The parallel political systems of Northeast India
In the militancy-affected Indian Northeast, New Delhi’s containment policy of the last four decades has produced a peculiar equilibrium, one in which democracy and authoritarian governance coexist with disturbing ease. The paternalistic carrot-and-stick approach— routine use of military force with development money spread about in the ‘backward’ region—assumes an imperious “foreknowledge of the destiny” of the Northeast. Indian policy must respond with constitutional reforms that respond to the region’s history which animates the insurgencies. It must conduct a democratic dialogue involving the peoples of the Northeast and not rely on secret negotiations between bureaucrats and insurgents. But then will that be allowed by a system that appoints generals as governors?
Isn’t there a brigadier in Shillong?” This was how Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, India’s deputy prime minister responded in 1949 to reports that the “native state” of Manipur might be reluctant to merge fully with the Indian Union. In September of that year, the governor of Assam, Sri Prakasa, accompanied by his adviser for Tribal Areas, Nari Rustomji, flew to Bombay to apprise Patel of the situation. The fate of Manipur and other indirectly ruled “native states” presented a significant constitutional problem when British rule of India ended in 1947. Indeed, the decision of the Kashmiri Maharaja to accede to India was the beginning of the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan. Patel and other senior Indian officials might perhaps have pondered more on the potential difficulties that could arise from decisions by major ‘native states’ like Kashmir and Hyderabad on the postcolonial dispensation in the Subcontinent. But the thought that tiny and remote Manipur on India’s border with Burma, might hesitate about fully joining India had probably never crossed their minds. The meeting of Sri Prakasa, Rustomji and Patel was brief. As Rustomji recalls in his memoir, Enchanted Frontier, apart from asking whether there was a brigadier stationed in the region, Patel said little else. It was clear from his voice what he meant, wrote Rustomji, and the conversation did not go any further.
Within days the Maharaja of Manipur, on a visit to Shillong, found himself virtually imprisoned in his residence. The house was surrounded by soldiers and under the pressure of considerable misinformation and intimidation, the Maharaja—isolated from his advisers, council of ministers and Manipuri public opinion— was made to sign an agreement fully merging his state with India. When the ceremony to mark the transfer of power and the end of this ancient kingdom took place in Imphal on 15 October 1949, a battalion of the Indian army was in place to guard against possible trouble.
The circumstances attending Manipur’s merger with India haunts the politics of the state to this day. A number of insurgent groups regard the merger as illegal and unconstitutional, and many among the Manipuri intelligentsia are bitter about the way it was effected. While Manipur today has an elected chief minister and an elected state legislature—like other states in the Indian Union—there is also a de facto parallel structure of governance directly controlled from Delhi that manages counter-insurgency operations. Visitors to Manipur cannot but notice the strong military presence. Even historic monuments such as the Kangla Fort of the old Manipuri kings, and parts of the complex in Moirang that commemorates the rebel Indian National Army, are occupied by Indian security forces.
It is not hard to see why there is such a massive security presence in the state. Manipur, today, has numerous insurgent groups with ethnically-based support among Meities, Nagas and Kukis. In recent years, smaller ethnic groups such as Paites, Vaipheis and Hmars too have formed their own armed organisations. The official count of lives annually lost in insurgency-related incidents in Manipur in recent years is in the hundreds. And somewhat independent of the activities of these insurgent organisations is the ethnic conflict between Nagas and Kukis and, more recently, between Kukis and Paites. Many of these conflicts appear intractable and some of them are attributable to the profound social transformation that these societies are undergoing. Yet unless one believes that a coercive state is a necessary instrument to manage change, it is hard to avoid the question: were the symbols and practices of the traditional Manipuri state- despite the significant erosion of its authority and power under British colonial rule-better-equipped to achieve social cohesion? Was Patel’s readiness to use force-just as the rest of India was setting off on a path of democratic rights and liberties-an early acknowledgement that Indian democracy in the Northeast would necessarily have an authoritarian accent?
Manipur is not unique. Except for Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, five of the seven states of Northeast India today- Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura- have insurgent movements of varying levels of activity and intensity. Some of them, such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Nagaland’s National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), now divided into two factions, and the Manipur People’s Liberation Front (MPLF), which consists of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kanglaipak (PREPAK), have separatist agendas. Other ethnically based groups are typically dressed up as national fronts defending this or that minority ethnic group.
