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North-East: Unfinished Business

Pointers towards restructure, reform, reconciliation and resurgence in India‘s troubled frontier.

This paper combines the Kamal Kumari Memorial Lecture delivered in Guwahati on April 18, 2002 and two articles entitled ‘Pilgrim’s Progress in Nagaland’ (Times of India, April 4, 2002) and ‘Open up to Integrate the Northeast‘ (Hindustan Times, May 2, 2002).

I am greatly honored to be invited to deliver the seventh Kamal Kumari Memorial Lecture. From the short film about Kamal Kumari Borooah just screened, she appears to have been a remarkable lady, imbued with great courage and determination. Her husband, Siva Prasad Borooah, a leading tea planter founded the Assamese weekly Sadinya Baatori in 1930. This became a daily, the Dainik Batori, five years later. It was a truly pioneering venture, especially as the paper was published from the family’s home in Thengal, a sleepy rural hamlet 20 miles from Jorhat. Siva Prasad died in 1938 but his young widow emerged from the shadows to run the family concerns. Dainik Bartori was scarcely viable and had finally to close down around 1946. Kamal Kumari was clearly a woman ahead of her times and must have been an inspiration to others.

My interest in the Northeast goes back to 1951, shortly after commencing a career in journalism with the Times of India in Bombay. A friend living in Assam invited me to visit him; but more than that it was the allure of a motoring holiday from Guwahati to Kohima and Imphal that attracted me. Fascinated by this new frontier ‘“ the mighty Brahmaputra, lovely tea gardens, the deep forests and enormously diverse people’”I have returned again and again ever since.

In 1955, I was witness to the inauguration of the Naga-Tuensang Hill Area and was able to air-hop around the Northeast Frontier Agency or NEFA, today’s Arunachal. It was easier to do so then than it is today, with Dakotas operating from old wartime landing strips that had been used to fly ‘the Hump’.

In 1962, I went to Bomdila and Se La as a war correspondent a couple of days before the Chinese broke through to the foothills. Tezpur was a ghost town on the fateful night of November 20-21 as the administration and civil population evacuated the North bank and the security forces pulled back to Guwahati. The local State Bank currency chest and official papers kept at the District Collectorate had been burnt and the doors of the mental hospital opened to release the bewildered inmates. Remaining with these lost souls were 11 journalists, another Indian, Prem Prakash, and myself among them, who alone stayed behind. A little before midnight, even as we kept vigil, the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and pull back to their Himalayan claim line. It was a truly eerie experience. A month later, I returned with the civil administration to Bomdila, having meanwhile enjoyed the unpaid hospitality of Tezpur’s Planter’s Club whose unattended store of tinned fish and beer sustained us with something more than just survival rations.

In 1966 I had barely joined the Prime Minister’s office as Information Adviser when I was required to fly into Aizawl following the Mizo National Front uprising. Two years later I toured the entire Northeast extensively and wrote a series of official papers on the integrated development of the Northeast and the harnessing of its bountiful land and water resources. I’m not sure these were read by anybody. That vision still remains to be implemented.

In 1980, I was off and on in Guwahati for many weeks on behalf of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, engaged in a bid to broker an accord between the All-Assam Students Union and the Centre. I shuttled between the Governor and the young AASU leadership trying to figure a way to safeguard Assamese identity against the influx of illicit Bangladeshi immigrants. Like other efforts, it did not work. The continuing agitation led to much grief.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, I again travelled extensively throughout the Northeast to research two books that were to follow: ‘Waters of Hope’, on water resource development, and ‘India’s Northeast Resurgent’, the thrust of which is summed up in the sub-title, ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development’. Finally, in 1997, I was a member of the Shukla Commission that reported to the Government on ‘Transforming the Northeast’. I have latterly been associated with the ADB in an endeavor to promote the concept of a South Asian Development Quadrangle embracing Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Eastern/Northeastern India. There is also an ongoing Track II effort, in which the Centre for Policy Research is a participant, to conceptualize regional cooperation between Bangladesh, (Southwest) China, (Eastern and Northeastern) India and Myanmar in a so-called BCIM Forum.

