The Morning After:
2001 and the Seven Sisters’ Region

Sanjay Barbora

To say that the year 2001 was very significant for the peoples of the Seven Sisters’ Region, would be like repeating a cliché that no one in particular wants to hear. Yet, in most journals and magazines where the significance of the year was discussed, there was a note of journalistic disdain when the issues were being put forward. The Indo-Naga ceasefire; the tensions arising out of the same in Manipur; peace overtures and the ubiquitous elections were all put into one bag so as to imply that this was the sum total of events that one can expect from a region like the Northeast. The ingredients of the ritualistic ‘run-down’ of the year themselves were not given their political due. Hence, the Indo-Naga ceasefire appeared to be a pantomime where the actors played their theatrical roles to perfection. The Indian state stood exonerated for five decades of militarisation while the Naga nationalists were taken to task for not complying with the ground rules of the ceasefire. The tension in Manipur was played down (or ‘up’ – depending on one’s political persuasion) as yet another instance of inexplicable ethnic conflict that haunts the region. Peace offers by national liberation organisations in Assam were considered and then desultorily put aside by the Home Ministry, giving one the impression that everything was fine in Assam. The same can be said of the Assembly elections in Assam as well as the recently concluded Panchayat elections in the state. Twipra (or Tripura) received its usual few centimetres of press coverage when armed opposition groups targeted non-indigenous ethnic persons. Meghalaya saw a few political scams that resulted in a change of guard in governance. Arunachal Pradesh seemed like a tranquil Shangri-La with the occasional ambush orchestrated either by Assamese or Naga insurgents. As for Mizoram, no one really knew what happened there and one would be hard pressed to find people outside the region who actually care enough to discuss the state of affairs there. After all, the ‘resolution’ of conflict between the Indian government and the Mizo National Front in the 1980s is a laurel on the Indian State’s cap and no one in their right (wing) minds wants to alter that.

Yet, one needs to take stock of the year 2001 and place the events within some sort of perspective. The endless cycle of violence, political expediency and overall impoverishment of the people, is too important a process to be allowed to escape its share of scrutiny. For reasons beyond one’s control, much of the discussions below deal with issues that have affected the people of Assam in some way or the other. While it is true that significant events have changed the course of daily lives of the peoples in the other states of the region, it is perhaps the author’s own lack of mobility and awareness of the intricacies of the problems in these states, that account for this peculiar shortcoming.

In the beginning…

Things seemed well upbeat for the people of Assam in the early part of the year. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) said that they would be willing to consider talks on the issue of self-determination (amongst a host of others) with the Government of India. ULFA had even agreed to follow a more accommodative process by dropping some of its earlier ‘pre-conditions’ for talks with the Government of India. While one expected the government to make the best of this positive development, the honourable Home Minister’s subsequent visit to Assam was a rude reminder of how the Indian state follows double standards in dealing with political issues. The Minister stated that there was ‘no war’ going on between the people of Assam and the Government of India. Hence, he said, that the need for talks with ULFA did not arise. His statements came despite the pleas made by several Citizen’s Committees, urging the government to take ULFA’s offer seriously, were placed before him. There is some truth in the notion that the Government of India would rather talk to ‘experts’ and bureaucrats, than to the citizens of the region, when it comes to formulating policies for the Northeast.

The sense of déjà vu was proved correct when the pleas of Assam’s civil society fell on deaf ears. Around this time, the systematic targeting of families of ULFA activists started to make the rounds. Given the fact that the Mahanta administration had not yet come up with plausible answers to the massacre of non-Assamese people the killing of ULFA activists’ kith and kin, read like a bad script from a equally bad movie. As if proof of their complicity in the killings were in doubt, the administration went on to claim that ‘unidentified miscreants’ and Pakistani agents (ho hum!) were behind the systematic murders of innocent people in Assam.