As a response to those insurgencies and to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence’s (ISI) inclination to fish in these troubled waters, there are many more brigadiers in Northeast India today than Patel could have imagined. Military formations much larger than brigades-corps headed by lieutenant generals and divisions headed by major generals-are now stationed in this part of the country. In Vairengte, a Mizoram village, there is even a Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School for training officers to fight the militants. And the Indian Army is only one of the security forces deployed in the region. Other paramilitary unit. controlled by the central government, such as the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security Force (BSF) the Assam Rifles, various intelligence bureaus and the police forces of each state, are also involved in counter-insurgency operations. And overseeing these operations is a parallel political structure that works outside the rules and norms that govern India’s democratic political institutions.
Political violence- murders, bombings, kidnap pings, extortion by militants, and killing of militants by security forces in actual or staged encounters-has become a routine part of news from the Northeast. True, there is also news of elections, cease-fires and talks-or prospects of talks-with insurgents. But the two kinds of news and images co-exist with disturbing ease. No one finds the image of democratic elections being conducted under massive military presence anomalous. Nor does anyone expect talks with insurgents to bring about sustained peace. Indeed in some ways, insurgencies themselves have become incorporated int. the democratic political process. Good political reporters of the Northeast know the precise role that insurgent factions play in elections or the ties that these factions have with particular mainstream politicians.
For politicians, the use of the army to fight insurgencies has now become something of a habit. For instance, in the spring of 2000, after attacks on Bengalis by tribal militants in Tripura, political parties belonging to the state’s Left Front government observed a 12-hour bandh to pressurise the central government to send in the army to deal with the situation. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar complained that even though 27 police station areas in the state had been declared “disturbed”, the Indian army had not yet arrived. One would hardly guess from such statements that the law that these democratic politicians were relying on-the law that permits army deployment in “disturbed” areas-is a law that contravenes all conceivable human rights standards.
According to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), in an area that is proclaimed as “disturbed”, an officer of the armed forces has powers to: (a) fire upon or use other kinds of force even if it causes death; (b) to arrest without a warrant and with the use of “necessary” force anyone who has committed certain offences or is suspected of having done so; and (c) to enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests. Army officers have legal immunity for their actions. There can be no prosecution, suit or any other legal proceeding against anyone acting under that law. Nor is the government’s judgment on why an area is found to be disturbed subject to judicial review.
As Ravi Nair of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre in New Delhi has pointed out, the AFSPA violates the Indian Constitution’s right to life, the right against arbitrary arrest and detention, the rules of the Indian Criminal Procedure Code relating to arrests, searches and seizures, and almost all relevant ‘International human rights principles. There was a time when reports of human rights violations in the Northeast were taken seriously. But most Indians now regard human rights organisations as being at best naïve, or at worst, sympathisers of insurgents masquerading under the flag of human rights. The violation of human rights in the Northeast is seen as the necessary cost of keeping the nation safe from its enemies inside and outside.
Thus in 1991, when the United Nations Human Rights Committee asked the Attorney General of India to explain the constitutionality of the AFSPA in terms of Indian law and to justify it in terms of international human rights law, he defended it on the sole ground that it was necessary in order to prevent the secession of the northeastern states. The Indian government, he argued, had a duty to protect the states from internal disturbances and that there was no duty under international law to allow secession.
State within a state
In the insurgency-hardened Northeast, democratic India has developed a de facto political system, somewhat autonomous of the formal democratically- elected governmental structure. This parallel system is an intricate, multi-tiered reticulate, with crucial decision making, facilitating and operational nodes that span the region and connects New Delhi with the theatre of action.
The apex decision-making node is the Home Ministry in New Delhi housed in North Block on Raisina Hill. The operational node which implements the decisions consists of the Indian Army, and other military, police and intelligence units controlled by the central and state governments, and involves complex coordination. This apparatus also involves the limited participation of the political functionaries of insurgency-affected states. Elected state governments, under India’s weak federal structure, can always be constitutionally dismissed in certain situations of instability. But New Delhi has generally preferred to have them in place while conducting counter-insurgency operations. Since the insurgencies have some popular sympathy—albeit not stable or stubborn—the perception that the operations have the tacit support of elected state governments is useful for their legitimacy.
