Generals as Governors
The parallel political systems of Northeast India
By Sanjib Baruah
insurgency-affected Indian Northeast, New Delhi's containment policy
of the last four decades has produced an equilibrium where democracy
coexists with authoritarian modes of governance with disturbing ease.
It is time for the policy to be reassessed. Routine use of military
force in "disturbed areas" supplemented by the pumping of resources
in the name of economic development is not the solution. Even after
decades of counter insurgency operations, militant groups appear to
be surprisingly resilient. It is partly because of their capacity for
illegal tax collection made particularly easy by a climate of pervasive
corruption. The tax regimes of insurgents even manage to tap the development
funds that find their way to the pockets of corrupt politicians, officials
and contractors. Indian policy must seek more democratic alternatives
that consider constitutional reforms that respond to the debates about
the region's history that have animated the insurgencies and promote
a wider democratic dialogue that involve the peoples of the northeast.
But can happen in a system that appoints generals as governors?
a brigadier in Shillong? This was how Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s
deputy prime minister responded in 1949 to reports that the native state
of Manipur might be reluctant to merge fully with the Indian Union.
In September of that year, the governor of Assam, Sri Prakasa, accompanied
by his adviser for Tribal Areas, Nari Rustomji, flew to Bombay to apprise
Patel of the situation. The fate of Manipur and other indirectly ruled
native states presented a significant constitutional problem when British
rule of India ended in 1947. Indeed, the decision of the Kashmiri Maharaja
to accede to India was the beginning of the Kashmir conflict between
India and Pakistan. Patel and other senior Indian officials might perhaps
have pondered more on the potential difficulties that could arise from
decisions by major `native states like Kashmir and Hyderabad on the
postcolonial dispensation in the Subcontinent. But the thought that
tiny and remote Manipur on India’s border with Burma, might hesitate
about fully joining India had probably never crossed their minds. The
meeting of Sri Prakasa, Rustomji and Patel was brief. As Rustomji recalls
in his memoir, Enchanted Frontier, apart from asking whether there was
a brigadier stationed in the region, Patel said little else. It was
clear from his voice what he meant, wrote Rustomji, and the conversation
did not go any further.
days the Maharaja of Manipur, on a visit to Shillong, found himself
virtually imprisoned in his residence. The house was surrounded by soldiers
and under the pressure of considerable misinformation and intimidation,
the Maharaja isolated from his advisers, council of ministers and Manipuri
public opinion was made to sign an agreement fully merging his state
with India. When the ceremony to mark the transfer of power and the
end of this ancient kingdom took place in Imphal on 15 October 1949,
a battalion of the Indian army was in place to guard against possible
attending Manipur’s merger with India haunts the politics of the state
to this day. A number of insurgent groups regard the merger as illegal
and unconstitutional, and many among the Manipuri intelligentsia are
bitter about the way it was effected. While Manipur today has an elected
chief minister and an elected state legislature like other states in
the Indian Union there is also a de facto parallel structure of governance
directly controlled from Delhi that manages counter-insurgency operations.
Visitors to Manipur cannot but notice the strong military presence.
Even historic monuments such as the Kangla Fort of the old Manipuri
kings, and parts of the complex in Moirang that commemorates the rebel
Indian National Army, are occupied by Indian security forces.
It is not
hard to see why there is such a massive security presence in the state.
Manipur, today, has numerous insurgent groups with ethnically-based
support among Meities, Nagas and Kukis. In recent years, smaller ethnic
groups such as Paites, Vaipheis and Hmars too have formed their own
armed organisations. The official count of lives annually lost in insurgency-related
incidents in Manipur in recent years is in the hundreds. And somewhat
independent of the activities of these insurgent organisations is the
ethnic conflict between Nagas and Kukis and, more recently, between
Kukis and Paites. Many of these conflicts appear intractable and some
of them are attributable to the profound social transformation that
these societies are undergoing. Yet unless one believes that a coercive
state is a necessary instrument to manage change, it is hard to avoid
the question: were the symbols and practices of the traditional Manipuri
state despite the significant erosion of its authority and power under
British colonial rule better-equipped to achieve social cohesion? Was
Patel’s readiness to use force just as the rest of India was setting
off on a path of democratic rights and liberties an early acknowledgement
that Indian democracy in the Northeast would necessarily have an authoritarian
is not unique. Except for Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, five of the
seven states of Northeast India today--Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland
and Tripura--have insurgent movements of varying levels of activity
and intensity. Some of them, such as the United Liberation Front of
Assam (ULFA), Nagalands National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN),
now divided into two factions, and the Manipur Peoples Liberation Front
(MPLF), which consists of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF),
the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and the Peoples Revolutionary Party
of Kanglaipak (PREPAK), have separatist agendas. Other ethnically based
groups are typically dressed up as national fronts defending this or
that minority ethnic group.
