North-east has been in the news for some time now. First the floods, then the molestation and finally followed by the violence in Assam. If these were feel-bad factors, we had the champion pugilist from Manipur, Mary Kom, winning a medal for us at the London Olympics.
But even Kom's big feat failed to distinguish her home state in the imagination of mainland Indians. Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan hailed Kom's feat but erred in saying she was from Assam. And then, we had a fiasco in the Parliament where apparently the issue was the Centre's alleged inefficiency in dealing with the situation in Assam. But soon, the focus of the brawl shifted to senior BJP leader LK Advani's scathing attack on the UPA. Advani was heard saying that the UPA government was illegitimate. And hence the slam bang...
But where is north-east amid all this? If the common Indian (we include Mr Bachchan) have failed to imagine north-east in their day-to-day life, the failure of the leadership has been all the more glaring. While the government has little ability to understand the depth of the problem and is even not much ready to take responsibility of the pre-2009 evolutionary history for its time had started then, the Opposition has no understanding of the nature of the problem at all. According to them, it is purely an immigration-related problem and has nothing to do with ethnic clashes! They also planned to hold a dharna at Jantar Mantar in the capital to protest against the Kokrajhar violence.
North-east is not a region where mobilization of majority and minority sentiments will do the trick for leaders skilled in manipulating vote banks. Populism will neither help in finding an easy way out. The drama that was played out in the Indian Parliament made one point very clear. The Indian political leadership has neither the vision nor the will to look beyond the immediate concerns of sticking to power. Whereas the solution to the problems of northeast can be achieved through a deep and concerted effort.
Assam already was a boiling pot
Assam has seen killings and displacement on a mass scale since the partition. The conflict in Assam is mainly centred around the natives, the Bengalis (both Hindus and Muslims) and the local tribals. Huge number of migrants went to Assam from Bengal in the mid-19th century to work in tea plantations created by the British and soon these people outsmarted the natives to bag better professional opportunities because of a better educational background. Bangladeshi Muslims, too, entered the Assamese territory and these migrants, mainly peasants, settled themselves in Assam after transforming waste tracts of land. The native Assamese were cornered by an overwhelming Bengali population but slowly found a chance to assert their rights. The third force, the tribals, felt exploited in the hands of the two contending mainstream groups and lack of political goodwill slowly led Assam towards an inevitable clash of sub-nationalisms.
Vote-bank politics added more to the woes
But what added to the existing problem was the manipulative politics encouraged by Congress governments, both at the Centre and the state. Muslim migrants from Bangladesh served as a strong vote-bank for the Congress and the later enrolled these alien people shamelessly on electoral rolls. The CPI(M) did something similar in West Bengal to ensure successive poll victories. Such manipulation, as was expected, added fire to the flare-up and we saw a deadly massacre at Nellie in 1983.
When we look to Assam and the north-east today, the situation hasn't improved much. Even as India is considered an emerging economy and a viable democracy, the Indian nation-state continues to find itself fitted awkwardly in the north-east and New Delhi has failed to utilise either economic or democratic factors to script a turnaround.
The Indian government has a couple of serious jobs to do in north-east.
First, it must adopt a consistent policy vis-a-vis the influx of migrants. India, being a liberal democracy, is an easier shelter for people from the non-democratic neighbourhood. We have refugees from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Tibet and Sri Lanka but extending a legal humanitarian asylum is different from tolerating mass movement of refugees without any check. This inflow is worrying not only because they add pressure on basic resources but also pose serious threat to the country's internal security in an era of strong terrorist networks. But the Indian establishment has casualised the problem and left it for the border forces to deal with iron hands. That does not ensure permanent solution to the problem.
Neither the Congress nor BJP governments have adopted a viable policy to stop the refugee flow except talking tough periodically. The act to pick out illegal migrants enacted by the Congress failed to deliver. Even the BJP government, after coming to power in 1998, expressed helplessness and considered handing out work permits to the illegal migrants in an effort to identify them! The Indian government either has to legalise migration and make the process more formal affair or has to stop it with an iron policy. There can be no sitting on the fence, all realistic problems notwithstanding.
Second, economy. The government must ensure an economic development in the north-east and for that, several measures can be undertaken. Thinking about north-east with a mental block and looking through jaundiced eyes will not solve the problem. We don't want the government take help of regulated market forces to ensure development for the northeast? But it has to be an inclusive development and not at the expense of the local people. Trying to force an exclusive model can still work in other states in mainland India but certainly not in the north-east. The demographic reality is too complex there.
Northeast needs icons
A problem for the northeast is that it lacks icons who can help mobilise the masses and reduce the gap with mainstream India. A few years ago, a lad named Prashant Tamang, who won an all-India singing talent edition, played a big role in a political mobilisation in northern Bengal, which went on to change the region's politics irreversibly. The region needs someone of the stature of the late Bhupen Hazarika to see a considerable mobilisation towards a positive growth.
Similar stories can be rewritten if people like Mary Kom, who ended up winning an Olympic bronze, come forward and capitalise on their fame to benefit the northeast. Indian masses find a feel-good icon more appealing than tragic symbols like Irom Sharmila. If a more informal process of interaction can be started somewhere leading to a growth of an inclusive culture, then the political leadership will find the formal integration of the north-east a more easier job.
India needs a teamwork to ensure that its north-east is living a healthy life. But is northeast the priority even after all the blood-shedding?