Consequently, the command structure may include some state-level politicians and senior civil servants. This is perceived to be the weakest link in the chain because of the fear that the presence of these ‘locals’ might potentially subvert the counter-insurgency operations. Consider the following news reports:
- In December 2000, the central government asked the Manipur government to investigate links between at least five ministers and insurgent groups. The Home Ministry forwarded a report to the state authorities that included evidence of such a nexus between the ministers and insurgents. Manipur’s caretaker chief minister Radhabinod Koijam, just before the fall of his government last month, dropped six ministers from his cabinet. Koijam was in the middle of a political battle for survival, and there were other reasons for their removal. But he defended his action saying that their names appeared in the Home Ministry’s list of “tainted” politicians.
- In January 2001, the Union Home Ministry proposed the setting up of a judicial enquiry commission to probe into the allegations and counter-allegations of the insurgent-politician nexus in the northeastern states.
- In the May 2001 elections just concluded, former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta repeatedly accused the Congress party of having a nexus with ULFA. The Congress party dismissed the charge as election propaganda and claimed that its victory proved that the electorate did not believe the accusation. In the elections of 1996, the roles were reversed: the Congress had made similar charges against Mahanta’s party, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).
There are, of course, many reasons why democratically- elected politicians of a region, where insurgent groups and mainstream political parties may share the same social, political, and cultural space, would sometimes know and have ties with each other. Pervasive corruption also leads politicians to cultivate ties with insurgent groups. They, like others with a reputation for making illegal money, consider it prudent to try to keep the insurgent groups happy by sharing parts of their illicit income with them. Rather than a hard boundary separating insurgents and mainstream politicians, in these circumstances, a nexus between some of them becomes inevitable, despite the fact that such ties may cost these politicians in terms of their credibility as far as New Delhi is concerned.
A former home minister of Nagaland, Dalle Namo, who had been part of the Naga ‘underground’, once movingly acknowledged his debt to the pioneers of the movement for Naga independence. He told journalist Nirmal Nibedon that he is conscious of the fact that he lives “in this big bungalow because men like Phizo and Imkongmeren and many others once lived in caves. All these chandeliers and lights [are there] because for them the stars were their only light; [I have] these expensive wall-to-wall carpets because they walked on moss and grass.” Nibedon recalls this conversation in a foreword to Namo’s autobiography, The Prisoner from Nagaland.
Of course, such sentiments connecting insurgents with mainstream politicians are far from universal. It is unlikely, for instance, that Prafulla Kumar Mahanta of Assam or Nagaland’s present Chief Minister, S.C. Jamir, whom militants have tried to kill more than once, would share similar idealised views about leaders of the Assamese or the Naga ‘underground’. However, even these leaders have not always been free of ties with militants. The Khaplang-led faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, for instance, is reputed to enjoy the patronage of Jamir.
This is the paradox counter-insurgency. On the one hand, it must draw on the legitimacy of the elected establishment. On the other, it must protect itself from this establishment’s susceptibilities. Namo’s account and the repeated charges of a link between northeastern politicians and insurgents underscore why India’s security establishment would want a parallel structure of governance that is as autonomous as possible from the democratic politics of the state in question. For instance, in the case of the Indian government’s allegation of a nexus between the five Manipuri politicians and insurgents, if the Home Ministry had provided evidence of such a nexus to the “authorities” in Manipur, it is unlikely, that this report would go to the elected members of the state government— some of whom were themselves the object of suspicion. The most likely person to have received that report from New Delhi, one can reasonably speculate was the Governor of Manipur.
Bending the rules of constitutional democracy, and building and maintaining a parallel structure however, is not always easy. Not all elected state governments have been willing to give up their constitutional prerogatives. For instance, in Assam, thanks to the consent of former chief minister Mahanta, counterinsurgency operations since 1997 has been conducted by a Unified Command under which all forces including the state police come under the operational command of the Army. Tarun Gogoi, in one of his first statements as Assam’s chief minister, following the Congress’ election victory this May, said that he would like to see the Assam police play more of a role in the Unified Command because of its superior knowledge of local conditions. It is unlikely that Gogoi will seek to end the use of Uniform Command structure in Assam. On the other hand, elected politicians in Manipur have so far resisted pressures from the Indian Home Ministry and the Indian Army to have a Unified Command structure. Former chief minister of Manipur, W. Nipamacha, for instance, had maintained that since legally speaking, the army was deployed in the state only to assist the civil administration, it should remain under the command of the state government.