As a response
to those insurgencies and to Pakis-tans Inter Services Intelligences
(ISI) inclination to fish in these troubled waters, there are many more
brigadiers in Northeast India today than Patel could have imagined.
Military formations much larger than brigades corps headed by lieutenant
generals and divisions headed by major generals are now stationed in
this part of the country. In Vairengte, a Mizoram village, there is
even a Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School for training officers
to fight the militants. And the Indian Army is only one of the security
forces deployed in the region. Other paramilitary units controlled by
the central government, such as the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF),
the Border Security Force (BSF) the Assam Rifles, various intelligence
bureaus and the police forces of each state, are also involved in counter-insurgency
operations. And overseeing these operations is a parallel political
structure that works outside the rules and norms that govern India’s
democratic political institutions.
violence, murders, bombings, kidnap-pings, extortion by militants, and
killing of militants by security forces in actual or staged encounters
has become a routine part of news from the Northeast. True, there is
also news of elections, cease-fires and talks or prospects of talks
with insurgents. But the two kinds of news and images co-exist with
disturbing ease. No one finds the image of democratic elections being
conducted under massive military presence anomalous. Nor does anyone
expect talks with insurgents to bring about sustained peace. Indeed
in some ways, insurgencies themselves have become incorporated into
the democratic political process. Good political reporters of the Northeast
know the precise role that insurgent factions play in elections or the
ties that these factions have with particular mainstream politicians.
the use of the army to fight insurgencies has now become something of
a habit. For instance, in the spring of 2000, after attacks on Bengalis
by tribal militants in Tripura, political parties belonging to the states
Left Front government observed a 12-hour bandh to pressurise the central
government to send in the army to deal with the situation. Chief Minister
Manik Sarkar complained that even though 27 police station areas in
the state had been declared disturbed, the Indian army had not yet arrived.
One would hardly guess from such statements that the law that these
democratic politicians were relying on the law that permits army deployment
in disturbed areasis a law that contravenes all conceivable human rights
to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), in an area that is proclaimed
as disturbed, an officer of the armed forces has powers to: (a) fire
upon or use other kinds of force even if it causes death; (b) to arrest
without a warrant and with the use of necessary force anyone who has
committed certain offences or is suspected of having done so; and (c)
to enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests. Army
officers have legal immunity for their actions. There can be no prosecution,
suit or any other legal proceeding against anyone acting under that
law. Nor is the governments judgment on why an area is found to be disturbed
subject to judicial review.
Nair of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre in New Delhi
has pointed out, the AFSPA violates the Indian Constitutions right to
life, the right against arbitrary arrest and detention, the rules of
the Indian Criminal Procedure Code relating to arrests, searches and
seizures, and almost all relevant international human rights principles.
There was a time when reports of human rights violations in the Northeast
were taken seriously. But most Indians now regard human rights organisations
as being at best naïve, or at worst, sympathisers of insurgents masquerading
under the flag of human rights. The violation of human rights in the
Northeast is seen as the necessary cost of keeping the nation safe from
its enemies inside and outside.
1991, when the United Nations Human Rights Committee asked the Attorney
General of India to explain the constitutionality of the AFSPA in terms
of Indian law and to justify it in terms of international human rights
law, he defended it on the sole ground that it was necessary in order
to prevent the secession of the northeastern states. The Indian government,
he argued, had a duty to protect the states from internal disturbances
and that there was no duty under international law to allow secession.
within a state
insurgency-hardened Northeast, democratic India has developed a de facto
political system, somewhat autonomous of the formal demo-cratically-elected
governmental structure. This parallel system is an intricate, multi-tiered
reticulate, with crucial decision-making, facilitating and operational
nodes that span the region and connects New Delhi with the theatre of
decision-making node is the Home Ministry in New Delhi housed in North
Block on Raisina Hill. The operational node which implements the decisions
consists of the Indian Army, and other military, police and intelligence
units controlled by the central and state governments, and involves
complex coordination. This apparatus also involves the limited participation
of the political functionaries of insurgency-affected states. Elected
state governments, under India’s weak federal structure, can always
be constitutionally dismissed in certain situations of instability.