The political assassinations did not subside but took a turn for the worse as the months rolled along in Assam. The phenomenon of ‘retaliatory killings’, that were legitimised by the administration with their connivance in the assassination of Parag Kumar Das in 1996, intensified during the early part of the year. The blatant gunning down of Jotish Sarma, Dijen Haloi and Pulin Haloi and the torching of the house of ULFA foreign secretary, Sasha Choudhury, bear testimony to the depths that the administration can sink to in its effort to ‘combat insurgency’. Jotish Sarma, an employee of Gauhati University and the brother-in-law of ULFA activist, Subhash Sarma was picked up from his residence under Geetanagar PS in Guwahati city, by a dozen-odd members of a government sponsored death squad on the night of January 3, 2001. He was then taken towards Nalbari in an unregistered white Maruti Gypsy. His bullet ridden body was recovered beside the Nalbari-Dhamdhama highway near the Ganesh Temple.

The incidents mentioned above are but mere samples of the strategy of containment employed by the administration in Assam. The ‘nudge-and-wink’ policy of encouraging death squads has marked the course of governance in the state for the last few years. Even after the nexus between these squads and the administration has been brought to light, the Home Minister (in all his wisdom) insists on airing his opinion that the government of India is ‘not waging a war’ against the people of Assam. Stranger opinions may have been put forward by parliamentarians but this one takes the cake!

At the same time, State violence has been extended to the Autonomous District Council areas of North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong. While Karbi Anglong has witnessed the increase in ‘ethnic conflicts’, the North Cachar Hills has been subjected to routine surveillance and operations by the army and paramilitary. In the district of Karbi Anglong, the problem of land alienation of the indigenous Karbi people has been at the root of the conflicts. Ironically, this alienation is taking place despite the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution whereby lands belonging to the indigenous tribes of Assam are to be protected by law. The difference in access to agricultural technologies is the root cause as to why the Karbi farmers have to resort to mortgaging their lands to other members of other, more agriculturally developed ethnic groups.1  In the North Cachar Hills (NC Hills) district, the problem of land alienation is also beginning to emerge as the determining factor in defining ethnic relations between the different ethnic groups who live there.

The problem is compounded in the NC Hills by the growing use of force by the armed forces. Early in the year, on February 8, 2001, two police trucks that set out from the Assam Police garrison at Sontilla, were ambushed by armed members of the Dima Halam Daoga (DHD), an armed opposition group active in the region. Nine police personnel were said to have been killed in the ambush. The DHD have been waging an armed insurrection against the administration for the preservation of the rights of the indigenous Dimasa people who live in the area. Following the ambush, the administration followed up with its usual knee-jerk reaction, by submitting the entire region to a series of cordon and search operations. In its effort to round up ‘suspects’ and ‘supporters’ (vague terms by themselves), the security agencies committed excesses that have been documented by human rights organisations.2  An impromptu fact-finding conducted by a human rights organisation based in Assam revealed many disturbing facts that would only spell worse times for the peoples of the NC Hills.

The NC Hills, as mentioned earlier, is a part of the autonomous hills district of Assam. It is inhabited by a number of ethnic groups, with the Dimasa being the dominant group. Over time, the passes of Jatinga and Haflong have become home to a number of tribes and ethnic groups such as the Hmar, Hrangkol, Kuki and Jaintia. Most of the tribal populace is engaged in shifting cultivation. A small service class that works mainly in the railways and Public Works Department (PWD) belong to the Assamese and Bengali ethnic groups. The region, like other hill areas of the Northeast, is characterised by the lack of any large-scale industries. Over the last two decades, the people of NC Hills have been struggling for an autonomous state. The process of land alienation and state induced violence has overshadowed the dynamics of this political struggle. An under-reported fact that has been observed in the area is the conversion of community land into private land. Under the aegis of the Sixth Schedule, the land belongs to the indigenous tribes of the district. In principle, this land cannot be transferred to ‘outsiders’. Even though this may give one the illusion that the tribal people have control over their resources, especially land, the fact that all matters concerning governance of Sixth Schedule areas lie with the governor, underscores the provisions themselves. As a consequence of this caveat in the Constitution itself, the ground realities show that the indigenous groups have not been able to keep pace with the changes that are being induced by the administration. Their agricultural practices, though symptomatic of their lack of capital and access to technology, are being discouraged by the administration. Community land ownership is the basis upon which societies depending upon shifting cultivation organise themselves. With the active connivance of the administration, the land ownership patterns are being transformed to accommodate private ownership. This itself has caused a lot of disruption within the social structure. However, instead of helping the marginal and small farmers look for alternatives, the official policy of the administration has been to encourage tensions and unleash repression once these tensions are directed towards the authorities.