Such potential conflicts between the compulsions of the civil dispensation and the concerns of the security establishment make the governors of these states crucial nodes in the counter-insurgency network. The management of this difficult equation, in fact, confers on the governor’s office a role that far exceeds the more ceremonial functions it is constitutionally restricted to elsewhere and in normal circumstances. The career profiles of the incumbents in the Northeast provide an index of the importance of the gubernatorial office to the parallel political system. All the seven governors of the northeastern states today have either occupied high and sensitive positions in India’s security establishment or have had close ties to it.
Arunachal Pradesh: Arvind Dave, former chief, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)
Assam: Lieutenant General (retired) S.K. Sinha
Manipur: Ved Prakash Marwah, retired Indian Police Service officer
Meghalaya: M.M. Jacob, former central minister and deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha
Mizoram: A.R. Kohli, former businessman with political ties
Nagaland: O.P. Sharma, retired Indian Police Service Officer
Tripura: Lieutenant General (retired) K.M. Seth
Two are retired military men, two are retired police officers, and one is the former head of India’s espionage agency, RAW, engaged in clandestine operations abroad and at home. Of the two without any ostensible ties with the security establishment, M. Jacob, governor of Meghalaya, was once Minister of State for Home Affairs in New Delhi; and A.R. Kohli, recently appointed governor of relatively peaceful Mizoram, who had a career in business, has strong ties with the RSS, suggesting proximity to Home Minister L.K. Advani. The fact that all the appointees have had fairly intimate connections with the security establishment cannot be mere coincidence. As appointees of the central government and as facilitating agents in the counter-insurgency regime, such antecedents serve very practical ends, particularly in ensuring that the demands of security override the rules of democracy in the event of a conflict between the two.
Governor as judge
Instances of gubernatorial interventions point to the role they play in insulating counter-insurgency operations from democratic processes and scrutiny. Governors often act in ways that not only stretch constitutional propriety but also sacrifice democratic procedures at that altar of security expediencies. A case of what can be called counter-insurgent constitutionalism took place in Assam in 1998 when the Governor, Lt. Gen Sinha, intervened to stop the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from prosecuting then chief minister Mahanta on a serious corruption charge. Mahanta’s acquiescence in the Unified Command structure was clearly important to the security establishment. At the same time, the legal pursuit of a credible corruption charge against an elected chief minister could have significantly raised the legitimacy of India’s democratic governmental institutions in the public eye. There was a choice between two sets of values: the perceived political requirements of counterinsurgency versus an opportunity to raise the public esteem of India’s democratic institutions in a region where those institutions lack legitimacy.
The corruption charge against Mahanta went back to what is commonly referred to as the “Letters of Credit scam”, involving at least INR 200 crores between 1986 and 1993. Mahanta was not chief minister at that time. Fake letters of credit were issued by the state’s animal husbandry and veterinary departments to draw money from the treasury, and a number of politicians of both the then ruling Congress and the opposition AGP, were implicated. It was also suspected that a part of the money found its way to the ULFA.
The CBI investigated a number of politicians. The case against Mahanta was that the kingpin of the scam, Rajendra Prasad Borah, had paid him INR 40 lakhs during the 1991 elections, and that Mahanta’s air travels during the campaign had been financed by Borah.
According to the CBI, in that election, Borah had distributed house-building material to purchase votes in Mahanta’s electoral constituency. Bank drafts distributed by Mahanta, in his electoral district, according to the CBI, were paid for by Borah. For a governor—a former military general—to make a legal judgment on whether a chief minister should be prosecuted pushes the limits of constitutional propriety. To be sure, this power of Indian governors is not limited to the Northeast and as the Delhi-based magazine India Today pointed out in an editorial, “there is something profoundly undemocratic about a mechanism which requires the governor’s permission to even begin legal proceeding against a chief minister seen as corrupt”. In the Northeast, given parallel power structure in place, the potential for abuse of that power —or, perhaps its use—as a means of securing support for the security regime from a corrupt chief minister is enormous.
The governor’s reasons for disallowing the CBI’s prosecution of Mahanta, involved a number of legal rationalisations. Sinha pointed to the lack of evidence, and questioned the reliability of the witnesses who formed the basis of the CBI’s case. The CBI, according to the governor, had not established Mahanta’s “criminal culpability”. The governor rejected the charge that Mahanta had entered into a criminal conspiracy with Borah to defraud the state claiming that “no evidence of such conspiracy has been provided”.
