A Tale of Two Insurgencies

They share a history of daily brutality, but while Kashmir is seen as the core of India's sovereignty, the Northeast languishes on the periphery
Patricia Mukhim Shillong

The Seven states of northeast India, which have been kneaded into dough and tagged together as homogenous entities, have always felt that Kashmir is the apple of India's eye while the seven states are orphans. 

Indeed, the damage-control exercise launched by an obliging central government during the recent crisis in the Kashmir valley does make a show of concern for that troubled space - once the beautiful kingdom of Maharaja Hari Singh, who signed it away to the Indian State. And people of the Northeast have long nursed their pain at such obvious displays of favouritism. 

This would not have happened if India's rulers possessed the depth of knowledge, political acumen and social discernment necessary to govern a country of disparate voices and ethnicities. Unfortunately, there is perhaps nobody of that calibre among those who rule India - at least not today. 

This social apathy and political insouciance was evident during the 68-day blockade of National Highway 39, called by a section of Naga organisations to express their grievances against the government of Manipur. This blockade resulted in an economic crisis of unspeakable dimensions that also affected the Naga-inhabited areas. It was like cutting the nose to spite the face. The Nagas of Manipur knew this but had claimed there was no other way to bring the Manipur government to its knees.

After the 68-day period, the Centre began talking tough because the media cacophony had made it uncomfortable for the government at New Delhi to remain unconcerned. The blockade was lifted on condition that it would be reimposed if the Manipur government failed to respond to the demands of the Nagas living in Manipur. 

And, indeed, the Nagas made good their word, and on August 3, 2010, imposed another blockade on National Highways 39 and 53, which continues unabated. The Centre made a feeble attempt to create some sort of forum where issues between the parties in conflict could be thrashed out with Delhi acting as the referee. 

But this failed to pacify the Nagas. They had taken a decision to opt out of Manipur and have stuck to their guns. These are political battles that are expected to last as long as the Naga peace talks are on track. 

We are talking here of a 63-year-old problem that has repeatedly defied solution. The Nagas have all along been hewing at a humungous boulder bit by bit. Whether they have made a dent is not the issue here. But it has been 13 years since they officially agreed to talk peace. 

Compared to the Naga insurgency, the Kashmir assertion is of fairly recent origin. At least the insurgency bit is. Perhaps the situation in Kashmir has taken a nosedive after Omar Abdullah assumed charge as chief minister. He is accused of remaining aloof from the people - a typical characteristic of any high-caste, high-class ruler who lords it over his subjects. That someone - and that too a cop - was so piqued as to throw a shoe at the crotchety Omar who seems to be making all the wrong statements, could not have done his sagging image any good.

Recently, a national news channel aired a programme that provided the microphone to several young Kashmiris to say what they felt about the present problems of Kashmir and the way forward. Everyone said they want a Kashmir that enjoys autonomy and is allowed to decide its own destiny. They spoke of political sovereignty without batting an eyelid - sounding a lot like what the Nagas have been saying for half a century and the Manipuri Meiteis for over two decades.

The young Kashmiris who spoke up cannot be accused of being spokespersons of the hardliners who are alleged to be fomenting trouble in Kashmir. They are educated, independent young people with a mind of their own. All of them detest the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) and wonder why the Centre continues with this draconian law against its own people. 

What they were trying to convey very subtly was that it is easy for 'India' to use such draconian laws because Kashmiris are never really considered 'Indians.' Clearly, the Centre's appeasement policy does not wash with the average Kashmiri because it is seen as a purely political ploy to keep Omar Abdullah in his chair. This is indeed a generation that has nothing but obvious disdain for politicians across the spectrum. 

Come to think of it, seldom if ever would a once-enslaved nation impose a law enacted by a colonial power on its own people, long after that power had left its soil. Since no part of India is today safer than the Northeast or Kashmir, would AFSPA be applied so readily anywhere else? What then are the compulsions of India when it comes to Kashmir and the seven states of northeast India? 

No doubt Pakistan's penchant for Kashmir is a trigger that makes India react, often with uneducated responses. But what are India's fears in the eastern sector? Is China still a threat? Have we not yet exorcised the ghosts of the past? And, more importantly, can any part of the country be kept under a tight leash merely because of the fear of invasion - a fear that is perhaps ill-founded, given the geo-politico-economic compulsions of our time and the growing interdependence of nations? 

On the other hand, if this fear is founded on some well-founded arguments, is it not premature of India to be speaking of the 'Look East' policy unless it is some kind of red herring intended to befool the people of the Northeast. 

Comparisons are indeed odious but there is no doubt that Kashmir is not the periphery that the Northeast is. Kashmir is seen as the core of India's existence as a sovereign country, but here assertions for secessionism are no longer covert. Every other day, groups owing loyalty either to Pakistan or to a different idea of sovereignty make that call. In fact, Kashmir, like the Northeast, is a highly militarised zone and the incessant, daily military brutality is felt there as much as it was in Nagaland and Mizoram in the 1950s and 1960s.

While Kashmir is always in the eye of the storm, the Northeast has to jolt the Centre every once in a while with bomb blasts. The sense of real and perceived neglect is gradually sending the region into the sort of delinquency that could become a fertile ground for Maoism. In the long run this could further dent the image of India. If Maoist violence spreads to the Northeast it would catch on like wild fire. 

It is obvious that India lacks a tried-and-tested policy that can be applied in the Northeast or in Kashmir. Obsessed with the politics of instant gain, those ruling the roost in New Delhi have little stamina to think of long-term strategies that could yield lasting results.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2010