In real time
How India only cares about Northeast when it's a national security threat story
It's sad how we lecture our distant ethnicities and minorities on unity in diversity, but treat them as lesser citizens than the mainlanders.
- Total Shares
The greatest tragedy of India's Northeast is that its story dies the minute its people stop dying. Or, let's put it more rudely and accurately, when we "Indians" are not dying.
Let me explain this by invoking a conversation with a Khasi civil servant in Shillong more than three decades ago, when the Northeast was the kind of story that wouldn't go off the front pages for nearly three years, coinciding precisely with my tour of duty there (1981-83). "So how many of you Indians do we Meghalayans have to kill to get you to write a story about us, Shekhar, even though you live here?" He was making a brutal point. In the three years that I covered the region, based in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, I did not write one serious news story on the state. The truth was, when Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura were on fire, and Assam so completely paralysed that even pipelines carrying its crude to "India" were blocked, Meghalaya was utterly calm and peaceful. It was the headquarters of the Army, Air Force, Assam Rifles, BSF and indeed IB and RAW for the region, as also for most journalists. But because it welcomed all of us affectionately rather than kill in ambushes and bombings, we didn't care for it.
The only writing I did out of there were some magazine pieces on the butterfly and orchid trade (now banned, mercifully) and some other tribal exotica. The Northeast, in our national conscience, was a story of strife and insurgency, threat to national security, an imperilled frontier, as the late civil servant Nari Rustomji had called it in his brilliant book with the same title, a territory to protect and a bunch of diverse and unfamiliar tribes to protect ourselves from. As with Kashmir, our commitment to this region was limited to protecting our ownership of its territories. The people didn't matter so much, so we never really embraced them as our own. The Northeast was a national security story and once the threat subsided, the story died.
For more than a quarter century now, the rest of the region has also calmed down like Meghalaya and dropped off our national (Indian?) radar. That is why when the rebels of a relatively marginal leftover group annihilated an entire convoy of our soldiers, we didn't know how to respond. And then, once it seemed a reprisal of some kind had been carried out, we forgot all about it, particularly as no further attacks on us Indians were reported. In times of fleeting attention spans when the profoundest of thoughts need to be expressed in 140 characters and when even PhD thesis subjects are probably decided on the basis of what is trending, it is silly, even self-indulgent, to hark back on a story that "ended" in the eastern-most corner of our country a week ago, overtaken by the other Modi. But it is perilously irresponsible of us to so treat the region, particularly Manipur, its most distant outpost. Because it is when hard-state militarism replaces democratic, emotional soft power that the worst mistakes are made.
The reprisal raid on some rebel camps across the border with Myanmar was not this mistake. It was necessary, effective and fully justified. No armed rebels can be allowed to presume they can wipe out columns of the Indian soldiers and get away with it. That would not be tolerated by even the most bleeding heart societies, and for sure we are not one. The problem was the chest-thumping, or, let's dump the niceties, "56-inch" chest-thumping. It was led by a former soldier and a national sports icon, now minister of state for information and broadcasting, who is a wonderful human being and has the longest experience of having Manipuri sports stars as his contingent members, and who, in a rush of over-enthusiasm, set off the triumphal wave. To suggest that this was the first time such a raid or reprisal had been carried out was factually wrong.
Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, India is by no means a soft state. In fact, when it comes to self-preservation, it is among the most brutal anywhere, and that doesn't change particularly with the party in power. Indira Gandhi sent tanks into the Golden Temple in Operation Blue Star of 1984, Rajiv unleashed another siege with snipers and commandos in Operation Black Thunder in 1988. The brutal response continued even under VP Singh's shaky government, and then under Narasimha Rao's. If you need to check this out, ask the current national security adviser, Ajit Doval, who was in the thick of things. The operation that destroyed Khalistani insurgency in the Narasimha Rao years was our most brutal ever. And if the treatment of Kashmiris in the roughest period of their insurgency, as depicted in the film Haider, shook the conscience of even many hardliners, remember it was also under "Mr Indecision" Rao. Trans-border operations in Myanmar and Bhutan took place under Vajpayee - in fact, the king of Bhutan himself led one against the ULFA, carried out jointly by his army and India's.
The key thing is, none of them ever boasted about it. Indira, Rajiv, Rao, VP Singh, Vajpayee and then Manmohan Singh, or their governments, never even talked about these, and for two reasons. One, there were too many sensitivities and secrets involved. And two, you do not thump your chest after killing your own countrymen, no matter how richly they may have deserved that fate. In his first briefing to world media after Blue Star, general Sundarji (then lieutenant-general and Western Army commander) and major-general KS Brar, who led the assault, simply said, "We went inside with a prayer on our lips and devotion in our hearts." There was none of the jo humse takrayega, chur-chur ho jayega (anybody challenging us will be blown to bits) sentiment.
Let us posit this differently. It is fair that any armed group that dares to target our soldiers must be taught a deterrent lesson. In a lawful democratic nation, only the state has the right to bear arms and employ lethal force as per the laws. Eighteen of our soldiers were killed in Chandel last fortnight. But four times that many were killed in one ambush by Maoists in Tadmetla, Chhattisgarh (April 6, 2010) and several scores in subsequent raids. Why don't we carry out a similar commando reprisal on a Maoist camp if they dare to do so again?
I had raised the same question in the wake of Tadmetla when chiefs of the Army and the IAF had both made unsolicited declarations that our armed forces cannot be involved in a fight against "our own" people and that the Maoist challenge was best left to the police and central paramilitary forces. My point then was not that we unleash the Army on our poorest tribals in east-central India, but one of principle: How come we have no such doubts using the same armed forces against our Kashmiri and Northeastern rebels? Are they not fellow Indians, or any less Indian than those on the mainland, like the Maoists? Even if our forces - in any livery, khaki or olive green - carried out a spectacular operation of the post-Chandel type against the Maoists, who are a much bigger threat today than any Naga group, I promise you there will be no such celebration or chest-thumping. Our national security discourse suffers from this fundamental hypocrisy. We lecture our distant ethnicities and minorities on unity in diversity, but treat them as lesser citizens than the mainlanders.
This is not lost on people in the Northeast. And if some, particularly of the younger, post-insurgency generations, were putting this behind us, the sheer, undignified insensitivity post-Chandel would have reminded them of the emotional distance between "us and them". That their region has improved and calmed over the decades has brought them no real reward from us. Even in the national media, most organisations have withdrawn their bureaus from the region because it is peaceful. The fact that once basket-case Tripura has withdrawn the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and is so peaceful now that ONGC can produce gas from its mountains and convert it into electricity within the state is no more than a passing mention while this one incident in Manipur now will justify the continuation of the AFSPA for years. At the same time, there will be mainstream outrage if you suggest the AFSPA for Maoist zones. This approach led to alienation in the Northeast, and our latest responses can bring it back to the new generations. That is why the story would not be allowed to die until it returns with another ambush and reprisals. We'll pay if we continue to see the region purely in national security terms without first embracing its people, particularly the tribal communities, as fellow, equal, if diverse, Indians.