This fragment of personal history is an indulgence in nostalgia that highlights some memorable landmarks. There is much unfinished business in the Northeast.

The Partition of India in 1947 caused the extreme geo-politically isolation of the NE, making it emotionally, though not quite physically, South Asia’s third landlocked state along with Bhutan and Nepal. The loss of connectivity and market access all around set its economy back by at least a quarter century. The impact of this was not fully understood.

The coming of Independence also brought contrary pulls and pressures into play. There was an understandable national drive to integrate the hitherto loosely administered or constitutionally ‘excluded’ Northeast frontier regions. Per contra, the extraordinarily diverse mosaic of tribal peoples who had lived undisturbed and aloof in their remote village republics sought to differentiate themselves in order to prevent their identity being submerged in the vast ocean of Indian humanity. This was part of the pains of transition towards a new nationhood rather than an inevitable clash between integrative and secessionist tendencies. Three forces were a work. At one level, a few ethnic groups, a segment of Nagas to start with, sought independence from India with the departure of the Raj. At another level, several others sought separation from Assam, but within India, in view of their own linguistic and ethnic particularities. Finally, certain smaller groups have continued to seek autonomy within the several Northeastern states in order to safeguard their interests and protect their distinctive way of life. The Founding Fathers wrote the Sixth Schedule into the Constitution to accommodate the Northeast’s remarkable diversity. Despite Assam’s ‘reorganization’, the interplay of these forces is still at work. The Northeast has seen the emergence of new states and a variety of autonomous and apex councils. Notwithstanding criticism and seeming failures, this has been a most creative exercise of nation-building and state formation that has few parallels anywhere in the world. That much discontent is still manifest in multiple insurgencies, signifies the trauma of continuing transition rather than failure. There is no reason for despair.

While Assam has been broken into smaller units, the geo-political reality of the Northeast still eludes common understanding. This huge landmass, shaped something like an elephant’s ear, is attached to the Indian heartland by the narrow, 37-km wide Siliguri corridor. As against this, the Northeast’s external boundary extends over 5000 kilometers and is contiguous with five countries, Nepal, China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. No other state in India abuts so many other countries. Everything north and east of Siliguri must be defined as part of the Northeast ‘“ Sikkim, the Darjeeling-Gorkha Hills Area and North Bengal included. This is ethnically Mongolian India, crudely put, and culturally part of Southeast Asia.

Equally, the entire Northeast must be treated in all strategic respects as a single, unified entity, a federation within a federation. While the distinctive identities and concerns of the Seven Sisters plus Sikkim, the DGHA and North Bengal, and the autonomous sub-units within them, must be respected in every way, they cannot prosper without regional integration. This alone will ensure cohesion, overall development, coordination and economies of scale. This understanding too has to dawn fully on all concerned.

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The Northeast must be treated in all strategic respects as a single, unified entity ‘” a federation within a federation

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This calls for reconceptualisation of the Northeast, a total restructuring of the Northeastern Council in both its planning and security dimensions and a new administrative ethos. A different set of planning norms needs to be applied, relying on the peculiar circumstances and genius of the region. The effort must be to build on what is best in traditional community institutions that have either been thoughtlessly or too hastily set aside in the name of some mythical all-India norm or accounting practice.

The North East Council must also be restructured. The Council was created 30 years ago pursuant to Assam’s reorganization into multiple states. The NEC, headed by the Assam Governor, envisaged a development and a security wing, the latter under the Inspector-General Assam Rifles. A Secretariat was set up in Shillong. At that time, there was only one Governor in the Northeast, that of Assam. Tripura and Manipur were under Lieutenant Governors and were only later placed under Governors.

Thereafter, the chairmanship of the NEC came to be rotated among the seven regional governors. This weakened organic unity. The subsequent induction of chief ministers as members alongside the Governors has not improved matters. Meanwhile the NE Security Adviser became increasingly detached from the NEC and vertically integrated with the Centre whereas Peace (security) and Development go hand in hand and should not run on parallel tracks.

