Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Random Thoughts on the North East

India's resource-rich North East reminds me of the North Caucasus. This arc of instability can be explained not only in terms of the inept handling of multiple insurgencies but also in the context of a fragile neighborhood. The region lies south of China's restive Tibet region (471,700 square miles), east of the fast unraveling Nepal and west of Burma's fractured polity. Bangladesh to its south is not exactly stable either.

This region is a faultline prone to instability. There has been insufficient investment. Illicit immigration from neighboring states has not helped demographic equations. Cross-border terrorism continues to foment instability. The military has its hands tied and the multiple insurrections recur periodically. The Government is unable to stem the intermittent episodes of violence.

New Delhi has no credible policy to deal with the root causes of the conflict. Increased instability in the North East, the continued rise of a radical fundamentalism in Bangladesh and the collapse of the Nepalese administration will bleed India. The Government needs to address problems before they strike. Alas, it is incapable of doing so.

Arunachal Pradesh (32,000 square miles), Mizoram (8,134 square miles) and Meghalaya are perhaps the only enclaves of stability in an otherwise turbulent region.

But then, China still claims Arunachal Pradesh as its own. Naga rebels have endeavored to forment unrest among their as yet un-Christianized co-tribals in that state. A Mizo insurrection, supported by China and Pakistan, in the 1960s, was resolved in the 1980s by Rajiv Gandhi conceding a large degree of autonomy to the state and an explicit recognition of the role of the Church. 85% of the population is now Christian and 10% Buddhist. The Buddhists, however, allege that they are persecuted. Meghalaya remains tranquil for now.

The rest of the region however is precariously poised. The oil rich state of Assam has an area of 30,452 square miles. The mutually opposing Assamese, Bodo and Karbi nationalisms have been at odds with each other since the 1980s. The influx of immigrants has led to an added degree of complexity in the fragile demographic balance. The indigenous tribal population in neighboring Tripura has been reduced to 30% given the Bengali influx.

Nagaland, a state of 6,366 square miles, has been in revolt since the 1950s. The Nagas and Kukis continue their divergent secessionist campaigns. The medieval principality of Manipur is a state of 8,628 square miles. 40% of the population is Naga and 50% is Meithei. Two insurgencies with opposing demands persist, one that will split Manipur at the expense of the Meithei.

The extended neighborhood is no better. Impoverished fractured Nepal boils in a simmering Maoist cauldron. What is of concern is the Maoist corridor linking Nepal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Bhutan is likely to face future unrest in its southern districts given the restive Nepali minority there.

Burma in turn is a land of multiple war lords presiding over landlocked ethnic enclaves and the drug trade. The tribal Kachins, Chins, Shans, Karens and other groups in Burma have been in open revolt against military-ruled Rangoon since independence. Meanwhile, the Buddhist Chakmas in the neighboring Chittagong hill tracts (5,093 square miles) in Bangladesh remain restive. The rise in religious extremism in that country poses a security threat.

This is indeed a bewildering picture. But the situation is not beyond redemption. For one, the tribal enclaves are all landlocked regions in need of access to the sea and free trade. The bureaucrats in New Delhi need to think pluralism, multi-layered devolution, investment and private enterprise. Mizoram offers a model. There is a need to buy over the rebels. A free trade area linking Nepal, Bhutan, Eastern UP, Bihar, India's North East and Burma under Indian sponsorship will help all concerned. Tibet will need to be inducted at an appropriate time. This will stabilize the extended region and reinforce the shared civilizational inheritance.

New Delhi will need to focus on Nepal and Burma. Its Gurkha regiment should help restore stability in Nepal. It should continue to strengthen military and economic links with Rangoon. Oil rich but landlocked Assam will then once again prosper at the cross roads of trade.


Nitin said...


It is a challenge to capture the various factors that impact the stability of the North East: you've summarised the situation very well. One point I would add is that these states suffer most from India's imperfect federalism. In the population-based seat allocation in both houses of parliament, these states have a tiny voice. Politically, I think a US Senate-like restructuring of the Rajya Sabha will go far to address the imbalance that makes them feel alienated.

On the point about intervention in Nepal. I would advise sending any regiment but the Gurkhas, many of whom are Nepalese nationals. Having to turn their guns on their own countrymen, on behalf of India, can set off emotions and passions that are avoidable if we were to send say, the Maratha Light Infantry or the Rajputana Rifles.

Jaffna said...

Dear Nitin,

Your suggestion to reform the Rajya Sabha on the lines of the United States Senate to ensure greater representation for the smaller North Eastern states is an excellent one. Thank you.

I had intentionally suggested the Gurkha regiment. Surely, India's actions in Nepal are not intended against the Nepalese people. It is intended instead to reintroduce constitutional governance and stability. Hence the need to rely on the Gurkhas who would be better equipped to reach out to the Nepalese rural population, than say the Maratha Light Infantry and the Rajputana Rifles. For one, they speak the same language. Two, gender issues would be better safeguarded - issues of rape would be unknown for the most part.

When the IPKF was in Sri Lanka, the Madras Regiment proved to be the most popular amongst the local populace for obvious reasons :-) The Gurkhas were feared since they could not be understood.

Warm regards


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