The Prime Minister’s recent visit to China turned the focus on the Northeast. Beijing’s persistence in issuing stapled-visas for Arunachalis precluded a confirmation of an agreement to relax visas between the two countries. But it did produce a useful Border Defence Cooperation Agreement which makes an incremental advance on the three earlier understandings on this subject to cool the disputed eastern Himalayan line of actual control untilan overall settlement is reached. Meanwhile measures to enhance the country’s military capabilities in the NE will continue.
The decision to widen and deepen hydrological data exchange and China’s formal acceptance of lower riparian rights on the Tsang-po , Luhit, Subansiri and other rivers that join near Sadiya in Assam to form the Brahmaputra constitutes another milestone. Periodic reports about the imminent diversion of “the Brhamaputra” northwardsare grossly exaggerated and have caused needless fears in the region and further afield. These apprehensions must be set at rest even while maintaining vigil. But it would be appropriate for the Government of India to broach to the Chinese a proposal jointly to explore tapping the huge energy potential of the Tsang-po U-bend into Assam.
In terms of improved connectivity, a joint study group is to be set up to consider re-building the old Stillwell Road from the Pangshu Pass and/or the Burma Road from Moreh to Kunming via Myanmar. This has long been canvassed at the Track-II BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) dialogue and has now been elevated to the official level. Both roads would meet at Bhamo and extend beyond to Kunming via Ruuli. This would stimulate trade and other exchanges along the old Southern Silk Route. Some fear this couldresult in a flood of Chinese goods and influence. But the converse would be equally true as the first whiff of competition would stimulate Indian enterprise and investment in the region and beyond as happened earlier with regard to hosiery goods, torch cells and bicycles. The same argument would apply to trade across the Nathu La which the Government has been chary of opening up much beyond customary trade.
For any of this to happen, the Northeast, as individual states, entities and collectively, will have to review some of its inhibitions and reservations and adopt more liberal, forward-looking views. Undue conservatism over hydro-power development is unwarranted on ecological, displacement or cumulative downstream impact considerations, though each of these elements merits careful attention.
There has recently been some agitation in Meghalaya for enforcement of the Inner Line Permit system and a demand for restoration of the ILP system in Manipur. In both cases the reason given is that this will check if not stop the ingress of foreigners as well as “outsiders” from other parts of India into the region. In-migration into “Greater of Assam” is a historical fact and the demographic transformation it has caused in Tripura, Sikkim and parts of Assam is evident. However, the rate of new Bangladeshi infiltration has come down and what is witnessed is partly a spatial redistribution of earlier migrants moving deeper into the “interior” as for instance into Nagaland and reportedly in parts of Arunachal as agricultural sub-tenants of local elements who are enclosing and leasing out community lands to create a new feudalism.
The anti-Hindi movement to evict “outsiders” that erupts in Upper Assam from time to time is in opposition to in-migration of Bihari and other Indian labour to take up construction and other work that locals are not coming forward to undertake. Who then will do these jobs and assist development and new employment and income generation?Northeasterners cannot complain of backwardness and “neglect” and simultaneously be unwilling to work to ameliorate their own condition.
The answer to being politically swamped by “outsiders” is to register all such in-migrants from the rest of India in a single non-territorial electoral constituency as constitutionally permissible.
One can also only view with some concern the agenda of the newly formed Northeast Regional Political Front (NEFFP), an amalgam of 10 local parties such as the AsomGanatantraParishad, the Naga People’s Front headed by the Nagaland chief minister, and other formations from Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal. They seek is abolition of the Concurrent List and limiting the Centre’s powers to external affairs, defence, currency and foreign trade to establish a new federalism with strong States and a weak Centre. Further, the resolution adopted desired severe curbs if not the scrapping of the AFSPA, speedy deportation of all infiltrators, scrapping of the Indo-Bangladesh land boundary agreement and 80 per cent reservation for “sons of the soil” in all Central sector, public sector and even private sector jobs.
Such ill-digested localism is calculated to retard the progress of the Northeast and bears little relation to current ground realities. It is of course not the demand of mainstream parties except for the ruling NPF in Nagaland, and will be music to the ears of separatist groups some of whom would be glad to agitate such demands. Old time Bangladeshi in-migrants must now be absorbed, as the US has just legislated to absorb some 11 million old-time illicit Hispanic immigrants. Fresh in-migration must be halted and local connivance at this racket as much as smuggling and vote-banking must be ended.Regional cooperation in stimulating investment and development as between eastern and NE India and Bangladesh is the best answer to diminishing if not eliminating illicit cross-border movements.
There is also reason for concern over a recent report that the NSCN (IM) regards the “taxes” and tolls collected by its cadresas legitimate dues and within the purview of the current Nagaland ceasefire regime under which peace talks have been in progress of the past many years. It is nothing of the kind and amounts to corrupt and forcible extortionfrom civil servants, businesses, traders, contractors and truckers for personal aggrandisement at the point of a gun. Naga civil society has rightly protested against such loot.
On a different note, NarendraModi’s lament that Sardar Patel was not prime minister in place of Nehru has triggered another absurd debate as to who was “greater”. Both were stalwarts and comrades in arms and served the nation well, each in his own way. But “greatness” is not measured in height, And Modi’s proposed 182-metre tall Statue of Honour to be erected in the waters of the Narmada below SardarSarovarat a cost of over Rs 2000 crorecould end up as a monument of tasteless vulgarity and waste. The great man himself would have preferred a fine new university and research centre or hospital at the KevediaSardarSarovar dam site. That would be a real honour and blessing.
The Sardar would never have allowed the horror and shame of Gujarat-2002 to be enacted. K.P.S.Gill’s latest apologia for NarendraModi’s role in that dreadful episode will not bear impartial scrutiny. He exonerates Modiashe was “new” to governance and blames the neighbouring states for “denying” him police reinforcements when his own police was communally divided “and enraged with the killing of so many karsevaks at the hands of Muslims in Godhra”. This is unadulterated nonsense.