|Union home minister P. Chidambaram and a delegation of Ulfa leaders led by its chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa (second from left), at a meeting in New Delhi recently. (PTI)
New Delhi-NE symbiosis
Delhi is where all the action happens. It is also a favourite haunt of a variety of personalities from scamsters to devout godmen, from fire and brimstone spouting activists, to hyper-critical academicians, from lame duck politicians to the good bad and ugly variety. And not to forget the multi-hued rebels of the Northeast! The last would make a good advert for Benetton! The national capital has several roads, lanes and bylanes named after much thought. Chanakyapuri gets it name from the famous statesman-politician of Chandragupta Maurya’s era. This geographic space also has within it sub-themes such as Nyay Marg (Justice Lane) Satya Marg (Truth Lane) Niti Marg (Policy Lane) et al. In a place where all the scams seem to be cooking it is ironic to see streets with such nomenclatures.
Delhi was once a distant place on the mindscape of the northeasterner. But that is no longer the case. Many from the region visit the national capital more often that they do their villages. Things have changed “dramatically” in the Northeast as P. Chidambaram loves to postulate. But have they changed for the better? Or, is the absence of bloodbaths and bomb blasts the only yardstick to measure this change? At one time, the northeastern states, particularly the armed rebels, thrived on a regular Delhi-bashing ceremony. Today, despite their avowed disdain for Delhi’s politics and bureaucracy, they all criss-cross the national capital and walk the corridors of North Block to meet with the venerable home minister and home secretary. This has become a sort of routine photo-ops drama. Whether anything comes out of the meetings is quite a different matter.
Recently, the surrendered/arrested Ulfa bigwigs led by Arabinda Rajkhowa made a splash in Delhi. They met the Union home minister and also had a tête-à-tête with their Rajya Sabha representative who also happens to be the Prime Minister. For a rebel group that has lived on Bangladesh soil for nearly three decades and carried out some of the worst subversive acts, killed innocents and spewed abuses on Congress politicians for being Delhi’s minions, the once firebrand Ulfa chairman seems to have taken a 360-degree turn. How is this possible? Or, would this change of heart have happened if the renegades were still allowed a free run of Bangladesh? Doubtful!
Bangladesh military authorities have for long facilitated the arms smuggling business by northeastern rebels into India’s Northeast. The business is lucrative for both parties. The easy flow of arms in to the region has actually encouraged the proliferation of several armed groups. Control Arms Foundation, a Delhi-based organisation, that has raised concerns about the easy availability of small arms particularly in Manipur and Nagaland is fighting a losing battle. Arms smuggling is a lucrative business and one of the primary sources of income of northeastern rebels. If Bangladesh is today evidently plugging the routes for the illegal arms trade it is only because of the force of international diplomacy. Perhaps this is one reason why the NSCN (I-M) is now relying on their old friends and mentors in China as arms-peddling partners. Of course, there are many other unspoken implications in the new-found love between the Naga rebels and their Chinese mentors.
The recent arrest of a Chinese spy impersonating as a journalist should have raised a stink in Delhi. Yet, the whole issue was brushed under the dirty carpets of North Block.
It also quickly moved out of newspaper headlines without even a follow-up. Any attempt to find out why this issue is handled with kid gloves only evokes a mystifying silence or a cynical rebuff from the powers that be. What they are trying to say is, “Mind your own business; we know what we are doing.”
Considering that the Northeast was once nearly overrun (or is “nearly” the correct word to use here?) by China, any such activity by a Chinese agent should have caused consternation. Today, only the spooks of this country are privy to the NSCN-Chinese connection. And the matter is treated as classified. This is funny because the NSCN (I-M) leadership is in Nagaland for a briefing-debriefing exercise and yet another attempt at reconciliation among the warring factions.
Speaking as an objective observer, I often wonder whether reconciliation is as easy as it sounds. This 14-lettered word of the English language does not adequately reflect the Naga sense of justice underlying the present proposal for reconciliation. Nagas do not easily forget the vengeance killings of the past. Each tribe has its way of remembering the dead who have lost their lives in the revolution, not at the hands of the Indian army but of rival Naga mutineers. There are rituals and incantations listing out the virtues of the deceased who meant the world to his own villagers, notwithstanding his personal lapses. This is a living culture. Unlike the Assamese who seem to have easily slipped into a comfort zone and forgotten the Dhemaji killings and other outrages committed by Ulfa, Nagas do not make things so simple. Yes, the Naga civil society and the Naga Mothers Association (NMA) want an end to the fratricide but this is no longer a fratricidal war on discordant ideologies. The killings today have taken the shape of a turf war over the control of resources, although the Naga sense of honour prevents that from being stated upfront. I apologise for steering out of the tiring semantics that Nagas have become so used to while describing their struggle. But I ask a few simple questions as a fellow tribal. What is the present status of the Naga national movement? Is it still on track? Or, is it meandering into a maze of indecipherable diplomacy in Delhi? Is this simply a game where there are no winners or losers? Such a game could last forever. No one is in a hurry.
True, there are statements made by NSCN (I-M) leader Th. Muivah each time he emerges out of the rarefied dialogue room. But these, too, have become predictable rhetoric. So, where are the talks headed? Or, is it impudent to ask? Both factions of the NSCN and the other fringe groups continue with their extortion (as defined by the Indian law) or tax collection (as circumscribed by Naga political consciousness). The problem arises when the jurisdiction overlaps and the group with more firepower asserts its authority. This is the bane of the Naga struggle. To my mind it is no longer a struggle for Naga sovereignty but a fight to the finish over who collects taxes from where. And while all this carries on, the present day Chanakyas in Delhi watch with amusement at how they have managed to turn the so-called national movements in Nagaland or Assam on their heads. Venom-spouting rebels who loathed the very idea of India are now regular visitors to Delhi and are have acquired a savoir-faire into the complex web of Indian political choreography. The amazing turn of events has taken time but they have made their mark. Truly, we owe it to Chanakya for his far-sighted vision of how to break the spirit of even the most rabid revolutionary. The hawks have turned to doves. They even belt out songs in the national capital for effect. What else can India ask for?
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)