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Rethinking India's Counter-insurgency Campaign in North-East

The optimism generated by proponents of India's "Look East" policy and tentative peace talks between armed opposition groups and the state would suggest that there has been a radical change in the government of India's north-east policy. However, militarisation and ethnic confrontation continue to define the parameters of public policy in India's north-east. Ethnic violence is accentuated by the existence of parallel political and administrative structures that undermine the rule of law. This article argues that the change in India's north-east is contingent upon the government's motivation to encourage transparency in governance and administration and to consciously move away from its existing reliance on archaic military solutions.

Rethinking India’s Counter-insurgency Campaign in North-East

The optimism generated by proponents of India’s “Look East” policy and tentative peace talks between armed opposition groups and the state would suggest that there has been a radical change in the government of India’s north-east policy. However, militarisation and ethnic confrontation continue to define the parameters of public policy in India’s north-east. Ethnic violence is accentuated by the existence of parallel political and administrative structures that undermine the rule of law. This article argues that the change in India’s north-east is contingent upon the government’s motivation to encourage transparency in governance and administration and to consciously move away from its existing reliance on archaic military solutions.


ince the inception of the Indian republic in the mid-20th century, the north-eastern region has been beset by armed insurrections and political violence directed, in equal measure, against settlers, against different ethnic groups and the authorities. After several decades of conflict, 2004-05 saw both hopes of a breakthrough in many of the protracted armed struggles, as well as escalation of conflict between different ethnic groups in the region. This paradoxical situation is often attributed to the region’s underdevelopment and its peripheral position within the Indian geographical entity. With the inauguration of the Indo-ASEAN car rally in 2004 and tentative peace parleys between major armed opposition groups in the region and the government of India, India’s north-east seems to be on the cusp of changes of historical proportions. This article argues that these events form part of a larger politics of containment and concealment that in the long run, work against notions of justice. Furthermore, it is argued that these policies reduce the need for transparency in governance of the region. Rather than the possibility of peace, one believes that it is the continued memory of injustice and lack of official accountability that will define the strategies adopted by political actors in the region. In the following sections, this article wishes to draw on the linkages between the historical processes that constructed a frontier region and its militarised polity in defining the existing practices of governance in northeast India. This, one will argue, remains a structural condition that determines the kind of citizens that will engage with state policy in the future.

I ‘Looking East via the North-East’

Construction and Reproduction of Frontiers

Sanjib Baruah uses a version of this title in beginning a discussion on India’s ‘Look East Policy’ [Baruah 2003]. He says that in a largely New Delhi-centric world of policy-making, rhetorical catchwords like “look east” lose their meaning because they are not grounded in geographical and historical reality. This section seeks to outline the manner in which the north-east was mapped into India. Historically, the region forms a zone that can be seen as the north-eastern frontier of south Asia, as well as the north-western frontier of south-east Asia. Willem van Schendel includes it in his reconstruction of a physical space concealed from dominant discourses on geographical realignment of area studies (in Asia) and political decision-making, following the period of decolonisation of large parts of south and south-east Asia [van Schendel 2002: 647-68]. The region’s pre-colonial political and social landscape was a reflection of the multidimensional migrations into its hills and valleys. It comprised old kingdoms and chiefdoms as well as wide swathes of land where authority of the kings and chiefs were negligible. Commercial interests, coupled with a keen eye on geopolitical balance of power led the British to “draw lines between hills and plains, to put barriers on trade between Bhutan and Assam and to treat Myanmar as a strategic frontier – British India’s buffer against French Indochina and China” [Baruah 2004:5]. During the course of the anti-colonial struggle in the 20th century, notions about the region being a frontier were not challenged. In the emerging historiography of the region there was an attempt to restructure the relationship between the region and the national hinterland with an overriding emphasis on establishing a place in the national space of the emerging idea of India [Kar 2004:55].

The colonial administrators encouraged the idea of allowing selective access to land in the frontier. Subsequently, the line system was formulated to allow for limited colonisation of lands by settlers. Under this scheme, imaginary lines were supposed to dictate the areas that were allowed to be occupied by peasants seeking land. Areas that were dominated by indigenous groups were marked off as ‘out of bounds’ for settlement. However, this system did not work to the advantage of the indigenous people, who kept losing their land to settlers from the Gangetic plains and from (east) Bengal. In 1939, seeing that the line system was not adequate to safeguard tribal lands, the idea of a tribal belt was conceived in the hope of cordoning off areas that would be restricted to settlers. The decision was held in abeyance until 1942 when the governor declared that certain sub-montane areas, predominantly peopled by tribals and backward classes would be kept off bounds for more technologically (and presumably) economically advanced settlers. Three years later, after much agonising over the issue of leaving tribal adjuncts to a frontier waiting to be settled, tribal belts were laid down in law [Das 1986: 28-38].

