North-east Saath Hamare

Sahara TV's programme of the above name, for all its effort, is not without its tell-tale errors: fresh young journalists often parachuted, for all purposes, into an alien North-east, where he reports on the hot "jolokia mirch" of Assam (jolokia, incidentally, is mirch in Assamese), and how Guru Tegh Bahadur converted the first Sikhs in Assam during the time of King Ahom (in reality, the Ahoms were the dynasty that ruled the region between 1228 and 1826, the word Oxom, the Anglicised version of which is Assam, is, according to one school of thought, derived from 'Ahom'); the Ahom king referred to would have been Chakradhwaj Singha. But these are errors that would perhaps pale in comparison to those made by "young, idealistic and gullible" journalists, who being of some vintage now, paid their dues to the profession "somewhere down the line", in places such as Assam, where, in this case, they were "fooled into believing" that the "boys of the Assam agitation who could do no wrong" were actually a part of the "subcontinent's breed of demagogues who articulate a minority’s grievances, real and imagined, so effectively as to build a mass persecution complex". And that while Bhindranwale, Pirabhakaran, Subhash Ghisingh, and Pakistan’s Mohajir leader Altaf Hussain were all masters of the same craft, "there was no one better at that than Mahanta and Phukan".

One isn't making a case here for Prafulla Mahanta or his one time friend, and later worst foe, Bhrigu Phukan, for it would be foolish to do so, given the length of the their list of crimes against the Assamese, not to mention the other communities of Assam, and the region. Yet one needs to ask whether the "national colour" that Mahanta and Phukan are blamed of having added "in their real masterstroke …to a regional movement (the anti-foreigners Assam Agitation)", as this article said on the eve of Mahanta's ouster from power in 2001, should have been a national movement in the first place, for the country. And, with all due respect, also, if the duties of the nationalist politician and the "national press" journalist who pontificates on the North-east, should include the farsightedness of recognising a national problem to be so, however much it may not be a part of the nation's agenda of the day?

How would, for example, one explain the killing of Biharis in Assam recently? As sparked off by unemployment alone? And the strikes by the ULFA, the outfit's denial regarding any involvement in the violence notwithstanding? And the claim of the director general of police of Assam, PV Sumant, on November 28, that the violence in the state had abated after the government arrested the extremists? All that in a state that has for years now been under the Unified Command, where security has been placed in the hands of a pyramidal, all-pervasive structure headed by the army and backed by the state police and central security forces? All that in a state, where a law such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA), and the Assam Disturbed Areas Act 1955 (AADA) have been in place since the launch of Operation Bajrang in the '90s, laws that empower the jawan and the regular police constable to shoot to kill if he thinks that what a person is holding can be used as a weapon, arrest and search without warrants, and destroy property that he thinks may be used by extremists?

Sumant's statement at the very minimum proves a mutual status quo between the Congress government in the state and the ULFA. Beyond that, it proves a nexus, fragile as it expectedly would be, as the Mahantas and Phukans would have discovered in the past. How else would Tarun Gogoi's government explain the arrest of 500 people in the two weeks of riots? How could 500 "extremists(?)" have been walking the streets of Assam when the government had the army, the AFSPA and the AADA at its disposal? Or were these Assamese people who were rioting? Not to even mention that the worst riots were reported from upper Assam districts, including Tinsukia, for decades a Congress bastion.

Truth is, in the Assam of the present (as in Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh), one needs to be aligned with a certain armed group, whichever that may be, to rule. The AGP, under Mahanta and its initial days of glory, turned a blind eye to the doings of the ULFA, while Hiteswar Saikia split the ULFA, created the 'surrendered', yet armed, version of it, the SULFA, the Congress' reply in those days to the ruthlessness of the parent organisation, and its targetting of dozens of Congress party workers in the state. Having realised the advantages of the backing of an armed outfit within the state, the AGP cosied up to the SULFA after it came to power on an anti-SULFA plank, against Saikia. In the elections of 2001, the people of Assam threw out the AGP, then blamed for a series of 'secret killings' the SULFA carried out, it is widely believed, with the full knowledge of the state government. After his defeat in 2001, Mahanta openly accused the ULFA of having helped the Congress tilt the balance in its favour.

