How to be good Indian racist and alienate Northeast

In an age of sensationalist news, the region is 'sexy', it has everything - corruption, violence, ethnic clashes, terrorism, drugs, AIDS.

 |  12-minute read |   21-06-2015
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A couple of years ago, my school invited me back to give the students of Class 11 a crash course on the complex dynamics of the Northeast. Having breezed through a brief and simplified history of the India-Naga conflict (for the uninitiated, having declared themselves independent a day before India on August 14, 1947, the Nagas have been engaged in six decades of conflict with the Indian state, and sovereignty or rather varying definitions of it remain their goal), I posed two questions to the students and the answers were telling.

"By a show of hands, how many of you feel that India should not accept the Naga demand for sovereignty?" Without hesitation and in a show of unity unbecoming of the divisive group dynamics of high school, 99 per cent of the hands shot up. Smiles crept across their faces as I heard muffled murmurs resonating through the auditorium: "It’s a part of India, why should we give it up?" After a brief pause, I asked them, "Okay, now honestly, by a show of hands, tell me how many of you feel that if Nagaland was to break away from India tomorrow, YOUR life - you as a person - would be affected in any way." Their smiles faded. "Come on, anyone?" Not a single hand went up. After some probing, one girl sheepishly raised her hand, "Our map would change," she said, looking to her classmates for assurance.

That’s the reality of India.

The Northeast is a small and distant area and despite its resources, of no real economic value to the country. Rather, it is a drain on not only the exchequer as your and my taxes are pumped in for their development, but also a drain on our armed forces which could be better utilised on the borders. I hate to say it, but if the entire Northeast was to break away from the "mainland", no government would fall, no industry would collapse, life in the rest of the country would simply go on. Yes, thousands of people from the Northeast living, working and studying across India would need visas, but that would merely be a legal recognition of "foreigner" treatment we dole out to them; they are "chinki" after all. As it is, all Indian nationals require an inner line permit (ILP) to travel to few of the states in the Northeast, while it takes about 15 minutes to get there, and while no one really checks your ILP once you are there, it is still a special pass, a visa of sorts that is legally required. It’s strange that we still cling to a colonial system created to ensure that the British controlled the territory without the threat or inconvenience of dealing with aggressive tribals, worse still is that more states, and sections of Manipur and Meghalaya are contemplating adopting the ILP. They want the distinction, why?

Of course, on a personal level, overnight my status would change from a reporter covering the Northeast to one looking at foreign policy and in my opinion that’s a step up.

Some of you might think I’m being harsh, but let me walk you through the facts and observations that have forced me to realise that we as a country do not care about the Northeast.

Let’s start with the recent attack in Manipur and the jingoistic mainstream and social media response to the Indian Army’s not so covert cross-border retaliation. My Facebook wall was flooded with chest-thumping, backslapping, ultra-national posts that were reminiscent of Bush Jr’s, "We’re gonna find ‘em and we’re gonna kill ‘em’" attitude. We as a nation, celebrated death. Yes, they were "terrorists", they picked up arms against the state of India, but why is it that we give human faces and stories to the Maoists killed in central India? One of the three alleged Maoists shot dead in an “encounter” by the police on the Telangana-Chhattisgarh border on Friday was 19-year-old Kodamagundla Vivek, a dropout from Osmania University who had played a major role during the students’ agitation for Telangana in 2012-14. Right off the bat, we connect with the boy, feel for his parents, his struggle and his death becomes a national loss. We transform him from a "terrorist" to a person, a son, a student who had potential but was forced to choose a path of violence. Why don’t we care who these National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) [NSCN(K)] men are? We don’t care why they are fighting. No news channel travels to Nagalnd to meet these men, hear their stories, because for us, the media and the country, the Northeast is a wild frontier and the narrative is black and white, the Army is good and the terrorists are bad.

Aside: Okay, I know all you "patriots" are going to jump on me screaming traitor or some other harsh words expressing a similar sentiment evoking the Indian army and the nation, so let me take a moment to address that. I have an attachment to the Indian Army that is hard to quantify, I have spent most of my life within the folds of the Army, living day-to-day in contact with soldiers and officers, and I am sick of seeing the Army bear the brunt of political indecision in the form of a rising body count and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conflicts are political and emotional, they don’t have a military solution and at the same time, how long can we subject our "own people" to the indefinite presence of multiple militaries – the Indian Army as well as the various militant groups who are armed to a tee.

Back to the narrative, and what if I can change that narrative slightly? What if I gave these "terrorists" a human face like we do with the Maoists? For example, I have spent time with an NSCN member in his 30s who holds a Masters in English from Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and can, at length, discuss the poetry of Yates and Keats. He chose to join the underground because he felt that was the only way to attain justice for his people and a future for his children after decades of violence, political apathy and stepmotherly treatment. What if I told you of another rebel - an NSCN(K) member - a real mover and shaker. He was a part of the state administration, but was so disillusioned by corruption and lack of delivery, that he picked up a gun.

Granted, this too is a simplification of a complex reality, a version of their stories that suits my argument, but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves that, if as a government, we believe education and employment are the "solutions", why are educated and employed Nagas joining the underground? Something has obviously gone horribly wrong and the scary reality is that in large pockets of the region, even for those who don’t believe in "the cause", the underground has become one of the most viable job options. But unfortunately when it comes to the 9PM broadcast, "the nation doesn’t want to know"; because of India’s internal conflicts, Kashmir, Punjab and the "Red Corridor" hit home, and the Northeast is far removed.

