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Isolation breeds militancy

In his inaugural address at the Second Northeast Business Summit held at Delhi this week, the Prime Minister disclosed that over Rs. 44,000 crores of central resources had been released to the North Eastern States between 1998-99 and 2002-03. He also painted a picture of dramatic ongoing changes and future prospects that would transform the North Eastern States into India’s "economic bridgehead to South-East Asia". However, the Prime Minister found it necessary to add, "it is the responsibility of the individual States to demonstrate visibly that the funds are used properly."

On the sidelines, at a Press Conference and in separate interviews to the electronic media, Manik Sarkar, the Chief Minister of Tripura, stirred up a spat by declaring: "I have no hesitation in saying that no government at the Centre paid heed to the problems of the North Eastern region." His position was vigorously contested by Tarun Gogoi, the Chief Minister of Assam, who would have us believe that Congress-led Governments at Delhi had ‘paid great heed’ to these problems. (As an aside, it is useful to recall that it was when the Congress was at the helm at the Centre, that the ship of Gogoi’s own State was run aground, both politically and economically.)

Reviewing the actual record of performance – or non-performance – of the Centre in the Northeast is not the intent here. Suffice it to say that, at least on the point of financial allocations and outlays, the Centre has inclined towards munificence. Regrettably, very little of this largesse has had significant and visible impact on the ground. It is useful to acknowledge, of course, the very large sum of money that the Prime Minister indicated had been released to the Northeast over the past five years. It is, nevertheless, equally necessary to note that, on most developmental parameters, this Central allocation appears to have had little impact. For this, certainly, the State Governments themselves have been substantially to blame, as has been the ongoing atmosphere of violence and discontent that seriously afflicts much of the region.

More significant, however, is the mutual incomprehension reflected in the perspectives of the Centre and those who speak for the States. There is, at Delhi, a belief that everything possible has and continues to be done for the ‘welfare’ of the Northeast; in the States of the region, there is, nevertheless, a sense of deep neglect and grievance against Delhi.

Delhi’s policies and perspectives towards the Northeast – despite peripheral changes today – continue to be trapped in a confusion that marked the attitudes and orientations of the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, towards India’s tribal communities: "…I began to doubt how far the normal idea of progress was beneficial for these people and, indeed, whether this was progress at all in any real sense of the word. It was true that they could not be left cut off from the world as they were. Political and economic forces impinged upon them and it was not possible or desirable to isolate them. Equally undesirable, it seemed to me, was to allow these forces to function freely and upset their whole life and culture, whish had so much good in them." With his chief advisor on tribal affairs, Verrier Elwin, Nehru then crafted a ‘philosophy’ of minimal intervention for the tribal areas that would "help the people develop along the lines of their own genius". The objectives were, "not to over-administer these areas or overwhelm them with a multiplicity of schemes", and to "encourage in every way their own traditional arts and culture."

The primary unintended consequence of this no doubt well-intentioned policy has been the emergence of an acute sense, not of protection, but of isolation, exclusion and neglect across the whole of the Northeast. Even at the time when it was articulated, the Nehru-Elwin tribal policy came under sustained attack, and its architects were (wrongly) accused of trying to keep the tribal communities as ‘museum specimens’. Both Nehru and Elwin were aware of, and repeatedly articulated, the inevitability of bringing the tribal communities into the modern world, though they sought to do this gradually, so that they would not be, as Nehru expressed it, "engulfed by the masses of Indian humanity."

Regrettably, unimaginative, ignorant and distanced administrators at Delhi and equally unimaginative and often incompetent governments in the States, gradually translated a distorted and reductionist version of the Nehru-Elwin perspective into an inflexible shibboleth that has distorted perspectives, policies and politics in India’s Northeast for over five decades now, to the enormous detriment of the region and its people. A stifling array of restrictions has obstructed the movement of intellectual and material resources, investments, skilled workers, teachers, doctors, engineers, tourists and all things beneficial – all elements that, though they may receive something from the host society, would also contribute something necessary to its progress. This has resulted in social and economic stagnation and, in many cases, in the actual deterioration of institutions and infrastructure. Delhi’s suspicious and obstructionist orientation was periodically compounded by the emergence and extension of insurgencies in widening areas of the region, and by escalating fears of secessionism.

Despite the suffocating regime of constraints and controls, however, Delhi has failed altogether in preventing the populations of the Northeast from being ‘engulfed’. Continuous illegal migration has altered the demographic balance across vast areas, and is even affecting the most isolated States, guarded by the ‘Inner Line Permit’ system. On this point at least, Manik Sarkar would be absolutely right: no Government in Delhi, irrespective of political posture and rhetoric, has paid any heed to the monumental and disruptive problem of illegal migration in the Northeast. Indeed, some Governments, both at the Centre and in the States, have actively encouraged such migration for short-term political gains, and coming generations will have to pay a heavy price for this neglect and mischief.

Nevertheless, despite the demonstrable failure of the restrictive regime in the Northeast, few in Government are willing to accept that it is now time to scrap these constraints, and work urgently for the integration of the tribal communities and the whole of the Northeast, not only with the national economy, but rather with the increasingly globalized economy of the wider Asian region.

There are many, of course, who raise the bogey of the ‘loss of indigenous cultures’ in this context. The truth is, in the modern world, cultures are not protected by isolation; they are made the more vulnerable. It is only with the necessary means and resources, which successful integration with the modern systems of production may provide, that the possibility of conservation of some elements of threatened cultures is strengthened. The rates of cultural erosion are highest in the poorest parts of the world. It is rich nations, communities and societies that are able to conserve, protect and project some elements of their cultural heritage.

Despite the suspicions of many from the Northeast, it is my belief that Delhi’s policies on the region, by and large, have been well intentioned. But good intentions, the wise reminds us, are what the gateway to hell is paved with. There have been many brave speeches by successive Prime Ministers, all involving very large sums of money purportedly allocated for the ‘development’ of the Northeast. The stark reality of stagnation and decline in the region, however, is difficult to ignore. There are some indications that the ‘protectionist’ orientation to the Northeast is now being diluted. This orientation must be rapidly abandoned, and a coherent strategy of transition must be defined for the integration, not just of an abstraction called the ‘Northeast region’, but of its people, with the contemporary economy and the modern world.

(Published in The Pioneer, January 24, 2004)





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