Any statement on extremists and the ULFA made by a state government of the present age in Assam cannot be free from inherent contradictions. How, for example, and as has been the past week or so in Assam, do the security forces succeed in zeroing in on ULFA cadres within days, sometimes hours, of an attack by the outfit, if they were actually operating out of neighbouring states such as Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh and foreign countries such as Bangladesh and Bhutan? Don't we also have the BSF along our borders? It is an uneasy calm that exists between the ruling government of the day in Assam and the extremist lodged so often within the state, who may not always be in a position to appreciate the finer points of political survival.

It is something that the BJP too will have to deal with, sooner or later, as it attempts enter Assam, on an anti-Bangladeshi platform, and through a relationship that it believes it can forge with the Assamese based on a common, though vastly dissimilar, set of religious beliefs. For every political party comes with its baggage: the BJP would have the Bihari, and the Bengali in the Cachar district, the Congress its Bangladeshi. For the Assamese, and the 2.3 million unemployed on the rolls of the state's employment exchanges, that would mean being boxed in by the poverty of the Bihari (some 1.5 million are already there, and not all gainfully employed), however Hindu he may be, the Hindu Bengali migrant from Bangladesh who has wiped out the Tripuri in his own land, rules Barak valley and is part of a larger community that the Assamese lost his language to for nearly 50 years, from 1836 to 1882 (the two language disturbances in the state post-Independence being a legacy of this), and the Bangladeshi Muslim who now controls close to seven districts and at least 30 of the 126 assembly constituencies of his state. It is perhaps here that the Assamese learns the benefits of rioting, and the facelessness of the rioter--this country has simply too many examples to offer. A white paper on the 500 arrested in Assam following the recent riots would be in order in this regard.

And this is why the ULFA too perhaps exists. Because, away from the corridors of power in Dispur and Delhi, and the editorial rooms of the national press, there is a section of the Assamese whose land and livelihood are at stake, who want them to be there, on whichever side of the border. It is their army. And which is why in the villages of Assam, the ULFA still recruits.

Should one be the least bit sincere in one's belief that the alienation of the North-east must to be contained, the Indian state will have to wrest the one issue that the Assamese allows the existence of groups such as the ULFA on: the Bangladeshi in Assam. On that one count, the Congress in all its myriad shades, be it the Indian National Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, or the Trinamool Congress, along with groups such as the CPI and the CPM are summarily guilty, given their support directly and indirectly to keeping the Bangladeshi in India, and perhaps even encouraging illegal migration. As for the national media, one wonders if the fact that the Muslim population in West Bengal districts such as Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia, all bordering Bangladesh have recorded increases in excess of 136 per cent, 176 per cent and 237 per cent, respectively between 1951 and 1991, and that the CPM government there finally says it has an unmanageable Bangladeshi problem on its hands, and the fact that Delhi now has a population of 1.3 million Bangladeshis as yet qualifies the problem to be a national one.

The BJP, that has for its part, held out, with its, albeit impossible, attempt to repeal the infamous Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 (IMDT)--a Congress creation that threatens to turn Assam and the North-east into Bangladesh's colonies--and stating from day one in Assam that it does not want the vote of the Bangladeshi, however, holds aloft its thesis that the roots of terrorism, and in that light perhaps militancy, should not be considered. Trouble is, the Assamese and the Tripuri will; and so should we all, since we created them. This would also explain the noticeable silence of the Congress and the Communists when the Biharis were being butchered in Assam, for in that state, talking about one issue may also mean having to talk about the rest.

The North-east has, over the years, been completely and systematically militarised. Apart from the army being out in states such as Manipur and Nagaland since the '50s and in Assam since the '90s, laws such as AFSPA being in force, the Centre's shifting the Assam Rifles (a 'paramilitary' force that gets its men from the regular army) to the Home Ministry some time back, the appointment of former army generals as governors of the region, the Unified Command, and the recent placing of North-eastern security in the hands of the Assam Rifles, point towards the creation of a security state, in itself an alarming development for Indian democracy, not a phenomenon that one would, of course, expect the nationalist politician or the national press to be able to comprehend in the immediate future, given their track record. It is only to be expected that the union will secure an area such as the North-east, strategically located as it, and one that provides it with 60 per cent of its petroleum. And yet one needs to here ask if the central government is willing to demonstrate the same amount of aggressiveness towards a country such as Bangladesh that creates its problems, as it does with its own people in the North-east. Worse, could it do so even if it wanted to, with the Congress party, one that brought it its freedom now siding with the aggressor? Viewed from that perspective, the North-east does not have so much of a problem, as does India. Only it's not as yet willing to see it.

By Pranab Bora (