“Are you going on to India?” I found myself asking two Swiss tourists whom I met over New Year in India’s north-eastern state of Assam.
I could try to justify the question by explaining that they had been talking about going next to the nearby countries of Bhutan and Nepal, but that wasn’t what was in my mind. I clearly felt, subconsciously, that I was outside India, relaxing at the Kaziranga National Park alongside the massive Brahmaputra River and watching famous one-horned rhinos, wild buffaloes and elephants.
Assam is one of the “seven sister” states that lie to the east of Bangladesh and Bhutan, linked to India only by a 20-40km wide strip of land known at the Siliguri Corridor. Ethnically different from the Indian “mainland” (as many people there refer to the rest of the country), they look more East Asian, and there are sharp religious differences. Muslims account for 30 percent of Assam’s population and Christianity is widespread – it is the major religion in three of the states, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya.
With only about 3 percent of India’s population, the area is usually out of the focus of most of India’s central government – until disaster strikes, as it did on Dec. 23 when 80 people, mostly women and children, were shot dead by a local terrorist group.
That led to rapid security-oriented government activity from Delhi, but it generated far less media attention, in the rest of India as well as internationally, than the slaughter just eight days earlier of 134 school children in more newsworthy north-western Pakistan.
That indicates why the area feels it is “on the map, off the mind,” the title of a discussion I joined at the Guwahati Literary Festival in Assam’s capital on December 27. Bitterness about being out of the country’s mainstream was evident during that and other discussions at the festival, as was a beleaguered sense of sacrifice and misery. Poets and writers revealed a society rocked helplessly by decades of violence since it was officially classified as “disturbed” over half a century ago.
In the 1980s, on a visit to Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, a state government minister asked me during an interview which flight I was getting “back to India.” That reflected the wish in the state, whose territory is disputed with Pakistan, to have considerable autonomy (and maybe even independence) from Delhi, but the northeast does not want that. There have been separatist movements, but the cry now is for Delhi to take more notice and be more involved, not less, in developing the region within India’s federal system.
The situation is complicated by the area’s location at the intersection of South, South Eastern, and Eastern Asia, bordering Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China, plus the adjacent state of Sikkim’s frontier with Nepal.
The geography makes Delhi apprehensive and protective about what happens, especially because of China’s growing assertiveness in the neighboring countries and its disputed border with India. Further complications arise from porous borders with the neighbors that provide access points for people seeking work as well as terrorists’ escape routes to safe havens.
Myanmar has been reported as the most likely destination after the killings on December 23 for terrorists who reportedly belonged to an extreme faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).
The Bodos are the biggest of the region’s many tribal communities and in Assam see themselves as a deprived minority deserving special treatment. As Aditi Phadnis wrote recently, successive Congress state governments have given them “moral and material assistance, sometimes covertly,” using them as a counterpoint against a regional Assamese party.
Several of the seven sister states have been carved out of what was a much larger Assam, either to stem violence by the Bodos and other local pressure groups or for some other short-term political gain. The borders are often unsatisfactory because, having been drawn as quick-fix solutions, they do not reflect ethnic or religious boundaries. For example, Naga people live not only in the state of Nagaland but also in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as well as in Myanmar.
A Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) was created with its own Council 11 years ago, but this is only a notional homeland because the Bodos make up just 35 percent of the population alongside 20 percent Muslims and 15 percent other adivasis (tribals).
“As a result, the Bodos have political power and wealth on the strength of arbitrage and rental income (largely from the funds that flow in for the development of the BTAD), but no real economic power,” Phadnis said.
Such short-term political fixes, aimed at placating some groups (or courting others such as Muslims) are typical of the way that Congress Party governments have operated in many states. In Assam that has led to Bodo violence not only against the other adivasis , a collective term for indigenous tribes, but also Muslims who include many migrants from Bangladesh and last came under major attack in 2012.
“Once the government through its paramilitary action corners the leaders of one militant outfit and arrests some of its leaders, the outfit agrees to talk to the government and comes overground,” Subir Roy wrote in the Business Standard last week. “This is signal to the section that has not been a party to the talks to start their own militant violence. The process of government action then gets repeated with this second faction.”
Delhi’s answer has also been to placate troublesome groups by flooding the states with development funds, most of which never arrive at their destinations because they are siphoned off by group leaders, plus a heavy presence of the army and less effective para-military forces. The chief minister of a state like Assam will be glad he has the highly disciplined army at hand and that he can liaise with the local general and a unified command about what is needed.
But the presence of so much security, backed by a highly controversial special powers act, adds to the sense of a region under siege and riven with terrorism, which it is not, despite the killings.
For the vast mass of India, this is all just too complicated and distant to comprehend. As my host at Diphlu River Lodge on the edge of Kaziranga put it, people in the northeast know a lot about the rest of India, but the reverse if not true. Abroad there is even less awareness. One of my sons, who lived in India when he was young, emailed me yesterday saying, “The national park looks amazing. Just looked it up (on Google) and didn’t realize India went that far across!”
Mark Tully, the veteran BBC broadcaster, said during our “on the map, off the mind” session that the northeast should not only look to Delhi for salvation, but should take more steps itself to develop the region. That of course is correct, but it requires leadership from Delhi that should go beyond misallocated funds and flurries of security-oriented activity.
Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister and a top BJP leader, rushed to Assam after the December attacks and there were highly publicized security operations, which achieved little because the leaders had found refuge elsewhere. I could find no credible explanation of why the militant Bodo faction struck at four different points on Dec.23.
There are signs however that Narendra Modi’s government intends to take more positive action: indeed the northeast provides the prime minister with an opportunity to show how he intends to mend the way India is run. That needs to start with national political leadership for effective economic development, implementation of long-delayed projects, action to stem human rights abuses by security forces, and development of trade pacts and routes with neighboring countries.
That would begin to transform the region’s prospects and tie it more into the life of the “mainland.” In the past, prime ministers have not had the time or interest to focus on such a distant problem – and that includes Manmohan Singh who was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Assam. Can Modi do better?
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. This article also appears on his blog, Riding the Elephant, which can be found at the bottom right corner of AS’s face page.