Post-colonial administration in the north-east inherited this structure. Though at the outset it seems to be a strategy aimed at fencing off areas, it also contained the initial kernel of plural legal regimes of land use, property, ownership and control over resources. The laws in the special areas (from tribal belts and blocks to autonomous districts) were reminiscent of early 20th century policies that were designed to maintain a property regime that was quite distinct from the rest of the colony. Hence, other than law and order, the day-to-day governance of the hill regions was entrusted to an ill-defined customary law whose interpretation differed from one community to the other and at times, from one village to another. Significantly, these laws were not codified and depended on the interpretations of designated persons such as the village chief or ‘dobashi’ (interpreter) (LRI 1987). Gradually, aided by a legal regime that allowed selective recognition of spheres of influence of customary law, a process of privatisation occurred in the areas that fell within the purview of special laws [Ao 1993].

The reconfiguration of post-colonial spaces in India’s northeast was not a very smooth one. In 1947, the interim government of India appointed a subcommittee of the constituent assembly, called the North-East Frontier (Assam) Tribal and Excluded Areas Sub-Committee, under the chairmanship of Gopinath Bordoloi. The Bordoloi Committee, sought to “…reconcile the aspirations of the hill people for political autonomy with the Assam government’s drive to integrate them with the plains” [Sarmah 2002: 91]. This integrative devolution of powers was embodied in the concept of the autonomous district councils designed by the committee. As expected from such an ambitious nation-building project, the Constitution tried to build in safeguards for the marginalised and oppressed groups in the country. For the people of the north-east frontier, this safeguard came in the form of the sixth schedule of the Constitution, as well as similar laws aimed at safeguarding the rights of indigenous communities over their resources.1 These provisions draw upon the erstwhile excluded and partially excluded areas legislation of the colonial state.

The concerns of the state, in terms of governing the region therefore, had a managerial aspect that sometimes veered towards surreptitious manipulation of ethnic identities in order to regain legitimacy, especially when its writ was challenged. Here it is important to seek the contiguities between the frontier in colonial times with special laws, security concerns and an ethnic composition that was different from the mainland. Practices of citizenship therefore also followed different paths. For indigenous communities living on both sides of the border, between India and its neighbours – Burma, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China – all of who shared some concerns of the post-colonial regimes of governance and administration, it was especially difficult to negotiate the dominant representations of the national self that emerged in the post-colonial period [van Schendel 2005].

Other countries sharing a border with India’s north-east had similar problems but the scales were markedly different. Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan and Nepal do not have any special laws for the ethnic minorities living in the region that borders north-east India. However, the elite of the post-colonial state favoured a policy of re-colonisation of the lands left untouched by settlement during the colonial period. In Bangladesh, the Chittagong Hill Tracts – populated by indigenous ethnic communities with kinship and cultural ties to many of the communities living in India’s north-east- became an unfortunate byword for untold repression of a state that explicitly favoured ethnic settlers to replace the indigenous peoples in their ancestral land [Roy 2002; Brauns and Löffler 1986: 241-44]. In Burma, the post-colonial state was challenged almost as soon as it came into being. A communist-led insurgency and the fissiparous nationalities in the north and west, made the state take up a militaristic stance against dissent [Egreteu 2003]. Part of this stance involved a process of Burmanisation of the ethnic minorities in the north and the west that continues into the present day [Thakuria 2004]. Nepal and Bhutan, two nations that retained their feudal elite, were designed by colonial political interests as buffer-states between the subcontinent and the Chinese empire. As such, the monarchies that controlled both states did not have an ethnic vision of civic processes and the monarchy/theocracy that ran these nations were considered to have supra-civic sanctions and legitimacy [Rose and Fisher 1970:34-62; Rhaul 1997]. Indian policy on the region and ethnic groups that shared this space was a mixture of everything that its neighbours were doing, albeit with modifications. Unlike an overt policy that favoured peopling the frontier with ethnic settlers from the dominant community (as in Bangladesh and Burma) or a policy that claimed sovereign disinterest with civic nationalism (as in Nepal and Bhutan), the Indian state enacted several protective discrimination oriented laws for the region. Just as it was during the colonial era, anthropologists were given a greater say in administering a region that the government knew very little about. Colonial administration in the north-east, especially in the hills, relied largely on the accounts of civil servants who doubled as anthropologists. This knowledge remains the basis of policy formulation and at times, a definitive seal of approval of contentious relations between ethnic groups that shared a common space. Therefore, there seemed to be a coalescence between the nation states’ needs to police the region and the anthropological concerns to sequester ethnic groups into strategically/politically acceptable homelands. Both visions resulted in the genesis of an administrative structure which combined policing and protection of the frontier and the ethnic groups that live there.

Although not explicitly stated, such legislation was meant to keep pace with aspirations of a people not quite ready for the rigours of citizenship. In terms of territorial exclusion and protecting the hills from wanton loss of tribal land, post-colonial policies were influenced by colonial policies that sought to limit encroachment of the highlands by land hungry peasants from the plains [Bordoloi 1999: 6-10, 25-46]. In the early part of the 19th century, the need for fencing off hill from valley was reversed. For example, the Assam Rifles (a paramilitary force infamous for its acts of atrocities committed on civilians during counterinsurgency operations in the hills of north-east India) was founded in 1834-35 as the Cachar Levy to “prevent the tribal raiding parties from reaching the tea gardens and other settlements in the plains” [Palit 1984: 22]. Following the transfer of power in 1947 the Assam Rifles were given more say in the administration of the hills as part of the military policy initiated by the government of India. Today, spin doctors have added colloquial appellations such as ‘Sathi Laga Force’ (“The Friendly Force” – in Nagamese) or Friends of the Hill Peoples to soften the painful memories of human rights violations committed by its personnel.