Sometime later…

The assembly elections were held in Assam in May 2001. The reasons for the electorate mandate for the Congress (I) should not be misconstrued as ‘support’. Indeed, it is important to note that the elections were also marked by violence. The major players wasted no time in accusing one another of instigating the violence and thereby reduced the ‘solemnity’ of adult franchise to a travesty of sorts. A few key campaigns are worth mentioning here. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) entangled itself in a last minute opportunistic tie-up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) amidst widespread notions that this was merely another effort by Prafulla Mahanta to hang on to power.3 The claim that the AGP had ‘contained the law and order situation’ did not find too many sympathetic takers. This tie up however caused a vertical split within the BJP and the party wasted no time in blaming its new partner for the electoral debacle. In contrast, the Congress (I) promised that it would ‘bring an end to the ‘secret killings’ and also take action against the guilty’. As a measure of the gravity of the issue of ‘secret killings’, one has to merely see the overwhelming response that the party received. The electorate wasted no time in throwing out the AGP regime.

Some immediate changes were seen at the level of the ‘stratosphere’ of political affairs after the change of guard in Dispur. In keeping with the rituals of being concerned about public opinion, the Congress (I) promised to rein in the secret killers and ‘find a political resolution to the insurgency question’. A few police officers, known for their unrepentant abuse of human rights during the Mahanta regime, were transferred from their posts. However, stratospheric changes rarely have any effect on the ground. The police and army still continue to dictate the rules of engagement in Assam’s low intensity war. Over the years, the police force has been ‘militarised’ in order to be able to fulfil its strategic role in the counter-insurgency operations. It will take more than cosmetic changes and oodles of goodwill to transform such a military machine.

Scarcely had things changed in Dispur, when the ceasefire between the government of India and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M) took its place at the centre stage of social and political affairs in the region. On June 14, 2001 the government of India once again displayed its cynicism and depths of its political machinations, when confronted with the issues raised by the people of the region. In 1997 the government and NSCN signed a mutual cessation of hostilities pact. This was welcomed by social organisations across the board as the first sign of resolution of the five-decade old Indo-Naga conflict. During the course of the ‘ceasefire’ no tangible signs of normalcy could be seen, either in Nagaland or in other areas where the army routinely clashes with armed Naga activists. Moreover, the details and conditions of the ceasefire were buried in secrecy. On June 14, 2001 the government of India agreed to ‘extend’ this ceasefire to an ‘unlimited area’. Immediately, protests against this move broke out in Manipur and Assam causing a major political crisis in Manipur. Instead of assuaging the fears of the protestors and calmly taking stock of the political crisis, the government allowed thirteen young protestors to be mowed down by the paramilitary organisations in Imphal. The fact that the dead were youth who were merely searching for plausible political answers regarding the future of their state makes it more tragic. Some may argue that their questions may have been premature, or misdirected, yet the manner in which the state apparatus left a long line of dead protestors is appalling.

At the root of the protests to the ‘ceasefire extension’ lies the issue of territory. Enmeshed in the issue of territory, is the nationality question for the Naga, Manipuri, Assamese, Borok, Dimasa and other national formations in the region. It is difficult to see how the issue can be segregated and sliced before they are taken up for consideration. The sketchy details of the Indo-Naga ceasefire do not inspire confidence in the government’s ability to engage with the issues being raised by the people of region in a democratic manner. The underlying issue upon which the ‘ceasefire’ was based was the unresolved nationality struggle of the Naga peoples and the manner in which they have been suppressed for the past fifty years. Time and again, social organisations have pleaded with the state to ensure that a political resolution to this particular conflict be arrived at. Maybe it is the idea of a sovereign Naga homeland that frightens the Indian state apparatus, or perhaps it is just out of sheer habit but every time a ‘breakthrough’ is achieved, the State puts a spanner in the works and derails whatever democratic process exists. Indeed, Indo-Naga relations since 1947 are an embarrassing dossier of skulduggery that have since become the hallmark of the Indian state apparatus. One hoped that maturity would have set in by 1997, when the United Front government and the NSCN(IM) declared a total cessation of hostilities.

