Since the concept of “quick-fix” finds no place in the prosecution of China&’s policies to promote its national interests, any authentic evaluation of the just concluded Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) must await its implementation on the ground. Yet given the centrality of the border dispute to the negative side of Sino-Indian relations its importance must neither be under-rated, nor assessed as part of the cluster of agreements signed ~ or the key one on visas that was not signed ~ during the Prime Minister&’s visit to Beijing. Any accord that reduces tensions on contentious frontiers (with Pakistan too) is to be welcomed, but warily. While a section of military specialists who claim to have scrutinised the BDCA minutely maintain that there are devils aplenty in the details, the general impression is that it is essentially an upgraded edition of the arrangements already in place. No game-changer. Still, agreement not to “tail” each other&’s patrols, provision for better communication mechanisms, and involving military commanders at lower levels in the tension-reduction exercise have unquestionable value ~ provided the basic intent is pristine.
It must be recognised that the incursion and stand-off in the Depsang Valley earlier this year took place despite the previous protocols, it was no “aberration”: hence the BDCA is no guarantee against recurrence. Those who tout the 4,000 kms LAC as the longest “unfixed” frontier in the world and make much of not a shot having been fired since 1975 need some enlightenment ~ shots are fired only when an action is stoutly resisted, there has been little resistance to the not infrequent Chinese advances to the south of the Indian perception of the LAC. Would India have reacted as it did at Depsang had such a deep, prolonged incursion taken place on its western flank? Not just a muted-reaction in a military sense: contrast Depsang with Keran.
It must be stressed that peace and tranquillity on the LAC is only a starting point, the boundary dispute is another ball-game. Since a series of high-level interactions has not put an end to those “varying perceptions” of the Line, the larger resolution is not even within the scope of contemplation. Critical to the effect of the BDCA will be the degree of Chinese opposition to Indian efforts to end the military and infrastructural imbalance in the regions adjoining the LAC ~ the Chinese have objected to the little that is being done there.
The reality is that we are still seeking balms and salves for the pinpricks. Genuine forward movement will only follow China modifying its stance that “let he who first committed aggression vacate it first”. Reality also points to India lacking the wherewithal to influence such a rethink in Beijing.
Inner Line dilemma
Several NGOs in Meghalaya have been agitating since the first week of September demanding implementation of the Inner Line Permit System. They have resorted to bandhs, night road blockades and picketing of offices. Miscreants set a business man on fire. Several shops came under attack and the BSNL lost equipment worth crores of rupees in a fire in its warehouse. Thankfully, the Durga Puja festival passed off peacefully. Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma&’s refusal to meet the NGOs’ demand cannot be faulted because he feels, perhaps justifiably, that the ILP is no answer to the influx problem, and has offered to introduce a tenancy act, a migrant working act and appoint district-level task forces to check infiltration. Even the Opposition parties’ demand for ILP was rejected. The specific objective of the IPL system ~ to restrict the entry of outsiders into “tracts over which semi-savage tribes wandered or in which they live” ~ has lost much of its meaning today but this hardly hurts tribal psyche. There is no denying that initially the 1873 East Bengal Frontier Hills Regulations Act helped the tribals in their battle against economic exploitation by outsiders, but now their rights and privileges are well protected by the Constitution. Influx started after the creation of new states because no construction work could have been possible without importing labour.
Mine workers in Meghalaya are mostly outsiders and they work in inhuman conditions making the owners richer. They live in constant fear because they are often targeted by militants for extortion. Over the past few months a number of them have fallen victims to militant bullets and some died in mine mishaps.
Manipuris also want introduction of the permit system that was withdrawn in 1950 leading to an abnormal rise in the state&’s population. It is too much to hope that once the permit system is made applicable, the problem of influx will be solved. More easily said than done because Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram, where the system has been in vogue for years, have failed to stem the tide. Some years ago Mizoram&’s bid to flush out infiltrators received a setback when Gauhati High Court stopped the state government from deporting “any Indian national on the ground of not possessing an Inner Line permit”. There are specific laws and enactments, besides political commitments and international agreements, to determine citizenship but in the North-east the Centre is yet to define who “foreigners” are and whether an Indian citizen has the right to live in any state he/she chooses. There is a good as well as bad side of infiltration, hence the need to create an atmosphere of tolerance and accommodation.