The regional political processes were further influenced by policies of neighbouring states. India and Burma entered into a tentative agreement to jointly police its borders in the 1950s itself [Nibedon 1981: 25-28]. On the other hand, the Mujibur Rehman-Indira Gandhi pact of 1972 also has several far-reaching implications about Bangladesh’s post-independence politics and the manner in which policies were to take shape in India’s northeast. This pact, according to scholars, laid the basis for the acceleration of vote bank politics, where refugees (both political and economic) were used as political resources [Ghosh 2001: 110-11]. India’s relationship with the theocratic state of Bhutan is an interesting case of mutually beneficial existence of the indigenous (theocratic) elite in Bhutan and Indian commercial and military interests. India’s tacit approval of the subversion (and subsequent crack-down) of the movement for democratic reforms in Bhutan are well-documented among the civil rights community in the subcontinent [Achariya 2004]. Bhutan, being a small country depends on India for economic and political security, while acting as a geopolitical barrier to Chinese expansions south of the Tibetan plateau. This special relationship has its own story of quid pro quo, as was seen in the December 2003 actions to oust Boro and Assamese rebels from Bhutan by the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA). It is obvious that the government of India would like a similar military partnership with other neighbour. In fact, such a model has always been on the agenda of India’s recent bilateral talks with Bangladesh and Burma. The Burmese Junta have warmed to the idea, seeing obvious benefits in quelling ethnic rebels on its western front. Bangladesh, however, has expressed reservations largely due to internal pressures at home and the fact that its own border forces are engaged in a perpetual struggle for supremacy with Indian counterparts. The recurring theme in this saga of controlling post-colonial frontiers has been one of militarisation, where political space for negotiation has been determined by security concerns. Democratic dissent within the region therefore has moved along this contested terrain, where friends and foes are impermanent entities and violence is reconstituted as a political weapon of people marginalised by state-centric political processes. In addition, military actors often dictate political discourse making it difficult for alternative voices in civil society to evolve a dialogic process free from governmental concerns [Samaddar 2004].2

II Moving from Bullets to Bombs: The Partial Story of Militarisation

On October 2, 2004 several bomb explosions occurred all over the state of Assam and in the state of Nagaland. Bombings are not a new phenomenon in the conflict in north-east India. In the course of the anti-colonial struggle against the British, armed action was limited and sporadic. In fact, in the colonial province of Assam (unlike Bengal) organised public dissent against colonial rule was largely influenced by Gandhian principles of nonviolence. However, the element of militant armed action was always just below the surface of a dominant nationalist discourse of non-violence. Bombs were perhaps first used during the second world war campaign by the allied forces and Japanese. In the post-colonial period the Indian army has also resorted to aerial bombings during its counter-insurgency campaign in the Naga and Mizo Hills in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s [IWGIA 1986]. Bombs, it may be argued, serve to depoliticise the immediate aftermath of the events and absorb the violence within a larger discourse of warfare. The immediate implication of a bombing campaign is to create fear and uncertainty in the lives of those against whom it is directed. The anonymity and impersonality of a bombing campaign is obvious as it adds a physical distance between the actors. It is the point where one of the actors involved chooses to disengage from a politically inscribed framework (of enemies and allies) of the conflict.

By and large, the armed opposition have always followed a different strategy – that of armed engagement – with an external enemy. Be it the early Naga nationalists, or the indigenous insurgents in Tripura, the first act of rebellion has always been to collect arms. In the 1970s the Peoples Liberation Army in Manipur began its activities by first raiding a police outpost for arms [Tarapot 1993: 59-60]. Therefore, regardless of the impossible odds against facing the might of the Indian state with a few outdated guns, this act is common to most ethno-nationalist struggles in the region. There are two possible ways to read the importance of these acts. The first, seen by some as manifestations of law and order problems, use this to reiterate the criminalisation of the social fabric of the region [Sanyal 1999: 168-81; Routray 2004]. On the other hand, this act can also be seen as a symbolic gesture of defiance and resistance, in a situation where the civic and political process are seen to be controlled by an illegitimate, external force [Samaddar 2005].

Ever since the transfer of power, the indigenous groups in the north-east have walked a well-beaten path that starts out with mobilisation for cultural and social recognition, invoking precolonial notions of identity as well as colonial interventions, as the basis for articulating a grievance for the administration to consider. This position is altered with the state’s response of reducing scope for negotiation and aids militarisation, which is a comprehensive process of reorganising the political space in the geo-body of society. It involves coercion, co-option and corruption of political processes. It encourages the politics of exclusion and retribution. For instance, the current conflict in Karbi Anglong – involving ethnic militia and the India army/ paramilitary – has been in the news since 2000 for brutal events of violence that involved inter-ethnic clashes, factional warfare and military engagement with the state. What is often forgotten is the fact that this politically explosive situation was preceded by a democratic movement for an autonomous state. While the movement (for an autonomous state) is still active, the state’s reluctance to engage with the movement on equal terms resulted in the evolution of radical armed volunteer groups in the late 1980s and 1990s. Although none of the current political factions of the initial organisation demanding separate statehood would admit it, armed groups occupy an important position in the manner in which an ethnic community take on a political position. Why do, therefore, democratic movements articulating demands well within the purview of the Indian Constitution, turn to arms in the region? A provisional answer to this question is located in the interplay of militarisation, underdevelopment and the constitutional vision of governance.