However, the very terms of the ceasefire and the manner in which the state apparatus has behaved in the course of time that has elapsed since 1997, show that maturity is a distant dream. Its history of reneging on almost every bilateral agreement with the Naga people leaves a huge question mark over the future of this round of ‘talks’ as well. Regardless of the political machinations, one believes that a democratic solution to the Indo-Naga conflict will augur well for all the peoples of the Northeast. The ‘ceasefire’, however contentious, still offers a small window of hope for the struggling nationalities of the region and most importantly, for the Naga peoples. Having said that, the circumstances leading up to the protests against the ‘ceasefire’ leaves one with a series of unanswered questions. Firstly, since 1997 much could have been done within the region in terms of discussions on the implications of the process. Yet, the Naga national leadership did not take up any confidence - building measures amongst the members of other indigenous groups, especially in the areas that were the most likely to be affected by the politics of the ceasefire extension. In Assam the recurring land related disputes along the Jorhat, Golaghat, Sibsagar, Karbi Anglong districts were given a new lease of life after June 14, 2001. Much could have been done in the areas mentioned, had there been an active engagement with the various ‘peace committees’ set up in the border villages.

Secondly, the lack of information on the ceasefire directly led to the expression of bad faith by the protestors in Imphal and parts of Assam. Neither the government of India, nor the Naga national leadership displayed the political foresight to include other indigenous communities and their representative organisations, in the deliberations on the ceasefire. In fact, prior to the announcement of the extension of the area coverage of the ceasefire, the political initiatives to vitiate the tensions were conspicuous in their absence. Moreover, with nebulous statements linking the ceasefire to the issue of a ‘greater’ homeland for the Naga people, the ground for meaningful and constructive interaction between the different nationalities of the region, were taken away to the corridors of power in Delhi. One was left with the feeling that New Delhi had succeeded in sowing the seeds of discord in an otherwise clear and simple situation. In short, the bilateral talks between the NSCN and government of India is a matter of the political process taking its own course. This is simple enough and there can be no dispute here. But the manner in which the talks have been carried out – by stoking the fires of ethnic competition and conflict – has allowed the matter to assume a larger significance making it imperative to address issues simultaneously and prematurely.

One says ‘premature’ at this stage simply because of the overwhelming and intrusive control that New Delhi still exercises in framing the political discourse in the Northeast. The alteration of existing boundaries is still a matter that has to be taken up by the parliament in New Delhi, where the indigenous voices of the Northeast are literally mute. At the end of the day, the indigenous peoples of the region have now got to refer back to sundry commissions and treaties, like the Sundaram Commission report, or the Pillai Commission report, to bolster their claims against the ‘other’ ethnic groups. The ‘way forward’ has been sacrificed in favour of selective and opportunistic interpretations of the colonial past and has shifted the focus away from the existing colonial realities of the present. This is tragic, for here was a chance that the indigenous people of the region had to try and develop the structures of meaningful dialogue amongst themselves on issues where their futures are at stake.