Having been a part of the media in some form or the other for the last eight years, I understand the media’s predicament. Not only is it too expensive to send reporters to the Northeast, but as my editors would tell me, "We can’t send you off to obscure corners of India to cover every hiccup in every minute detail, you have to make the region sexy". But in an age of sensationalist news, the Northeast is "sexy", it has everything - corruption, violence, ethnic clashes, terrorism, drugs, AIDS, sports stars, parallel economies, betrayal, spy games and oh yeah, Indian citizens stuck in the middle of all this chaos.

Let me draw some parallels. Last month, a traffic policeman threw a brick at a women, a shocking act that stole the headlines, but for the last couple of years, a former cop, Champion Marak, left the uniform to lead the Meghalaya's Garo militant group Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA). Isn’t that front page news? Shouldn’t the media have hit hard at the state government and police every time GNLA hurle a grenade or fire a shot?

If you want to compare threats to national security, let’s for a moment compare Kashmir’s Geelani with Nagaland’s Muivah (the head of NSCN-IM) in the age-old schoolboy/girl battle of "my daddy strongest". Geelani, who is dubbed a Pakistani agent, has an army of young stone-pelters at his beck and call and when he demanded an Indian passport but refused to accept Indian nationality, the media went crazy and every person reading newspapers or watching television in India knows who Geelani is. Muivah, who was trained, armed and harboured by the Chinese, has a well-armed standing army numbering in thousands, funding running into thousands of crores of rupees, and his group spent most of 1970–80s helping other movements acquire arms, training and bases across the border, so much so that even Maoists, including their former leader Kishenji, are said to have had links with the different factions of the NSCN. However, he is not a household name. A couple of years ago, when his partner Isak Swu, followed in his footsteps and acquired an Indian passport while categorically rejecting an Indian citizenship, and as Muivah told me, "Every passport has a column that says nationality, yours says Indian", to which I nodded, "but mine is blank, I’m a Naga", there was only a slight purr from the media lions. But haven’t Isak and Muivah set the precedent for Geelani?

Shouldn’t that upset your nationalist fervour? I mean a "terrorist", a serious one, who has organised the killing of Indian soldiers, is negotiating with the Indian government for sovereignty, all the while collecting "taxes" to fund an army and a government that challenges the idea of India, holds an Indian passport without swearing allegiance to the country and to make matters worse, was given a government bungalow in Lodhi estate, with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) guarding him, at walking distance from Delhi’s intelligentsia, holding discussions in the India International Centre (IIC), oblivious to his existence across the road. But we don’t care about the Northeast, so none of this matters.

During his race to 7 Race Course Road, Narendra Modi made it a point to travel to the Northeast, he promised a shift in the centre's stance and many including me were hopeful. However, what proves this indifference in the posturing of our politicians in the wake of the cross-border attack on the NSCN(K), men believed to be responsible for the death of 18 soldiers in Manipur? Our central leaders patted themselves on the back, issuing a slew of jingoistic statements about the new government's hard stand, a retired general crawled out of the closet and onto the evening news to commend this "eye-for-and-eye approach", but how is this different from the Nehru government 50 years ago? And what was the result of the military action in the 60’s? A rapid increase in insurgent numbers. But haven’t we learnt any lessons?

In this one year, with two members of Parliament from the Northeast in the cabinet, the biggest statement on the Northeast has been that of celebrating the death of the enemy. Why couldn’t we have MP's patting themselves on the back for some constructive reason? I would have loved to hear a central minister say, "Hey, every year almost one lakh Assamese are affected by seasonal floods leaving tens of thousands homeless, this year we have set up a flood management system, we are with you Assam?" Why couldn’t our elected representatives come forward and say, "Nagaland and Manipur's contribution to the national human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) numbers is disproportionate to their population, we have quadrupled the treatment and awareness centres", why couldn’t there have been a real, tangible announcement, backed by on-ground infrastructure for education, employment, industry, or could someone tell us what the hell has the government of India been discussing with the NSCN (IM) for over a decade? Why isn’t anybody talking about disarming the region, for how long can we expect Indian citizens (since we claim the land, we must also claim the people) to live in a militarised zone, especially when there are state and multiple non-state armies involved? It’s great to talk about Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and National Institutes of Fashion Technology (NIFTs), but what about ensuring that government school teachers actually attend their assigned schools? Granted that it’s not the centre's job, but the state governments are obviously not doing it.

If you want peace, rather than sending more troops, start sending more teachers and skill trainers. Skill India is Modi’s buzzword, so why not start by skilling the Northeast. Also, in this present wave of redefining our history and heroes from the past, why not look to incorporate the history of the Northeast into our school textbooks? The Battle of Kohima, which was the turning point of the eastern campaign during the Second World War or the many battles between the Mughals and the Ahom kingdom of Assam, so that we may learn a shared history, an inclusive history, rather than have our history and their history.

But that would mean accepting that the Northeast is an integral part of the country and not just a strategically important part, that it’s not a frontier, but rather a part of the "mainland". Unfortunately, as of now, that seems too tough. The people of the region are a political, cultural and numerical minority that looks and behaves differently from those in the Hindi heartland that usually dominates India's mindspace. Unfortunately, in a democracy like ours, they simply don’t matter, that’s why we don’t care about the Northeast. Do you? 

Writer

Avalok Langer Avalok Langer @avalokl

Conflict Journalist.

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