But New Delhi has generally preferred to have them in place while conducting
counter-insurgency operations. Since the insurgencies have some popular
sympathy albeit not stable or stubbornthe perception that the operations
have the tacit support of elected state governments is useful for their
the command structure may include some state-level politicians and senior
civil servants. This is perceived to be the weakest link in the chain
because of the fear that the presence of these locals might potentially
subvert the counter-insurgency operations. Consider the following news
In December 2000, the central government asked the Manipur government
to investigate links between at least five ministers and insurgent groups.
The Home Ministry forwarded a report to the state authorities that included
evidence of such a nexus between the ministers and insurgents. Manipur’s
caretaker chief minister Radhabinod Koijam, just before the fall of
his government last month, dropped six ministers from his cabinet. Koijam
was in the middle of a political battle for survival, and there were
other reasons for their removal. But he defended his action saying that
their names appeared in the Home Ministry’s list of tainted politicians.
In January 2001, the Union Home Ministry proposed the setting up of
a judicial enquiry commission to probe into the allegations and counter-allegations
of the insurgent-politician nexus in the northeastern states.
In the May 2001 elections just concluded, former chief minister Prafulla
Kumar Mahanta repeatedly accused the Congress party of having a nexus
with ULFA. The Congress party dismissed the charge as election propaganda
and claimed that its victory proved that the electorate did not believe
the accusation. In the elections of 1996, the roles were reversed: the
Congress had made similar charges against Mahanta’s party, the Asom
Gana Parishad (AGP).
of course, many reasons why democratically-elected politicians of a
region, where insurgent groups and mainstream political parties may
share the same social, political, and cultural space, would sometimes
know and have ties with each other. Pervasive corruption also leads
politicians to cultivate ties with insurgent groups. They, like others
with a reputation for making illegal money, consider it prudent to try
to keep the insurgent groups happy by sharing parts of their illicit
income with them. Rather than a hard boundary separating insurgents
and mainstream politicians, in these circumstances, a nexus between
some of them becomes inevitable, despite the fact that such ties may
cost these politicians in terms of their credibility as far as New Delhi
is concerned. A former home minister of Nagaland, Dalle Namo, who
had been part of the Naga underground, once movingly acknowledged his
debt to the pioneers of the movement for Naga independence. He told
journalist Nirmal Nibedon that he is conscious of the fact that he lives
in this big bungalow because men like Phizo and Imkongmeren and many
others once lived in caves. All these chandeliers and lights [are there]
because for them the stars were their only light; [I have ] these expensive
wall-to-wall carpets because they walked on moss and grass. Nibedon
recalls this conversation in a foreword to Namos autobiography, The
Prisoner from Nagaland.
such sentiments connecting insurgents with mainstream politicians are
far from universal. It is unlikely, for instance, that Prafulla Kumar
Mahanta of Assam or Nagalands pre-sent Chief Minister, S.C. Jamir, whom
militants have tried to kill more than once, would share similar ideali-sed
views about leaders of the Assamese or the Naga underground. However,
even these leaders have not always been free of ties with militants.
The Khaplang-led faction of the National Socia-list Council of Nagalim,
for instance, is reputed to enjoy the patronage of Jamir.
the paradox of counter-insurgency. On the one hand, it must draw on
the legitimacy of the elected establishment. On the other, it must protect
itself from this establishments suscepti-bilities. Namos account and
the repeated charges of a link between north-eastern politicians and
insurgents underscore why India’s security establishment would want
a parallel structure of governance that is as autonomous as possible
from the democratic politics of the state in question. For instance,
in the case of the Indian governments allegation of a nexus between
the five Manipuri politicians and insurgents, if the Home Ministry had
provided evidence of such a nexus to the authorities in Manipur, it
is unlikely, that this report would go to the elected members of the
state government some of whom were themselves the object of suspicion.
The most likely person to have received that report from New Delhi,
one can reasonably speculate, was the Governor of Manipur.
the rules of constitutional democracy, and building and maintaining
a parallel structure however, is not always easy. Not all elected state
governments have been willing to give up their constitutional prerogatives.
For instance, in Assam, thanks to the consent of former chief minister
Mahanta, counter-insurgency operations since 1997 has been conducted
by a Unified Command under which all forces including the state police
come under the operational command of the Army. Tarun Gogoi, in one
of his first statements as Assams chief minister, following the Congress
election victory this May, said that he would like to see the Assam
police play more of a role in the Unified Command because of its superior
knowledge of local conditions. It is unlikely that Gogoi will seek to
end the use of Uniform Command structure in Assam. On the other hand,
elected politicians in Manipur have so far resisted pressures from the
Indian Home Ministry and the Indian Army to have a Unified Command structure.