Later in the year…

The people of Assam were subjected to yet another round of patronising preaching by the government and the state apparatus. ‘Peace’ was the issue that was raised. Like all noble concepts, it was made the banner under which opinion makers tried to legitimise the course of action taken by the government of Assam – that of obscuring the movement for Self Determination. The constant effort to relate peace to security has been the unfortunate blot that every citizen caught in a ‘conflict area’ has been forced to engage with. Peace becomes nothing but a repository of instrumental rationality in such a discourse. Hence, the desire for peace is transformed into a rationale for further violation of civil and political rights, as one has seen with the explanations offered by sections of the political class of Assam. All of this done with an eye on ‘some other’ goal for the policy makers. Often these goals are articulated in terms of socio-economic development, capitalistic investments and so on. While there is nothing objectionable about investment or economic development per se, in reality, they sometimes become the very engines of violence, largely due to the fact that they become instrumental in perpetuating other processes that are built on the concept of inequality. As workers in the human rights movement, it is our obligation therefore, to introduce our concerns to the cast of eminent citizens deliberating on the need for ‘peace’ in Assam. Before we do so, we also must understand that ours is a society that is sharply divided along class, ethnic and gender lines, which exist as social issues for members of different communities of Assam. But, such divisions, or cleavages exist in every society and all over the world. The questions we wish to address in our presentation are but two: (a) why is it that every economic, social or cultural cleavage becomes a cause for generating violence in Assam? and (b) where do we fix the responsibilities for the resolution of such conflicts? In a sense, these questions are at the root of the discourse on peace. However, in Assam the questions have only received one-dimensional answers. These answers more often than not add to the moth-eaten thesis that ‘insurgency is the root cause of all the ills in our society’. The experience of the human rights movement in Assam seriously contests the terms of reference and ideological undertones of this thesis. The reasons why and how, are sought to be explained in the text that follows.

Militarisation is a primary concern that affects the people of Assam, generation after generation, regardless of the class that they belong to. It is the primary factor that leads to the diminishing of social and political space for the resolution of people’s aspirations. Furthermore, it also raises the potential for antagonistic contradictions in the social and political structure to develop into situations of armed conflict. This is not to say that ‘some deep rooted political conspiracy’ is the cause for this peculiar condition. It is but a combination of colonial geography and present political short sightedness. The entire region has been the historical meeting place for different groups of people, at different points of time. It has been subjected to ‘civilizational pulls’ from both South Asia and South East Asia. The pre-colonial history of the region has several events that point towards a thriving economic zone for people of South Asia, South East Asia and inner Asia. Anticipating the problems of administering such a complex region, the British hit upon the marvellous idea of using the twin weapons of colonial conquest: (a) restructuring the political economy and (b) systematising the threat of state violence with the colonial government ‘acquiring’ the monopoly to bear arms and regulate conflicts. Even a cursory glance at the history of any armed paramilitary group in the region would show that both weapons of conquest were the moving force behind their creation. Could it be a mere coincidence, that the Assam Rifles, a force responsible for much of the counter-insurgency operations being carried out in the region, was actually a glorified band of guards, created to protect the interests of the planters in Assam in the nineteenth century? Leaving such embarrassing details to be deliberated upon at another time, one wishes to reiterate that the Indian military apparatus has not had the good fortune to have participated in the processes that are fundamental to the formation of a democratic polity. Firstly, nowhere in the history of colonial India does one find the armed forces resisting colonial control. Throughout its inception the armed forces (under the British and in post-1947 India) were organised around the lines of ‘professional’ military machine. At no stage did they ever pretend to reflect a ‘peoples’ voice’ nor were they overtly involved in the decolonisation struggle. Secondly, in post-1947 India, while most sectors of governance and administration were brought under the ambit of positive discrimination, the armed forces remain the only state controlled body where affirmative action policies are deemed irrelevant. Hence, one is left with a large military whose internal structure has not experienced any break from its colonial antecedents and has, in fact, reproduced them manifold in their modern functions of ‘peace keeping’. This is more than evident in the manner in which the army functions with the aid of draconian laws in Assam.

What was meant to be a wartime enactment in 1942 has now become the bedrock that defines the framework for dealing with problems of governance and administration. In 1942, the Armed Forces Ordinance was promulgated to allow the military to control the civilian populace during the war. Under this law, civilian issues were made subservient to military necessity. However, perhaps it was the much-touted sense of British fair play that disallowed the total control of the military when it came to taking lives of citizens. There were some legal strictures that allowed civil society a toehold in the matter. By 1947, the Indian state had conveniently forgotten that decolonisation implied the restructuring of a society that had come to be regulated by colonial laws. In their haste to bring the area we call the North East to heel, several colonial laws enacted prior to the transfer of power in 1947, were continued.