Underdevelopment is an oft-repeated reason for the persistence of violence in the north-east. According to Fernandes, the economy of the region is almost totally dependent on the primary sector, even though there is no dearth of educated persons available for the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy [Fernandes 2004: 4609-11]. This predicament forms the underpinnings of sociologically suspect answers to the causes and effects of violence in the north-east. Scholars and security analysts often advocate a softer approach in dealing with insurgency by concentrating on the aspect of development and economic progress of the region [Das Gupta 1997: 345-70]. This discourse is repeated by most of the funded non-governmental organisations that have begun to undertake small, albeit conspicuous welfare and developmental efforts in the region. Often, ethnic political groups that are placed in an adversarial position against the state, make use of the same discourse of deprivation and denial. There is some truth in the linkages drawn between impoverishment and violence. Alienation of land and resources is cited as one of the major causes of conflict. Developmental projects, for example, cause displacement of (mainly) indigenous people and without adequate rehabilitation, become sources of new conflicts. According to critics of unsustainable development, major power projects that have been proposed as part of the development package for the region will cause severe loss to livelihoods, especially among indigenous groups who live on community owned lands [Fernandes 2004a]. Since the law only recognises individual ownership (of land), such communities are placed in a disadvantageous position when it comes to bargaining for their rights as displaced peoples. Added to this, the loss of land and resources of subsistence farmers is often seen as the precursor to conflict. When such processes coincide with the unprecedented powers offered to the authorities to quell dissent, the language of threats and bans – enforced with guns by ethnic militia – are regularly used in the repertoire of resistance.

Very often, it is the constitutional framework that offers a way out of recurring violence, by addressing the demands of an aggrieved minority. Using McGarry and O’Leary’s taxonomical formula of political forms of ethnic conflict regulation, one can say that the existing structures in India offer a serious proposition, as they are neither oriented towards eliminating differences, nor are they oriented towards managing them [McGarry and O’Leary 1993: 1-40)]. However, constitutional provisions of affirmative action for marginalised groups are not the ideal answer for the kinds of issues raised by the armed movements in the north-east. In India, the established constitutional methods for handling differences have been either the granting of autonomy to truculent regions and groups, or the granting of statehood to those more obdurate. These measures are not seen to resolve a particular conflict as there is seldom any meeting ground between actors involved in the process.

In a recent press statement, the United Peoples Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) – an armed ethnic militia active in Karbi Anglong – issued a two-year ban on the felling of bamboo trees in Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills districts. The diktat reads like a crusading eco-militant’s angst against rapacious developmental activities. The same group had imposed another ban on the use of pesticides in the rivers flowing in the twinhill districts of Assam in 1996, leading its publicity secretary to happily declare that “(the) population of wild pigs and elephants in the two districts has increased manifold” in the same communiqué issued to the local press [Roy 2004]. Such activities often co-exist with violent attacks and counter-attacks on other ethnic communities. The organisation has allegedly been behind the recent violence between kuki and karbi farmers. In 2004 several kuki villagers lost their lives in a spate of violence in the district. In retaliation, members of the kuki militia attacked soft targets among the karbi community killing many and rendering several hundreds homeless [Barbora 2004: 21-24]. The situation described is further complicated by a contest over resources in ethnic homelands that are then sought to be populated by a militarily dominant ethnic group. The call to arms therefore is a real, tangible artefact of a policy framework within which competition is articulated along ethnic lines and sought to be resolved along military ones. The emergence of ethnic militia therefore could be seen as an outcome of a dual process of impoverishment and militarisation, where small (in relative terms) communities have to arm themselves to prevent a complete assimilation of lifestyles, culture and resources.

Such militant reactions are seen as manageable conflicts by policy-makers. Most accords between the central government and agitating groups skirt other issues and pick on economic grievances in order to deal with the unrest. A process of selective engagement with inscribed rules for articulating dissidence emerges as a model to be emulated in future deliberations with other recalcitrant communities. Economic packages have been the preferred issue in the course of deliberations between the government and ethnic groups. This causes conflicts to re-emerge later. This is typified in the conflict in western Assam, where ethnic Boro insurgents have waged a two-pronged struggle against the state and other groups. One strand formulates a war against the Indian state, which is seen as an external colonial entity, responsible for the loss of resources and culture of the Boro people.3 The other strand of the armed struggle sees the state as the logical arbiter in the contest for an ethnic homeland. In 1993, the central government herded the Boro leaders who had sent friendly and frequent feelers for an honourable resolution of the conflict as well as the government of Assam to sign on what came to be known as the Boro Accord, in Kokrajhar. The accord created the Boroland Autonomous Council, comprising an area covering 2,000 villages and 25 estates stretching via a government of Assam notification (No TAD/BAC/26/93/18).4 The area also included reserved forests as per the guidelines laid by the ministry of defence and the ministry of environment, government of India. The actual difficulty in the demarcation of the boundary and opposition of the non-scheduled tribe population living in the area marked the agreement. Other ethnic groups residing in the region are then forced to up the ante to be heard, often leading to irreparable relations between ethnic groups that lay claim to a common resource base. The accord was signed between one faction of the Boro armed opposition – the faction believed to be supported by India’s secret services and military intelligenceand the state government. It essentially seemed to give the Boro people a homeland, on the basis of the fact that they were a majority in that area. The government’s action was seen as partisan and favourable to one section of citizens alone and led to widespread protests from 1999 through to 2002-03. These discordant notes are not aberrations in state policy. Rather, they are a way in which the state apparatus reproduces structures within which actors find their place. This means that the space for generating alternative politics is further reduced, especially when actors take on recalcitrant positions in the political game, be it in the armed opposition, or even within acceptable parliamentary limits. This further reinforces the need to find solutions outside the parliamentary process.