Former chief minister of Manipur, W. Nipamacha, for instance, had maintained
that since legally speaking, the army was deployed in the state only
to assist the civil administration, it should remain under the command
of the state government.
conflicts between the compulsions of the civil dispensation and the
concerns of the security establishment make the governors of these states
crucial nodes in the counter-insurgency network. The management of this
difficult equation, in fact, confers on the governors office a role
that far exceeds the more ceremonial functions it is constitutionally
restricted to elsewhere and in normal circumstances. The career profiles
of the incumbents in the Northeast provide an index of the importance
of the gubernatorial office to the parallel political system. All the
seven governors of the northeastern states today have either occupied
high and sensitive positions in India’s security establishment or have
had close ties to it.
Pradesh: Arvind Dave, former chief, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)
Lieutenant General (retired) S.K. Sinha
Ved Prakash Marwah, retired Indian Police Service officer
M.M. Jacob, former central minister and deputy chairman of the Rajya
A.R. Kohli, former businessman with political ties
O.P. Sharma, retired Indian Police Service Officer
Lieutenant General (retired) K.M. Seth
retired military men, two are retired police officers, and one is the
former head of India’s espionage agency, RAW, engaged in clandestine
operations abroad and at home. Of the two without any ostensible ties
with the security establishment, M. M. Jacob, governor of Meghalaya,
was once Minister of State for Home Affairs in New Delhi; and A.R. Kohli,
recently appointed governor of relatively peaceful Mizoram, who had
a career in business, has strong ties with the RSS, suggesting proximity
to Home Minister L.K. Advani. The fact that all the appointees have
had fairly intimate connections with the security establishment cannot
be mere coincidence. As appointees of the central government and as
facilitating agents in the counter-insurgency regime, such antecedents
serve very practical ends, particularly in ensuring that the demands
of security override the rules of democracy in the event of a conflict
between the two.
of gubernatorial interventions point to the role they play in insulating
counter-insurgency operations from democratic processes and scrutiny.
Governors often act in ways that not only stretch constitutional propriety
but also sacrifice democratic procedures at that altar of security expediencies.
A case of what can be called counter-insurgent constitutionalism took
place in Assam in 1998 when the Governor, Lt. Gen Sinha, intervened
to stop the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from prosecuting then
chief minister Mahanta on a serious corruption charge. Mahantas acquiescence
in the Unified Command structure was clearly important to the security
establishment. At the same time, the legal pursuit of a credible corruption
charge against an elected chief minister could have significantly raised
the legitimacy of India’s democratic governmental institutions in the
public eye. There was a choice between two sets of values: the perceived
political requirements of counter-insurgency versus an opportunity to
raise the public esteem of India’s democratic institutions in a region
where those institutions lack legitimacy.
charge against Mahanta went back to what is commonly referred to as
the Letters of Credit scam, involving at least INR 200 crores between
1986 and 1993. Mahanta was chief minister only during part of this
period (between 1991 and 1996 Assam had a Congress ministry under Hiteswar
Saikia). Fake letters of credit were issued by the states animal husbandry
and veterinary departments to draw money from the treasury, and a number
of politicians of both the then ruling Congress and the opposition AGP,
were implicated. It was also suspected that a part of the money found
its way to the ULFA.
investigated a number of politicians. The case against Mahanta was that
the kingpin of the scam, Rajendra Prasad Borah, had paid him INR 40
lakhs during the 1991 elections, and that Mahantas air travels during
the campaign had been financed by Borah. According to the CBI, in that
election, Borah had distributed house-building material to purchase
votes in Mahantas electoral constituency. Bank drafts distributed by
Mahanta, in his electoral district, according to the CBI, were paid
for by Borah.
For a governora
former military generalto make a legal judgment on whether a chief minister
should be prosecuted pushes the limits of constitutional propriety.
