Thursday, July 25, 2024

Innovative Northeast solutions


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By B.G. Verghese

The new Darjeeling Agreement reached between the Gorkha Janashakti Morcha and the West Bengal Government should hopefully restore quiet in that troubled, strategic region. Mamata Bannerjee can claim credit for this though the GJM regards this as no more than an interim settlement halfway to a separate Gorkhaland State.

The principle of making certain territorial adjustments and transferring some tea gardens to the new Hill Council has been conceded and a joint committee will determine the revised contours of the Council area. Further devolution is also proposed to assist local development initiatives. Not everybody is happy and the Left Front sees this as a step towards severance of Darjeeling from Bengal either as a separate state or Union Territory. The Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League and the Gorkha National Liberation Front view the arrangement as a half measure. The GJM wants nominated members in a non-legislative Council for the moment. Things are still fuzzy and clarity may have to await a tripartite meeting with the Centre in October.

This writer favours smaller states, whether Gorkhaland, Telengana, Vidarbha or others. But these must be created with broad consent and techno-economic, linguistic-ethnic and administrative logic. Interim solutions are often mocked though they might provide useful stepping stones towards a final solution without undue trauma.

The new DHC, however, constitutes an interim solution that is worth looking at. Darjeeling is wedged between the 22 km-wide strategic chicken’s neck at Siliguri that connects the Indian heartland to North Bengal, Sikkim and the rest of the Northeast, all of this bounced by over 4500 kms of international boundary marching with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet/China and Myanmar. At the moment Sikkim is a partner with the other Seven Sisters in the North East Council, a purely development (and, initially, security) association. However, Sikkim is isolated from the NEC by intervening Darjeeling and North Bengal territory. This clearly makes for sub-optimal development and security architecture given the glaring territorial disconnect.

If The Darjeeling Council is made part of the NEC, the territorial divide could narrow and altogether disappear were the rest of North Bengal also to become part of the NEC in a grand concord of 10 units. This would straightway give the region added developmental, security and geo-strategic muscle. West Bengal need not fear vivisection as both the DHC region and the rest of North Bengal would remain part of that State, giving Bengal a unique and valuable dual status. Yunnan is part of China and yet a partner in the Greater Mekong Region’s inland navigation and other protocols. Then again, the 1954 Sino-Indian Treaty was between India and the Tibet Region of China.

Far from amputating West Bengal, the development of its northern areas, with Siliguri as a major agro-industrial and communications hub, would receive great stimulus as would the rest of the Northeast and its ability to “Look East” meaningfully. Further, the arrangement might work so well for the DHC area that it might prefer to continue with this arrangement, enjoying as it would the best of all worlds. Even were it to sever links at some future time, the NEC would provide a continuing association with Bengal.

Such innovative and entirely practical solutions could also conceivably have application in the tangled northwest of the country with Jammu, Himachal and Ladakh becoming partners in a North West Council without injury to the integrity of J&K.

Meanwhile, there have been stirrings within the Naga fold. The NSCN(K) has split with its chairman, S.S.Khaplang being thrown out of the party even while expelling the rival faction led by the general-secretary, Kitovi Zhimoni, each faction accusing the other of arbitrary conduct. This leaves the NSCN (IM) in a somewhat stronger position. The split reflects the Byzantine nature of Naga politics, undermining its somewhat tenuous claim to an imagined single nationhood within accepted historic boundaries. It is because of these fissures that the suspension of operations agreement between the K Group and the Government of India has never translated into talks.

Talks with the NSCN (IM) have also stalled for some time because Muivah and his colleagues are still considering the options on offer for extensive self-determination within an Indian commonwealth of peoples of which the Nagas are a sovereign partner. The demand for sovereignty is on the back burner and the real sticking point would appear to be unification of all the Naga peopled areas or Nagalim. Manipur, Assam and Arunachal, however, refuse to be dismembered and nothing is possible without mutual consent.

However, there is a glimmer of hope in moves by Nagaland parties to seek a presence in the Naga inhabited districts of Manipur and work towards some kind of sixth schedule arrangement encompassing these areas and Nagaland for development and cultural purposes. Such “unification” should not cause Manipur to fear a threat to its integrity. These are straws in the wind but need to be pursued more boldly and with greater despatch. Muivah is not growing younger and history never stands still.

Finally, the DONER Minister, Handique has again proposed making Guwahati a regional air hub in the Northeast using smaller aircraft and connecting with the wider neighbourhood. This is an old idea, long overdue and must now be implemented.
In Assam, the very fact of the elections in the face of opposition from radical ULFA and other groups was tremendous statement of support for the integrity of Assam. Talks with the majority Rajkhowa faction of ULFA that has laid down arms and come over ground must now be expedited and not allowed to stall on fatuous semantics. A deadline should be set and those who prevaricate or obstruct will be left out in the cold and must be prepared to face the consequences. The people of Assam want peace, unity and development and cannot be bled for ever by unscrupulous elements to drive petty personal agendas.
After his famous electoral victory, Tarun Gogoi must also act decisively to push forward with an imaginative development plan that rests on the State’s excellent biodiversity, water and energy resources, the last in close collaboration with Arunachal. Unfortunately, the state’s record here has been halting, confused and lacking in imagination. All the periodic panic about China diverting the Brahmaputra north is wholly exaggerated and based on ignorance of the hydrology, topography and other ground realities in Tibet. Fear of well-planned and sustainable hydro development in Arunachal is another bogey. If Assam does not help itself, there is little others can do. And if Assam fails, the Northeast must fail too.

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