Another inherent weakness of the NEC has been its narrow mandate. The Planning Commission draws up the State Five Year Plans in conjunction with each of the respective units and approves the latter’s annual plans. The aggregation of these disparate plans does not make for an integrated Northeast plan within an interdependent geo-political and natural resource region. The present arrangement leaves the NEC with no more than a limited coordinating role with little additional funds to promote inter-state projects. It is neither staffed nor mandated to undertake regional planning. This must change.

The creation of a Department of Development of the NE Region (DONER) in Delhi early in 2002, was a welcome first step in what is hopefully the beginning of a transition to a more meaningful structure. The locus of planning must, however, shift from Delhi to Shillong if the region is to assume ownership of the Northeast Plan. This can be done by making Minister, DONER ex-officio Chairman of NEC and an ex-officio Planning Commission Member to boot. He should be headquartered in Shillong and travel in the Northeast, visiting Delhi periodically rather than the other way around.

To ensure cohesion and coordination, the Minister/Chairman NEC should also chair an upgraded Brahmaputra Board whose Vice-Chairman (Technical) should participate in the Council along with the Security Adviser. The latter should, however, remain part of the MHA/Defense operational chain of command. Two other Central officials should be located in the Northeast and liaise closely with the NEC in view of the Northeast’s unique geo-political situation and externalities: an officer of the Ministry of External Affairs with consular jurisdiction, and another from the Ministry of Commerce. The upgradation of Guwahati to an international airport from April 2002, initially with flights to Bangkok, and the opening of an international air cargo terminal thereafter, further justifies such a dispensation. Officials of the NEC should be posted at the MEA and to diplomatic missions in the neighborhood so that the special concerns of the Northeast are well articulated and understood.

When in Delhi, Minister, DONER-cum-Chairman NEC will sit in the Planning Commission. He should be assisted by the current Northeast Adviser in Yojana Bhavan and preside over a standing committee of officers drawn from various Central Departments and PSUs engaged in development activities in the Northeast.

The Northeast also needs administrative reform and a strong monitoring and evaluation mechanism. All too many ‘mainstream’ officials tend to consider a posting in the region to be a hardship and are allowed to keep their families in Delhi. They do not have their heart in the Northeast. The abolition around 1969-70 of the former Indian Frontier Administrative Service (which also served other border regions and the Island territories) was an error. Even if this cadre is not revived, a special volunteer IFAS pool could be created within the IAS to fill the present void.

Peace, development and connectivity are inextricably bound together in the Northeast. They are integral to one another. This is as yet imperfectly understood in Delhi. Some decision-makers fear that ‘opening up’ externally could invite trouble, giving a fillip to attempts at destabilization of and the dumping of goods in this sensitive region. On the contrary, opening up through Bangladesh and Myanmar to the wider neighborhood beyond, along with appropriate trade facilitation measures, could help legitimize commerce, expand income generation and employment opportunities, promote tourism and create an enabling environment conducive to peace and stability. Remote boundaries at the edges of what have hitherto been peripheral regions have to be seen as gateways, not barriers. India must open up these lifelines to integrate the Northeast. The Northeast is not merely ready for this but is chafing at excessive caution and delay.

The Northeast was ‘closed’ to its external neighbors during all the years when the country’s relations with Bangladesh, Myanmar and China/Tibet were strained. These ties are fortunately on the mend and India has embraced SADQ, BIMST-EC and the Mekong-Ganga Initiative in all of which the Northeast enjoys a pivotal position. Nonetheless, there is a lurking inhibition about opening up the Northeast’s land borders. Such fears should not be lightly dismissed; but the absence of trade and transport facilitation and enlargement of economic opportunities have encouraged smuggling and other illicit activity and stirred discontent. Bilateralism and caution have merit but should not become a fetish. Multilateralism is not wicked.

India must open up to integrate the Northeast. However, in doing so it should negotiate appropriate border management protocols. There are better ways of countering dumping than by trying to close the gates. India will become competitive by competing and the Northeast must be enabled to graduate from merely providing a transit corridor to becoming a significant originator and supplier of tradable goods and services, including tourism. The importance of border trade lies not only in enhancing local livelihoods but also in stimulating the development of cross-border infrastructure and facilities that promote larger inter-country trade at lower transaction costs. Imparting centrality and vibrancy to neglected frontier regions can add immeasurably to self-esteem, confidence and national integration and counter sentiments of isolation and despair.