To be sure, this power of Indian governors is not limited to the Northeast
and as the Delhi-based magazine India Today pointed out in an editorial,
there is something profoundly undemocratic about a mechanism which requires
the governors permission to even begin legal proceeding against a chief
minister seen as corrupt. In the Northeast, given parallel power structure
in place, the potential for abuse of that power or, perhaps its useas
a means of securing support for the security regime from a corrupt chief
minister is enormous.
reasons for disallowing the CBIs prosecution of Mahanta, involved a
number of legal rationalisations. Sinha pointed to the lack of evidence,
and questioned the reliability of the witnesses who formed the basis
of the CBIs case. The CBI, according to the governor, had not established
Mahantas criminal culpability. The governor rejected the charge that
Mahanta had entered into a criminal conspiracy with Borah to defraud
the state claiming that no evidence of such conspiracy has been provided.
governors enjoy extraordinary powers to influence chief ministers in
the interests of the parallel regime. In this particular case, it is
difficult to avoid speculating on a very obvious connection. In Assam
since 1997, the Unified Command structure has been possible because
of the consent given by Mahanta. That was a year before the governor
was called upon to make this crucial judgment in the corruption case.
Was there a quid pro quo in the governors decision to protect Mahanta
from legal prosecution so as to ensure his continued support for the
Unified Command structure? Did the perceived needs of counter-insurgency
trump the value of achieving greater transparency in government? More
importantly, what has this entire edifice and its strategies achieved
by way of ending insurgency and restoring peace?
is peace so elusive?
apparatus and its modus operandi are geared fundamentally, and more
or less exclusively, to containment. So long as insurgencies are only
contained, and no sustainable peace processes are in place, democracy
in the Northeast is likely to continue to co-exist with the use of authoritarian
modes of governance. With the significant exception of the Mizo movement,
most insurgencies in the Northeast have been transformed, or are currently
transforming, into long-term, low-intensity conflicts. The perceived
need for counter-insurgency operations never seems to go away. Even
in Mizoram, at least if one goes by military presence in that state,
the end of the insurgency has not meant that the state within the state
has been dismantled.
three reasons why most northeastern insurgencies turn into protracted
conflicts of attrition: (a) the goal of counter-insurgency is limited
to creating conditions under which particular insurgent groups or factions
surrender weapons, come to the negotiation table on the governments
terms and make compromises in exchange for personal gain; (b) counter-insurgency
operations do not dramatically change the conditions on the ground that
breed and sustain the insurgent political culture and lifestyle; and
(c) the political initiative that accompany and supplement counter-insurgency
operations try to utilise former militants in the war against insurgents,
thus creating a climate of mistrust and a cycle of violence and counter-violence
between anti-government and pro-government insurgents.
for a powerful security presence can hardly disappear under these conditions.
Assams growing violencewhich includes a large number of secret killings
by death squadsexemplifies the results of a counter-insurgency strategy
which in fact transformed an insurgency into a wider and long drawn-out
conflict. The bloody elections of May 2001 in which scores of people
lost their lives is at odds with Lt. Gen Sinhas euphoric claim of the
ballot having won against the bullet .
exception, of course, is important. In 1986, Laldenga, the leader of
the Mizo National Front, signed an accord with prime minister Rajiv
Gandhi, and this remains the only instance of an accord successfully
bringing about an end to insurgency in northeast India. Laldenga became
the chief minister of Mizoram and when he lost elections two years later,
there was no call for a return to insurgency. Among the factors that
accounted for the successful end of the Mizo insurgency were the following:
the undisputed leadership of the insurgency in the hands of a single
individual who was willing to compromise and who could deliver his part
of the deal; the feasibility of offering Laldenga the chief ministership
of Mizoram in exchange for ending the insurgency; the existence of large
and organised church-related civil society institutions that were actively
involved in creating and supporting the consensus for peace; and a political
climate in New Delhi during the Rajiv Gandhi years that was relatively
open to making significant political compromises with insurgents.
date, the Mizo case has been the only exception, and insurgency refuses
to die down despite the sophistication and resources of the counter-insurgency
establishment and the leeway given it to use the governor as political
administrator. In seeking to understand why peace continues to elude
Northeast India, it is important to study how insurgencies are able
to sustain themselves in the face of such enormous military action.
It is important to keep in mind the fact that while the security establishment
runs parallel administrations that circumscribe civil administrations
politically, insurgent movements run similar parallel fiscal administrations
at the ground level through illegal tax collection and extortion.
on the longevity of armed civil conflicts focuses attention not so much
on the grievances that are articulated by insurgent groups but to the
ability of these groups to finance their activities. For example, economist
Paul Collier in an article, in a recent volume, Managing Global Chaos,
looking at the global patterns of armed civil conflicts, concluded that
the most significant factor of civil conflicts is the ability of rebel
organisations to be financially viable. He also found a strong correlation
with a specific set of economic conditions such as a regions dependence
on exports of primary commodity and low national income.