In most political movements, the initial stages of political mobilisation are marked by a series of memoranda to various authorities, thereby giving one the impression that movements in the region are generally initiated by an educated class [Baruah 2002: 1-20]. Thereafter, the move to acquire arms is almost seen as a logical step that moves away from middle class predilections and calls for direct action. In ULFA’s early documents and discussions with organs of civil society, the appeal to radical political consciousness is unmistakable. This radical political identifies various appeals made to the state – memoranda, civil disobedience actions – as effete and lacking in capacity to elicit any concessions from the state [Das 1994: 95-101]. The state’s response leads to further ossification of intransigent positions of those who have taken to arms. There is a seamier side to these stories that does not account for the transformation of a society where informers and spies live and eat at the same hearth as their rebel kin. Continued armed engagement and lack of any credible efforts to assuage the grievances of the Nagas meant the extension of principles of armed intervention into everyday social relations, where the gun became a symbol of oppression and resistance. As political differences within the nationalist struggles emerged, the government saw it fit to exploit them in order to contain the armed insurgency – a policy widely recognised as being unwise

– thereby accentuating differences between the people and the administration based on suspicion and mistrust [Dev 1988: 11214]. The administrative responses seldom take into consideration such misgivings among citizens when new modes of addressing issues of justice are evolved.

Such processes that restrict democratic dissent are further accentuated by the existence of several draconian security laws that allow the armed forces impunity in their counter-insurgency operations. Some, like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, received negative publicity in 2004, when common citizens of Manipur demonstrated against extra-judicial executions and rapes committed by the Assam Rifles [Prabhakara 2004: 12-18; Varadarajan 2004: 10-11]. These acts too have been sidelined in favour of direct action by the administration. In Assam, the government has been accused of offering political and financial support to armed vigilantes, who have run amuck by killing perceived rebel sympathisers [MASS 2000:1-2]. Its effect on a small, albeit important dissenting constituency within the community is to create a wall of silence around political issues. It “makes fathers write open letters (in newspapers) disowning their rebel sons, just so they can get the army, police and vigilantes off their back”.5 Subsequent efforts to elicit the help of civil society in peace parleys are somewhat ironic given the fact that the central issue around which civil society can be galvanisedjustice and transparency – are consistently deemed to be expendable in the politics of counter-insurgency. This predilection is also fuelled by a global discourse that sees economic proxies as a means to delegitimise violent protests and is in perfect accordance with the reinvention of development within global liberal governance, conflict resolution and societal reconstruction [Duffield 2001: 108-35]. Armed struggles in the north-east can therefore be seen as the artefacts of such a delegitimating process, whereby their causes are simply dismissed as deviant behaviour due to the fact that they employ violence to meet their ends. This creates conditions for the perpetuation of a politics of controlled disorder, wherein armed intervention is the norm – an unending war of attrition – whose course is circumscribed by powerful military and political interests and where the state’s legitimacy and monopoly over force is always suspect.

Armed struggles in the region have undergone a transformation as a part of the dynamics of militarisation. The diplomacy modes undertaken by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN); the ceasefires negotiated by the Dima Halam Daoga (DHD) and the United Peoples Democratic Solidarity (UPDS); or the tentative-yet-recalcitrant position of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) have all undergone serious facelifts and changes in engaging with the state. On the other hand, given the popular uprising against the Indian army and paramilitary operations, as well as the increasing public opinion urging the government to start political discussions with the armed opposition groups, the state too has changed its counter-insurgency strategies. It would be sociologically reckless to claim that the October 2, 2004 bomb explosions marked the proverbial Rubicon for armed struggles in the region (as media reports would suggest), or for that matter that the car rally has heralded a new era of connectivity and democratic interaction between the ethnic communities of the region and their south-east Asian kin. Far from it, it seems that all the issues raised during 2004-05 – the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act; the future of the Indo-Naga peace parleys; the ceasefires in North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglongwill be relegated to the back-burner in favour of politically expedient solutions of retaining a dangerous status quo in the region. Armed forces personnel now engage in welfare work in places they once scoured for insurgents. Simultaneously, armed actions to liquidate members of certain armed opposition groups who take shelter in neighbouring countries have gained ground since the joint action of the Indian and Royal Bhutanese Army in December 2003. Similar actions are asked of Burma and Bangladesh, even as Indian officials negotiate the logistics of policing the borders with their neighbours. Such militarised conditions raise fundamental questions about the kind of freedoms that citizens are allowed to enjoy. These militarised frontiers are also essential in maintaining and mapping a national/sub-national/ethnonational territory. The examples of the karbi reaction to autonomy regimes, or the uneasy relations fostered within Naga society following the creation of the state of Nagaland, are cases at hand. They allude towards a peculiar mode of conflict-resolution where grievances and civil disorder are seen as the inevitable consequence of the region’s geographical and existential distance from India. It finds a prominent place in the discourse on funds and governance. In short, they subvert the whole notion of citizenship by the perpetuation of territorial violence, which encourages financial corruption while producing “marginal, expendable and vulnerable people” [Ludden 2003: 1057-78].

