Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Northeast political conundrum


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By Sanchet Barua


The Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has invited all seven directors general, chief secretaries and chief ministers to the national capital for a comprehensive review of political, economic situation in this sensitive Northeast region of the country. So far the central government has been pouring in funds for development, but people as such have not benefited much and the money has been squandered by state governments leading to a large scale corruption and political patronage to militant groups to buy peace. This policy had negative impact on the administrative system which is virtually in limbo or non-existent. Every day newspapers are full of news of bomb blasts.

The inattention is apparent from the fact that J&K commandeers double the number of pages in the ministry of home affairs (MHA) Annual Report than do all the insurgencies in the Northeast combined. This despite the toll in the latter having surpassed J&K of late and that the Northeast has a vastly more complicated social landscape, greater numbers, larger area and involves more neighbours. This indicates its concerns are not being addressed by home ministry with the dispatch they deserve due to the mistaken belief that the problem is manageable and over time, with “trickle down” from India’s economic trajectory, the problem would go away.

The argument here is that the political prong — addressing conflict resolution – has not kept pace with the military prong — engaged in conflict management. Thus, desired, and possible, political dividends have not been achieved. Civil society initiatives are required to bridge the gap.

The Army’s self-assessment is that the “insurgents” support base is severely eroded and activities are on a low key due to own operations. The Army appears to have met the requirements of the end state — as envisaged in its doctrine — of a security environment in which the levels of “law and order” are such as can be handled by the police assisted by the paramilitary. The paradox that usually develops in such circumstances is that once violence is down, there is little incentive for the government to progress the political prong of strategy.

The MHA believes that a two pronged strategy to persist with counter insurgency operations and concurrently to win hearts and minds has paid good dividends. The strategy is to improve the situation in the Northeast includes accelerated infrastructural development, stress on employment, good governance and decentralization, building friendly relations with neighbouring countries, willingness to meet and discuss legitimate grievances of the people and assist the state governments to combat militancy.

The persistence of violence testifies to an imbalance in the progress made by various prongs of national power. The insurgent is apparently using violence to announce his presence and continued credibility, as a means of dialogue with the state. Attempting to reach the proverbial and elusive “position of strength,” by both sides, is holding up resolution. Herein lies the importance of political intervention to unclog the logjam.

A plausible reason for such a hold-up has been given by Lt. Gen. V. K. Nayar, “The paradigms of conflict resolution and management relevant to the situation in the Northeast are ideal political and need cooperative approach. The present environment in the country is that of real political and a competitive one…” Political resolution needs to be handled by those with moral capital having political credibility and civil society support, such as was the case with the interlocutor Dr. Indira Goswami with the ULFA. The political prong appears to be limited by its chosen paradigm of realism, which, being power-oriented and state centric, has its limitations when applied in conditions of internal conflict.

A situation exists as described by Gen. Nayar wherein, the insurgency is an “industry”…(and) common people remain poor and the security forces are the “fall guys.” Such normalcy should logically be unacceptable. People too have agency. Their action would also discredit the “industry” that vested interests have acquired in the insurgency. Civil society and students’ movements in Assam have historically been very active. These have legitimacy among the people and therefore, command credibility both with the insurgents and the state. Their role should be expanded with the intent of spearheading political resolution.

In the case of Assam, there is little effort to get Bangladesh on board. Annual home secretary and joint working group meetings take place and the instrumentality of the SAARC exists. This time round the Bangladesh angle looks very promising since the Awami League is now in power. The diplomatic prong is at a premium with respect to Assam on account of its centrality in addressing the “root cause” of illegal immigration.

A truism, voiced by Lt. Gen. SK Sinha, has it that, “There can be no military solution to insurgency. It has to be a political solution. Ideally, a dialogue with militants and a political settlement should bring about an end to insurgency. A more urgent approach to the political problem posed by insurgent groups is warranted as it is now being projected as a national security issue. A political understanding with respect to the illegal immigrants issue needs to be arrived at. This can only be in line with a non-violent approach involving strong physical and legal means to end further immigration as against forcibly sending away those who are already here.

Governmental efforts not withstanding, creative resolution efforts from within civil society should be persisted with. Society does not have to be held hostage to the pathologies that come to plague insurgencies such as vested interests of insurgents, bureaucratic inertia, political opportunism and institutional interests of security forces. Creative civil society action would bridge the existing gap between the military prong and political initiatives.

Politicians of all hue and variety have to be honest and truly patriotic, and give up their parochial approach to resolve the festering problems of under development and insurgency. But it is asking too much because the rulers have vested interest in keeping these two problems alive to line up there bulging pockets. INAV


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