A Bend in the River
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  • A rich experience

    • Date: March 13, 2007; Tuesday  • Views: 3,229 views   • Comments:
    • Categories: Environment, Governance  

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    It’s been a rich experience for me, both personally and professionally, to write a regular column for this page. I am grateful to the Editor of The Statesman and the news desk. At a time when the concept of a “national” newspaper covering events in the length and breadth of the country ~ in including it’s north-eastern “periphery” ~ is rapidly diminishing, The Statesman has, and will continue to, fulfil that role.

    The pieces critical of the silly idea of “river-linking” and dams for development without consulting the real stakeholders, the people; our concern over the failure of governance; rallying and not merely railing against corruption; exposing the violation of human rights of residents of the region by armed groups and not just by security forces; strengthening the fight against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958), interviewing the Naga leadership and calling for content to the peace talks with neighbouring states… the list of issues raised in these columns has been extensive. (Indeed, of the last-mentioned issue, that there is a need for reconciliation among warring factions in the Naga story there is no doubt ~ but it has to be without conditions just as the Naga leaders Th. Muivah and Isak Swu were wise to hold talks with New Delhi without conditions.)

    We have also organised debates on the issue of illegal migration and settlement and sought to give a logical framework to this genuine concern, without being carried away by either rhetoric or the baggage of the past. We have reflected on the need to give depth to the much-vaunted Look East Policy and have shared the views of people in small villages and towns, especially through my own extensive travels and visits to these places, through this column. To me, these have been truly enriching, and have enabled me to bring the reality of the grassroots to Delhi’s attention and that of a wide range of scholars and specialists, policy makers and independent organisations, as well as to those who wield influence in the neighbourhood and even in South East Asia. We have looked, I believe, with balance, at issues that constitute “good news” and supported innovative approaches to old problems whether it is ships that take health services to isolated island communities or efforts to bring participative governance and planning to the village level.

    I have shared with readers my personal growth and failures, my concerns and triumphs, my acute loss and feeling of grief at my mother’s passing. We have provided on The North East Page a platform for the abiding concerns and range of opinion in this region, which never cease to amaze me. And in many cases, we have given voice to the voiceless or to opinions which were rarely heard, such as Sunil Kaul of The Ant, who works among the Bodos.
    There are many things that one could write about here. And one will continue to do so. But there are issues of a contemporary nature even in this farewell piece that I wish to highlight.

    Need for connectivity
    If there is one basic need that the North-east needs to fill swiftly, it is not merely that of political alienation or more security troops or more peace talks or cleaner administration and politics or better roads or more investment. It is simply put, better connectivity, part of that quaint phrase that many of us use so frequently, “better governance”. I do not mean just roads or railway lines or bridges. But as I have said in recent columns, give the connectivity of new technology, of mobile phones to extremely backward rural areas and see how they grow and change.

    Resistance to these ideas will come, I am aware, from officials in the security-Intelligence establishment who will see them as opportunities which will be used by anti-government groups.

    Such a view is retrograde: does it mean that until every last gun of the last insurgent is silenced that we should wait for connectivity? By that time, the rest of the world will have moved to other technology and a different economy.

    A mobile connection can save lives, link farmers to markets, bridge the gap between our region and a transforming world and banish the politics of exclusion of the existing political parties and small-minded armed groups which would have us trapped in a past which never existed but in their fertile imaginations and kept in a state and cycle of perpetual unrest, unhappiness and perceived neglect.Because only in such conditions can the politics of division, hatred and anger thrive, blocking us from a future which is within our grasp but yet beyond it.

    Garo Hills beckon
    These past days, I have been at the district headquarters of Tura in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills. It is quiet and pleasant, these days, and quite safe. There is hardly any violence and the sole major armed group, the Achik National Liberation Front, occupies the Youth Hostel above the cricket stadium and has a ceasefire with the Government of India.
    They collect “donations” or taxes from every trade in the town, although I am told by officials that the figure is dropping. Friday was Republic Day, celebrated in Assam by officials and the ruling alliance with a single string of participants in the heavily guarded stadiums.

    Here, school children chattered as they took part in the event at the Chandmari grounds, the place wore a festive look and there was a palpable ease in the air. Two years ago, you would have had the same spectacle and tension as at Guwahati. But less than two years of peace is transforming the area. The cycle changes, the wheel turns.

    Two years ago, I could barely get internet connectivity because the cyber cafes were shut and phone lines were bad. Today, Ashim Nag, whose father was a tailor here, has broadband connectivity and links to the world in a moment.

    Things do change. Last night, I talked with a group of energetic officials, including the young district magistrate, P Sampath Kumar, about their plans to improve delivery systems for governance in an area not known for either. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

    I suggested that they market the Garo Hills as a peaceful destination for budget travellers and those who fancy a challenge, with treks, home stays, visits to the national parks of Balpakram and Nokrek and biosphere reserves. If these ecosystems are to be maintained and not destroyed as has happened in other parts of South Asia, a genuine public-private partnership involving local stakeholders must be forged.

    Ulfa has few choices
    Finally, a word on Assam: I was conversing with chief minister Tarun Gogoi the other day. His view is that public support has fast fallen for the banned United Liberation Front of Asom. The more they hit public places, the greater the loss of support. In addition, he is clear that the security operations against them will not now cease.

    “If they wish to talk, let them come forward and talk directly and their top leaders should come, not through the second rung or publicity-driven interlocutors.” If he would make remarks to the Peoples Consultative Group in a discussion, the PCG would broadcast it to the media!

    There are few options for Ulfa and its supporters, unless they are banking on incidents as at
    Sivasagar where innocent traders were shot by a paramilitary group, to turn the public mood against the security forces.

    They must come for unconditional talks, otherwise the cycle of attrition will see the loss of more blood. In Kashmir Valley, the life of a militant is estimated at two years.

    Is this how Ulfa’s leaders, comfortably parked in Bangladesh, wish to be remembered: for the total callousness toward the lives of their own supporters, besides hundreds of innocents who have fallen prey to their bullets and invited the wrath of the Indian State?

    Mr Gogoi is determined to go ahead with the National Games. We can only hope that Ulfa, whose Army chief was once a superb footballer, will see the folly in threatening the conduct of such an event. For, even if security operations cannot be ceased, they can, after all, be eased.

    Scrap AFSPA
    There is always hope and the door to dialogue in this case, as in that of the Nagas, must never be closed. Armed conflict cannot be sustained for long. And to enable political spaces to be created and for a conducive atmosphere for talks, let the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (1958) be scrapped. Then wait: the genuine will respond.

    The others will show themselves in their real colours: bullies with guns, without ideology, who want to keep us trapped in the past, in a cycle of hate and violence, and in which they have a tacit alliance with the military might of the State which seeks to remain here, against all common sense, but because of the many advantages it offers and also because our politicians and “leaders” do not have the courage to deliver the basics of governance without the backing of the khaki.

    The Army is supposed to be used for emergency situations; in the North-east it has become knee-jerk.

    That is why AFSPA is not being repealed because a vested interest has developed in the militarisation of the region.

    After 50 years, it is time to call for an end to this and let the democratic processes, fractured as they are, slow as they are, and the local police, venal as they may be, respond to the realities of today, preparing for tomorrow by learning, training, better education and equipment and, above all, sensitised to needs and aspirations. No other way will work.

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