III Guns and Governance: Creating Citizens, Volunteers and Spies

When the bomb blasts occurred in Dimapur (the commercial capital of the state of Nagaland), the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), announced that it would start an investigation of its own to ascertain the identity of the culprits [Pareek and Das 2004: 18-25]. Subsequently, the organisation offered a sum of money for (any) information on the bomb blasts. The elected government of the state of Nagaland offered to top the amount offered by the NSCN.6 Before any investigations were conducted, the media went to town about the possible identity of the perpetrators. Some apportioned the blame equally on armed opposition groups from Assam – ULFA, DHD UPDS – who in turn issued denials or maintained a stoic silence. At least one of the dailies carried unsolicited declarations from members of the security forces and government that absolved one organisation in favour of the other [Hussain 2004: 26-28]. Army officers and administrators in the north-east have frequently made statements prior to the conclusion of investigation about a range of possible perpetrators of violence. In Assam, following a series of armed attacks on Hindi-speaking people in 2000, police and other members of the administration saying had differing views on who was responsible and wasted little time in pronouncing their verdict, without investigative proof [MASS 2001]. Such announcements go unchallenged and under normal circumstances would be seen as a threat to the judicial process. However, in a region where judicial processes are autonomous from what it is in other parts of the country, such uncalled-for pronouncements serve to widen or narrow the list of possibilities. The investigative process is deemed redundant in a situation where governors and army spokespersons offer their views over that of the (investigative) process itself. In the cacophony of voices that supersede the blasts and the politics around the inevitability of militarisation, the fact that the state plays a contradictory role is often missed out.

In the course of peace talks and ceasefires with armed opposition groups, the government of India seems reluctant to disclose the details of these processes. Diplomatic prudence and political sensitivities in the course of negotiations between the administration and armed opposition groups explain the reticence to the silences. Most of the disclosures from the administration appear in a tone that is suggestive rather than authoritative. In an interview to a weekly magazine, Dilip Nunisa, the commanderin-chief of the Dima Halam Daogah – an ethnic militia active in North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong – elucidated the contradictions of the administration’s counter-insurgency policy and the problems of a republican discourse of citizenship. His responses had three fundamental critiques of the current militarised milieu in the region. In answering a question directed to elicit a response from the militia leader regarding irritants in the peace process, he replied:

…(I do) express my ire at the blame game being played with my outfit by the higher-ups in the security forces whenever any violent incident took place in the North Cachar Hills, Karbi Anglong or Cachar [sic]. Remember, at least ten revolutionary groups are active in these areas7

Responding to a question on the allegations that the militia had been accused by the media of breaking the rules of the ceasefire by continuing with sporadic armed campaigns after the death of railway assistants in their area, Nunisa stated:

Police blamed DHD (when the incident occurred)...with the consent

of the in-charge of the Dhansiri camp (of the police and para

military) DHD cadres were deployed to provide security cover

to certain soft targets including the staff at Daldali railway station

(emphasis added). Two of our cadres [sic] were arrested by the Dihphu police prior to the shootout incident on flimsy grounds, which prompted us to withdraw our boys from their assigned jobs (emphasis added)...the SP (superintendent of police) of Karbi Anglong found himself in a spot over the issue8

The DHD leader (perhaps) unwittingly shed more light on the experiences of indigenous groups with nation-building processes when he revealed his agenda for the (forthcoming) talks with the government. He reiterated the militia’s demand for a Dimasa homeland but added a spin to it. The territory in question was made a ‘rajya’ (kingdom) within the greater Indian tradition by linking it to the Hindu nationalist epic – the Mahabharata – an effort that is reminiscent of the untiring efforts of Assamese nationalists of the early 20th century to reclaim Assam’s place within an emerging Indian national imagination. The DHD functionary displays all the ambiguity of the early Assamese modernist/nationalist, especially with respect to the question of identity. Where the early 20th century Assamese nationalist was torn between expressing her/his desire to be counted as a paid member of the enlightened classes and reiterating the special position of Assam within the national imagination, the insurgent leader’s response to the eventual outcome of the armed struggle (in North Cachar Hills) charts the tragic experience of his community in the nation-building project. He says:

We will press for reservation of jobs for the indigenous people of North Cachar Hills in the army, police and paramilitary forces9

It is fortunate to find a single interview that touches upon the most fundamental notions of the practice and memory of being citizens in India’s north-east. Nunisa’s statements throw light on three aspects of governance of the region. In the first instance, the notion of a blame game involving high ranking members of the security forces is not an accidental slip of tongue. It is a fact that the (Indian) security establishment has high stakes in administering the north-east. Nunisa’s interview is significant in the fact that it unwittingly unravels linkages between governance, politics and the practice of being citizens for smaller ethnic groups. He squarely states that it is the security forces (“higherups”, is his preferred usage) who have been acting in bad faith during the course of the peace process. While he does not specify how, it is in the second statement that the extent of unaccountability of the administration is made clear. According to the insurgent leader, his militia were asked to provide security cover to the Indian railways. In mainland India such an arrangement – wherein an ethnic militia are asked to oversee security arrangements for the government – would have raised a furore in the parliament. In north-east India, this is a model arrangement for outsourcing security in areas where the state’s control is in question.

