentysomething Dipankar Chakravarthy.
While Tripura’s chief secretary rests content that the situation is now “totally under control”, no one will address the real issues. No one will ask why the very sick Dasarath Deb has not been replaced by a more hands-on chief minister. No one will ask why the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system to arrest the land alienation is not introduced. No one will ask how the ‘demographic inversion’ (a euphemism for the majority becoming the minority and vice-versa) was allowed to take place.
There were just 30 per cent non-trib-als in land-locked Tripura in the ’50s. Now they comprise 70 per cent, most of them refugees. This has led to great resentment among tribals. Khowai, where the strife took place, has Bangladesh on three sides.
The ATTF are known to have been trained and even armed by the ULFA. “Sometimes, the ULFA participates in ATTF operations,” says a senior Army officer. “And the NLFT has links with the NSCN (Muivah).” Attempts to impose curfew along the border are opposed by politicians, bail pleas of arrested militants go unopposed by the Government, no effort is made to improve the efficiency of the police. “If the Government does not give any serious indication of fighting insurgency, how can the Army do it,” asks Lt Gen. Grewal. It’s a tack his counterpart in Assam takes. “We can at best bring down the law and order situation to an acceptable level, but ultimately the answer must be found at the political level,” says Lt Gen. R.K. Sawhney.
Sawhney’s troops have been hurled a great deal of flak lately over alleged encounter deaths. The Army is alleged to be settling land deals on behalf of rich businessmen. Mahanta’s opponents accuse the chief minister of using the same tactics as that of his Congress predecessor, Hiteswar Saikia, to crush the rebels. “The Army is treating the rural masses like aliens. We were enjoying a partial democracy here. That has gone with the Unified Command coming in,” says Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, editor of the mass-circulation newspaper Asomtya Pratidin. “If the influx from Bangladesh and other states is not stopped, there will be more Assams.”
Although Mahanta has been more sympathetic to the ULFA than to the Bodos, ULFA sympathisers say there is no reason for the government not to begin peace talks. “If former ministers can be deputed all the way to Thailand to talk to Naga rebels, what’s preventing them?” they ask. What are the ULFA’s demands? It wants an independent sovereign Assam, it wants the talks to be held in a third country and it wants the Army withdrawn before the negotiation process can begin. Which brings things back to square one.
Paying Up At Gunpoint
For most people, it’s a case of ‘tax deduction at source’. Or else…
INSURGENCY is big business in the North-east. It’s an industry with a turnover of over Rs 600 crore per annum. The rebels levy annual ‘taxes’ on big business houses and traders, and collect monthly taxes from government servants, offi-cials, doctors and engineers. “Insurgency ended 20 years ago,” says former Meghalaya chief minister B.B. Lyngdoh. “There are only extortionists and robbers now in the garb of insurgents.” With the police nowhere in the picture, it’s all as official as it can get. On pay day, representatives of the rebel groups station themselves in government offi-ces and deduct the tax (between 1 and 10 per cent of the basic salary) at source.
Private individuals receive notices, complete with the official seal, to pay up or else. All payments are acknowledged. Admits Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir: “Militants are taxing people from all walks of life heavily, government servants included.” Intelligence sources say tea companies in Assam shell out Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh every year by way of subscription to the ‘Rebel Fund for Revolution’.
Bigtime contractors cough up to Rs 2 lakh, professionals Rs 50,000. Abductors demanded Rs 20 lakh from an engineer in Manipur in January.
Although big companies fight shy of admitting they pay protection money, Goodricke was bold enough to acknowledge it in one of its annual reports. “Insurgency offers easy money for frustrated youth seeking quick bucks,” says Bolin Bordoloi, a Tata Tea executive who was abducted by the Bodo Security Force.
With no visible economic activity around, extortion has also become the only source of income for disgruntled, unemployed youth. Different sections of National Highway 39 which passes through Nagaland and Manipur are controlled by different groups. Vehicles passing through have to pay each group.
Petrol and oil tankers are a special target. Result: Indian Airlines flights to Delhi from Imphal are regularly cancelled because planes cannot be refuelled. Petrol is rationed for vehicle-owners.
In most states, vehicles now move twice a day in convoys, escorted by the Army to steer clear of extortionists. As a result, it will take 13 hours to traverse 250 km from Dharmanagar and Agartala on NH 44.
With Bangladesh freezing bank accounts of insurgent groups, the rebels, who earlier targeted big business, have turned their attention on the common man. In Manipur, where even Chief Minister Rishang Keishing’s staff pays protection money, several doctors have sold their Marutis and opted for two-wheelers. Access to huge sums of money enables the militants to purchase modern weaponry and travel abroad unhindered. Although the stated aim of North-east insurgents is to expiate the ills affecting tribal societies by exterminating non-trib-als , they are having a problem hiding their growing prosperity.
The police found a lap-top computer on a militant nabbed in Guwahati; a top NSCN leader, the arrested militant revealed that he kept financial records on it. Elsewhere, 800 pairs of Lotto shoes were found in a ULFA hideout—part of the boys’ ‘uniform’.
As seven-time Rajat Kamal winner Bhabendranath Saikia, whose next film deals with insurgency, says: “The worst part of the movement has been that people have joined it only for their good; people who wanted to make money without reasonable hard work.”
Muslim fundamentalists join the gang
WHILE New Delhi struggles to cope with mainstream insurgency, a clutch of Muslim fundamentalist organisations (MFOs) have sprung up in Assam with distressingly familiar objectives: self-defence and, yes, a separate homeland for the state’s 28 per cent Muslim population.
Admittedly, the Muslim Liberation Army, the Muslim Liberation Tigers, the Muslim Security Force and the Islamic Liberation Army of Assam are still nascent outfits. And mercifully none has yet indulged in criminal acts in their quest for an independent Islamic state. Even a meeting of MFO leaders last November to float a united front came to nought.
But intelligence agencies feel the MFOs’ raison d’etr e, which is protection of Muslim interests, and their area of operation—ULFA-dominated districts—bodes ill for the region’s security scenario. “Take it from me,” says a senior intelligence officer in Guwahati, “Muslim militancy will be a big threat in 10 years’ time.” Like elsewhere in the North-east, Muslims came to Assam as mostly cheap labour and constituted a huge votebank for their political masters to encash, which ensured their survival. But native fury at the resultant ‘demographic inversion’ appears to have activated their defence mechanism.
The MFOs have come up in mostly Muslim-dominated districts like Assam Chief Minister Mahanta’s home constituency Nagaon, Morigaon, Goalpara, Dhubri, Kamrup and Barpeta. This has made it very tough for security agencies to detect and weed them out although there has been no trouble so far.
But given the ULFA’s strong presence in all six districts (the Bodo Security Force calls the shots in the last two), intelligence sources say it’s only a matter of time before the MFOs and ULFA-BdSF are at daggers drawn. All six MFO districts are used by the ULFA as hideouts.
Not much is known about the leadership pyramids of the MFOs and their cadre-strength. They are said to be collecting funds from rich Muslims in Goalpara, Dhubri, Morigaon and Barpeta. Intelligence sources say the Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh is providing the vital external support.
The MFO cadres reportedly go across the border for training, thanks to the hospitality of their backers. And there are indications that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) too is fishing in the muddied waters, along with the Bangladeshi Field Intelligence Chief of Army Staff Shankar Roy Choudhury admitted recently that the Army had definite proof of the ISI’s involvement in providing funds, training bases and administrative support to insurgent groups in the North-east. Security agencies are hoping the picture will change with Bangladesh promising to make things difficult for groups using that country as a sanctuary.