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Peace Talks— The Roadblocks Ahead

NORTH-EAST India is constantly on a roller coaster. Moments of exuberance are only spasmodic and, for the rest of the time, people slip back to a wretched state of despair followed by endless carping. Peace talks are the new mantra of the region, but dialogue with one group is keenly watched by others who either feel threatened about their futures within that new arrangement or get ideas about a new revolution. There are at least half a dozen groups currently lined up for “peace talks”. Retired Intelligence Bureau chief PC Haldar is spending much time and energy trying to create the right paradigm for talks with each group. And therein lies the problem! The Union home ministry cannot have talks on a case-by-case basis and without taking time off to understand the subtleties of the region, the genesis of the conflicts, the feelings of others who, though not part of the conflict, live within those conflict areas. And, to be more precise, is the idea of creating more ethno-political homelands in itself not the poison dart that would kill the region?

What is an ethnic homeland, anyway? And how does it serve the purpose of that ethnic community? Meghalaya and Nagaland are good examples of states created out of ethnic considerations. Are these states faring better in terms of their economic growth? Is their State Domestic Product higher? Is the per capita income of their population better? Do they have lower rates of poverty? Are living standards in general better? Is infrastructural growth happening at a faster pace? Are the educational standards better? And what about health infrastructure? Are health centers and hospitals better run and cared for merely because they are administered by our own ethnic babus, doctors and nurses?

To all of the above questions, the answer is a resounding “No”. Meghalaya’s Below Poverty Line population has grown from 49 per cent in 2008-09 to 66 per cent in 2010. Its health infrastructure is decrepit and this is reflected in the high Maternal Mortality Ratio and Infant Mortality Rate. Incidentally, Meghalaya has no data for MMR, ostensibly because getting data for this is particularly difficult. I always thought that data for anything under the sun was possible provided the researchers had a clear idea of what they wanted and which research methodology to use. The IMR in Meghalaya in 2008 was 58 per 1,000 live births. This is certainly on the higher side and it happens because of a lack of health facilities, ignorance and poor health of mothers, no spacing between births, etc.

According to scholars of a particular university who conducted their own research to put a figure on the MMR of Meghalaya, the figure is something like 487 per 100,000 live births. This is an astoundingly high figure and informs us about the ground realities in the state. If the health indicators are poor, there is little hope that the other areas of growth will be any different. The fond hope of the health department is to bring down the figure to 100 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. This is only a dream, the achievement of which seems distant. Readers may wonder why I cite these statistics and whether they have any bearing on the current topic under discussion. Now let me try to explain. At the heart of every demand for greater autonomy by every ethnic group there are claims that a homeland is the only way to bring in “greater prosperity” within that designated area. That is how the leaders of every ethnic community peddle dreams. No one ever dares to spell out the road map upon which these dreams will be built and what the role of the ordinary woman and man is in this dream projects.

Meghalaya was created as a sort of collective homeland for Khasis, Jaintias and Garos and other fringe tribes like the Hajongs, Rabhas, Kochs, etc. But those who granted statehood forgot to consider the future of the huge non-tribal population in Meghalaya who today do not even enjoy any constitutional status. Non-tribals cannot purchase land in Meghalaya except in the European Ward, which is a small area already very heavily populated. Employment within the state sector is today limited to the tribes only. Non-tribals who conduct businesses have to do so through “benami”, in the name of some tribal. Still the tribes continue to be paranoid about being reduced to a minority in their state and of not being in control of their own affairs. This, despite the presence of the Autonomous District Councils that are envisaged to be the custodians of tribal culture, practices and heritage!

So great is the paranoia about losing out to the non-tribals that elections to the different municipalities are opposed tooth and nail. As a result, there is no civic body in Meghalaya to address the gargantuan problem of garbage, water and sanitation, general cleanliness and urban discipline. Everybody builds a house according to his own specifications and cares two hoots about the urban affairs directive. What, then, is achieved by creating a state along ethnic lines? All that we have today is a small tribal elite whose wealth index has spiraled in the same manner that inflation in this country has. The rest of the population remains out of the purview of governance and survive despite the government. Child labor is rampant in the villages and even within the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. So we can well imagine just how poor governance is.

Having said that, it is also a fact that the tribes have enjoyed certain advantages in Meghalaya. Or at least some among the tribes have. There is 80 per cent seat reservation for the local tribals (Khasis, Jaintias, Garos) in all medical and professional colleges. There is also 80 per cent job reservation for them in Meghalaya. Would we have enjoyed a similar advantage had we remained under the composite state of Assam? Doubtful! And why would it be so? Some would say because our system is entrenched in the reservation conundrum and has no place for merit and open competition. The next question is: would the tribes have been able to compete on a level playing field with non-tribes who are civilisationally more advanced? It would have been difficult. Sometimes even competing among themselves is tough. A student from a village school would be severely disadvantaged if he/she had to compete with a student from an elite school in Shillong. But the problem here is of quality education, which the state has failed to provide.

Meghalaya is only my reference point. The same can be said of Nagaland, where a few dominant tribes have ruled the roost, leading to the demand for an Eastern Nagaland State by those who perceive themselves as marginalized by the present state of Nagaland. The point I am trying to make is that although our Constitution makers did a good job of a bad deal, the situation then had not opened up to the plethora of problems we face today.

Except for the voice of Rev JJM Nichols Roy, a Khasi, hardly any other tribe had representatives who could articulate what they wanted in the Constitution to make it a more inclusive document. It is not for nothing that the father of the Indian Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar, said of the document, a few years later, that it should be thrown away and recast. Can we surmise then that the Constitution is an incomplete agenda and that it has, therefore, failed to meet the present crises in the North-east?

Hence, each time someone says the peace talks should be held within the parameters of the Constitution, I ask myself how we can discuss things that have developed in recent times. Things that the Constitution never envisaged and evidently has no solutions to! It is high time to take a hard look at this document and its present framework and see if we can rework it in a manner that makes every ethnic group feel included and secure. They need to feel they are an integral part of the democratic process without being pushed to a corner and then erupting into another bloody revolution that is destined to last at least two lost decades. We cannot amend the Constitution in a piecemeal fashion to suit the interests of a gun-toting dominant group. Nor can this country send a message that only those with guns will be heard. This will send others scurrying to the gun bazaar. There are as many guns in the North-east as you have the money to buy them.

Delhi has made some major errors in its policy of dealing with the North-east. Can we have a more enlightened and comprehensive North-east policy that would look at the whole gamut of security, not just from the militaristic perspective which oscillates between full-scale military action and/or containment; a policy that would ensure fair and inclusive governance and equal economic opportunities?

*The article is written by Patricia Mukhim.

*The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com

*The article was earlier published January 23, 2011.

(Courtesy: The Statesman, India)

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