Secondly, the fact that DHD cadre were entrusted with security arrangements for a government institution seems to run parallel to the story of the NSCN conducting its independent investigations into the Dimapur bomb blasts. The effect of quasi-state agencies taking charge of investigation and security is something that only citizens in India’s north-east can live with. The third issue raised in Nunisa’s interview has to do with the notion of being citizens itself. It is clear that DHD’s political stance has little faith in the idea of citizenship. Yet, in his vision of a negotiated settlement, the leader of the organisation thinks that it is only by way of participating as police and army personnel that the Dimasa people (of North Cachar Hills) can realise their status as citizens of a nation. The DHD’s declaration for separation from a mother body, therefore, is based on an implicit declaration of people hood based on genealogy and descent ties that function “not only as other sub-national units do in, say, the assertion of ethnicity, but point to the history of pre-contact and raise questions about legal and moral legitimacy of the present national formation” [Murray 1997: 11]. The notion that the ethnic militia and not the state that provides security to (ethnic) citizens in the frontier is highlighted in these two instances. Furthermore, there is a subtext to the citizenship discourse in the main story. Indigenous communities (like the Dimasa, for example) buy into being citizens of the country only after a bout of armed activities against the state and those perceived to be allies of the state [Biswas 2002: 140-62]. Driving home this point Baruah speaks about the existence of parallel structures of governance in the north-east by examining the role of governors in the administering of justice in the region. His contention that the role of the governor in the north-eastern states is qualitatively different from the other states in India is bolstered by the observation that most of the governors in the seven states are erstwhile members of the security apparatus [Baruah 2001: 10-20].

Counter-insurgency concerns have also led to the creation of alternative forces in the body politic of the region. These alternative structures are often situated in the heartland of settler societies, where security concerns are deemed necessary for settlers from the Indian heartland alone [NPMHR, MASS et al 2002]. Similar conditions in its immediate neighbourhood have led to the growth of parallel power structures that allow nonstate entities to take charge. Sturgeon, for example, elucidates how state policy along borders in China, Thailand and Burma have created a political economy governed by militia run by drug lords and rebel armies, who in turn perform the function of a modern nation state [Sturgeon 2004: 463-84]. Although not quite in the same league, the ambiguity of Indian policy predilection for governing the north-east underlines lack of accountability and democratic practice. Representations of the state in the northeast are dominated by its armed wing. Beside the draconian laws that have been enacted in the region, political expediency and dependence on military solutions make governance more difficult. For sure, the state has the capacity to be repressive everywhere

– not just in its frontier possessions – and citizens’ rights are threatened within the centres of power. Yet, as Sumanta Banerjee says: “…(since the state has been) domesticated in its home of the Hindi-Hindu-heartland, the centre could never understand the complexity of the ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity that makes up what is known as India outside (the) Aryavarta” [Banerjee 2004: 4404-46]. On the other hand, dissenting politics against the state appear as (a) victims of Machiavellian plots hatched by superior negotiators; or (b) anachronistic voices of from the mid-20th century, still hankering for the impossible control over imagined nation states/homelands. Some of the examples cited above, corroborate the fact that the polyvalence of the politics of citizenship in the north-east frontier of India, are seemingly inchoate attempts to “give voice to local injustice in a universal language, and to make claims to difference via rights that apply universally to all peoples” [Muehlebach 2003: 241-68].

IV Garrison Mentality in North-East India

The special Jan Shatabdi train leaves Guwahati for Jorhat via Dihphu and Dimapur and returns the same way every day of the week, save Sunday. The train is the epitome of service, rarely late and extremely convenient for professionals and travellers from Nagaland, Karbi Anglong, North Cachar Hills and upper Assam. It is one of the most likely places for natives of these towns to bump into security personnel returning home from difficult postings in Jorhat and Dimapur. There is little common ground for a civil conversation between those returning home to Varanasi or Rohtak and residents of the small towns that the train passes through. The security personnel live in their camps, sometimes within the towns (as in Dimapur and Jorhat), and do not socialise with townsfolk. On the rare occasion when they stop conversing with wives and colleagues on the train in Hindi, they speak to others about how they get everything they need in their camps – cooking gas, food, movies – everything that allows them to feel less homesick during their stints in the northeast. They evoke envy among the residentsof Dihphu and Dimapur with tales about how cheap and regular their commodities are, when compared to the going market rate for the same in the small north-eastern towns. Sequestered in their camps, they spend years without ever learning the language or customs of the local people. Yet, they believe that they have recreated a mini-India within their garrisons. This, in essence, is the garrison mentality that governs India’s north-east.