It is not
that poverty breeds armed civil conflicts, Collier surmises, but that
certain economic conditions are conducive to the mobilisation of revenue
by armed insurgent groups. Primary commodities are highly lootable,
primary production centres located in conflict-zones are easily accessible,
and production cannot be moved elsewhere. Unlike a manufacturing unit,
which is not worth much once production ceases, owners and managers
of such centres continue to be dependent on existing production sites,
making them vulnerable to extortion. Low national income, Collier argues,
is co-related with armed civil conflicts not because the objective condition
of poverty sustains rebellion, but because in a context of poverty and
unemployment, an insurgent group that is able to raise enough money
can recruit new members quite inexpensively.
thesis is useful to explain the resilience of the Northeast insurgencies.
It draws attention to the conditions that permit illegal tax collection.
For instance, in those areas of large countries where the states presence
is weak, it is easier for rebel organisations to establish illegal taxation
structures that resemble official ones. The availability of foreign
material support also becomes an important factor in explaining the
persistence of armed civil conflicts. The civil war in Sierra Leone
perhaps most dramatically supports the Collier thesis: the control over
diamond mining and international diamond smuggling is clearly what has
allowed the armed rebels to continue the fight.
India is no Sierra Leone, it is nevertheless striking that the region
is both poor and a primary commodity-producing regionfactors that, according
to Collier, make an area conducive to illegal tax-collection and to
the persistence of armed civil conflicts. Indeed, the production and
transportation of primary commodities that Northeast India produces
and exportstea, timber, coal and so onhave been a major source of legal
taxation by governments, a source of extortion by officials, and the
favourite source of illegal taxation by insurgent groups, and increasingly
by pro-government insurgent groups that collaborate in counter-insurgency
operations, like Assams SULFA (former members of ULFA who have surrendered,
and hence the S).
taka, Naga taka
1994-95, Sanjoy Ghose, the social activist who was kidnapped and killed
by ULFA in 1997, travelled extensively in the Northeast. His travel
diaries have been published posthumously as Sanjoys Assam. In his travels
through Nagaland, Ghose found a formalised system of tax-collection
imposed by the NSCN. Every-body paid, and in the case of the state governments
Public Works Department (PWD)perceived as highly corruptGhose found
that there was a progressive system of illegal taxation in place. Those
of the rank of executive engineers and above paid one-third of their
net salary. This percentage may seem high to someone unfamiliar with
the culture of corruption in the region, but the fact is that the formal,
departmental salary is only a small part of the actual income of an
engineer. A senior police officer of Nagaland confided to Ghose that
even though he himself was not paying, most of his colleagues did contribute.
Such stories about systems of illegal taxationperhaps not equally formalised
everywhereare heard all through the Northeast. Indeed it is not merely
insurgent organisations, but mainstream political parties, student organisations,
corrupt officials, all resort to coercive and illegal modes of tax collection
from businessesbig and small.
corruption and the preponderance of outsiders in the economy of the
region make the climate especially illegal taxation-friendly. Indeed,
as Sanjoy Ghose found in the case of PWD engineers in Nagaland, unlike
government tax collectors who could target only what is officially declared
as income, insurgentsdrawing on popular perceptions and credible rumourcan
impose higher taxes based on more realistic assessments of income. It
is in no ones interest to report extortion demands and payments that
involve mostly illegal income to law enforcement officials.
Saigal, a former Indian civil servant who was Assams Planning and Development
Commis-sioner and who is familiar with the process of development finance
in the Northeast, has written about the way development funds allocated
to the region are a bonanza for a group of contractors and license holdersmostly
from outside the regionwhose main ambition is to make a fast buck and
get out of the area as quickly as possible. As the Indian state has
increased development expenditures in response to the voices of discontent
in the Northeast, he writes, there has been an even quicker siphoning
off of funds to the heartland with the few benefits accruing to those
in power through the usual corrupt forces. Saigal believes this has
led to increasingly corrupt regimes in the northeastern states. And
the people of the region, he believes, even see them as representing
central power in order to keep their state underdeveloped.
that New Delhi is throwing money away in order to buy peace gives an
aura of legitimacy to tax collection by insurgents. The manifesto of
the NSCN is a case in point: The pouring in of Indian capital in our
country for political reasons has shattered the Naga people into a society
of wild money, creating a parasitic, exploiting class of reactionary
traitors, bureaucrats, a handful of rich men and the Indian vermin.
