Contours: Essays on Security and Strategy
By Jaideep Saikia
Sagittarius Print, Guwahati, 2001
Pnce: INR 100/USD 20
Contours, a compilation of journalist Jaideep Saikia’s recent articles on security in India’s Northeast, draws in readers with short and crisp pieces that are picturesque and evocative. Writing on the Northeast is characterised in general by a dearth of on-the-ground reporting, and Saikia has made a commendable effort at beginning to fill that vacuum. Contours establishes him as a serious student of security affairs and as one of the few ‘experts’ on Northeast India who attempt to combine fieldwork with analysis.
A collection of 46 short articles on the Northeast originally published in the leading English dailies of Guwahati, Contours also includes several interesting narratives on the author’s experiences in the Kashmir Valley as a Fellow of the National Foundation of India. Saikia has appropriately arranged the book’s contents so that its many transitions are effected with ease, from “thick descriptions” of Kaziranga Reserve forests to militant operations in various parts of Northeast India to observations on human security in Kashmir. This ordering of thematic moods broadens the book’s scope beyond singular considerations of security issues. Instead, it weaves a rich tapestry of images, interspersing colourful snapshots with serious deliberations on security affairs. It is both an introduction to strategic issues for interested lay readers and an entry point for more serious reading in the harrying maze of contemporary Northeastern security studies.
The Indian Northeast, composed of the multicultural states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim, is connected to the rest of India by a 20-kilometre wide ‘corridor’ near Siliguri. On all other sides it is boxed in by the international boundaries of Bhutan, Tibet (China), Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal. Geo-politically located on India’s fringe and home to a number of unique ethnic communities living cheek by jowl, these eight states, with the exception of Mizoram and Sikkim, have for the last two decades witnessed considerable ethno-political unrest and armed violence in the form of ethnic secessionist movements.
Armed violence in the Northeast has long had significant connections with insurgencies and arms proliferation, which in turn have strong extra-territorial linkages. As such, it is only natural that its dynamics have been considerably affected by post-11 September security developments and strategic shifts in the Subcontinent. This has added areas of concern. Will `the global ‘initiative’ against terrorism, which the West has vigorously pursued and which already holds significant implications for Kashmir, have any impact on the situation in the Northeast? Or will New Delhi’s preoccupation with Pakistan and Kashmir result in a loss of initiative on this front and further delay the handful of peace processes that seemed to have been moving towards stable settlement? The answers are far from clear. Other than statements from the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) about willingness for talks, little has been forthcoming.
The standoff between India and Pakistan and both countries’ obsession with Kashmir have ensured that attention and initiative have reverted to the ‘western front’. Expected moves in the Northeast have either slowed down or stalled, as the Indian political elite remains riveted to the military mobilisation along the Pakistani border. The Northeast has once again become a low priority, leading to fears that the only dispensation New Delhi will consider will rely on military measures.
The recent enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2002), a piece of legislation widely condemned for its potential for gross misuse by police and security forces, partially confirms these suspicions. The effect of this act has been to make civilians even more vulnerable to violations by security forces. Although the present government in Assam has given assurances that the legislation will not be implemented in the state, such guarantees are little comfort for communities constantly vulnerable to the state’s raw coercive strength.
Further, the carnage in Gujarat and the despicable role that state’s administration played in that monumental human tragedy is certain to inspire organised armed resistance in the long run among minority communities elsewhere in India. This is of particular significance in the Northeast, considering its substantial non-Hindu, non-Hindi population. The rise of insurgency in north Bengal and the raging Maoist militancy in neighbouring Nepal, developments that do not appear to have received serious assessment as yet in Indian corridors of power, complicate matters further. Strategic shifts within the Northeast have also undermined attempts at resolution. The Bodo insurgency, which appeared until recently to be moving towards a settlement supported by a range of political interests with the state government acquiescing to the creation of a Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) under the 6th Schedule of the Indian constitution, is once again faced with another hurdle. The strident opposition to the formation of the BTC by organisations claiming to represent the large non-Bodo population in the proposed BTC area has rekindled fears of violent clashes and ethnic cleansing.
