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Who Said Nagalim Is Utopia?

Bad new makes eminent good news for the Northeast! The oft-repeated whine that the region does not make it to national media headlines was compensated by the media bombardment on 24×7 news channels over the 68-day blockade of Manipur’s lifeline, National Highway 39, by the All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur.

The reason for the blockade could have been anything, since such blockades have become the rule and not the exception.

When things reached boiling point and life-saving equipment and drugs turned the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences, Imphal, into a sort of dharamshala where patients were expected to survive on placebos, then the Union home ministry took notice and started talking tough on the bandh callers. Before that, it was business as usual.

Union home minister P Chidambaram, who, during that very period visited Mizoram, did not consider it his brief to stop over at Manipur, although at the time the economic blockade had crossed its 20th day.

The more we ponder about issues and non-issues in the Northeast, the more mindboggling it gets. We supposedly live in a country called India but in some parts of the Northeast ‘Indian’ laws simply do not operate.

Sample this: the entire population of Nagaland and the Nagas of Manipur regularly pay taxes to different militant groups. The taxes are a sort of payment from the people to the armed cadres to fight for their ‘freedom’.

By the way, the currency used as legal tender is the Indian rupee. Nagalim does not yet have its own currency, although it is vested with the right to collect taxes.

You would expect legitimate public authorities like the NSCN (IM), NSCN (Unification), NSCN (K) and the Naga National Council, etc, to be accountable to the people who sustain their livelihood. But no. There is no such thing as audited accounts.

I am not suggesting here that the accounts be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India because these armed groups operate outside the purview of the Indian Constitution and, hence, of the Indian accounting systems. But they should at least inform how public funds are utilized.

Sources close to the ground have said that the blockade over NH 39 was a double whammy. It half-starved the people of Manipur (both in the hills and the valley) of essential commodities, mostly food, medicines, LPG cylinders, kerosene, diesel and petroleum; but it also starved the NSCN (IM) of its taxes for 68 days. That’s quite a sum!

The same sources said that trucks were graded by the items they carried and accordingly taxed. Trucks carrying medicines are charged Rs 25,000. Those carrying detergents pay Rs 6,000, while trucks carrying iron rods and cement are asked to cough up Rs 11,000.

Over and above these charges, all commercial vehicles pay a lump sum of Rs 10,000 a year. Although all armed outfits have their own turf, the NSCN (IM) corners the largest share of the ‘booty’ (sorry about the use of this word, but I am writing from an Indian perspective). Funnily, the state police also collect Rs 3,000 per truck. Would you call that corruption? Not by the standards of Nagaland!

What the ground zero source found most extraordinary was that passenger buses with luggage on their roofs are all stopped at Dimapur.

A guy climbs up, removes the tarpaulin that covers the luggage, counts them all, comes down and asks for a fixed price depending on how many and how heavy the luggage is. All this is done with a flourish that shows the person is quite used to the trade.

NH 39 is, therefore, the most expensive route by far. No wonder trucks want to skirt this route. They prefer, instead, to traverse the more difficult NH 53. That says something about the safety of NH 39.

A security personnel recently made a wry comment on corruption in the Northeast. He said corruption thrived in unequal situations whereas honesty demanded an even playing field that was diminishing by the day. No wonder corruption thrives and honesty cannot survive.

So entrenched is corruption that words like ‘extortion’ are transformed to ‘taxation’. This gives extortion a cloak of respectability and honesty. Nowhere will we see so many types of taxes imposed on commercial vehicles as in Nagaland, more specifically Dimapur.

A number of receipts in my possession go by some weird names such as ‘Guide Association Dimapur’. When the amount put on this slip is two rupees, the amount actually paid by the trucks is Rs 2,000. There are receipts from ‘Karbi Anglong Transport Guide’, the ‘Manipur, Assam, Nagaland Social Security Society’, ‘Youth Welfare Society’, ‘All Nagaland Goods Movers Union’, ‘DTC Market Tolls’, ‘Motor Workers Association’, etc.