It is obvious that the Northeast cannot ignore its immediate neighborhood, which is far more international than national. Trans-border trade with the countries beyond (including what is now Bangladesh) was the lifeblood of whole communities in Sikkim, the DGHA and the Northeast generally. Partition, war, insurgency and diplomatic strains and tensions over long periods severed these ties. Fortunately, we now live in better times and relations with our neighbors have improved. However, the country’s diplomatic and trade policies in relation to the region and emerging opportunities therein remains wedded to past shibboleths. There is a continuing inwardness of approach. The path to closer national integration of the Northeast lies in opening up the region to its external neighborhood, including Southeast Asia, China and, especially, Bangladesh.

The Northeast should be seen as a bridge to lands and opportunities beyond rather than as a cul de sac in a troublesome extremity of the country. Moreh and Lekhapani, the Indian termini of the Burma Road and the Stillwell Road, should, like Bombay, each have a Gateway of India facing east. Border trade can be the first step towards restoring trans-border community and commerce, providing a stimulus to inter-country trade – not merely as a transit corridor but as a source of local manufacture. What is now considered and sees itself as a peripheral region, with all its emotional implications for national integration, would thereby gain centrality and visibility. Regional cooperation will be fostered by and can in turn foster connectivity, trade facilitation, regional cooperation and people to people exchange. Unfortunately, the Government prefers bilateralism and views multilateralism with suspicion. Mindsets must change.

India, like any other nation, must want clearly determined and inviolable sovereign boundaries. However, in its preoccupation with boundary fixation and the related issue of border management against illicit traffic and other crimes or threats to national security, the Government appears to have lost sight of the importance of developing an appropriate frontier or border policy. Although the words border, frontier and boundary are used interchangeably in common parlance, they represent very different concepts. While ‘boundary’ connotes the line demarcating the external political jurisdiction of a state, border or frontier refer to transitional zones or bands of territory that lie on either side of the international boundary. Border regions most often exhibit commonalties of race, peoples, language, religion, natural systems, environment, culture and ways of life. Border peoples share ties of culture and commerce.

These human and natural ties are not necessarily severed by national boundaries and it must be a matter for regret and concern when this occurs. The Government’s indifference towards or mistrust of multilateralism is in part a by-product of a wider intellectual failure to differentiate between boundary/frontier and border, between states or governments on the one hand and men and nature on the other. This infirmity has had a negative impact on the Northeast despite positive geo-political changes in the neighborhood. It has been well said that the fact of a boundary is often less important than the nature of that boundary.

It is not that nothing happens across or around the country’s Northeastern boundaries. Unquiet borderlands on either side have been and are witness to cross-border insurgency, gun-running, narcotics and AIDS, smuggling, money laundering, trafficking in women and illicit immigration. These manifestations denote the porosity of the boundary and vigorous negative activity across it. Rather than adopt a defensive siege mentality, the object of policy should be to convert this vicious circle into a virtuous cycle. The Northeastern States are willing and anxious to open up. The Centre has to be more responsive. Slow and stately movement is compounding the lost opportunities of earlier wasted years. .

Sub-regional cooperation offers a good starting point. When SAARC was stymied by the Indo-Pakistan deadlock, the smaller partners suggested sub-regional cooperation. Thus was born the idea of the South Asian Development Quadrangle. This is essentially based on the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna natural resource region, embracing Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Eastern and Northeastern India. This concept was long frowned upon by the Government of India but has now fortunately won its approval. The South Asian Development Quadrangle or SADQ may be no more than a sub-region of SAARC, but in terms of population is larger than the European Union, ASEAN or NAFTA. This is no disqualification. Nevertheless, it is as well to recognize that SADQ, a macro-sub-region, comprises many mini and micro agro-climatic and socio-cultural regions with problems and opportunities of their own.