Obviously, governors enjoy extraordinary powers to influence chief ministers in the interests of the parallel regime. In this particular case, it is difficult to avoid speculating on a very obvious connection. In Assam since 1997, the Unified Command structure has been possible because of the consent given by Mahanta. That was a year before the governor was called upon to make this crucial judgment in the corruption case. Was there a quid pro quo in the governor’s decision to protect Mahanta from legal prosecution so as to ensure his continued support for the Unified Command structure? Did the perceived needs of counter-insurgency trump the value of achieving greater transparency in government? More importantly, what has this entire edifice and its strategies achieved by way of ending insurgency and restoring peace?
Why is peace so elusive?
This counter-insurgency apparatus and its modus operandi are geared fundamentally, and more or less exclusively, to containment. So long as insurgencies are only contained, and no sustainable peace processes are in place, democracy in the Northeast is likely to continue to co-exist with the use of authoritarian modes of governance. With the significant exception of the Mizo movement, most insurgencies in the Northeast have been transformed, or are currently transforming, into long-term, low-intensity conflicts. The perceived need for counter-insurgency operations never seems to go away. Even in Mizoram, at least if one goes by military presence in that state, the end of the insurgency has not meant that the state within the state has been dismantled.
There are three reasons why most northeastern insurgencies turn into protracted conflicts of attrition: (a) the goal of counter-insurgency is limited to creating conditions under which particular insurgent groups or factions surrender weapons, come to the negotiation table on the government’s terms and make compromises in exchange for personal gain; (b) counter-insurgency operations do not dramatically change the condition on the ground that breed and sustain the insurgent political culture and lifestyle; and (c) the political initiative that accompany and supplement counterinsurgency operations try to utilise former militants in the war against insurgents, thus creating a climate of mistrust and a cycle of violence and counter violence between anti-government and pro-government insurgents.
The need for a powerful security presence can hardly disappear under these conditions. Assam’s growing violence—which includes a large number of secret killings by death squads—exemplifies the results of a counter-insurgency strategy which in fact transformed an insurgency into a wider and long drawn-out conflict. The bloody elections of May 2001 in which scores of people lost their lives is at odds with Lt. Gen Sinha’s euphoric claim of the “ballot having won against the bullet”.
The Mizoram exception, of course, is important. In 1986, Laldenga, the leader of the Mizo National Front signed an accord with prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and this remains the only instance of an accord successfully bringing about an end to insurgency in northeast India. Laldenga became the chief minister of Mizoram and when he lost elections two years later, there was no call for a return to insurgency. Among the factors that accounted for the successful end of the Mizo insurgency were the following: the undisputed leadership of the insurgency in the hands of a single individual who was willing to compromise and who could deliver his part of the deal; the feasibility of offering Laldenga the chief ministership of Mizoram in exchange for ending the insurgency; the existence of large and organised church-related civil society institutions that were actively involved in creating and supporting the consensus for peace; and a political climate in New Delhi during the Rajiv Gandhi years that was relatively open to making significant political compromises with insurgents.
But to date, the Mizo case has been the only exception, and insurgency refuses to die down despite the sophistication and resources of the counterinsurgency establishment and the leeway given it to use the governor as political administrator. In seeking to understand why peace continues to elude Northeast India, it is important to study how insurgencies are able to sustain themselves in the face of such enormous military action. It is important to keep in mind the fact that while the security establishment runs parallel administrations that circumscribe civil administrations politically, insurgent movements run similar parallel fiscal ad ministrations at the ground level through illegal tax collection and extortion.
One perspective on the longevity of armed civil conflicts focuses attention not so much on the grievances that are articulated by insurgent groups but to the ability of these groups to finance their activities. For example, Economist Paul Collier in an article, in a recent volume, Managing Global Chaos, looking at the global patterns of armed civil conflicts, concluded that the most significant factor of civil conflicts is the ability of rebel organisations to be financially viable. He also found a strong correlation with a specific set of economic conditions such as a region’s dependence on exports of primary commodity and low national income.
It is not that poverty breeds armed civil conflicts, Collier surmises, but that certain economic conditions are conducive to the mobilisation of revenue by armed insurgent groups. Primary commodities are highly lootable, primary production centres located in conflict zones are easily accessible, and production cannot be moved elsewhere. Unlike a manufacturing unit, which is not worth much once production ceases, owners and managers of such centres continue to be dependent on existing production sites, making them vulnerable to extortion. Low national income, Collier argues, is co-related with armed civil conflicts not because the objective condition of poverty sustains rebellion, but because in a context of poverty and unemployment, an insurgent group that is able to raise enough money can recruit new members quite inexpensively.