One does not have to go very far to seek the reasons for this. In the period of building and consolidating the republic, the leaders of ‘free’ India ran roughshod over matters like rule of law and democratic rights. In the North East, accession treaties were signed with autocrats; traditional chiefs and the like, without taking into account the wishes of the people. The simplicity with which the region became a part of India speaks volumes about the lack of political debate on the issue. It is indeed a wonder, as to how societies whose historical development have been very different from that of other societies in South Asia, were incorporated within the political boundaries of India, without as much as a rational debate on the logic of such an expansion.

The process of militarisation, we believe was at the root of this expansion. In the minefield of political and power configurations in the twentieth century, the North East had been transformed as a militarised frontier zone for Asian nation-states. India, not to be left behind, enacted several laws that sought to convert this region into a militarised buffer zone. It streamlined the provisions of the Armed Forces Ordinance (1942) and enacted the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958. The logic, yet again was to use the military to settle a matter that was entirely political in nature. As if this weren’t enough, following the conflict around borders with China, the Third Five Year plan in India actually took pains to institutionalise the process of militarisation by linking defence concerns to any form of socio-economic development.

Therein lies the tragedy in the quest for ‘peace’. There is a great discrepancy between what the Government of India perceives as its ‘duty’ and what the people aspire for, as their future. The ‘frontier’, ‘sensitive border area’ etc are all labels that seek to rationalise the process of militarisation. These are labels that one can find in almost any administrative communiqué. Yet, they miss out the fact that the ‘frontier’ is also the historical homeland of a people. The areas of strategic interest to the Indian state and its agencies are the lands of a people who have no other means of sustenance. Very simply, when the army raids villages it is merely doing its duty and following orders in the counter-insurgency chain of command. The problem however is the fact that what the State perceives as ‘terrorist hideouts’ are simply villages where a people cultivate their fields, tend their ducks and try to produce enough to make ends meet. In doing so, they also lean about the possibilities of change. The tragedy in Assam today is the fact that the possibilities of change are severely restricted by a dominant, coercive discourse patronised by the state apparatus.

The outcome of the process of militarisation can be put before discerning audiences as a history of using military power to tackle political problems. In Assam, it does not come as a surprise therefore to see that even the demand for an oil refinery gets translated into an ‘intractable problem’ that requires the state to threaten its citizens with violence. From the Language issue raised in the late 1950s to the Assam agitation of the 1970s and 1980s, one would be hard-pressed to find an instance where the State has encouraged a healthy debate. If this were so, if a debate had been initiated, it would only be natural to find a healthy political climate for the resolution of conflicts and potential antagonistic relations between communities. But where is this ‘healthy political climate’? Assam is perhaps one of the few places in the world today, where the right to self-determination is considered to be taboo. Yet, we are citizens of a country that has proudly signed (though not ratified) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We applaud East Timor’s referendum and become indignant when the Indonesian government suppresses people in the name of preserving the ‘unity of (that) country’. Yet, in Assam we do not think twice about jailing intellectuals and killing activists who speak of the right to self-determination.

In a sense, this is inevitable. Assamese society is a militarised society where even thoughts have to conform to what the Government calls ‘defence priorities’. If one strays from this path, one is still subjected to the worst forms of indignities. The first casualties in the process of militarisation have always been civil and political rights. When one talks of ‘peace’, one must also remember that we are looking for it in a society that has been denied its fundamental civil and political rights for five decades. A society where the political discourse is controlled and regulated by legal and extra-legal force by the state.

