| Under the shadow of violence
Sanjib Baruah is senior fellow, Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati
In the Northeast, it might seem that any determined young man of one of the numerous ethnic groups of the region could proclaim the birth of a new militia, raise funds to buy weapons or procure them by aligning with another militia and quickly become an important political player. According to last year’s count by the Institute of Conflict Management, Manipur tops the list of militias with 35, Assam is second with 34 and Tripura has 30, Nagaland has 4 and Meghalaya checks in with 3 militias. While there are no militias in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram on this list, these states are not free from militancy originating elsewhere.
Most militant groups are best described as ethnic militias. Even people living in the region may not have heard of all the ethnic groups in whose names these struggles are being fought. However, to say that outsiders may not have even heard of them is to entirely miss the point of ethno-national political mobilization. If they are about the politics of recognition, to say that no one has ever heard of the Karbis or Tiwas of Assam or the Hmars or Zomis of Manipur may at least partly explain why their leaders feel the need to make their existence known.
Contemporary writings on the Northeast are often framed by a concern for ending insurgencies. A few successes of counter-insurgency have perhaps tempted many to conclude that by following the same methods each insurgency could be defeated. But looking beyond the histories of particular militias, the ethnic militias of the Northeast can be seen as part of the actually existing governance structure of the region. Indeed it is not even accurate to speak of the Indian state taking a generalized anti-insurgency stance at all times. At the local level, favouring some militias and opposing others is what characterizes the state’s counter-insurgency posture at any particular point of time.
The proliferation and persistence of small ethnic militias, in the face of the long and violent history of counter-insurgency, would suggest that they persist and proliferate only because they serve important functions. Their incapacity to deliver on what they sometimes proclaim as an agenda to achieve “national liberation” should not obscure these functions.
Indian officials and the media like to describe the fund-raising by the ethnic militias as “extortion”. But it should be seen as taxation by non-state organizations. The impressive taxation powers of the ethnic militias cannot be separated from the reality of the “black” economy — the growing part of the total economy that is outside the formal surveillance capacity of the state. The Indian government has pumped enormous resources into the development of the Northeast. This has had significant impact on the region’s physical infrastructure, demography, social fabric and political life, even though they do not seem to have altered the conditions that sustain ethnic militancy.
The leakage of developmental funds has significantly bolstered the “black” economy. Even the home minister, L.K. Advani, has complained that money allocated for the region’s development often finds its way to the coffers of the militias. It is not merely the ethnic militias, but the ethnic student associations, political parties and other players get shares of the money. The ethnic militias have developed an arguably better capacity to impose taxes than the state. Unlike government tax collectors who can target only what is officially declared as income, these non-state organizations can impose higher taxes based on more realistic assessments of legal and illegal income. The benefits of the insurgency dividend do not flow only to the locals, but to the police as well.
The reasons why officers of all-Indian services would want to be away from the Northeast are varied. But one should not miss the frontier mentality at work of using the assignments in the Northeast to make a fast buck and escape to the safety of New Delhi. In a region where counter-insurgency dominates the policy agenda, positions in the bureaucracy provide the best opportunities of filling one’s personal coffers.
The outrage about pervasive corruption in the Northeast expressed by Indian government officials and commentators misses its central political significance as oxygen to ethnic militias, and for all the Indian state’s formidable strength, it does not include a capacity to cut back on, not to speak of switching off, that source of oxygen of the ethnic militias.
Apart from tolerating taxation by militias and other ethnically based political groups and allowing the substantial leakage of funds earmarked for development, counter-insurgency has meant the virtual suspension of the rule of law, or at least a selective view of legality. While democratic elections take place and the press in the region is relatively free, in terms of respect for basic freedoms, the rule of law and principles of accountability and transparency, there is a significantly diminished form of democracy.
At the core of the Northeast’s durable disorder is a de facto parallel political system that is authoritarian and autonomous of the formal democratically elected governmental. This parallel system connects New Delhi with the region, with the governors as crucial nodes. This gives them a role that far exceeds the ceremonial functions that the Constitution-makers had in mind. Thus “generals as governors” is an apt metaphor for this parallel structure of governance. Those appointed governors of northeastern states are veterans of counter-insurgency — retired officers of the Indian army, the police or intelligence agencies. Even those without any ostensible ties with the security establishment have strong ties with the home ministry. As facilitating agents in the counter-insurgency regime, such antecedents ensure that the demands of security override the rules of democracy in the event of a conflict between the two. While there may be limited participation of the democratically elected officials of these states in the parallel system, they are seen as the weakest link in the chain, and the organizational structure effectively marginalizes them and even keeps them under watch.
India’s abysmal human rights record in the Northeast is well known. How many democracies in the world would allow security forces to “fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the extent of causing death”, then give legal immunity to security personnel for their actions and leave no room for an impartial investigation of such incidents' Security forces can execute persons whom they call insurgents in staged encounters and expect little effective public challenge to their version of events. Of course, ethnic militias too can kidnap and kill civilians with relative impunity. Restrictions imposed by the Indian government on visits by international human rights organizations and the compassion fatigue of pan-Indian human rights organizations — the result of the sheer persistence of the same patterns for years —have put the story of human rights violations off national headlines.
In international relations, the notion of a security dilemma is used to explain the anarchic nature of global politics. According to this theory, in the absence of an over-arching authority, sovereign states are forced to provide for their own security through self-help, causing the insecurity of other states. This concept can be applied to those situations in the Northeast where rival ethnic groups form ethnic militias. When one ethnic group has its militia, a rival ethnic group sees it as a threat to its security. Since the state is not perceived as a reliable provider of security, the latter group forms its own ethnic militia and seeks security through self-help.
While security officials from a distance may see an ethnic militia as part of a generalized threat of insurgency, from the perspective of its ethnic constituency, a militia may be a reliable provider of security. Indeed, in an ethnically polarized situation, where the actions of Indian security forces are inevitably seen as partisan, offensives against militants who are seen as security providers by their ethnic kin, may even add to the latter’s sense of insecurity and act as an incentive for strengthening the self-help form of security. The perceived effectiveness of militias to provide security to their ethnic kin — at least compared to that of the state — is quite self-evident to their followers.
The Indian state’s financial resources and military prowess may be a significant force to reckon with, but it remains a remote entity, except as a cash cow, and with little claim to the hearts and minds of people. The political culture that makes people rely on self-help for their security, and not on the state, can also sustain notions of reciprocal obligations. Members of ethnic groups holding official positions in the Indian state — politicians as well as bureaucrats — are expected to redistribute resources acquired through those positions among followers and supporters. Among them, the line separating militants from non-militants is necessarily blurred. This is what ultimately explains the so-called nexus between militias, politicians and bureaucrats.
The challenges confronting the Indian state in the Northeast are far more serious than what the counter-insurgency mind-set can grasp and remedy. The Indian state may be strong in certain areas, but in the Northeast, despite the easy military victories of the security forces against certain militias, the weaknesses of the state that sustain the plethora of ethnic militias make the state’s effort ultimately a failure.