Amounts put on the receipts are deceptive. Trucks have to pay to each of these associations and more. Add to this list of obscenely extractive cults a letter written by the Dimapur Naga Students’ Union to ‘whom it may concern’, requesting the All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur, to exempt five trucks (with their number plates mentioned) from the purview of the bandh because they were ostensibly carrying fertilizers for agricultural purposes for farmers in Kalapahar, Senapati district. Evidently most of these collectors are young people who have comfortably adapted to this easy life style and know no other way.

In such a wretched atmosphere of intimidation, extortion and sheer banditry, how can there be any talk of peace, justice and equity? Can peace be built on such a lousy, shallow, deceptive foundation? Is this not an affront to the very notion of ‘peace’ itself?

What about Naga elders who frequently meet to discuss their political future? Don’t they see this proclivity for easy money among their youth as a fast track, single-lane route to destruction?

There are other very strange dichotomies that need to be highlighted for a better understanding of the situation. It begins with India’s model of engagement with the NSCN (IM) ‘” not with the Nagas. India, as someone has rightly remarked, is a soft state.

So soft that it does not even have the guts to call the bluff of armed outfits operating with impunity within its geographical territory and political boundary. Instead, Delhi is using velvet gloves and bending over backwards to appease gun-toting outfits that break every rule in the law book, particularly those having ceasefire agreements with the government of India.

As far as New Delhi is concerned, Nagalim is already a country, somewhat like Bhutan, and Th Muivah is already its sovereign ruler.

People may wonder why I say this. On Muivah’s recent visit to Nagaland, NSCN (IM) men, armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons, were allowed to proceed ahead of his itinerary to clear the way. This despite clear ceasefire ground rules that cadres cannot move around with weapons and if they are to travel they would use unfrequented routes.

After the road is cleared, Muivah arrives, escorted by ‘Indian’ state security personnel, basically snipers because he enjoys Z category security provided by the Indian state. The two forces, diametrically opposite in training and formation ‘” one state, the other non-state ‘” seem to enjoy a comfortable esprit-de-corp. How amazing is that!

Anyone watching this burlesque minus rose-tinted glasses would imagine that the Indian state suffers from serious pathological disorders. Short of wringing its hands in utter helplessness and admitting that Nagalim does exist and, therefore, allowing the slicing off of parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian state has done everything to discredit its own sovereignty. To defend its lack of spine, the Centre has also learnt not to speak sense but to couch its meaningless statements in rhetoric.

This situation is very problematic. So problematic, indeed, that recently the North Eastern Hill University conducted a seminar in collaboration with the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, on the theme, ‘Sovereignty and Political Discourse in Northeast India’.

Funnily enough, although many scholars spoke of shared sovereignty between the Union and states, the underlying theme appears to be that the Indian Constitution leaves a lot of space for discussing sovereignty and even granting it, depending on the definition of the term. There is no doubt at all that things in the Northeast, post-Muivah’s visit, are getting intensely complex and murky.

The way forward is fraught with ambiguities that no party is willing to bring any clarity to. In fact, one may not be incorrect in saying that the path ahead is strewn with unforeseen variables that could reproduce the problems in the Northeast.

The patronage that predators enjoy under the soft Indian state is a recipe for disaster. Funnily, this soft state whose underbelly is exposed to the hilt also allows itself to be demonized as an oppressive, brutal violator of human rights while non-state actors go around with halos on their heads. It’s a difficult equation to solve!

Perhaps it’s time to throw away the Indian Constitution and write a new and different one for each state! That was one of the proposals of the Nehu seminar.

Everyone felt that the Constitution had outlived its utility and that it was pointless to swear by this anachronistic document. If we give ourselves a new Constitution, Nagalim may well become a reality.

*The article is written by Patricia Mukhim.

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

(Courtesy: Sinlung)

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