>>The idea of BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) regional cooperation is worth pursuing<<

It would be useful to plan for such mini/micro sub-regions as well, some of them in due course even extending beyond the confines of SADQ into Myanmar and Tibet. A few such mini-regions spring to mind. A Meghalaya-Mymensingh/Sylhet sub-region suggests itself. Another grouping, the Meghna-Feni-Karnafuli (MFK) natural resource region, might comprise Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur and Cachar in India and the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the Chittagong, Noakhali, Comilla and Sylhet districts of Bangladesh, to which parts of the Chin Hill and Rakhine districts of Myanmar could be added later. A third obvious sub-region would be a Himalayan cluster including Sikkim, the DGCA and parts of Arunachal, Bhutan, Tibet and eastern Nepal.

The Meghna-Feni-Karnafuli (MFK) sub-region has many hill-plain-ocean and plantation-market-export complementarities that await exploitation, with Chittagong as an entrepot, as before Partition. This sub-region has strong ethno-cultural links and, if brought together, could offer attractive economies of scale that would translate its very substantial hydro/hydrocarbon energy potential and plantation and eco-tourism promise into major market opportunities. The Northeast needs an outlet to the sea at Chittagong and/or Akyab/Sitwe in Myanmar. Likewise, if Bangladesh aspires to build a great deepwater port at Chittagong – a sore need for the upper Bay of Bengal littoral ‘“ it must know that this will a non-starter or a puny effort without the hinterland, larger market, investment and infrastructure that Northeast and Eastern India would provide. The great inland waterways that inter-connect this region could also be revivified in conjunction with Bangladesh for inter-modal transport. The mutual benefit is obvious. In all these matters it is necessary to think and act concurrently, and not sequentially, in order to derive synergy.

The idea of BCIM (Bangladesh China, India and Myanmar) regional cooperation is also worth pursuing as one among many formations that might ultimately interlock in a larger South Asian, Southeast Asia and East Asian network. The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation Association and BIMST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation Association) are already there. The recent inauguration of flights from Guwahati to Bangkok from Guwahati international airport is an augury of the future. The Moreh-Tamu-Kalewa highway leading on to Mandalay, built by the Border Roads Organization as an Indian aided project, has opened another door. The proposed Guwahati international air cargo facility will mark yet another step towards establishing new cross-border links. The air cargo project is, however, progressing far too slowly and without any sign of concerted planning about how the facility is to be used ‘“ for what and by whom. The related infrastructure and linkages remain indeterminate. Here is but one example of sequential planning.

All these varied tasks cannot be done by governments or in the public sector alone. Private investment is essential, bringing with it capital, technology, management skills, flexibility and innovation. Turning down or delaying foreign investment on the ground that the Northeast is a very sensitive can no longer be unquestioningly accepted. There is certainly a strong case for fashioning policies that ensure that the region enjoys value-addition in terms of employment and income generation and is not merely used as a raw material base or transit zone. The days of large plantations in ‘gardens’ or ‘ estates’ are over. There is neither the land nor social acceptance to permit this sort of development any further. However, the smallholder experiment has worked well either through cooperativisation or in partnership with large manufacturers. Small tea growers along the Arunachal foothills, for example, sell their produce to big garden factories across the border in Assam.

There is huge scope for smallholder cultivation of plantation crops and in horticulture, herbiculture and floriculture with technical inputs, planting material, processing and marketing facilities being provided by large units. Smallholder lands can be invested as equity, with the state or community as a third partner in joint ventures, if so desired. The same can be said about sericulture and weaving. Various incentives have been announced and appropriate counter-guarantees can be offered. Local entrepreneurs and industries need to be encouraged to cater to the Northeast’s Defense market for fresh and processed foods, boots, blankets, uniform material, parachutes, medical supplies and so forth.

Land ownership patterns are often cited as inhibiting land acquisition for infrastructural and industrial requirements. Meghalaya has developed the concept of ‘tribal interest’ as a supervening doctrine. With the steady shortening of the jhum cycle for a variety of reasons, many areas have suffered ecological regression. Nagaland’s Environmental Plan for Economic Development (NEPED) is an imaginative example of upgrading jhum cultivation through the protection and promotion of bio-diversity to restore the kind of sustainable agro-forestry practice it once was.