Such a view of the politics underlying New Delhis development expenditures
allows Naga insurgents to take the moral high ground: it is only fair
that such ill-gotten wealth be shared with an organisation that works
for the greater good of the Nagas. To give another example of the consequence
of this perception, in Nagaland it is said that during elections when
political parties distribute money to buy votes, acceptance of that
money is seen as legitimate since it involves only Indian taka (Indian
money), not Naga taka (Naga money).
to discredit militants in the eyes of their supporters, military and
intelligence officials have in recent years started speaking about the
luxurious lifestyles of insurgent leaders or of the insurgents being
nothing more than bandits seeking easy money. While all this is not
news to anyone living in the Northeast, whether such statements from
security officials involved in counter-insurgency operations increases
the legitimacy of governmental institutions vis-à-vis the rebels, is
a different matter. Despite some highly publicised successes such as
unearthing evidence that one of India’s major business housesthe Tataswere
providing support to Assamese rebels, it is doubtful that the focus
on the expropriative aspect of insurgencies has so far led to any systematic
change affecting the illegal tax-collection capacity of insurgent groups.
two recent newspaper reports that illustrate how routine the taxation
systems of insurgent organisations are and how impervious they have
been to decades of counterinsurgency operations:
2001, the NSCN (Issac-Muivah) announ-ced, and Indian newspapers routinely
published the news of, a tax break for industries. According to The
Times of India, the NSCN (I-M) announced an exemption of loyalty taxes
for two years on certain categories of businessessome of them even state-owned
busi-nesses. Quoting the organisations Information and Publication Secretary,
V. Horam, the news report said that the tax break was given in order
to boost economic activities in the Naga areas of the Northeast. The
tax exemption, said the notification, applied to enterprises that were
less than two years old. However, the taxes on other businesses and
the income tax on salaried people would continue.
2001, militant groups demanded INR 40 lakhs from eight Christian missionary
schools in Manipurs capital city, Imphal. When the schools expressed
their inability to pay, the militants imposed a fine of INR 2 crores
and ordered them to close down. The matter was raised in the Manipur
State Assembly. The press reported that security in and around the missionary
schools was increased. The chief minister of Manipur told the state
legislature that cases were registered with the police in connection
with the extortion demands and were being investigated. But no one expected
such investigations to go very far. Last month, three Christian missionaries
were murdered by militants apparently because of non-payment of those
to be little evidence that in these two states, years of counter-insurgency
has had any significant impact on the conditions that have bred and
sustained insurgency, i.e. the relative incapacity of civil administration
to provide protection (despite its strong military presence) and the
continued ability of insurgent organisations to collect illegal taxes.
It appears that insurgent groups can guarantee security and collect
tax better than the state can. It is hardly surprising then that many
peoplepoliticians, traders, government officials and even major corporationsmake
their uneasy peace with insurgent groups, just as they learn to live
with counter-insurgency operations without high expectations of an end
to the fighting.
accounts for this fundamental failure? It must be that New Delhis Northeast
policy has yet to come to grips with the dense social networks of northeastern
societies and the ideas and values that animate the insurgencies.
the Northeast ever hope to get out of this quagmire, in which a larger
democracy lives comfor-tably with the most arbitrary of powers in disturbed
areas? There might be occasional doubts in India about what counter-insurgency
itself can achieve. But one idea that enjoys widespread acceptance is
that once the problem of the regions economic backwardness is taken
care of, the main source of political turmoil will go away. Indeed it
would probably be hard to find a more diehard group of economic determinists
than Indian bureaucrats and politicians engaged with the Northeast.
in economic development contrasts sharply with the vision of insurgent
groups in the Northeast. While those who try to solve the insurgency
problem mainly talk about economic development and modernisation, the
insurgents hark back to history. Thus ULFA speaks of Assams lost independence
when the Yandabo Treaty was signed between the British and the Burmese
kings in 1826, Manipuri rebels raise questions about the constitutionality
of the merger agreement of 1949, and Naga rebels query how these long
stretches of frontiers which were neither Burmese nor Indian territories
could simply disappear into India and Burma after 1947? (Kaka D. Iralu,
Nagaland and India: The Blood and the Tears, 2000).
groups, political parties and public opinion in northeastern states
do complain about the regions economic underdevelopment but their primary
grouse appears to be perceived injustices grounded in the history of
how the Indian postcolonial constitutional order came into being. But
what is striking is that the bureaucrats, politicians and military officers
who make Northeast policy are either oblivious of the historical issues
that insurgencies raise, or consider them too trivial to merit substantive
engagement. Thus, exploring different ways of granting greater consti-tutional
autonomy as a response to these historical claims, is not at all part
of the Indian policy-makers basket of solutions.
