Northeast Two-Timed

There was much hope when the NDA came to power at the Centre, then in Assam, but dumped promises and the Citizenship Bill has incinerated the region

By Rajeev Bhattacharya

JANUARY 26, 2019: As the country celebrated its Republic Day, a lot of people in the northeast had a different idea, and after decades of being kept under control, the pro-China slogan surfaced in Mizoram at a rally in a poster: “Bye Bye India, Welcome China”. The slogan soon spread to other states protesting against the Citizenship Bill that has set the northeast on fire.

This pro-Chinese sentiment had always been there among the Mongoloid tribals of the northeast, and had made it child’s play for China to fund insurgency. Now it is back again.

Clearly, New Delhi’s power bosses had made promises they never meant to keep, but merely lipped them. They ought to have gone back to history to realise that people in this vast swath of the country, divided into eight states, are genteel, and would smile at a shove. But when it came to a push, they would get after you and not stop till blood flowed on the streets.

And not just the Mongoloid tribals, but almost every person, even Bengali-Assamese, in the north east “feels pain in the heart to call ourselves Indians”, a senior scribe told Parliamentarian. Clearly, the situation needed intelligent tackling, but there was no intent beyond glib talking by the Modi government.

PLEASANT START

And yet, it could have been so different. There was overwhelming optimism in Assam on the eve of the last general elections. There was hope that the vexed issue of illegal migration that has been hanging fire for the past several decades would be resolved.

Neither has infiltration stopped from Bangladesh, nor has the fencing of the boundary between the two countries been completed, as it was promised in the BJP poll manifesto

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had repeatedly declared at several rallies that migrants would have to pack up their bags and leave the country if the BJP was voted to power. 

The party won the elections not only at the Centre but also in the state two years later. Expectations further soared and the electorate was swayed with the catchy slogan coined by the state party unit of protecting the “jati, mati and bheti” (community, land and base) from illegal migrants. 

Almost five years later, the situation in the state has only deteriorated with a widespread agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, aggressively pushed by the BJP for granting citizenship to a section of non-Muslim refugees from the neighbouring countries. 

The common refrain among local groups and leaders in Assam is that the BJP has betrayed the state by seeking to legitimise the refugees. Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has also walked out of the coalition government in the state headed by the BJP after the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. 

The bill nullifies the Assam Accord inked in 1985, since it does not distinguish illegal migrants and refugees on the basis of religion. Moreover, the bill also militates against the ongoing update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is an exercise to identify alien nationals in Assam irrespective of their religious affiliations.

Apart from the controversy fuelled by the bill, the NDA regime does not appear to have any plan to deal with the post-NRC situation in Assam. The government does not have any answer to deal with the lakhs of foreigners who would be identified after the register is completed, except occasional statements from ministers that long-term visas and work permits were being actively considered. 

INDIGENOUS RIGHTS

The BJP’s promise to grant constitutional safeguards for the indigenous communities by implementing Clause-6 of the Assam Accord had also been put on the backburner since the NDA swept to power. It was only recently that the decision to appoint a new committee to implement the clause was announced by the home ministry, which has also been spurned by most of the members who were selected. 

Neither has infiltration stopped from Bangladesh, nor has the fencing of the boundary between the two countries been completed, as it was promised in the manifesto. Infiltrators from the neighbouring country continue to be apprehended in the region at irregular intervals. The manifesto had explicitly stated that these issues would be tackled on a “priority basis” but so far there is no indication that the NDA government’s approach and policies have been different from the UPA’s. 

The party had committed that it would address the perennial floods in Assam and river management. In 2017, the state was again devastated by floods, killing at least 100 people

The report submitted by former Assam governor Lt Gen (Retd) SK Sinha two decades ago on the preventive measures against illegal migration continues to gather dust in the home ministry. 

Political commentator Prof (Retd) Udayan Misra said: “The present upsurge in Assam over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has finally shown that the BJP’s plan of promoting the Hindutva agenda is bound to prove self-destructive.

Having come to power primarily on the jati, maati and bheti and development plank, the BJP’s state leadership soon moved away from its poll promises and succumbed to the pressure of the RSS to further the Hindutva agenda in a region known for its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural ethos.

