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Attempting to provide an illustration about the non-homogenous character and artificiality of the North East construct, the author had written in the introduction to one of his edited collections [Frontier in Flames: North East India in Turmoil (Penguin, 2008)] that,


“The (North East) region, is not a composite whole, and an Ao of Nagaland has as much as in common with a Garo of Meghalaya, or a Karbi of Assam, as have a Kashmiri pundit of Jammu & Kashmir with a Namboodiri Brahmin of Kerala. All the three former communities owe allegiance to a tribal denomination in the same manner that the latter two are from the Brahmin fraternity. But the differences are apparent.”


Ethnic aspirations of almost all social formations in the North East are individually coming to the fore to demand their due. Insurgencies that piggyback such aspirations are overtaking the objectives of the various groups, and a time would come—if it has not already arrived—when the boiling cauldron would spill out its content. The unfriendly towns beyond the borders are fanning the fire and revolutionary character of the past is being shed to don alien agenda. The catharsis that the North East is experiencing has gone beyond insurgencies and demographic transformation. Terror imported from the neighbourhood, dissonance driven by skewed development, corruption in high places and nonchalance of the ruling class is bringing Bastille closer to the fury that would soon be upon it. Viewed from the wrong end of the telescope the fires that rage in the enchanted frontiers might seem picturesque. But unless circumspection is exercised the distant “flicker-of-a-fire” would become a uncontrollable inferno that might not be confined to a forgotten outpost.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

The latest manifestation of that danger can be gleaned from the manner in which events would soon be unfolding in Manipur.


Continual economic blockades of the two lifelines to Manipur by a plethora of organisations bring to a standstill the lives of the people of the emerald state. Prices soar and it is the poor people of the state who have to bear the brunt of the insensitivity of the outfits in question. Indeed, the art of blocking the National Highway has been perfected to the extent that it becomes beneficial for everyone but the downtrodden. This time around, it is the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur (ATSUM). The grouse pertains to the creation of Autonomous District Councils in certain districts and the attendant jostle for space between various communities of the state. 


However, the essence of the present write-up is not so much on the nitty-gritty’s of a particular issue, but the fact that economy and consequently lives of people can be held to ransom at the drop of a hat. Earlier an impasse had developed with the United Naga Council, opposing the creation of a district, blocking the Imphal-Dimapur-Guwahati (NH 39) and Imphal-Jiribam-Silchar (NH 53). Residing cheek-by-jowl, Nagas and Kukis of Manipur have fought bitterly in the past. The decision to create a new district had all the ingredients of a fresh ethnic conflict, with certain formations like the International Manipuri Mothers' Association stating that “attempts to divide communities in the state,” could lead to “civil war.” Indeed, the decision to create a separate district was staggered because of apprehension that ethnic clashes would start were Imphal to give into the demand of the Kukis. Such predicaments would continue to bedevil the “enchanted frontiers” until a correct policy towards the region is adopted. In its attempts to quell dissonance the dispensation in the state government and the centre have either brushed questions such as ethnic disquiet under the carpet, or have used one community against the other to temporarily quieten tempers.


But the matter that deserves greater censure is the manner in which New Delhi has approached issues like economic blockade in the North East. The virtual state of siege not only cut off Manipur from the rest of India, but witnessed unprecedented hardship for the common people in the region. In one instance a population of 27 Lakh, spread over 22,327 square Km suffered as a result of the blockade. Even the Supreme Court of India had to intervene and observe “that not much attention was being paid by the authorities towards the hardships faced by north-eastern states.” Indeed, a phenomenon that has come to become almost a ritual in Manipur should have goaded New Delhi to work out a contingency plan, a course of action that would automatically be activated when the first signs of such a problem surface. But as earlier, the problem was allowed to fester, leading not only to economic privation of an inalienable part of India, but emotional distancing of the constituency as well.


Economic blockades in Manipur and the manner in which they are allowed to continue are only a symptom of the larger malady that is afflicting the North East. A general sense of alienation from mainstream India has gripped the North East. While this has been the case in most parts of the region since the country’s independence, recent years have witnessed an amplification of the trend. Disaffection towards aspects that showcase “Indianess” has grown among the milieu, with the youth attempting to not only trace their ancestry—particularly in Manipur—to their ancient roots outside India, particularly in South East Asia, but also by adopting names that are proclaiming such identities. Furthermore, the “deindianisation” process has exacerbated the myriad insurgencies that dot the North Eastern landscape. The insurgents—and their alien chaperons—have found novelty in the phenomenon and are utilising the North East-Mainland India estrangement to their benefit, encouraging the process of alienation by resorting to a variety of subterfuge. It should not be a matter of surprise that Manipur and Assam [Assam recorded the highest rate of crime against women in 2020] have been ranked rather high in India with the highest rate of crimes [“Crime in India 2020”: National Crimes Record Bureau]. It should have been evident to the policy-makers that the natural trajectory that insurgency (unless correctly managed) takes when it reaches a point of “culmination” is crime, and the need to carve out parishes from which the economic returns continue to accrue. The present situation in Assam where extortion, abduction and elimination have become the order of the day, or for the manner in which Kuki and Naga insurgent groups are arraying themselves in Manipur are expression of that growth pattern.


Rampant corruption, poor governance, failure in the Public Distribution System, price rise and the inability of the state to adopt correct strategies for conflict resolution have also contributed to both divisiveness and crime. It has also given rise to vigilantism among a frustrated populace that is increasingly taking law into their own hands. The state’s failure to rein in corrupt politicians in different parts of the region, for instance, has resulted in the citizenry declaring “a call to arms.” This has found particular pronouncement in Assam, when the peasantry (under the banner of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS)) arrogated to itself the task of cleaning the Augean stables. Akhil Gogoi, the general secretary of KMSS, presently under incarceration, has not only been calling for the halt to all mega dam hydro-electric projects in the North East without undertaking a comprehensive cumulative environmental impact assessment, but is also embarking on a course of action that is leading to the exposure of corruption in high places.


An analysis for the disorder in the North East, therefore, stops squarely at the door of failed policy for the North East. The growing hostility in the region against the Indian state must also rest on the apathetic policy of New Delhi towards the region, and the dispensation’s failure to construct a holistic policy for the North East, whether it be about the need to root out corruption from public life, ceasefires with insurgent groups, development of the region, particularly the borderlands or a policy on the use of the army in internal security management. It must also be noted that most institutions have failed in the North East, leading to the population losing faith in the state machinery and decreeing, as aforesaid, against it as is being presently witnessed in the region. Narrow electoral and personal gains are fast becoming the most important drivers in the region, replacing the system of institutional rule. The need of the hour, therefore, is to undertake not only a comprehensive stock taking exercise, but also a complete overhaul of the institutions that are responsible for correct and good governance. Until a proper course correction takes place, the North East would continue to be imperilled.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.