The election results from the three small northeastern states (adding up to just about a crore in population and five Lok Sabha seats) have brought a spectacular and renewed endorsement for the BJP. We, however, raise a somewhat different question. Since elections are all about politics and partisanship, is there a way of analysing these results in a relatively apolitical manner?
That’s why, before we go forward, we look at what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at his party office on the evening of the results, in celebration of course.
“There wasn’t much discussion in Delhi and other parts of the country when the results were out from the northeast region. The discussion was about the violence during the elections,” — or all about insurgencies, he said.
Then, noting how radically things had now improved, he said — with his usual speechmaking flourish — “The northeast is neither far from Delhi nor from the heart (dil, in Hindi).” If you leave your political leanings or voting preferences aside, you might see much merit in this.
If we look at the northeast now — the erstwhile seven sisters and, added later, Sikkim — there is almost no insurgency. There is admittedly that increasingly rare little ambush or clash. You will find more such clashes between armed police and the bad guys in any state of the Hindi heartland than in the entire northeast. Armed banditry is not separatist insurgency.
The only insurgent force, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, has been peaceful for a decade, going through grinding but as yet unbroken negotiations. In large parts of the region, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has been withdrawn.
For sure, the process did not begin after the Modi government came to power in 2014. It had been on since the earlier NDA government. Between Tripura’s then CPI(M) chief minister, Manik Sarkar, and L.K. Advani’s Union home ministry, a brilliant and calibrated process was carried out lifting AFSPA from all the state’s 70 police stations, one by one, sort of serendipitously, until no disturbed areas were left.
Things moved slowly after this, but picked up in the Modi era. Improvement in ties with Bangladesh helped. Dhaka has for nearly a decade now been quite happy to hand over any Indian extremists found there.
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For nearly three decades now, I have been writing and arguing that the northeast gives us a wonderful characterisation of a unique doctrine of counterinsurgency that evolved in India through the decades. Think of it like your usual bell curve.
As insurgent violence rose in a state, the state’s response rose with it. Until it peaked at a point where the rebels realised this was a very hard state and they were never going to win, no matter how much damage or how many casualties they inflicted. At which point they were tired and willing to make peace. And the state was generous.
Instead of claiming victory or going for the kill, the state came with political compromises. What is it that you want? A state of your own to protect your identity? Some special laws? Political power in your state? You can have it all. Just accept the Constitution.
If you don’t like it as it is, we can make special provisions (for Nagaland, the additions to Article 371 and the Shillong Peace Accord, 1975). Most importantly, we will give up political power for you. I take you back to the Congress yielding to Mizo rebel chief Laldenga and Assam agitators in 1985-86. I covered those peace accords and subsequent elections, and heard the slogan in the Brahmaputra Valley: “Rajiv Gandhi zindabad, Congress party murdabad.”
Indian people are smart everywhere but somewhat more so in the northeast, probably because of the hardships of living in so far and remote a region, and the hazards of the political environment through three generations.
I found the first vindication for that “bell curve” story while covering the Mizoram election after the Rajiv-Laldenga Accord.
Young Vanlalzari had been the secretary to then Inspector General of Police (Mizoram police chief then), G.S. Arya. In 1975, a band of Mizo insurgents walked into the police headquarters (date) and shot the IGP, his deputy and the head of the special branch. It was a national sensation. The assassins were killed in subsequent encounters and Vanlalzari was convicted for conspiracy. In jail, she wrote a document that became the underground’s inspiration. It was called Zari Diary and I still have an English translation somewhere in my papers.
She was freed in the post-accord amnesty and, in 1986, I found her wrapping and packing posters and flags at the headquarters of her party, the Mizo National Front. “You were fighting for sovereignty,” I asked, “why did you give up then?”
“It is true we fought for sovereignty, but sovereignty by itself does not mean freedom. Poland is sovereign, but is it free?” She was now schooling me. This is when the first stirrings in Poland, under Lech Walesa’s Solidarity, were hitting the global headlines. I am not sure many in other parts of the country would have given us that logic.
That’s why I said all of us are smart, but the people of the northeast are smarter. They respond positively and constructively to good outreach from “Dilli”. You can find this story in the India Today archives here. I am sure it is a matter of time before the NSCN issue also settles similarly.
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Between then and now, much has changed in the region. If we leapfrog to the Modi era, the biggest difference is the incredible improvement in connectivity, within the region and also with what is erroneously called the mainland. One big mental block between the region and “Dilli” was just this, connectivity. The difficulty of reaching out on either side.
Over the past nine years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of highways, the railways are reaching many more places, air connectivity has improved spectacularly, and it is possible to visit any state from a major metro and come back by the next morning, if not the same evening. And vice versa.
Did it happen only in the past nine years, the Modi era? Of course improvements had been taking place forever, but at a crawling pace.
Example: As of 2014, all of the Brahmaputra river flowing through Assam had only three bridges — Naranarayan bridge, Saraighat bridge and Kaliabhomora bridge. The Saraighat bridge at Guwahati was built in the sixties; even a broader alternative being built adjacent to it had been crawling for more than a decade after the Vajpayee government cleared it as part of its North-South and East-West corridors. Today, there are six, and a seventh is under construction. This gives you just one idea of the pace of change.
Peace, connectivity and India’s booming services economy have enabled the northeast’s super-talented young people to spread across the country to work. This has also brought about mental and emotional connectivity, furthered that feeling of national belonging, of Indianness.
The Modi government has meanwhile done its political, nationalist thing, bringing old heroes and heroines of the region who fought the British between the 19th and early 20th centuries to the national mainstream: Rani Gaidinliu (Naga), Kanaklata Barua (Assam), U Tirot Sing (Khasi), Bir Tikendrajit Singh (Meitei, Manipur) and so on. Of course, Lachit Barphukan has now been elevated to a national icon given that he fought and defeated a Mughal invasion force.
The BJP made some big mistakes, but learnt quickly and backtracked. The most important example is the CAA/NRC combination. It realised early enough that the easy Hindu-versus-Muslim binary doesn’t work in the northeast as in the Hindi heartland or even West Bengal.
It is because it has such a stake in the northeast that it will think thrice before resurrecting the CAA-NRC. The northeast is a sizeable success story for the Modi government politically and for the BJP electorally. It will be an unpleasant surprise if they choose to blow it by bowing to their basic, polarising instinct at any point.
(An earlier version of this article has been updated to correct the number of bridges over the Brahmaputra as of 2014.)
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