The Collier thesis is useful to explain the resilience of the Northeast insurgencies. It draws attention to the conditions that permit illegal tax collection. For instance, in those areas of large countries where the state’s presence is weak, it is easier for rebel organisations to establish illegal taxation structures that resemble official ones. The availability of foreign material support also becomes a n important factor in ex plaining the persistence of armed civil conflicts. The civil war in Sierra Leone perhaps most dramatically supports the Collier thesis: the control over diamond mining and international diamond smuggling is clearly what has allowed the armed rebels to continue the fight.
While northeastern India is no Sierra Leone, it is nevertheless striking that the region is both poor and a primary commodity-producing region- factors that, according to Collier, make an area conducive to illegal tax-collection and to the persistence of armed Civil conflicts. Indeed, the production and transportation of primary commodities that Northeast India produces and exports-tea, timber, coal and so on-have been a major source of legal taxation by governments, a source of extortion by officials, and the favourite source of illegal taxation by insurgent groups, and increasingly by pro government insurgent groups that collaborate in counter-insurgency operations, like Assam’s SULFA (former members of ULFA who have “surrendered”, and hence the ‘S’).
Indian taka, Naga taka
During 1994-95, Sanjoy Ghose, the social activist who was kidnapped and killed by ULFA in 1997, travelled extensively in the Northeast. His travel diaries have been published posthumously as Sanjoy’s Assam. In his travels through Nagaland, Ghose found a formalised system of tax-collection imposed by the NSCN. ‘Every body’ paid, and in the case of the state government’s Public Works Department (PWD)-perceived as highly corrupt-Ghose found that there was a progressive system of illegal taxation in place. Those of the rank of executive engineers and above paid one-third of their net salary. This percentage may seem high to someone unfamiliar with the culture of corruption in the region, but the fact is that the formal, departmental salary is only a small part of the actual income of an engineer. A senior police officer of Nagaland confided to Ghose that even though he himself was not paying, most of his colleagues did “contribute”. Such stories about systems of illegal taxation-perhaps not equally formalised everywhere- are heard all through the Northeast. Indeed it is not merely insurgent organisations, but mainstream political parties, student organisations, corrupt officials, all resort to coercive and illegal modes of “tax collection” from businesses-big and small.
Pervasive corruption and the preponderance of ‘outsiders’ in the economy of the region make the climate especially illegal taxation-friendly. Indeed, as Sanjoy Ghose found in the case of PWD engineers in Nagaland, unlike government tax collectors who could target only what is officially declared as income, insurgents-drawing on popular perceptions and credible rumour-can impose higher taxes based on more realistic assessments of income. It is in no one’s interest to report extortion demand s and payments that involve mostly illegal income to law enforcement officials.
Krishnan Saiga1, a former Indian civil servant who was Assam’s Planning and Development Commissioner and who is familiar with the process of development finance in the Northeast, has written about the way development funds allocated to the region are a bonanza for a group of contractors and license holders- mostly from outside the region-whose “main ambition is to make’ a fast buck and get out of the area as quickly as possible.” As the Indian state has increased development expenditures in response to the voice of discontent in the Northeast, he writes, there has been an even “quicker siphoning off of funds to the heartland with the few benefits accruing to those in power through the usual corrupt forces”. Saigal believes this has led to increasingly corrupt regimes in the northeastern states. And the people of the region, he believes, even see them as representing central power in order to keep their state underdeveloped.
The perception that New Delhi is throwing money away in order to buy peace gives an aura of legitimacy to tax collection by insurgents. The manifesto of the NSCN is a case in point: “The pouring in of Indian capital in our country for political reasons has shattered the Naga people into a society of wild money,” creating a parasitic, exploiting class of “reactionary traitors, bureaucrats, a handful of rich men and the Indian vermin”. Such a view of the politics underlying New Delhi’s development expenditures allows Naga insurgents to take the moral high ground: it is only fair that such ill-gotten wealth be shared with an organisation that works for the greater good of the Nagas. To give another example of the consequence of this perception, in Nagaland it is said that during elections when political parties distribute money to buy votes, acceptance of that money is seen as legitimate since it involves only “Indian taka” (Indian money), not “Naga taka” (Naga money).
