India’s Northeast and the New DONER Leadership

03 Jun, 2014    ·   4491

Thangkhanlal Ngaihte presents his understanding of the centre’s perspective of the region

In the new BJP-led government that has just been sworn in, Gen VK Singh has been given the charge of Minister of State (Independent Charge) of the Ministry of the Development of North Eastern Region (DONER), apart from other responsibilities. Not surprisingly, this has generated some buzz.

The Ministry of DONER is the only central ministry with a region-specific mandate. Its present remit is confined to the planning, execution and monitoring of development schemes and projects in the Northeast. The ministry’s vision, as stated in its website, is “to accelerate the pace of socio-economic development of the region.” Hence, it has not been tasked with policing and counter-insurgency remits, which are vested with Home at the ministry level.

However, the appointment of a just-retired Army General (who is now an elected MP) to oversee a Northeast-specific ministry carries huge symbolism and evokes many unpleasant memories. It perpetuates the still widespread perception that the Northeast is always a troubled region and the patriotism and loyalty of its people is suspect, and therefore, needs a firm military hand to control it. The appointment alludes to a continuation of the practice of sending “Generals as Governors” to the Northeast, as Sanjib Baruah put it. Only, it’s a General as a Minister this time.

Frankly, the Indian army has been so deeply embedded within the political history of Northeast India that it is difficult to imagine how the perception can be otherwise. During the darkest periods of insurgency – the Naga and Mizo insurgencies especially – the region was off-limits for outsiders, particularly journalists. Hence, much of the atrocities perpetrated by the army at that time remained unknown to the outside world. The victims, most of them illiterate and ignorant of their basic rights, seemed to accept whatever happened as fate – something that is inevitable when the vai sepaih (a Zo term for the Indian army) are unleashed. However, in some quarters, the memories are still raw and hurting. In some ways, the almost visceral dislike of outsiders that one still observes in Mizoram has a lot to do with the army’s atrocities during the Mizo insurgency.

Of the unpleasant memories, there is one which stands out. Under the village grouping scheme, implemented by the Indian army in Nagaland (in the late 1950s) and Mizoram (from the late 1960s), people were ordered to vacate their old villages and come to new, “economically viable villages” that were artificially set up along highways close to army camps, so as to enable round-the-clock surveillance. The villagers were normally given a week’s time to leave their village after which the old village would be burnt. In Mizoram, the lives of 80 per cent of the population were affected by this scheme. Many of those who survived to tell the tale said that they hated and dreaded the scheme even more than bullets.

In Nandini Sundar’s reading, this policy of grouping villages underlies an assumption that all people in a given area, whether civilian or combatants, are potentially hostile. It is, thus, an act of war rather than an effective counter-insurgency strategy.

There is also the perception and reality of India’s militaristic approach to the Northeast. “Isn’t there a brigadier in Shillong?” was how India’s first Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel responded when told that there may be problem in merging the native State of Manipur with India in 1949. So it began. In the perceptive account of Subir Bhaumik, post-colonial India’s strategy for the pacification of the Northeast has been largely influenced by the realpolitik propounded by Kautilya who advocated Sham (conciliation), Dam (bribes), Danda (force) and Bhed (split) as the four options of statecraft to be used in effective combinations rather than as single, stand-alone options. This four-pronged strategy, combined (since the mid-1990s) with aggressive regional diplomacy in which the cooperation of neighbouring countries was sought to suppress insurgency movements, constitute India’s current counter-insurgency strategy in the region, according to Bhaumik. This militaristic approach seems to have been undergirded by an imagination of the people of the Northeast that place them “at either end of the spectrum stretching between the noble savage and the naked brute. The exoticised, enigmatic noble savage can be tamed (read co-opted), but the naked brute understands only the language of violence,” as Uddipana Goswami had argued. Even today, the Indian State seems to have regarded only insurgent groups as legitimate representatives of the Northeast. In “peace talks”, elected state governments, MLAs and MPs hardly have any place. And of course, the space for local politics and regional parties has been hollowed out for a long time now.

A New Agenda
This is the past that comes to mind, but it need not be the future. As the new central government takes charge in Delhi, there is both anxiety and anticipation in the Northeast. There is also some hope that the Modi government may boldly change gears, and treat “peace processes” as not ends in themselves, but a means to some noble ends. The people are tired of conflicts; and the insurgents or what remains of them also seem tired of underground life. It is a rare window of opportunity that Modi should embrace. Then will development follow.

The views expressed are the author's own.