Very large areas of jhum fallow can be reclaimed for plantations and horticulture with appropriate cadastral surveys and improved land use planning. These can be made available for tripartite joint ventures on the lines described, with smallholders organized around larger corporate or cooperative mother units. The National Dairy Development Board can play a pioneering role here on the basis of the Amul pattern, which is applicable not only to dairying but equally to other areas of agricultural endeavor as well. Small rubber and tea growers in Tripura and fruit growers in Mizoram are among those waiting for this to happen.

Large infrastructure such as railheads, utilities, cold storages, warehouses, industrial areas, export processing zones and educational and medical facilities, and the townships that inevitably develop around them, require substantial tracts of flat lands. So will installations associated with the large water regulation and hydro-electric storages planned in the Northeast such as the Kameng project and Dihang and Subansiri cascades in Arunachal, the Tipaimukh dam in Manipur and other schemes in Meghalaya and Mizoram. These could transform the region and make it an energy powerhouse that attracts collateral investment and infrastructure. These water resource projects will also carry a requirement for the resettlement and rehabilitation of persons displaced by them.

One possible solution lies in creating ‘trusteeship areas’ along foothills tracts around the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys that are in dispute between Assam and the hill states carved out of it. Could these be placed under Central trusteeship for, say, 30 to 50 years and be used for the development of the kinds of infrastructure and investments described? Displaced persons, including Chakmas currently settled in Arunachal, could be relocated here in new off-farm jobs that could be created. Formulas for revenue sharing between the concerned states can be worked out. Assam might feel it is getting a poor deal as it will be ‘sharing’ what it regards as its rightful territory with everybody else. Not so. Assam is greatly in need of water regulation to moderate floods, improve its agricultural calendar and prevent the erosion of Majuli and other char lands. The availability of plentiful and cheap electricity would also propel its industrialization and counter educated-unemployment.

Peace is needed for Development and Development for Peace. There is no given sequence; both go hand in hand. Both ends of the equation must be worked on simultaneously. It is development that has been here addressed thus far. What of Peace? There is considerable evidence that the people in the Northeast are tired of violence, extortion and the disruption of daily life. They want both Peace and Development.

The on-going Naga Reconciliation Movement is seeking to end internecine strife and unite all Naga tribes and factions in the search for an honorable and just settlement. The Naga peoples’ claim is that they were never part of India and are therefore neither separatists nor secessionists. They too regained their freedom with the departure of the British and, moreover, marked this with their own declaration of independence subsequently ratified by means of a self-organized plebiscite.

A parallel and truly moving Naga Reconciliation Movement for unity and reconciliation has reinforced the on-going official talks between the Prime Minister’s special emissary and the NSCN-IM. This engenders hope and holds out an example for Jammu and Kashmir and other areas troubled by conflict in the country.

The Reconciliation Movement gained impetus in June 2001 with a resolution adopted by Village Development Board functionaries from Nagaland’s 1000-odd villages expressing disgust at the breakdown of governance, rising anti-social activities and fratricidal violence. They called on all underground factions, IM, NSCN-Khaplang and the Naga National Council (NNC), to unite and put an end to fear, intimidation and killings. Zunheboto district declared itself a Peace Zone. Others followed suit. Violence declined. Naga unity is seen as an imperative as neither the 16-point Agreement (1960) nor the Shillong Accord (1975) brought peace without all factions on board.

The Naga Ho Ho (assembly), the Church and NGOs then launched a ‘journey of conscience’ to bring about forgiveness, unity and healing and endorsed the current ceasefire and official talks to settle the ‘unresolved Naga political issue’. Followed a ringing Declaration against the ‘brutalization of human life by forces both within and without’. It stated that the Naga people could not give up their struggle ‘without an honorable settlement and an adequate acknowledgement of (their) history’. Yet it was noted ‘that division, bitterness and armed confrontation will not solve the Naga political issue’.

