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.
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