The first signs of the people’s resistance to this were seen during the Namami Brahmaputra festival and in attempts to appropriate Srimanta Sankardeva and his legacy.” (He is widely credited with building on past cultural relics and devising new forms of music (Borgeet), theatrical performance (Ankia Naat, Bhaona), dance (Sattriya), literary language (Brajavali).

Besides, he has left an extensive literary oeuvre of trans-created scriptures (Bhagavat of Sankardev), poetry and theological works written in Sanskrit, Assamese and Brajavali.) “The widespread anti-BJP sentiment that can be seen today is a clear manifestation of the BJP’s utter failure to gauge the highly syncretic and secular nature of Assamese society.”

MANIFEST DUPING

The BJP’s manifesto had mentioned eight aspects for the Northeast, beginning with the statement that the region was “lagging behind in development due to poor governance, systemic corruption and poor delivery of public services.”

It said that the NDA government would empower the Ministry of North Eastern Region “with a broader charter and non-lapsable funds for the rapid development of the region” with a focus on “enhancing the connectivity” of the region and “massive infrastructure development especially along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.”

True, some bridges have been inaugurated in the border states in the past couple of years and work on the roads have been expedited. According to an official, most of these projects were initiated during the previous UPA regime after a series of meetings involving the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) as well.

He pointed out that the pace of implementation could not be accelerated beyond a certain point given the existing circumstances in the Northeast like remoteness, the long duration of the rainy season, etc. 

The party had committed that it would address the perennial floods in Assam and river management. In 2017, the state was again devastated by floods resulting in the death of at least 100 people and close to two lakhs were displaced.

Last year was no different for the beleaguered state with floods claiming more than 30 lives after the state-owned North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) released water from the Ranganadi dam in Arunachal Pradesh. 

There were media reports as well suggesting that the Centre had not released funds for the repair of the embankments so crucial to check floods in the state. As a long term strategy to cope with the phenomenon, the BJP-led government in Assam had floated the proposal of dredging the Brahmaputra River, as it would increase the water retention capacity of the river. Barring a few statements on the plan from ministers and officials, it is not yet known if the government has actually decided to go ahead with the implementation of the project. 

On river management, the proposal to create North East Water Resources Authority (NEWRA), proposed by former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, has been shelved following stiff opposition from the Arunachal Pradesh government. Media reports said that efforts were on to revamp the Brahmaputra Board, with the title Brahmaputra Barak North-East River Development Corporation (BBNERDC) with the objective to make river management in the Northeast more effective. 

INSURGENCY ISSUES

Insurgency related incidents in the Northeast have undoubtedly registered a downward trend since the past decade or so. Latest figures released by the home ministry revealed that compared to 2017, insurgency in the region has declined by 36 per cent and by approximately 63 per cent since 2014. 

A majority of rebel groups in the region has concluded ceasefire agreements and pitching for a negotiated settlement with the government, with the maximum number of outfits hailing from Manipur.

However, the talks with some of them have been dragging for the past several years without any indication that accords would soon be clinched with them. Talks with the NSCN(IM), for instance, have been on since 2003 and a “Framework Agreement” had also been concluded, but it is not known if the government is actually serious to ink an agreement soon.

The same holds true with the pro-talks ULFA and NDFB of Assam, although negotiations have been on since the past few years on the charter of demands that have been submitted. 

The NDA government has also not been able to convince the Myanmar government to eradicate the camps and training facilities of the separatist rebel groups which are mainly concentrated at Sagaing Division continuous to the border states of the Northeast. 

DOUSING DEVELOPMENT

Finally, the manifesto had also promised that there would be “proper utilisation” of natural resources in the Northeast with the goal to develop the region “at par with the Western region.” By and large, the Northeast still lags behind on the major economic indicators and there is no indication yet of major policy changes that would usher in what the party calls “proper utilisation” of resources. 

However, what emerges from the policies in the past several years reeks of a lack of direction on the exploitation of resources in the region. The Centre’s decision to allocate oil fields in Assam to private parties had fuelled a massive agitation in the state. The open pilferage of coal at Ledo-Margherita in the eastern tip of the state continues unabated, although the media has been regularly reporting on the episode. 

Likewise, a letter written by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change to the Assam government to check the extraction of stones from sites near Kaziranga National Park has also remained unheeded so far.

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