A Google search of the keywords "Prime Minister Narendra Modi" and the "Northeast" throw up various headlines that include the following:
"Narendra Modi wants to make Northeast ‘Gateway to Southeast Asia’"
"Northeast should be the 'New Engine' for India's growth"
"Northeast will play important role in India's Act east policy: PM Modi."
Under Modi, thus, there appears to be a robust emphasis on the Northeast as a place for change and where changes are taking place. However, what are these specific changes that are taking place as a result of efforts by the central government? This piece proposes to look at four major issues instead of a broad sweep of the region.
Act East, ‘Look Northeast’
Historically, states in the Northeast have tended to support the Centre - whatever the political hue of the latter - because of the former’s acute dependency on government funds.
Before 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had never held power anywhere in the region except as an alliance partner, and that too in Nagaland. In the hill states, it was seen as too pro-Hindu and not respectful enough of Christians and other groups. It was also perceived as being unfriendly towards the Naga movement. In Assam, it was viewed as a pro-trade, pro-Bengali Hindu party.
The BJP upsurge in the Northeast has led to the uprooting of the one-time dominant party - the Congress - from three strongholds in separate events. The BJP has formed governments in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh (although it won the last two by manipulation); it shares power in Nagaland, while in Sikkim it has the backing of the regional party, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF).
The Congress is no longer seen as a party that can protect group interests nor is it understood as being in tune with the changing public modes, especially the youth's. This is where the BJP positioning Modi as a symbol of national change has made significant headway.
In Assam, with the promise of "poriborton" (change) from the 15 years of Congress rule and by cleverly playing the "jati mati aru bheti" (protection of community, land and base) card against a long-perceived insecurity vis-à-vis “illegal Bangladeshis,” the BJP, together with its allies, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), wrested an impressive 86 of the 126 assembly seats. The AGP-turned BJP leader Sarbananda Sonowal was catapulted into the chief minister’s chair.
In addition, years of silent groundwork by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Meghalaya paid off, easing the BJP’s entry into both valley and hill areas. Eventually, Congress’ Ibobi Singh who served three terms as chief minister, and the Congress in Delhi, were too slow to catch up despite being the single largest party.
The BJPs strategy showed flexibility, moving from its ideology of ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’ to the creation of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) with various regional parties to move closer to its aim of a "Congress mukt Bharat." It strategically used symbols and issues identified with by people in the region such as Rani Gaidinliu, a Zeliangrong leader who resisted the British and Christian missionaries.
In terms of foreign policy, despite all the emphasis on transforming the PV Narsimha Rao-era slogan ‘Look East’ to an ‘Act East’ policy (AEP), not much seems to have changed at the ground level.
Apart from opening a diplomatic mission in Guwahati and a ‘surgical strike’ in Myanmar in 2015, which drew silent rebuke from Yangon, the Centre has not been able to proceed as robustly as it had planned. However, it has initiated efforts for a proactive infrastructure policy with plans for smart cities and large highways, but much of this is an outgrowth of past plans. Foreign investment is negligible in the region, although Bangladesh, Thailand and Japan have evinced some interest. The bid to connect the Northeast to Southeast Asia remains a work in progress, with large projects of connectivity and trade through air, road and rail (inland water with Bangladesh) needing far greater gestation time. However, government-sponsored 'summits', 'Act East Policy' workshops and advertising campaigns continue at the tax payers’ expense.
Unfortunately, the AEP is unlikely to work till investors see that their money and people are safe (and in most parts of the world it is private investment and not public funding that drives growth). The extensive presence of the army and paramilitary in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur as well of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which provides security forces with sweeping powers, reinforces the sense in a potential investor that all is not well, to understate their view. That can change when the states and the Centre relegate the army to the barracks or the border, and laws like AFSPA to the record books of history. The Centre needs to trust the people and the governments of the region. Without that progress will be cosmetic, not sustained.
A Matter of Meat
The issue of beef, beef-eating and cattle slaughter has assumed national importance. In the three Christian-dominated states of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, where beef is the meat of choice, there is disquiet on the basis of Hindutva-guided restrictions.
Local leaders deny this with an eye on elections: BJP spokesperson David Kharsati of Meghalaya insisted it was a rumour spread by those with “vested interest(s).” In Nagaland, BJP chief Visasolie Lhoungu is quoted as claiming that such a ban would never be implemented because the “reality here is very different and our central leaders are aware of that.”
Here is the rub: in its bid to win significant influence in states like Meghalaya and Nagaland that go to the polls in 2018, is the BJP saying that what it wants to apply to the rest of India is not applicable to the Northeast?
The Neighbourhood: Migration and Borders
The BJP has repeatedly - first in 2014, then in 2016 - brought up the issue of illegal Bangladeshi migration in public discussions. The BJP unit in Assam, in 2014, promised to identify and take action against all illegal immigrants in the state. Yet, its promise to protect Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Scheduled Caste (SC) persons of Bangladeshi origin has created surprise and drawn adverse reactions from different parts of the state.