Unable to ignore this united peace lobby, the IM leadership invited the Naga Coordination Committee, led by Mr. M.Vero, the all-Naga Ho Ho President, to a Consultation in Bangkok in January 2002. The concluding statement contained these key phrases: the Naga struggle for self-determination is neither secessionist nor separatist as the Nagas were never traditionally part of India; the Naga people were arbitrarily fragmented by the British; the Indo-Naga conflict must be settled in a manner ‘honorable and acceptable to both sides’; and the Nagas must be ‘accommodative’ of their neighbors’ ‘legitimate interests and apprehensions’.

The CBMs mooted include withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and other ‘draconian laws’, lifting the ban on proscribed Naga organizations, and rescinding arrest warrants against the Naga leadership. . The Consultation felt the ceasefire monitoring mechanism would gain credibility by inducting independent observers and by conferring greater autonomy on the process.

Despite references to a Naga ‘declaration of independence’ on August 14, 1947, reaffirmed through an NNC plebiscite conducted in May 1951, the word sovereignty is eschewed in all documents and declarations. What is sought is ‘an acknowledgement of Naga history’ and self-determination. Unilateral abandonment of the Naga ’cause’ would be deemed by many as a betrayal after decades of suffering and sacrifice. Perhaps a via media could lie in both sides making simultaneous statements of ‘truth’ and reconciliation. The Naga leaders could collectively renounce their claim to sovereignty even as the Government of India acknowledges that the Nagas were indeed a free people in the past. The Government of India could go on to regret its genuine inability to reverse history at this juncture. The ‘Naga people’ might thereupon of their own volition freely reaffirm their accession to the Indian Union, a democratic Republic of sovereign and fraternal peoples. These solemn declarations could assuage Naga pride and honor without disregarding India’s political imperatives.

The nation state is a fairly recent concept that derives from an earlier sense of ‘peoplehood’. Nagas repeatedly describe themselves as a people. The Indian Republic in turn celebrates a larger diversity welded together in a continuing process of nation building. The Nagas are therefore today not subjects but co-sharers in India’s sovereignty that resides in the collective will of all the Indian people. Even nation states are forming larger associations and unions, as in Europe, for economic advancement and common security. SAFTA has been mooted.

The Greater Nagaland or Nagalim demand is another troubling issue. If Nagas are administratively dispersed over four Indian states and in Myanmar, this is equally true of Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamils and other peoples around the world. Conversely, Dimapur was part of the Dimasa-Koch kingdom and was only added to the newly formed Naga Hills District in the 1930s to provide it a convenient railhead. Unscrambling current realities is not easy and could lead to grief.

The answer to the Naga sense of territoriality lies in encouraging close cooperation among the Naga people for economic, cultural, social, environmental and other purposes across administrative and even national boundaries. Naga customary law and linguistic and cultural rights, already guaranteed under Article 371A, can surely be deemed to extend beyond Nagaland to all Naga people wherever they reside. The all-Naga Ho Ho itself suggests an available instrumentality for bringing together all Naga people for common purposes.

With the NSCN IM-Government of India talks moving from procedural to substantive issues, more can be done to enlarge self-determination for the Nagas as a co-sovereign within the Union. The sense of Naga autonomy and peoplehood can be widened and deepened beyond the present compass of Article 371A. Symbols matter. During the Raj, certain Princely States had their own flags, currency, postage stamps and were permitted to open trade and tourist offices abroad. J&K and Sikkim have defined ‘state subjects’ and consideration is being given to dual rights for NRIs. Can ‘Naga Indian’ be embossed on Indian passports? The US and Australian states and provinces elsewhere have their own flags and emblems. Scotland has long boasted a separate currency and international football team.

What if other Indian ‘people’ make similar demands? Where justified, these may be conceded. Indeed, Articles 371-A to I are essays in creative federalism. The Bodo problem is hopefully moving towards resolution with agreement on a Bodoland Territorial Council under the Sixth Schedule. This would empower the Governor to override the State Government in respect of ‘reserved’ subjects on the one hand and safeguard the interests of non-Bodo minorities within the Bodoland Territory on the other. A similar dispensation could be thought of in new Naga-peopled Sixth Schedule areas in Arunachal, Cachar (Assam) and Manipur, whether or not these States and Nagaland share a common Governor. The Naga way of life and cultural and economic bonds among Naga peoples can surely be strengthened without derogating from the integrity of any other Indian state.