In conclusion…

It was yet another year when the colonial past left its imprint, on the events and issues of the present, in Assam. The nature of every developmental activity in Assam continues to be ‘extractive’. This means that the entire wealth producing capacities of the land and its social fabric are engaged in producing raw material for the benefit of the ‘mother country’. Astounding as it may sound, this was the logic that determined the course of social and economic development in colonial times. Today, the situation is not very different. Other than oil and tea one would be hard pressed to name any industry capable of generating employment along with forward and backward economic linkages. The fate of public sector units in the mad rush to disinvest is well known. On the other hand, the major industries – tea and oil have remained extractive in essence. Despite administrative claims of ushering a ‘green revolution’ in rural Assam, all preliminary data show that impoverishment of the rural economy goes on unabated. The lack of employment avenues, diminishing return from agricultural production and division of land holdings, has resulted in the potential for more violence in rural Assam. Added to this is the fact that control over scarce resources has become a rallying point for communities and ethnic groups. To complicate matters even further, the government has a blind policy of encouraging individual land use patterns in areas that were either considered to be ‘Sixth Schedule’ areas, or ‘Reserved areas’. The present administration has just announced that it will undertake measure to make forests available for farming. This reflects the knee-jerk method whereby desperate attempts to buy ‘peace’ are equated with bartering away the source of sustenance for communities. Whether we realise it or not, in the rural areas a great transformation is going on in relation to land use and cropping. The pattern of investment that the State has encouraged has transformed significant forms of social relationships, like those of people to their forests, into one of commodity relationships. The new policies have differentiated rural Assam society along new lines, so that peoples life-chances are determined by their access to and exclusion from resources introduced by a ‘liberalised’ political economy. Land, which has always been a source of livelihood, is losing its productivity in the commercialised market oriented economy. On the other hand, the rural sector has little capital and even less investment for the development of industries, or in the health and education sectors. By and large, the small and marginal farmers who comprise the bulk of Assam’s rural population have the unenviable option of revisiting bleak agricultural returns every year or, opting for other means to sustain them. In this manner, access to forests, rivers etc has become redundant and often the very cause of conflict between groups who were otherwise placed metonymically in the structure of control and access over natural resources. Instead of developing a holistic approach to the issue the administration has thought it best to follow a band-aid policy of selective appeasement to contain the possibility of conflicts. In many areas, it has allowed the army and paramilitary to recruit from amongst one ethnic group. As a matter of fact, employment in rural Assam has become synonymous with military, paramilitary jobs.

Inevitably, underdevelopment has become the cause of generating violence amongst communities in the region. What was once the bedrock of the colonial mode of production has been adopted by the administration to manage the conflicts that arise out of this process. In an effort to prevent a cataclysmic change from taking place in Assam, the administration has promoted a delusive model of change that lends itself as an excuse for inaction. This model, of encouraging plantation crops (without even a cursory feasibility study), of commercialisation (without even acknowledging that the markets and fields of the indigenous people are disappearing), in turn has reproduced further antagonism in society, based on the consistent denial of justice, liberty and respect. To talk of ‘peace’ without taking into consideration the complex political economy of underdevelopment is nothing but a travesty of great proportions. At the same time, the growing tendency amongst administrators and voluntary sector workers to break the issues into smaller parts is very misleading. Unless one considers the complex social history and experience of militarisation in the region, any attempts at community development and economic enhancement will be nothing short of an insult to the intelligence of the people. The irony of our times is best brought out in the periodic statements issued by the Public Relations offices of paramilitary and army units, where they boldly say that in ‘the battle to win the hearts of the people’ they have the upper hand! In due course of time, the armed forces have begun to take up developmental activity and are now trying to say that they will show the people what peace means by developing roads and medical centres in their villages. From ‘Operation Good Samaritan’ to ‘Adoption of Villages’, we have seen it all in this region. We have seen enforced impoverishment, followed by forced development, and followed by lessons in the language of peace and community development. The Americans failed to implement this policy with success in Vietnam; the British failed to secure the same ends in Kenya – so why are our policy makers so keen to believe that these policies will succeed here?