If the party’s rhetoric on the issue of Bangladeshi immigration is shrill, the government has tried to temper it with pragmatism. For example, the BJP was careful about not mentioning anything about the deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in its Vision Document for Assam before the 2015 state elections. This would seem a no-brainer: Bangladesh needs to accept the individuals being expelled. And that is not likely.
Additionally, the party has promised to complete the work on updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which has missed several deadlines, finish the work on barbed wire fencing along the India-Bangladesh border (only half of this has been completed so far), and increase deployment of Border Security Force (BSF) personnel four times over.
Two critical issues on migration need to be answered:
• How will the state ensure that a bonafide citizen will not be harmed or perceived as an illegal immigrant, as is happening with hundreds of Bengali Muslims who have been labelled as Doubtful (D) voters (a term whose exact mandate remains unclear)?
• If Bangladesh will not accept these so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ how can they be deported?
A few facts about Bangladesh speak loudly despite all the vitriol hurled at it: its current Human Development Index (HDI) is higher than that of Assam, thereby offering individuals a better standard of living now than in the past For example, Bangladesh’s maternal mortality ratio (MMR) is 194 while Assam’s is 300.The Bangladesh government has also set up an Assistant High Commission in Guwahati, its second diplomatic presence in the region after Agartala in Tripura.
This indicates that the Centre places great emphasis on Bangladesh as a stable partner. The party’s position may be strong but to the government in Delhi, security issues such as Islamist radicalisation and the potential threat of Northeastern rebels, who had set up bases in Bangladesh but were turfed out during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s current term, are as important as ‘immigration’. Under Modi, Delhi has readily signed agreements with Dhaka, for instance, the 2015 Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) to exchange enclaves and land in adverse possession, and the 2017 Defence Cooperation Framework. In Guwahati, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal attended a public event organised by the Assistant High Commissioner of Bangladesh.
In addition, the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that makes it less complicated to confer Indian citizenship on Bangladeshi Hindus is in contravention of the Assam Accord, which states that illegal immigrants heading in from Bangladesh post 25 March 1971 would be deported.
Concerns about deteriorating relations with China, with the possible escalation of the confrontation at Doklam, have also caused acute anxiety in the region. According to Shivshankar Menon, India’s former National Security Adviser (NSA), the current stand-off at Doklam is ‘serious’ due to China’s attempt to change the status quo at the tri-junction with Bhutan and its unwillingness to return to the status quo. India has an understanding with Bhutan that any attack on Bhutanese sovereignty will be considered an attack on India. However, Bhutan is also a very reluctant actor in this play-off between its two giant neighbours.
Secret Naga Accord
On 3 August 2015, the Modi government announced that an agreement had been concluded on the Naga issue. However, it later declined to give details, saying that it would be kept secret for the present. The reasons for secrecy are best known to the government and its contents have been the subject of speculation. What is truly crucial for the success of the final agreement is that the government must work with all groups of Nagas, for that is where it will be truly tested. A consensual approach is needed, even if it does not end in a full consensus among all sides. As many views as possible need to be accommodated. It is surprising that some are even hailing this Accord without having seen its contents. The Naga response is muted, having seen such agreements before.
In response to a Right to Information (RTI) petition seeking details of the Accord filed by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) Coordinator Venkatesh Nayak, the Central Information Commission (CIC) upheld the government's decision not to reveal details, citing “compelling public interest.”
Representation is another important factor to consider. While the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) is the most dominant armed group, there are others like the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) which claim to represent Nagas. Konyaks regard the NSCN (K) as representative while the Angamis continue to look towards the Naga National Council (NNC). This divisive issue has to be resolved for long-term peace and acceptance of the final accord by all Naga tribes.
On 9 May this year, the NSCN-IM, in a press release, stated that they have accepted the idea of "shared sovereignty" and co-existence with India. The concept of "shared sovereignty," as understood from the NSCN (IM)'s perspective, implies that it can share in the central government's initiatives. However, does this substantially amount to anything beyond the idea of greater autonomy in centre-state relations?
While Modi posited the Nagas as “guardians of our eastern frontiers and our gateway to the world beyond” during his speech at the 2015 peace signing ceremony, the Accord remains shrouded in secrecy, casting a shadow on government concessions. New demands elsewhere have emerged.
There is an additional development that rises above these issues and is positive: more and more individuals are leaving the Northeast than ever before by a range of compelling reasons: poverty (despite the region’s rich resources), poor infrastructure, and conditions created by AFSPA, among others. Although some of the migrants are at the receiving end of discriminatory treatment arising out of cultural ignorance and differences in facial appearance, they stay on. Others are coming out to join them.
The attitude of the Centre in some basic aspects appears unchanged from the previous regime: where, for example, does "poriborton" appear when considering the recent flood devastation in Assam where over 100 people have died? Floods are national problems not confined to one state. However, since the government appears to be stuck in a different nationalist narrative, more attention is now being paid to Ramkinkar Baij’s statue of Mahatma Gandhi, erected in Guwahati decades ago, which was being dismantled because it presented a “distorted image” of him.
There are limits to manufactured consent and manufactured peace.