Appadurai states that one of the many paradoxes of democracy is that it is “organised to function within the boundaries of the nation state – through organs such as the legislatures, judiciaries and elected governments – to realise one or another of the image of the common good or general will” [Appadurai 2001: 23-43]. Hence, if one were to assume that under a centre-left disposition, the UPA government in Delhi seeks to reorient its north-east policy towards a common good, then several optimistic prospects come to mind. On the one hand, with gestures such as the handing over of the Kangla fort and car rally, it might seem as though the paranoia of security concerns might be finally coming to an end. If that is so, then the possibility of a more relaxed relationship with India’s eastern neighbours, awaits eager policy-makers in New Delhi. However, this would involve reinventing the current dynamics of legislatures, judiciaries and elected governments in the north-east. It would mean ironing out the amorphous norms of citizenship that pass off either as protective discrimination or political appeasement of ethno-nationalist political aspirations. In the end, such rhetoric eventually falls flat in the face of military concerns and the overwhelming control exercised by security apparatus in even the most mundane affairs of daily life in the region. On the other hand, if general will is nothing but a project of creating an Indian identity that is palatable only inasmuch as it offers economic largesse for dominant elite in the southsouth-east Asian axis, then the processes that make this (project) possible will undoubtedly be violent. People in the region have almost become accustomed to conflict and official unaccountability. In north-east India the unproblematic celebration of the pan-Indian self by inventing investment-friendly slogans – such as “Look East”– remains a perilous project. As long as outdated security concerns continue to dictate policy, peoples’ memories of having been wronged will fester and fuel seeds of future dissent [Das 2003: 293-307].

Finally, what then, is one to make of the seemingly significant

– perhaps incomprehensible – changes that have taken place since mid-2004? How is one supposed to read the spurt in the politics of anonymous, unclaimed violence, car rallying to south-east Asia, tentative peace overtures, reconciliatory political gestures and growing recalcitrance among ethnic groups/militia, all in one moment? The answers thus far have been provisional and incomplete. It would seem foolhardy to attempt otherwise. The northeast is poised on the cusp of an unprecedented transformation of its historical position as a frontier. Colonial concerns and postcolonial cartography have created a condition wherein the discourse of citizenship has all but disappeared from the language of development and rights. Instead, one sees the extension of a garrison mentality, where the north-east is sought to be micromanaged by policy-makers for whom the people and the region is a veritable military terrain. It is within these metaphoric garrisons that important decisions, such as the need to engage with armed groups or the course to chart after a ceasefire, are taken. For those following the ULFA- government of India peace talk possibilities, it is hardly surprising that despite the efforts of civil society and sections of the political elite within Assam, the army decided to go ahead with their operations in the Dibru-Saikhowa national forest all through September 2005. The garrison mentality that drives such policy initiatives is so strong, that even visiting politicians completely forget their civilian constituency and speak like army generals giving their soldiers a pep-talk in the barracks. Therefore, if anything, the seemingly incongruent events of 2004-05 indicate that violence would remain a ubiquitous presence in the transformation of the northeast, unless governance and politics in the region moves away from its militaristic mindset and is tempered with notions of transparency and justice.




[This article was prepared with the support of the National Centre of Competence in Research North-South (NCCR North-South), Switzerland. The usual disclaimers apply.]

1 The sixth schedule is applicable in the two autonomous hill districts (Karbi

Anglong and North Cachar Hills) in Assam and Meghalaya. Article 371

A was introduced in the state of Nagaland in 1963 and Article 371 G in

Mizoram in 1986. Manipur has special laws for the hill areas while the

autonomous districts in Tripura are not governed as per the rules of the

sixth schedule. 2 For example, on August 31, 2005 the Indian army entered into the noted

Dibru-Saikhowa national park ostensibly to carry out operations against members of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). Media reports state that while it was unclear as to how many ULFA activists were holed up inside the park, it was the forest-dwelling villagers who bore the brunt of the counter-insurgency operations. The timingof the operations was criticised by a wide cross section of civil society organisations as it came at a time when ULFA had sent out positive feelers for talks. Rather than seizing the opportunity, political leaders began to speak the army’s language of “flushing out militants”, with a distinctly military swagger in their pronouncements on the need for dialogue with ULFA. Overnight, diplomatic and politicallanguage (on the part of the government) gave way to barrack-talk, which ULFA responded to in kind. The tentative peace initiative therefore lay severely tested and threatened [Pathak 2005].

3 Manifesto of the National Democratic Front for Boroland, http:// (accessed January 4, 2005).

4 The Bodoland Autonomous Council Act 1993, January 4, 2005).

5 Lachit Bordoloi (human rights activist), personal communication with the author (Guwahati, December 10, 2002).

6 See The Statesman, October 4, 2004 (‘More Blasts Greet Patil in Assam’);The Times of India, October 3, 2004, (‘Terror Strikes Nagaland’/‘NSCN Condemns Blast’/‘Blood Flows in Assam too’].

7 Dilip Nunisa, interview by Jyoti Lal Chowdhury, North East Sun September 30, 2004; p 21.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.


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