General elections are intended to elect a group of representatives to the Parliament, but this time, the Lok Sabha polls in the North-east have fostered a sense of nationalism among indigenous residents of the alienated region.
Once known for separatist militants’ disruptive activities, the region has emerged as a land of peaceful electorate with full commitment to the electoral process. As news of electoral violence is relentlessly breaking from various parts of the country, the North-east has showcased national fervour through responsible participation in the polls, something found rarely in the region’s states, dominated as it is by a number of banned militant groups fighting the Union government in New Delhi for disparate homelands.
Not only the insurgent outfits, but also their supporter-sympathisers along with many journalist- intellectuals once promoted anti-New Delhi propaganda that put the Northeast in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Anything related to Bharatiyatwa (“Indianness”) was grossly assumed as anti-local and it was taken that one could only be proNorth-east if they stood against the nation. It was not limited to sentiments alone but in actions as well.
Most of the North-eastern electorate, till only a decade back, preferred not to vote. But the situation has changed dramatically and nearly 50 million voters in the region have responded to the Election Commission’s campaign with an amazing 80 percent turn-out in the recently-concluded three phases of the polls, which is quite impressive compared to the national average of around 70 per cent.
Adjacent to countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar, the region witnessed smooth polling exercises, in the main, through electronic voting machines supported by the voter verifiable paper audit trail mechanism on 11, 18 and 23 April for electing 25 representatives to the Lower House of Parliament.
The people of the North-east are now eagerly waiting for counting day on 23 May. The ruling National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, who are quite much visible in North-east, sought fresh mandate from the electorate, where their nominees primarily faced the opposition Indian National Congress candidates.
The third front, which can be described as a loose coalition of some regional political parties across the country, was not influential enough in the region. The Congress is fighting a prestigious lone battle to recover its lost glory in the North-east.
Notably, till 2014, the oldest party of the country was in power in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Now all the states, including Tripura and Nagaland, are ruled by either the BJP or its allies.
Sikkim continues to be ruled by the regional party, Sikkim Democratic Front, which is an ally of the NDA. While BJP president Amit Shah has claimed that the saffron party, along with its allies, would emerge victorious in over 20 Parliamentary seats in the region, the Congress is yet to make such statements. While the BJP leadership rigorously campaigned for national pride, security and development, the Congress kept expecting electoral benefits out of the Citizenship Amendment Bill that aroused sharp reactions from many Northeastern ethnic groups.
For the record, the region witnessed a bandh (general strike) on 8 January, the day the CAB was passed in the Lok Sabha by the BJP-led government at the Centre. The debated bill was also scheduled for placing in the Rajya Sabha prior to being sent for Presidential endorsement. But at the last moment, the government left the idea as the NDA had no majority in the Upper House of Parliament.
Thus the initiative to amend the citizenship law was lapsed and the bill died a natural death. Besides the Congress, most political parties, namely the All India United Democratic Front, All India Trinamool Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist), National People’s Party and the Mizo National Front et al opposed the bill and tried their best to get the advantage of its lapse.
However, the electorate was seemingly unmoved by the preaching, which was visible with the outpouring of people in BJP-organised poll rallies across the region. The BJP leadership including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, maintained that the plan to pave way for granting citizenship to persecuted religious asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who had entered India on or before 31 December 2014, remains intact.
The saffron star campaigner showed his indifference to the rousing antiCAB protest demonstrations that swept the region for some time. In the midst of the anti-CAB row, various separatist elements tried their best to instigate people against the government. Even a section of media persons along with so-called intellectuals capitalised on the atmosphere and voiced their support in favour of a banned militant outfit like the United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent).
Local media reports even suggested that many Assamese youngsters had joined the ULFA (I) as instant fallout of anti-CAB sentiments. Years back, the ULFA along with many North-eastern militant outfits, openly dictated to the people to avoid the electoral process as the insurgents asserted it was a symbol of suppression by New Delhi’s colonial forces. The dreaded armed groups even made it a habit to issue press statements threatening the electorate of dire consequences if they went out to votes and those were duly published by media outlets in the region with prominence.
Needless to mention the local electorate valiantly defied their diktats to repose faith on the parliamentary democracy of the country. The 2019 polls in the North-east were devoid of such diktats as insurgent outfits realised that their strength is eroding in the backdrop of dwindling resources and public support.
The intense counter-militancy operations carried out by Myanmar (preceded by Bangladesh) government forces on their soil in the recent past have put the North-eastern rebels in great trouble. A few have already left their camps and many others are reportedly waiting for the opportune moment.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that at least three rebels were sentenced to death by ULFA (I) leader Paresh Barua as they were caught abandoning camps in the northern Myanmar jungles. The rebels might have observed the recent polls where the North-eastern people overwhelmingly embraced the electoral process.
(The writer is the Guwahati-based Special Representative of The Statesman)