In order to discredit militants in the eyes of their supporters, military and intelligence officials have in recent years started speaking about the luxurious lifestyles of insurgent leaders or of the insurgents being nothing more than bandits seeking “easy money”. While all this is not news to anyone living in the Northeast, whether such statements from security officials involved in counter-insurgency operations increases the legitimacy of governmental institutions vis-à-vis the rebels, is a different matter. Despite some highly publicised successes such as unearthing evidence that one of India’s major business houses— the Tatas—were providing support to Assamese rebels, it is doubtful that the focus on the expropriative aspect of insurgencies has so far led to any systematic change affecting the illegal tax-collection capacity of insurgent groups
Here are two recent newspaper reports that illustrate how routine the taxation systems of insurgent organisations are and how impervious they have been to decades of counterinsurgency operations:
In February 2001, the NSCN (Issac-Muivah) announced, and Indian newspapers routinely published the news of, a “tax break” for industries. According to The Times of India, the NSCN (I-M) announced an exemption of “loyalty taxes” for two years on certain categories of businesses- some of them even state-owned businesses. Quoting the organisation’s Information and Publication Secretary, V. Horam, the news report said that the tax break was given in order to boost economic activities in the Naga areas of the Northeast. The “tax exemption”, said the notification, applied to enterprises that were less than two years’ old. However, the taxes on other businesses and the income tax on salaried people would continue.
In March 2001, militant groups demanded INR 40 lakhs from eight Christian missionary schools in Manipur’s capital city, Imphal. When the schools expressed their inability to pay, the militants imposed a fine of INR 2 crores and ordered them to close down. The matter was raised in the Manipur State Assembly. The press reported that security in and around the missionary schools was increased. The chief minister of Manipur told the state legislature that cases were registered with the police in connection with the extortion demands and were being investigated. But no one expected such investigations to go very far. Last month, three Christian missionaries were murdered by militants apparently because of non-payment of those levies.
There seems to be little evidence that in these two states, years of counter-insurgency has had any significant impact on the conditions that have bred and sustained insurgency, i.e. the relative incapacity of civil administration to provide protection (despite its strong military presence) and the continued ability of insurgent organisations to collect illegal taxes. It appears that insurgent groups can guarantee security and collect tax better than the state can. It is hardly surprising then that many people-politicians, traders, government officials and even major corporations- make their uneasy peace with insurgent groups, just as they learn to live with counter-insurgency operations without high expectations of an end to the fighting.
What then accounts for this fundamental failure? It must be that New. Delhi’s Northeast policy has yet to come to grips with the dense social networks of northeastern societies and the ideas and values that animate the insurgencies.
Passionate about history
How can the Northeast ever hope to get out of this quagmire, in which a larger democracy lives comfortably with the most arbitrary of powers in “disturbed” areas? There might be occasional doubts in India about what counter-insurgency itself can achieve. But one idea that enjoys widespread acceptance is that once the problem of the region’s economic backwardness is taken care of, the main source of political turmoil will go away. Indeed it would probably be hard to find a more diehard group of economic determinists than Indian bureaucrats and politicians engaged with the Northeast.
This faith in economic development contrasts sharply with the vision of insurgent groups in the Northeast. While those who try to solve the “insurgency problem” mainly talk about economic development and modernisation, the insurgents hark back to history. Thus ULFA speaks of Assam’s lost independence when the Yandabo Treaty was signed between the British and the Burmese kings in 1826, Manipuri rebels raise questions about the constitutionality of the merger agreement of 1949, and Naga rebels query “how these long stretches of frontiers which were neither Burmese nor Indian territories could simply disappear into India and Burma after 1947?” (Kaka D. Iralu, Nagaland and India: Tire Blood and tire Tears, 2000).
True militant groups, political parties and public opm10 m northeastern states do complain about the region’s economic underdevelopment but their primary grouse appears to be perceived injustices grounded in the history of how the Indian postcolonial constitutional order came into being. But what is striking is that the bureaucrats, politicians and military officers who make Northeast policy are either oblivious of the historical issues that insurgencies raise, or consider them too trivial to merit substantive engagement. Thus, exploring different ways of granting greater constitutional autonomy as a response to these historical claims, is not at all part of the Indian policy-maker’s basket of solutions.
