The Northeast is never news, but only ‘breaking news’, when the media report some dire occurrence or other. So it comes as a surprise when the ground reality is at variance with perception. There is a tendency to say the Northeast is not integrated with the rest of the country because of ethnicity and insurgency, but this is mostly untrue. Although militants of various kinds have infested Assam for four decades, there is a tradition of higher learning, and a large number of Assamese are working successfully elsewhere in India, much sought after especially in service industries.
The Indian Northeast is one of the most complex regions in the world, with over 200 ethnic groups, languages and dialects, that have existed in partial isolation not only from the rest of India but from one another. Both legal and illegal migration have created new faultlines in traditional societies. Parochialism transcends nationalism and regionalism, and needs very astute management. Far less complex ethnic societies have collapsed elsewhere, as in the Balkans, and we have good reason to feel satisfied.
For some years after 2005, the number of Northeast insurgency fatalities, civil and military, was 700 to 1000 a year. Now nearly half the insurgency incidents in the region are in Manipur alone. The 2012 figures for Assam are 39 civilians, one security person and 50 militants. Insurgents have become akin to criminal gangs with their own fiefdoms; ethnic clashes and strikes are the greater problem. At the height of militancy, there was a single fault-line, namely, Assamese identity versus the rest: now there are many. The increasing demand of autonomous district councils on the ground that some ethnic groups were cornering all the resources, reflects the emergence of multiple faultlines. The recent decision on Telangana has predictably opened a Pandora’s box and given impetus to this trend, the Bodo movement has gained momentum, others are rediscovering new identities and/or emphasizing identities that were relatively subdued, and clashes are taking place in Assam’s Karbi Anglong area between supporters of a separate state for the Karbi tribal people and the law enforcement authorities.
The demands for protection by smaller ethnic groups revolve around the autonomous provisions in the Indian Constitution, and not the advocating of secession from India. Issues of sub-nationalism, communal politics, foreign involvement, manifestations of Maoism, Assamese speakers becoming a minority in the state, and half of the districts having a Muslim community of 35 per cent and over, obviously pose political, social and economic challenges. But to the credit of the state authorities, peace has generally returned to Assam, and the process of conflict resolution is now established, with the state willing to talk to those ready for negotiations.
India’s economic growth has made more financial resources available in the Northeast. While these resources could and should have been utilized more efficiently, there is no doubt that they have been helpful in co-opting the local elite. There is large-scale corruption, but there is no denying there has also been some development. The literacy rate is high in Assam, the increase in the number and size of educational institutions is a pointer in this direction, and has generated aspirations among the youth in Assam and the Northeast region. But the democratic bulge among 15- to 30-year olds, combined with even higher unemployment in rural and urban areas than in the rest of India, is cause for great concern.
Assam is key to the security and development of the entire Northeast, because it abuts on the other states and has the sole corridor to the rest of India. It has 70 per cent of the Northeast population of 47 million and the highest density of people per square kilometre, besides having the largest economy. In 1950, it had India’s highest per capita income but has now fallen far behind. Unless Assam is developed, the whole region cannot prosper. In a broader context, only the development of Assam can give substance to India’s stability, and facilitate Indian relations with Southeast Asia.
One of the greatest setbacks to peace and progress in the Northeast was the creation of East Bengal, later East Pakistan and later still, Bangladesh, through which the region became land-locked. The issues are well-known: support to insurgency, common rivers, trade, smuggling, border problems and illegal migration. It must be readily acknowledged that with the current Awami League government in Dhaka and wise leadership in Assam and Tripura, some of these problems have been resolved or at least mitigated to the point of becoming manageable. The positive aspects of this situation need to be consolidated and made irreversible, although the Trinamul Congress, and to a lesser extent, the Bharatiya Janata Party, seem oblivious of the painful consequences to be visited on India if the Awami League were to be toppled in Bangladesh. Similarly, stability and a measure of prosperity in Myanmar, including in the Arakan/Rakhine state, will have a good effect on the Northeast.
The Northeast comprises eight states with only two per cent of their borders with India — the rest being with Myanmar, China, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. In spite of India’s external trade increasing manifold, and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation, the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations linkages, there is no positive impact in the Northeast because of lack of connectivity and security inhibitions. The New Delhi government gives the impression of permanent ambiguity about closer integration between the Northeast and adjoining countries. There are fears of trans-border ethnic solidarities with loss of strategic advantage, illegal migration, extremism and loss of control of the economic situation. Trade with China through Nathu-la should have improved the prospects of the Northeast that has about one half of India’s growth rate, but they do not look as if they will ever materialize.
The number of projects with foreign investment in Assam is minimal. Private investment from other parts of India is much too small. Our chambers of commerce have a lamentable record of attracting investment to this state. There is inadequate, to say the least, creation of assets in power, infrastructure and economic opportunities. Ninety per cent of the natural resources in the Northeast, like fresh water, forest cover, bio-diversity, hydroelectricity and minerals are still not developed for the people’s benefit. Development programmes that incorporate people’s participation are essential, so that the benefits can be shared and there are links to the rest of the economy; a few eye-catching industrial projects in some enclaves are not enough. The private entrepreneur does not need tax breaks and incentives; he looks for raw materials, a promising market and good logistics. The potential is not taken seriously, lip service abounds; it is not regarded as real and achievable although the natural and human endowment is such that this whole region could be transformed. The shift from agriculture to industry and services is at a snail’s pace even when compared to the rest of India. Industry is only 17 per cent of the state’s gross domestic product.
Shining India is not seen in the darkness of the villages and islands that comprise 87 per cent of the state, where the only signs of prosperity are owned by those who practise or collaborate with violence and corruption. To blame insecurity, insurgency or illegal migration is begging the question. Much of the problem is caused by abdication of responsibility — to use a hackneyed cliché — and the lack of good governance. Tarun Gogoi, the chief minister of Assam, has been re-elected three times. He has brought relative peace to the state and several of his problems have been created by forces outside his borders and beyond his control. But it is time he turned his hat-trick of victories and the restoration of law and order into a peace dividend in terms of robust development.