More than North-South debate, India needs to think about its Northeast; time is running out

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Recently, I went to an event in Bengaluru where a book on the growing divide between North and South India was launched. Attended by a number of dignitaries, including a former Chief Justice of India, a renowned scientist, a well-known columnist and other scholars, the focus of the event was on how South India gained a lead over North India by making better use of opportunities that were created by the wave of liberalisation. [Think-tank releases book on India's North-South divide]

We are debating North vs South, where is Northeast?

After that event got over, this writer had asked the former CJI in an interview that while making such divisions between the North and South, where exactly we put the Northeast region? Is that a third category or has it been completely forgotten?


The former judge said Northeast indeed remains omitted whenever we define India and the reason has been historical and political. He said that region has far too negligible representation in the Indian Parliament, which makes their case all the more weaker. [Exclusive interview of Justice Venkatachaliah]

Just 2 days after raising the question on Northeast, a deadly attack took place in Manipur

Just two days after that conversation, a deadly attack occurred on a military convoy in Chandel district of Manipur in the Northeast, killing 20 personnel. [Attack on army in Manipur: 3 points to ponder over]

The logical question that arises: Is it enough to engage in a debate over North-South divide in India? What about those who are not even getting a mention in the debate?

New Delhi never succeeds to settle a Northeast problem

Three years ago, when riots broke out in Assam or when several thousands of Northeastern people fled from cities like Bengaluru, which are known to be the economic engines of today's India, the rulers at the Centre couldn't do much to address the situations.

Measures like banning bulk SMS were taken to prevent the panic were taken which gave the media more room to give catchy headlines than reflecting any concrete changes on the ground. Similarly, those in power in New Delhi are yet to find a solution to the regular attacks that take place against young people from the Northeast who go to other places of the country for availing better opportunities.

Army gets attacked in Northeast, youngsters from that region get targetted in other parts of the country; something is seriously wrong

The words of India's elite, the attacks on armymen in the Northeast and youngsters from that region in other parts of the country are not isolated. India's Northeast has turned out to be a boiling pot because we have chosen it to become so.

For those who are in power in New Delhi, dealing with the Northeast is no less challenging than dealing with either Islamabad or Beijing. Whether it is the Congress or the BJP in power, the central government of India is yet to find a solution to the problem.

Biggest democracy banks on undemocratic means to deal with Northeast: A bitter irony

The worse part is that the ruling elite of India has little prescription to follow when it comes to tackling the Northeast. The biggest democracy has so far banked on military solutions or rather undemocratic means to resolve the Northeast puzzle, an irony but a bitter one.

Northeast is too complex a region for New Delhi

Northeast's complex social realities are too complex for New Delhi. That region is more of an extension of Southeast Asia than South Asia. The Indian state system doesn't really fit into that region, which has become all the more volatile because of the international borders (96 per cent of Northeast's borders are with other countries and only 4 per cent with India).

Economic and political problems of the Northeast

The region is rich economically but the Partition in 1947 hurt its prospects for it was turned into a land-locked region and its distance with New Delhi increased by far.

Politically, New Delhi has failed to create a comprehensive mechanism to take on the Northeast problem and no party has been able to produce a long-term approach and depended on the immediacy of a problem. The reason is historical.

The British had followed an exclusionary policy in the Northeast and that had reduced the chances of the nationalist movement to penetrate the Northeast since the anti-imperialist ideology did not find a reflection in that part. In the absence of a robust common expression like nationalism, identities like ethnicity and language gained prominence in the Northeast and hence the divisions kept on widening.

Neither AFSPA nor so-called peace talks have succeeded

New Delhi has followed two policies to manage the Northeast since Independence. First, military tactics (keeping the draconian AFSPA alive) and second, engaging in so-called 'peace talks'. Both these options have failed as we continue to see horrible incidents like that of June 4. Peace-talks have failed because there are too much complications in the region on diverse lines for New Delhi to tackle.

PM Modi has to address the problem of Northeast

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been trying hard to challenge the status quo in a number of fields to usher in a new beginning, should make an equally strong effort to bring Northeast closer to India. It is a herculean task no doubt.

Confidence-building measures are not enough

For setting up a procedure to psychologically integrate our own people into the Union requires years of commitment amid stiff opposition and chaos. Just announcing financial and infrastructural package will not be sufficient to bridge the gap. We have seen that money hasn't really brought Jammu and Kashmir close to New Delhi over the years.

Nor will be occasional visits to the states of Northeast and make speeches wearing their attire.

Appointing the junior home minister from the Northeast alone will also not be enough. These are good confidence-building measures no doubt but integrating the Northeast requires strong initiatives in terms of politics, economics, governance, technology and people-to-people contact.

PM Modi has been lauded for his genuine efforts to bring India back on track. Will he make similar efforts to bring the Northeast close to India's heart as well? Himself an 'outsider' in Delhi, Modi is the best person to understand what exactly is causing a problem in bridging the gap.

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