In the history of ideas there are numerous examples of the authoritarian consequences of dealing with places and people only in terms of their supposed future-framed in terms of ideas about backwardness and progress- without taking into account their past. After all, that 1s how an entire generation of liberal and progressive English thinkers-e.g. Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill and Thomas B. Macaulay managed to endorse empire as a legitimate form of government, and even justify its undemocratic and unrepresentative structure. The key to understanding this paradox of the liberal defence of empire, writes Uday Singh Mehta in his book Liberalism and Empire, lies in the reforms proposed by the liberals. Developmentalism, according to Mehta, had been an integral feature of liberalism. Liberal thought identified India’s backwardness, so imperial rule could be justified by the initiation of endless projects for economic development, social reforms, etc.
By contrast, the conservative Edmund Burke had a harder time accepting British rule of India. of course Burke did not oppose empire; he argued for good government, not Indian self-government. Yet his was a sharper critique of empire because he saw India in terms of its existing established communities, and he did not want to see them threatened. And unlike liberals who worried about whether India was to be regarded as a nation or just a conglomeration of innumerable castes and tribes, Burke assumed that peoples living in one place for generations had to be regarded as political communities. Most importantly, unlike liberals, Burke, in Mehta’s words, never presumed a “foreknowledge of other people’s destiny”. Indian bureaucrats would do well to take more seriously the histories of the peoples of the Northeast, and give up the assumption of foreknowledge of their destinies that is implied in the talk about bringing development and modernisation to remote tribal societies.
Recognising the Northeast as a region where the people have histories, of course, does not mean that the region’s history will have ready answers to its contemporary problems. But taking history seriously can have important implications. There is the example of the recent negotiations between Naga leaders and the Government of India where both sides have failed to arrive at a common ground-the Naga idea of a Nagalim or greater Nagaland, is a source of anxiety to a number of neighbouring northeastern states, especially Manipur.
It is tempting to think of the issue entirely in terms of ethnic anxieties. But the history of the political formations of the region, suggests otherwise. The political history of the region has more interconnections and continuities than the idea of bounded and demarcated ethnic homelands might suggest. In the 19th century, Sir James Johnstone, a colonial official, described political rituals of the Manipuri kings which were remarkably inclusive. The investiture ceremony of the Manipuri kings required the queen to appear in Naga costume; the royal palace always had a house built in Naga style; and when the king travelled he was attended on by two or three Manipuris with Naga arms, dress and ornaments.
The interconnections between Nagas and Manipuris suggested by the practices and rituals of the Manipuri court may not provide ready answers to resolve the Nagalim issue today. But one thing is clear: rather than secretive deals between Indian bureaucrats and leaders of one or the other insurgent organisations, these questions are best addressed by debates that take seriously the passionate interest in history that animates the northeastern insurgencies, and by taking into confidence the people of the region.
Rather than trying to contain insurgencies, India needs to raise its expectations of what is possible. Even the most protracted of armed civil conflicts in the world-Northern Ireland-is today closer to resolution than ever before. Establishing a blue-ribbon committee to examine the accomplishments and failures of the last five decades of India’s strategy and tactics of counter insurgency in the Northeast, may be a good place to start from. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is almost as old as the Indian Constitution. It was introduced to deal with the Naga insurgency. Four and a half decades later, not only has peace remained elusive in Nagaland, insurgencies have enveloped formerly peaceful parts of the Northeast. The extension of this law to the entire region has compromised Indian democracy in the Northeast in unacceptable ways.
Surely half a century is a long enough period for honest stock-taking and reassessment of goals and achievements. Until such rethinking takes place, a withdrawing the AFSPA, appointing as governors those whose accomplishments are in fields other than national security, and removing the military presence from historical monuments such as the Kangla Fort and the INA memorial, will be powerful symbols to indicate the desire for a new beginning that would shape a fully democratic Northeast in the 21st century.
But these are civil measures substantially a t variance with the ‘military-economic’ solution that currently finds favour. The question that remains is whether an honest review of options is at all possible given the extraordinary influence of the security establishment and the interests it has acquired in the “disturbed” Northeast. The appointment of ‘military governors’ to oversee the dilution of civil political authority seems to suggest that democratic alternatives will not merit even passing consideration. After all, if a lasting peace is restored in the region, generals will no longer be governors. And there will be no need for so many brigadiers.