history of ideas there are numerous examples of the authoritarian consequences
of dealing with places and people only in terms of their supposed futureframed
in terms of ideas about backwardness and progresswithout taking into
account their past. After all, that is how an entire generation of liberal
and progressive English thinkerse.g. Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John
Stuart Mill and Thomas B. Macaulaymanaged to endorse empire as a legitimate
form of government, and even justify its undemocratic and unrepresentative
structure. The key to understanding this paradox of the liberal defence
of empire, writes Uday Singh Mehta in his book Liberalism and Empire,
lies in the reforms proposed by the liberals. Developmentalism, according
to Mehta, had been an integral feature of liberalism. Liberal thought
identified India’s backwardness, so imperial rule could be justified
by the initiation of endless projects for economic development, social
the conservative Edmund Burke had a harder time accepting British rule
of India. Of course Burke did not oppose empire; he argued for good
government, not Indian self-government. Yet his was a sharper critique
of empire because he saw India in terms of its existing established
communities, and he did not want to see them threatened. And unlike
liberals who worried about whether India was to be regarded as a nation
or just a conglomeration of innumerable castes and tribes, Burke assumed
that peoples living in one place for generations had to be regarded
as political communities. Most importantly, unlike liberals, Burke,
in Mehtas words, never presumed a foreknowledge of other peoples destiny.
Indian bureaucrats would do well to take more seriously the histories
of the peoples of the Northeast, and give up the assumption of foreknowledge
of their destinies that is implied in the talk about bringing development
and modernisation to remote tribal societies.
the Northeast as a region where the people have histories, of course,
does not mean that the regions history will have ready answers to its
contemporary problems. But taking history seriously can have important
implications. There is the example of the recent negotiations between
Naga leaders and the Government of India where both sides have failed
to arrive at a common groundthe Naga idea of a Nagalim or greater Nagaland,
is a source of anxiety to a number of neighbouring northeastern states,
It is tempting
to think of the issue entirely in terms of ethnic anxieties. But the
history of the political formations of the region, suggests otherwise.
The political history of the region has more interconnections and continuities
than the idea of bounded and demarcated ethnic homelands might suggest.
In the 19th century, Sir James Johnstone, a colonial official, described
political rituals of the Manipuri kings which were remarkably inclusive.
The investiture ceremony of the Manipuri kings required the queen to
appear in Naga costume; the royal palace always had a house built in
Naga style; and when the king travelled he was attended on by two or
three Manipuris with Naga arms, dress and ornaments.
between Nagas and Mani-puris suggested by the practices and rituals
of the Manipuri court may not provide ready answers to resolve the Nagalim
issue today. But one thing is clear: rather than secretive deals between
Indian bureaucrats and leaders of one or the other insurgent organisations,
these questions are best addressed by debates that take seriously the
passionate interest in history that animates the northeastern insurgencies,
and by taking into confidence the people of the region.
than trying to contain insurgencies, India needs to raise its expectations
of what is possible. Even the most protracted of armed civil conflicts
in the worldNorthern Irelandis today closer to resolution than ever
before. Establishing a blue-ribbon committee to examine the accomplishments
and failures of the last five decades of India’s strategy and tactics
of counter-insurgency in the Northeast, may be a good place to start
from. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act is almost as old as the Indian
Constitution. It was introduced to deal with the Naga insurgency. Four
and a half decades later, not only has peace remained elusive in Nagaland,
insurgencies have enveloped formerly peaceful parts of the Northeast.
The extension of this law to the entire region has compromised Indian
democracy in the Northeast in unacceptable ways.
half a century is a long enough period for honest stock-taking and reassessment
of goals and achievements. Until such rethinking takes place, withdrawing
the AFSPA, appointing as governors those whose accomplishments are in
fields other than national security, and removing the military presence
from historical monuments such as the Kangla Fort and the INA memorial,
will be powerful symbols to indicate the desire for a new beginning
that would shape a fully democratic Northeast in the 21st century.
these are civil measures substantially at variance with the military-economic
solution that currently finds favour. The question that remains is whether
an honest review of options is at all possible given the extraordinary
influence of the security establishment and the interests it has acquired
in the disturbed Northeast. The appointment of military governors to
oversee the dilution of civil political authority seems to suggest that
democratic alternatives will not merit even passing consideration. After
all, if a lasting peace is restored in the region, generals will no
longer be governors. And there will be no need for so many brigadiers.