Talks must in due course extend to the Khaplang and NNC groups so that all factions come together as partners in the final settlement. Mr. S.C. Jamir, the present Nagaland Chief Minister, has on earlier occasions agreed to step aside if this facilitates matters. Both he and Mr. Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur, could be honorably accommodated elsewhere. So also Mr. Khaplang, a Hemi Naga from Myanmar, if he accepts Indian citizenship. A Naga settlement would catalyze peace throughout the Northeast. Working for it requires patience and understanding all round.

A Naga accord would in particular have a salutary effect throughout the Northeast. All the other insurgencies must be similarly approached with a mixture of understanding, accommodation and firmness. Many problems are essentially psychological and can be prevented or cured by tactful handling. In many matters, style counts for as much as substance, possibly more.

Assam has made a number of interesting political forays in creative federalism. Non-territorial Apex Councils have been established to protect the identity of the numerically small Tiwa, Rabha and Mishing plains tribals scattered in non-contiguous clusters. This follows the earlier creation of new and more generously empowered Autonomous Councils for Karbi Anglong and the North Cachar Hills. Some would argue that these bodies have not necessarily worked to everybody’s satisfaction. Yet they represent bold experiments on which to build.

The principle of non-territoriality can also be used, first, to defuse and then to resolve the thorny issue of ‘outsiders’ in the region. Those defined as ‘outsiders’ may be granted electoral rights in specially designated non-territorial constituencies. This would enable them to elect a certain number of members to the State Assemblies, and even to Parliament if necessary. They would thus no longer hold the balance in a large number of constituencies as at present. Shillong and Dimapur are examples of two such ‘general’ constituencies. Both are larger than most constituencies in Meghalaya and Nagaland respectively. Similar non-territorial constituencies can be set up in special export processing zones or in the trusteeship areas outlined earlier.

The mechanism of upper houses can also be used to give appropriate representation to special groups and ethnic minorities and even to ‘outsiders’.

The problem of ‘foreigners’ has to be treated differently. There is no way earlier cohorts of illicit immigrants are going to be deported except through due process which may be redefined if necessary. Those established to have entered India after the presently stipulated cut-off date should enjoy all civil and economic rights but may be denied electoral rights until legitimately brought on the rolls. They should be eligible for naturalization after five or more years as may be determined and their children accorded citizenship by birth. All births, deaths, marriages and property sales must be registered. None of this will be easy. But a beginning has to be made to plug loopholes and facilitate a permanent settlement.

Future ingress of illicit immigrants, especially from Bangladesh and Nepal, has to be controlled by better border management and accelerated development of those countries, a task that India must assist in its own enlightened self-interest. Over and beyond that, entry must be regulated by authorized work-permits for designated jobs in specified areas. Such protocols must work both ways, with Indians eligible to go to Bangladesh on similar terms whenever opportunity arises.

What is the role of the media, especially the regional media, in all of this? The Fourth Estate sets the agenda and shapes social discourse. It has to abandon cynicism and carping criticism even as it focuses on incompetence and malfeasance. It can ensure transparency and accountability within parameters of responsible journalism. It needs to reinforce success by reporting on the many positive things, small and big, happening around the region. It must interpret the Northeast to the rest of India and the greater Indian reality to the Northeast. Above all it must remind everybody to remember the future in order to redeem the past. There is no other way.

Much more can be said of the Northeast. There are better days ahead. The country is now more conscious of the Northeast and is genuinely anxious to assist its development and resurgence. But the Northeast cannot just wait for something to turn up. It must exert itself to put its house in order. The way ahead is not going to be easy. There is much to be done. More reason, therefore, together to get on with the job.

*The commentary was written by B G Verghese.

*The commentary is republished as it is deemed still relevant today.

*You may visit www.bgverghese.com for further readings.

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