By Mamoona Ali Kazmi
RECENTLY, a prominent separatist leader Rajkumar Meghen, who leads the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), of Manipur, the northeast Indian state, has been arrested in Bangladesh and handed over to Indian authorities. This is not the first incident of this nature. Every now and then, there appear news of arrest of different separatist leaders of north-eastern region. The India’s north-eastern region, comprises of seven states namely Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, is home to more than 200 insurgent group. Some of the demands of these insurgent groups are similar such as preservation of local culture, local language and jobs for local people. Some of their demands are totally different as some groups demanded separate states within the Indian Union; some demanded autonomy whereas some demanded independence from India. These groups are engaged in violent clashes with the Indian army because of the discriminatory attitude of the Indian government towards them. When the Indian government starts crackdown operations against them, the members of these groups fled to neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar to their safe havens. The question arises that why so many groups are operative in just seven states of India. The answer lies in the negligence of the Indian government towards the region and its strategy of handling the unrest in the northeast.
A widely visible characteristic of northeast India is its economic under-development. The region is one of the most backward regions of India. Abject poverty of locals alienated them from the Indian government. The north-eastern region has poverty levels ranging between 42-58 percent, making it one of the most backward regions in India. As the region was economically isolated from the rest of the country during the colonial period, it did not benefit from the process of industrialization and modernization.
After independence, the Indian government also did not take any serious steps towards development of the region. Instead, the Indian government has exploited the natural and mineral resources of the region without benefiting it in any way. The north-eastern region is rich in natural and mineral resources such as forests, oil and gas etc. Despite these natural endowments, the region is industrially backward because of low investment from the public sector. Assam produced 40 percent of India’s jute, but it has only one jute mill. So, almost all the raw jute went to the mills in Calcutta. Although 79 percent of India’s crude oil is found in Assam, most of it is being refined outside the region. The present production of crude oil in Assam is 5.40 million tons per year most of which, 3.00 million tons, is refined at Bihar’s Barauni refinery. Since most of the crude was refined and sold in Barauni, the Bihar government got more sale tax then the Assam government. The only benefit Assam is getting is in the form of royalty, which is also very low as compared to the international crude price. Besides oil and petroleum Assam possesses other resources like coal, iron ore and natural gas etc. But most of these resources have not been utilized because of lack of proper means.
Some analysts believe that development of the northeast region will end insurgency there. They argue that once the results of development start percolating to the lower strata of the society, people will cease to take recourse in insurgency. Several Prime Ministers of the India announced development packages for the northeast but these developmental packages did nothing to improve the situation of the area. Despite huge developmental funds, insurgency in the region continues. The reason is that these packages have been poorly implemented, with actual devolution of funds falling far below the amount announced. Another reason is the extortion activities of the insurgent groups due to which very limited amount of packages reached the intended beneficiers. India is facing potential as well as actual separatist movements in northeast India. Instead of addressing the real causes of insurgency in the northeast, the Indian government is maintaining India’s unity mainly through the use of force. The Indian counter-insurgency in the northeast depends on the deploying of the security forces. The Indian government has given the security forces vast powers to maintain law and order by implementing repressive laws such as Armed Forces Special powers Act, Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance and Disturbed Areas Act. Torture and bad treatment are strictly prohibited by the Indian constitution in all circumstances. But still human rights abuses by the security forces are continuously reported in the whole northeast. There are various laws in force in northeast due to which a person can not file suit against a member of the security forces. The government of India has first used its military in the 1950’s in an attempt to suppress the nationalistic stirrings of Naga tribals along the border with Burma. Since then, the Indian army has been engaged in countering insurgency in all seven north-eastern states.
According to Babloo Loitongbam of the Human Rights Alert, a leading human rights group in Manipur, “When arrested, innocent youths suspected to be members or sympathizers of underground groups are subjected to third degree methods by the military”. He further added, “it is always a challenge to systematically document cases of torture as the survivors are crushed not just physically, but also psychologically”. He confessed, “The fear of further reprisal has always been a hurdle in taking up legal action on cases of torture”. As Paul Wilkinson notes, “rebellions do not generally just fade away. They have to be put down ruthlessly and effectively if normal life and business are to be restored”. India is blindly following this school of thought and is using force to crush separatist movements in the northeast. Force is not a solution to any problem. Some times using force becomes counter-productive and enhances any movement. As Mohandas Gandhi once said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary, the evil it does is permanent”. There is need that Indian government should attend to the grievances of the people and should address the atrocities of the Indian forces. Unless there is a public accountability of security forces, human rights violations in northeast can not be controlled. Similarly, there is a need to repeal the draconian laws such as AFSPA and POTO, which contrivances the Indian Constitution as well as international Law and Humanitarian Laws.