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Rethinking North East policy: Post Chandel ambush

By Sira Kharay

Lutyens’ Delhi remains stuck in the imagination of the colonial past. Cicero’s aphorism that laws are silent during war still informs the conscience of the policy makers in New Delhi. With a reluctant attempt at picking up some morals of human right narratives for a decade, it slips back to its old militaristic ways. As in the mythical Speluncean Case, India’s Northeast policy seem to run from the notion that Northeast is not a subject of Indian constitutional law because it is not in a “state of civil society” but in a “state of nature”.

Sadly, the Indian media and the judiciary are no less parochial and unimaginative in comprehending the conflict narrative of the Northeast. A civilian woman was shot dead by the 20 Assam Rifles in Chandel district, Manipur on 1st June, 2015. The national media was silent. A convoy of 6 Dogra Regiment was ambushed at Tengnoupal-New Somtal Road in the same Chandel district on the following Thursday, leaving 20 army personnel dead and 11 injured. The frenzy of the national media runs amok. While state terror strikes back Chandel in reprisal, the media was busy mobilizing anti-Northeast sentiment by relaying anti-Chinese chauvinism into the conflict. The national media is now in a jubilation mood celebrating the precision cross-border attack carried out by the joint team of NIA and Indian Armed/Air Forces.

Re-enacting the past brutalities, Government of India vows to completely “smash” the militants. In a kneejerk response on an equal footing with confronting terror, New Delhi has strangely swung NIA, Indian Air Force and Drones into action for the first time. Chandel is under military siege. Villagers are being kept under mass detention. Innocent civilians are being senselessly targeted, harassed and tortured. Communication is completely cut off. Mobile phones have been confiscated. The local media and civil society representatives are not allowed to enter. Three unknown civilians were found dead at a wooded area near Paraolon village and four villagers of Tonsen Khullen reportedly have not returned home since the past 6 days.

Perhaps, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), the “symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness” as observed by the Jeevan Reddy Committee, is in full force. Shockingly, the Indian judiciary too speaks two human right languages and has upheld its constitutional validity. It is shocking because AFSPA is an anachronism. It is the only law that validates lawlessness in the history of Indian democracy. It treats every Northeast subject as mere suspect by suspending the relevance of actual distinction between a militant and a civil. AFSPA in due course has grown into a vested interest of the army and the intelligence agency and New Delhi without any application of mind has been blindly seeing what the army and the intelligence want it to see.

To borrow Governor S.S. Sidhu’s admission before the American Consul General in Kolkata, Northeast “appears more of a colony and less of an Indian state”. Northeast in other words looks more like a colony run by the patterned mentality of the intelligence sleuths and army generals rather than by the sanity of the Indian parliament.

The renewed disproportionate violence is a blot to Indian constitutional democracy and New Delhi’s lack of political imagination alone is to be blamed. The strategy of Lord Mountbatten’s regret for not waiting until Jinnah’s death before partitioning India and Pakistan, the reluctance to concede anything but to take away everything, is solely responsible for NSCN (K)’s unilateral abrogation of the ceasefire. The conventional policy approach to completely wipe out the militants to solve Northeast problem is contrary to past experiences and the assumption that AFSPA is necessary to curb Northeast insurgency is a travesty of policy postulation.

The combing operation would be “people friendly” and “peaceful” is a mere rhetorical statement. No such massive combing operation can be possible without affecting the innocent civilians. The hard earned public sentiment has already been antagonized in an overnight. To repeat the observations made by the Supreme Court of India in the matter of Nandini Sundar & Ors. vs. State of Chhattisgarh, “lawless violence, in response to violence by the maoist/naxalite insurgency, has not, and will not, solve the problems, and that instead it will only perpetuate the cycles of more violent, both intensive and extensive, insurgency and counter-insurgency”.

The policy makers in New Delhi seem to have learnt nothing in the last more than 60 years. Northeast insurgency is not like any other militancy. They are mostly popular driven movements with deep historical, political and cultural implications. Thus, equating Northeast with Kashmir is to miss the whole point. Unlike the pro-Pakistani sentiment of the Kashmiris, Northeast is neither pro-China, nor fundamentally anti-India. Northeast quest for right to self-determination if any is not unfriendly with India and is not intractable.

Intensification of military operation will only aggravate the already complicated situation by inviting more aggressive foreign intervention. A radical shift from the traditional military-intelligence centric approach is crucial in finding a permanent solution to this chronic colonial leftover. Innovative response to the prevailing popular opinion alone can open up new possibilities for solution. Having said that, recalling of AFSPA and phase-wise withdrawal of the Indian armed forces will go a long way in regaining the long lost confidence of Northeast in participating in the idea of India.

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