There have been a few positive developments, such as the ULFA ‘s and the NDFB’s expressed willingness to negotiate on the condition of state sincerity, the unilateral ceasefire to facilitate possible negotiation, and reassurances by the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) to patiently resolve difficulties arising from the BTC’s creation. What remains to be seen is whether Dispur, saddled with near bankruptcy and struggling to find basic operating funds, can seize the initiative and make concrete progress on these fronts. With no money for development, the underlying factors for unrest will remain unresolved and any peace secured is unlikely to last long.
Shades of security
It is against this background that books like Saikia’s assume significance. The world and New Delhi need to develop a better understanding of the northeastern region. And who better to offer an explanation than fieldworkers and researchers who live and work in the Northeast, as opposed to armchair writers in the metros of India’s ‘heartland ‘?
Saikia’s collection begins with ‘Kaziranga Hoofbeats’, a series of stories about Kaziranga National Park in Assam. He spent a few days with the men who tend and guard the park, and he presents their stories in a two-part series, which provides an enthralling setting for some of the more serious articles that come later in the collection. In ‘Bravehearts’, the next section, the author relates his experiences with the men of 6 Kumaons’ ‘D’ company, an Indian Army strike force. Along with a cinematographer, Saikia accompanied the soldiers on a few patrols and at one point witnessed a near encounter with militants. In a fascinating narrative, Saikia unfolds the stories of ordinary people in Assam’s Darrang district. He explains, “almost everyone we met told us that they were tired of the unrest, that their lives are threatened by militants, that the army’s presence was encouraging”. Some of his stories are poignant, like that of Rakesh Singh from Uttar Pradesh, a soldier posted in Darrang. “When I asked him how long did he think it would be before he went home to his newly-wed bride and aged mother, tears welled up in his eyes and he said ‘Na Jaanu’ (I don’t know)”.
In ‘Swadhin Asom-Brihot Bangla?’, Saikia lightly touches on Islamic militancy in Assam’s fertile Brahmaputra floodplains and the alleged assistance offered to fledgling groups by Pakistani and Bangladeshi security agencies, themes that reappear in several later pieces. In ‘Security, Strategy, Summations’, Saikia observes:
security concerns among our beleaguered strategicians have seldom permitted a measure of long term formulation in our midst. Most strategic agendas are but responses to a situational imperative. But the imperative of the hour is glasnost, an interface with the citizenry, or at least with some of its representatives outside officialdom.
A group of short essays follow on the author’s experiences during a visit to the Indian army’s 5 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry regiment, which is responsible for counter-insurgency operations in the better part of Nalbari district. On the night of 30 March 2000, Saikia followed a foot patrol conducted by the battalion’s ‘A’ company and was impressed by its dedication, precision and tenacity. The next series, ‘Wail of the Chinar’, discusses Saikia’s research experience in the Kashmir valley, and subsequent pieces comment on diverse issues such as arms proliferation, the counter-strike strategies of the insurgents, Thuingaleng Muivah, the first Asian revolutionary from Nagaland, insurgent camps across the India-Bhutan border and insurgent surrenders. The concluding essay, discusses more recent political developments involving the ULFA, NDFB and BLTF.
While agreeing with his interpretations for the most part, one wonders why Saikia chose to remain uncritical of the role of the Indian army in conflict management and treatment of civilians in the conflict areas, or why he did not offer a serious critique of the controversial powers bestowed on the military, such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. By and large, it is fair to say that the Indian state’s response to the insurgencies has been more militarist than political. The Indian army and state-supported paramilitary forces have been employed to deal with the challenge, and in the process extreme methods have been introduced into the fabric of everyday life. Many of the charges of abuses by security forces are solidly documented by human rights organisations and newspaper reporters. The New York-based academic Sanjib Baruah is only one to have made such a critique by arguing that “the means the Indian state has used to deal with ULFA violate global and Indian human rights standards and seriously undermine respect for India’s democratic institutions, the rule of law and the project of pan-Indianism”. Saikia’s stories, therefore, tell only a part of the story. Also, these being more journalistic than academic essays, one is left wondering about the sources of Saikia’s information, as none are revealed or credited. Certainly, as a “strategic analyst” (as he is described in the book), Saikia is entitled to his opinions but any academic or policymaker would desire qualification for statements which appear sweeping at places.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, Contours is a readable account of events in today’s Indian Northeast. One looks forward to some weightier academic work by Saikia in the near future. While stories like this trigger interest in Northeastern security affairs, it will take more serious writing from Saikia to get the attention of the academic and policy communities. If these essays are any indication, that should not be too formidable a task.