Economic development is often cited as the solution to all the political problems and nowhere is this being driven home harder than in Assam. The usual arguments about choking the recruitment of youth by the underground do the rounds before any major policy shift in the administration’s counter-insurgency programme. True to the logic of Harvard inspired economics, the ‘idea’ of rapid development has come to symbolise the medicine that is prescribed by all administrators in order regulate dissent. Yet, there are significant questions that have been sidelined in the process. The first, as usual, is the very model of development that is being eased down our throats. In fifty years the region saw nothing in terms of meaningful economic and industrial development. Most of our populace is still engaged in the primary sector and dependent on forests, rivers and land. A dismal 5.56% of our total populace are engaged in industry. Now, as if by some wave of a magic wand, the tired and jaded intellectuals of the region are being urged to ‘go out and compete with the world’. It is not as if the region is raring to join the so-called Information Technology revolution, nor is it the idyllic backwaters for a tourist to come and relax. Yet, this is what the policy makers want for the region. There is no dearth of ‘experts’ on developmental issues for the North East region today. This discourse of development and positive change can itself be very misleading. On the one hand, there is a masochistic trend that keeps flogging itself for not being up to the task of ‘competing with the outside world’. On the other hand, there is an almost careless rush into trying to emulate the other ‘success stories’ where the tertiary sector of employment, like tourism, commerce etc has resulted in small successes of certain classes in other parts of the sub-continent. Almost every non-governmental organisation worth its salt is engaged in ‘generating incomes’, ‘micro credit’ or some other vital aspect of our lives that come under social and economic rights. The voluntary sector that is active today largely concentrates on developmental issues without the concomitant politicisation of the space within which these issues are being taken up. Hence, it is almost ‘natural’ to see voluntary sector activists working with the people and trying to rebuild institutions and reiterate the need for ‘trying to create alternative forms of dissent’. Yet, in this process what those in the voluntary sector miss out is the very fact that all dissent is subjected to extra-legal coercion. It is not enough to combat the decades of militarisation with voluntary work that concentrates in the sector that was supposed to have been the preserve of the welfare state. Whatever happened to the state itself? It isn’t as if it retreated into the background and left the NGO workers to do their work. In fact, the State first defined and demarcated the scope of social and voluntary work in a manner that excluded the inclusion of civil and political rights. Then, after it saw that it was unable to handle the social contradictions of governing a pluralistic society using coercive colonial modes of governance, it slowly moved out, leaving the entire region open for well-meaning development workers. Still, the question remains unanswered. What and how does one begin to define the notions of development, in an environment that is militarised to such an extent? Or is it time for us, in the Human Rights movement to begin paraphrasing Karl Marx’s dialectal pronouncements on religion and state with resignation: ‘Development is the opium of the administration…it is the hope in a hopeless situation etc…’ Tongue-in-cheek though the statement may be, the intent behind it is merely to wonder aloud and ask whether this economic development is a threat of violence in another form? Are the people of Assam doomed to reap the bitter harvest sown by myopic bureaucrats in North Block for time immemorial? Are our villages doomed to undergo a process of pauperisation with each passing year, while in urban centres like Guwahati are we doomed to experience ‘gun-barrel consumerism’? Where else in the world can an army overrule the decision of big business, as has happened in the North East and in Assam? Consider the fact that mobile phone services are restricted only to Guwahati and Shillong and add the concerns expressed by the army when some mobile phone company decided it wanted to expand its services. We are then left with a pathetic comment on the history of mistrust and surveillance that citizens of this region will be forever forced into, by virtue of the fact that their civil and political rights are always ‘matters of national security’. When this paranoia surrounds the eventual considerations of state machinery, one is left with very few options to discuss any meaningful alternatives. The well-meaning refrain from developmental workers, that they are not interested in political issues and wish only to deal with the issues of a ‘community’, is actually a dangerous statement. It conceals the hegemonic grip of a repressive State apparatus by using poverty and impoverishment as its ‘magic wand’.


1. For more details on the issue of ethnic relations being the determined by technological standards refer to Sanjib Baruah’s recent paper: Citizens and Denizens: Ethnic Homelands and the Crisis of displacement in Northeast India. 1st V. Venkata Rao Memorial Lecture to NE India Political Science Association, North Lakhimpur, January 5, 2002.

2. For more details see Voice of MASS, April- July 2001. MASS can be contacted at

3. The AGP’s tenure in power from 1996 to 2001 was rife with allegations of large-scale corruption and State repression. It is important to remember that the party came to power on the basis of a manifesto whereby it stated that the Right to Self Determination of the peoples of Assam and withdrawal of the Indian army from Assam, were its main concerns. Instead of following up on its manifesto, its leaders engaged in corruption on an unprecedented scale. The Chief Minister himself escaped prosecution in the Letter of Credit scam due to the intervention of the Governor. It was perhaps a Faustian pact, as the people of Assam were then subjected to the worst forms of army excesses, that too under the eye of an administration that had promised to check such excesses.

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