Doyen of Assamese literature Lakshminath Bezbaruah&’s idea of an eternally loved mother, Assamese poet and the state&’s first filmmaker Jyotiprasad Agarwala&’s evocative metaphors of a fusion of hills and plains, rivers and mountains, the home of Nagaland&’s Temsula Ao and Arunachal Pradesh&’s Mamang Dai&’s “We have a long journey in our blood” speak of peace, justice and fraternity. But these ideals fall apart in the booming retorts of self-loading rifles when low-intensity warfare between insurgents and state forces continue to claim innocent lives. Therefore that perennial question in the region: can there be freedom from these mindless killings?
The killing of two activists in the police firing at Tawang in April this year during a peaceful demonstration in protest against the construction of big dams, the death of Ruisoting Aimol in Manipur in June 2015 and the liquidation of many others for their political and ideological commitments continues to play on like a vicious video damaging tissues of the mind.
Who killed Aimol? Who planted incriminating evdence in her home? Another Manorama murder case? Another combination of military and sexist violence? Aimol was said to have sustained bullet injuries while resisting attempts by Assam Rifles personnel to forcibly arrest a youth from Satu village. This was followed by an ambush of an Army convoy in June at Parolun village in which 18 soldiers were killed. Why did Assam Rifles personnel go to her house and plant spent AK bullets and bottles? The ambush was suspected to be the handiwork of the Khaplang faction of the NSCN operating from across the border. There had been some cases of a combination of sexist and insurgency-counter-insurgency violence, but never was any attempt made for an impartial probe to fix culpability. Instead, there continues to be a lot of smug talk about strengthening internal security and making a success of the Centre&’s “Act East” policy without even a side glance at ground realities.
Big development projects mounted by corporate honchos and the state without any free, prior and informed consent of the people, serve to create a kind of “state of exception” that subsumes the rule of law.
Manipur&’s “Iron Lady” Irom Chanu Sharmila giving up her 16-year fast has driven the hawks behind the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, to launch an offensive against her. The feisty 44-year-old, for whom the principle of freedom was enshrined in her 16-year crusade, is now being portrayed as a self-loving persona. In the political drama, she has been given short shrift by friends and foes alike, who would have you believe she was brainwashed into ending her mission. This is just another instance of supposed freedom that entails a price tag.
This apart, citizens are subjected to carefully-crafted political jargon that threatens their very rights and entitlements. The recent debate on uranium extraction in Meghalaya and public concerns over the ill-effects of radioactivity raise many pertinent ethical issues. Again, an undertaking involving drilling for oil in Manipur raises serious concerns about saline water contaminating rivers and groundwater that, in turn, would lead to massive destruction of existing agriculture, fishing and other livelihood resources. The secretive nature of these extractive industries in many parts of the region has not only resulted in community leaders being bought off with promises of plenty but, more importantly, it has tinkered with community rights over natural and cultural resources.
With the Centre attempting to nationalise forest, mineral and oil resources of the North-east, a gulf of differences has emerged between community and the state government on the one hand and New Delhi on the other. There is a steady curtailment of indigenous and other peoples’ rights over resources as enshrined in the Constitution. Most notably, the rights ensured under the Sixth Schedule are either by-passed or manipulated to establish ownership of private and contracted parties over natural resources. Sociologically speaking, much of the ethnic insurgency and other forms of conflict in the region arise from resource-based conflicts.
Another far-reaching conflict that is arising in Assam is a growing demand for “dual citizenship”, something very alien to the Constitution. Going by this, a citizen first has to qualify as an “original inhabitant” and then a citizen of India. This qualifies as an attempt to divide people in terms of original and non-original inhabitants of Assam. This legally discriminatory endeavour will end up turming current linguistic and religious minorities into “non-originals”, thereby cutting wider swathes of discord and conflict.
In this 70th year of independence, constitutional and human values need to inform each other in the context of North-east India. But ignoring such absolutely necessary and basic requirements, much of states’ policies are tailored to embellish an asymmetric and discriminatory regime, aided and abetted by political discourse.
The withdrawal of special category status to North-east states is an ominous sign. This facilitates arbitrary and selective Central funding and lays a greater financial burden on North-eastern states. As a result, there will be greater dependency on New Delhi, the terms of which will be unilaterally decided in favour of corporate and market forces who will then assumedly fill the gaps left by the government in basic sectors like healthcare and education.
It&’s no secret that the corporate sector raises costs when given the facility and already health, education and public amenities cost far more than what ordinary citizens can afford because of engineered profiteering by private parties. The story of the Jal Board in Delhi and Mumbai clearly proves the point. In the North-east, the problem is compounded by government-run corporate and private parties taking over natural and mineral resources that result in massive extraction and loot.
In the absence of any regulatory profit-sharing mechanism between the Centre, state governments, private parties and the local community, the idea of nationalising resources under eminent domain principle has only resulted in ecological destruction and displacement of original people from their livelihood. To obviate this very obvious illegal practice there should not only be a mechanism for adequate compensation but also an ethico-legal framework that ensures community rights over natural and cultural resources of a region. Unless this is done, there will be no end to resource-driven conflicts that make a mockery of democratic order.
As Bhupen Hazarika sang, “Manush manusher jannya” (People have to care about people), freedom must not be allowed to come by way of corporate-market-state-driven dispensation. The North-east people&’s concern and rights have to be restored if democracy must mean what it implies.
The writer is Associate Professor, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong.