Rooted in history

Published : Dec 17, 2004 00:00 IST

The problems of the northeastern region, fundamentally related to certain historical facts, simply do not admit any solutions manipulated by clever public relation exercises.

in Guwahati

DO the problems facing the country that are increasingly forcing many of those at the receiving end of a cruel and callous state machinery to take recourse to terrorism, militancy and insurgency, simply arise out of poor public relations and failure of image building exercises, or are they structural and, in the final analysis, rooted in our history, in the organisation of our economic and social order? The question needs to be asked in the context of the phenomenon of `state visits' within the country by the Prime Minister and other bigwigs.

There was a time when the travels of the Prime Minister within the country were related, except in extreme cases, not to fire-fighting or doling out goodies but to attend to tasks related to his or her office as head of government and the first among equals of the ruling party leadership: inauguration of a national project, attending ruling party conclaves and congresses, periodic Lok Sabha election campaigns and the like. During these travels, the Prime Minister hardly ever took on the tasks of a Chief Minister or other, lesser, local leaders.

The themes of Jawaharlal Nehru's admittedly rambling speeches and lecturing during such travels were broader national issues, often international issues as well. Unlike in this brave new `liberalised' world, rarely if ever did India's first Prime Minister travel to a State capital bearing gifts of an `economic package', an expression that in the context of the current political culture almost sounds like a suitcase full of money. The proper forum for such things was the Planning Commission, or the Fiscal and Finance Commission. Nor, as far as one can recall, were cities or even the roads and areas traversed by the Prime Minister spruced up specially to welcome him or her - but then the cities had then not decayed to the extent they have now. This is certainly the case with Guwahati where the areas visited by the Prime Minister and the stretch of about 30 km of road traversed by the India-ASEAN car rally drivers has been spruced up beyond recognition - though the decay will soon return.

Such questions are relevant as one takes stock of the outcome of the three-day `state visit' of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Manipur and Assam (November 20-22). Restoring a measure of dignity to his office - after all, any such `package' has necessarily to be a re-packaged version of even taller promises and fatter packages brought by other Prime Ministers during earlier visits - he did not announce any `economic package' during the visit.

But what is a Prime Minister's visit to the region without bearing gifts? So, it was left to the Chief Ministers of the two States to assure the worked-up media (one may well ask when are the media not worked-up?) that the Prime Minister had indeed brought with him such a `package' - a little matter of Rs.9,210 crores for Assam and Rs.2,777.86 crores for Manipur.

About the best thing that can be said of the visit is that it was good in parts. However, in its totality, the visit was disappointing. None could miss the contrast between the positive gestures and initiatives taken in Manipur, and the ceremony and ritual that were the features of much of the visit to Assam.

For over four months, ever since the killing of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old woman and allegedly an activist of the banned People's Liberation Army (PLA), by personnel of the Assam Rifles on the night of July 10-11, Manipur has been in almost continuous ferment. Apart from seeking justice in the case of the killing, two related demands have sustained the mass agitation led by Apunba Lup, a broad civil society alliance of some 32 social and cultural organisations and, though not specifically identified or acknowledged as such, also certain political tendencies.

These are, one, the vacating by the Assam Rifles of Kangla Fort, the ancient seat of power of Manipur royalty, a site with profound religious, political and emotional significance for the people of Manipur, especially those in the Imphal Valley, and, two, the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, a frightening piece of legislation that sanctions summary killing. The second demand has not been articulated unambiguously and, moreover, like so many things else in Manipur, is also `region specific', meaning that the political thinking on such matters in the Valley and the Hills do not always correspond. Although the AFSPA was passed in 1958 and large areas of the State outside the Valley were immediately notified under the Act - Tamenglong district, then considered a stronghold of the Phizo-led Naga National Council in Manipur, especially bore the brunt) - it was only after September 1980, when the Imphal Valley too was notified under it, that the Act became an issue State-wide.

The Prime Minister responded, though not in full measure, to both these demands. The Assam Rifles is to vacate, indeed according to reports has already completed the process of vacating, Kangla. In a symbolic gesture, the key to the complex was handed over to the Chief Minister in the presence of the Prime Minister. In respect of the AFSPA, an `expert panel' appointed to `review' the legislation has already had one meeting. The purpose of these exercises is to modify the legislation so that it will have a `human face' - the current cant expression, considering that it is very much the human face and human ingenuity that constructed these horrors.

An honest and democratic approach to such a horrible legislation is to simply concede to the demand for its repeal and removal from the statute books, as indeed of other corresponding pieces of legislation operating in other parts of the country. But this is easier said than done. The notification of certain `remote areas' in Manipur and Assam as well immediately following the passing of the Act did not stir the democratic sensibilities of the people as a whole - and not merely its immediate victims. Indeed, even now the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which supports the United Progressive Alliance government from outside, is opposed to the repeal of the AFSPA (the CPI(M)-led government in Tripura wants the Act to be retained), though the Communist Party of India and other Left parties favour its repeal - but then, these parties are not leading the government in any State. Interestingly, while they have condemned the killing of Manorama, none of the Naga insurgent groups, not even the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, has issued a statement explicitly calling for the repeal of the AFSPA.

Although the Apunba Lup has set December 10 as the deadline for the repeal of the Act and has threatened to resume the agitation if the demand is not met, mobilisation of mass support for resumption of the agitation on the scale of the past four months will not be easy - unless another `Manorama' is killed. Two of the group of women who had demonstrated shedding their clothes in front of the Assam Rifles camp protesting against the killing of Manorama met the Prime Minister, despite the hard stand of the Apunba Lup against any kind of accommodation on the issue of the repeal of the AFSPA. There are reports of other rumbles against the `wilfulness' of Apunba Lup leaders. Thus, with the handing over of the Kangla (though there are some worries about the protection and preservation of this heritage site without the forbidding presence of the Assam Rifles) and other popular initiatives such as the laying of the foundation stone of the Jiribam-Tupal (Imphal Road) railway line and the upgradation of Manipur University to a Central university, the resumption of an all or nothing agitational programme as was the case these last four months will not be easy.

ALTHOUGH the visit to Assam extended over two days and the programme was packed, the outcome had far less substance, though there was no lack of pomp and ceremony. The most spectacular of this was the India-ASEAN car rally, flagged off (until now) four times, twice in Guwahati, once in Kohima and again in Imphal; and due to be flagged of again by Manmohan Singh in Vientiane. Other rituals included the formal inauguration of the new capital complex in Dispur, handing over the government sponsored Sri Sankara Deva Award and the mandatory interaction with the government and the media.

All this is natural, because many of the problems of Assam simply defy solution. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that neither cosmetics nor drastic surgery works in the case of Assam and, more broadly, in the region.

Apart from the chronic and genuinely inter-related problems of floods, economic underdevelopment and severe unemployment, three urgent political problems, also seen in what might be very broadly called the `Assamese nationalist discourse' as inter-related and having their proximate origin in the anti-foreigner agitation, cried out for the Prime Minister's attention and intervention. One should, however, bear in mind that there is no consensus, let alone unanimity, in this discourse; and the discourse itself is riddled with non sequiturs.

These are the demands for the repeal of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983; the implementation of the Assam Accord signed on August 15, 1985, which formally brought the anti-foreigner agitation led by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and its allies to an end and, more crucially, enabled the leaders of the agitation to form a political party two months later and win the Assembly elections another two months later and secure political office; and `a settlement' of the issue of a `sovereign Assam' (swadhin asom) raised by the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) only which, it is widely argued, will bring to an end the ULFA-led insurgency and ensure peace and development in the State.

The most curious of these issues is the ULFA demand for `sovereign Assam', more accurately in its view, the assertion of what the organisation sees as the restoration of the historical reality of Assam's sovereign status. For several weeks now, the organisation's leaders have launched a campaign of activist intervention in the local media with regular telephone calls and e-mails reiterating its willingness to talk only if the issue of sovereignty of Assam is on the agenda. Such assurances should be conveyed to the ULFA on the "letterhead of the Government of India, with seal and signature", one of the bizarre messages said. Do-gooders within the State and outside have got themselves a lot of mileage in the media by presenting themselves as disinterested facilitators. The Prime Minister's categorical statement that sovereignty can never be a negotiable issue is unlikely to put an end to the testing of the government's will, the probing and hand-wringing all round.

The first two demands are articulated by the AASU, the signatory of the Assam Accord one of whose clauses (5.9) has this to say about the IMDT Act:

"The Government [of India] will give due consideration to certain difficulties expressed by the AASU/AAGSP regarding the implementation of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983."

Although the leaders of the Assam agitation condemned the IMDT Act, they nevertheless signed the Assam Accord of which it is an integral part.

However, the new rank of AASU leadership has been unrelenting in the demand for the repeal of the Act, which it says is an instrument to legalise the presence of foreign nationals in Assam and is clearly discriminatory in being applicable only in Assam. Nothing illustrates the ineffectiveness of the Act, in the eyes of its opponents, than the admissions made several times in the State Assembly that in the two decades since the signing of the Assam Accord, the number of illegal aliens detected and deported has not even touched the figure of 2,000 - according to a statement made by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in the Assembly on August 3, it is 1,530.

This does contrast with the claims - and admissions - made by several State and Central leaders that there were about 50 lakh foreigners (Bangladeshis) illegally staying in Assam, though such admissions are routinely `clarified' later.

So, to no one's surprise, the Prime Minister once again assured that the Assam Accord would be implemented `in letter and spirit' and that far from conceding to the demand for the repeal of the IMDT Act, announced rather magnanimously that its anomalous position of being applicable only to Assam would be corrected by making it applicable throughout the country. Both assurances are non-starters, especially the one relating to the extension of the IMDT Act to the whole country. Such an extension is, of course, formally feasible since, like any other Central legislation, "it extends to the whole of India" (Clause 1.2). Further, while the Act was "deemed to have come into force in the State of Assam on 15 October 1983" (though it received the assent of the President on December 25, 1983), it may also come into force or be "deemed to have come into force... in any other State" by the Central government simply notifying a date for such an extension in the Official Gazette (Clause 1.3).

This, an astonishing assurance to be given by a Prime Minister, is easier said than done. Let alone the rest of the country, even the other States in the region, even those where the Congress heads the government, will never accept the extension of the IMDT Act, given the demographic and political realities. The problem of illegal migration into Assam, admitted even by the Central and State governments and articulated stridently by the AASU and other student organisations, is in relation to the size, population and internal social organisation, far more acute in these States than in Assam.

The problems of the region, fundamentally related to the historical fact that the region constituted part of the last frontier conquered and annexed by the British and the circumstances that surrounded their inclusion or incorporation into the territory of independent India, simply do not admit any solutions manipulated by clever public relation exercises, however well packaged they are.

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