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Out of sight, out of mind

There is political hiatus in Bangladesh today with the army ruling from behind the scenes and no one really knows when and what kind of elections will be held, writes Vikram Sood.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2007 00:04 IST

Once again, there was carnage in Assam. Once again, there was widespread condemnation of this obvious ethnic cleansing. Once again, we visited the province to express our sorrow and exhibit our determination to tackle this menace. Once again, the government paid compensation to the victims’ families. But alas, once again, we will all forget about this and it will be business as usual.

Is it because, as Sanjoy Hazarika pointed out, the North-east is closer to Hanoi than New Delhi and, therefore, remote in our collective sensitivities in New Delhi? Or is it because the entire North-east constitutes only 4 per cent of the country’s population and so, matters little on the political map?

Hazarika describes India’s Northeast as home to seven states (eight, if we count Sikkim), where rainforests stretch from the Himalayan foothills to the Gulf of Tonkin that transcend borders. The Thai Ahoms came to Assam in the 15th century. Burmese kings confronted the British in Assam in the 18th century, but backed down in the 1826 Treaty of Yandaboo, giving the British control of Assam.

The original North-east of 1947 has undergone cartographic adjustments. Nefa was carved out of Assam in 1948 to be renamed Arunachal Pradesh in 1987; Tripura and Manipur joined the Indian Union in 1949; Naga Hills became Nagaland in 1963; Lushai Hills became Mizoram in 1972 while Meghalaya came into being the same year. The region has a total population of about 40 million, of which Assam accounts for about 70 per cent. One-fifth of this population in Assam is of recent Bangladesh origin. Nearly half of India’s tribes belong to the North-east and 140 of India’s 415 living languages are spoken here.

Years of exploitation that began with the arrival of the East India Company have continued in Assam, where the human development index is the poorest in the region and population density higher than the national average. Today, Assam, lagging behind in economic growth at 2.47 per cent, stands out as the least improved state in the North-east, dragging down the entire region. This is despite the fact that Assam is the third-largest source for indigenous oil production in India. Even though socio-economic indicators for the North-eastern states are better than the national average, Assam remains an exception. At the same time, while the other states continue to receive higher per capita central assistance, Assam has not received the same sympathetic response for decades. Obviously, there is a disconnect and the sense of alienation needs to be corrected in this strategically vital state.

The perpetrators of the Tinsukia carnage, and the violence that continues by those who had initially made common cause with Assamese students against migrant Muslims from Bangladesh, now target the Hindus of Bihar and beyond. The United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) was formed in April 1979 as an organisation that believed that the agitation of the All Assam Students’ Union against immigrants would not succeed unless there were militant measures taken to assert Assamese rights. It is from this that the separatist movement grew with the goal of establishing a sovereign, socialist Assam. And the Ulfa leadership continues to direct its operations from Bangladesh, having lost its refuge in Bhutan in 2003.

From early on, the Ulfa leadership had established contacts with the ISI and Ulfa cadres had gone for training to Afghanistan and Pakistan. There were contacts with the Kachin Independence Army and the NSCN (before the Khaplang faction broke away) in Myanmar in 1986. And the Ulfa has been the role model for other insurgencies in Manipur and Tripura in recent years.

There is a congruence of interests in stoking the fires in Assam. Pakistan is under tremendous pressure to deliver on its western frontiers, much to the dislike of the jehadis and the Right-wing as well as sections of the army. Musharraf has also been forced to take some hesitant steps on the peace initiative with India. It is tactically expedient to avoid the charge of cross-border terrorism, outsource projects and keep India on the backfoot. Thus, what better way than to let the Bangladesh-based leadership of Ulfa do some ethnic cleansing in Assam, and on Indians rather than Bangladeshis!

The Ulfa leadership is happy to oblige for they need a reason to hang on to their travel agencies, garment factories and hotels that they run in Bangladesh or their investments in transport and trawler companies. The terrorist on the ground needs to justify his existence and ensure that the Assam peace initiative runs aground. The best way to create a scare is to attack soft targets, even if this shows up the terrorist as some kind of psychopathic killer. Besides, any success in the talks threatens their extortion business. Many would recall how Ulfa abducted Sanjoy Ghosh in 1997, when his activities in Majuli on behalf of the people threatened Ulfa’s ‘popularity’ and hold.

As for Bangladeshi attitudes, this seems to be a throwback to the early 1950s in the then East Pakistan. JN Mandal, the Minister of Law and Labour in the Pakistan government, had resigned in 1950 protesting against the persecution of Dalit Hindus. His eight-page-long letter gave graphic details of the riots, the killings and the forced migrations.

In 1947, Hindus constituted 27 per cent of the population of East Pakistan, which is less than 10 per cent today. The All India Muslim League meeting at Dhaka had demanded the formation of Bange-Islam, by merging Bengal and Assam. What is being attempted today may be a reliving of that dream.

There was considerable hope after 1971 that Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman would help Bangladesh emerge as a secular State. His assassination and usurpation of power by fundamentalist elements ensured that his daughter was kept away from governance long enough for them to consolidate power. There is political hiatus in Bangladesh today with the army ruling from behind the scenes and no one really knows when and what kind of elections will be held. When an army takes control, it invariably relies on the religious right for legitimacy and both have difficulty in pursuing democratic principles in governance and administration.

There is, of course, no point in blaming neighbours all the time. We need to set our house in order as well. After the Ulfa was evicted from Bhutan in 2003, there was hope that the government would be able to drive a hard bargain. This, unfortunately, did not happen. It is always a matter of judgment when to open negotiations with terrorists. Do it too soon and the terrorist thinks he has won the day; do it too late and the people lose hope. But it is never a good time till the sponsors have been tackled or during counter-terrorist operations. The US failure in Afghanistan has been the fact that instead of tackling Pakistan as a terrorist State, it was co-opted as an ally against terrorism and infrastructure development was slow.

Infrastructure development and visible governance must accompany military victories against terrorists. This cannot be deferred till things become normal. Unfortunately, in the North-east, administrators have come to be known as suitcase officers — they come for short durations, sign some files and leave for safer locations, without touching base with the common man. Life in the North-east will not improve till this happens.

Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW)