India's North-East: A Time-Bomb Ticking Away (Re-Plugged)

India’s troubled north-eastern region, consisting of seven States which generally extends from Sikkim and the Siliguri Corridor to its border with Myanmar in the East therefore presents an interesting scenario.

India's North-East: A Time-Bomb Ticking Away (Re-Plugged)

(Editor's Note: This visionary piece on India's North East was written by the author, Major General VK Madhok (Retd), 25 years back and published in The Statesman on April 15, 1996. The analysis made by the author seems to have come true in almost all respects. The piece is now being published afresh for the benefit of the new generation. Happy Reading!)

One cannot but come to the dismaying conclusion that so far, India has failed to come to grips with problems of the north-east. The stark  fact is that in spite of ban, most of the Insurgent outfits continue to remain active. Incidents of attempts on the lives of MLAs, ambushing of convoys, looting of arms from police kotes taking of hostages and joint raids of the type such as the one by  ULFA and Bodo extremists on a CRP Camp last year in August, reported with regularity visible proof of that.

Besides,the Bodo Autono mous Council has yet to take shape in spite of the recent agreement at  New Delhi as the question of territory falling in the 10 km belt along the international border has yet to be resolved. Further, effective action has yet to be taken to tackle the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh or for that matter, to stop the unabated smuggling of narcotics from Myanmar through Manipur or to decide on the future of nearly 60,000 Chakmas awaiting repatriation in six camps in Tripura. There is an endless list of festering problems which need not be repeated.

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India’s troubled north-eastern region, consisting of seven States which generally extends from Sikkim and the Siliguri Corridor to its border with Myanmar in the East therefore presents an interesting scenario. It offers opportunities - which are being misused by varying groups and along with the aspirations of its diverse tribes it also carries the potential forces of destabilization. Unless the policy and decision makers in the corridors of power at New Delhi can comprehend these contradictions, if would be a miracle if the region does not land in total chaos in the not too distant future from which it may not recover.

Let us take the forces of destabilization first. Of the two adversaries, that is China and Pakistan, against whom Indian forces are deployed, Islamabad had rightly seen a window of opportunity in exploiting the situation in India’s north-east as early as Z. Ą. Bhutto's time. If only Pakistan could bring together all the diverse forces and movements agitating against India on to a common platform then indoctrinate, train and arm them from secure bases, the basic infrastructure would have been laid.

Here, the posse of professionals from Pakistan’s armed forces and the ISI who have gained immense experience while operating with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (When the Russians were in occupation and now in the ongoing proxy war by Talebans) and also in Jammu and Kashmir have played a unique role. They seem to have arrived at the conclusion, that it is possible to wage a second proxy war in India’s north-east.

If successful, it would not only relieve pressure in the West and make it easier for the militants in J&K but get the Indian security forces so deeply embroiled at its two extreme  ends and that too without a direct confrontation so that they will not be able to move from the East to the West. This concept makes a lot of.

So far as the question of opportunities is concerned, contractors and middle men have utilized every chance to make money while executing even routine economic projects in this underdeveloped region. More important, defence agents representing foreign firms have consistently sought avenues to dispose of 3rd and 2nd generation military technology and defence hardware by sea or airdrops.

Insurgents, militants,  State Police and the paramilitary forces operating in the region provide the ideal arms market for doing so.  While clandestine methods are being adopted to supply the banned outfits, direct contracts are signed at the State or the Central levels to meet the requirements of security forces.  And in the process, besides payoffs, huge profits are made.

The opportunities do not end here; in fact, the scope widens. Subsequent requirements of ammunition, replacements and repair of arms and acquisition of newer gadgets for communication and destruction would keep this haven open to the “merchants of death” till the fractious political situation improves in the region. But this is unlikely to happen. If India has not been able to resolve the contentions issues of this region in the last 48 years, how is it going to do so in the next ten? In any case, it is in the arms supplier’s interest that the situation does not improve.

On the other hand, in spite of the many internecine problems which the tribes have among themselves, they are unanimous on two issues: that India is their common enemy and second:vast resources of the region  such as oil, tea, handicrafts and other products are being taken out for the benefit of the rest of India;that they have been exploited in the past and are unlikely to be better off in the  future either as no economic benefits would be passed on to them.

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Accordingly, while the banned ULFA and NSCN - in pursuit of their aspirations - continue to agitate for independent States outside the Indian union, the Bodos  and others will not mind settling for autonomy within the Constitution.

To keep these movements of secession or independence from spreading or creating trouble or toppling the State governments, besides  the regular army and the territorials, a host of paramilitary forces which include the BSF, Assam Rifles, CISF, RPF, DSC, India Reserve battalions, Tea Estate Protection Force, Police Commandos trained in Punjab and so on have been deployed.

These paramilitary forces with separate channels of command and control with their respective headquarters at New Delhi, separate budgets, training and recruitment philosophies, have a number of problems of their own and with each other and with the State under whom they function. Further, they are under separate ministries.

While considerable time is wasted in resolving mutual differences and those between them and the Army, the bureaucrats at Delhi fight paper battles for improving the lot of the force they are responsible.  Thus, with the friction generated with so many forces functioning, the civil administration, both at the State and central levels, has a busy time indeed. This is an unsatisfactory arrangement.

It is to be noted, that the Union Home Minister has been drawing attention to the use of training bases by the insurgents - at least ten of them inside Bangladesh itself as well as sanctuaries in southern Bhutan, which are being utilized, under the supervision of the-ISI. He has voiced this concern in Parliament at least half a dozen times.

Further, one of the theories which has been doing the rounds and which merits serious consideration is about the Rs, 10 to 15-crore arms drop at Purulia. Is it that the arms were dropped in this westernmost district of West Bengal to divert attention from the north-eastern region so that the ISI could consolidate the gains it has made and put the infrastructure it has so painstakingly created for waging a second proxy war on a sound footing?

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In addition, Myanmar has been militarized by the Chinese. In return, as a result of concessions extracted, they are busy developing the ports of Hangyyi and Cocoa Islands, just north of Andaman and Nicobar islands. In due course, this would provide safe entry to the Chinese in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

What is to be done? First, induction of foreign arms cannot be stopped till India is in a position to indigenize and be self-reliant. This is not an easy task, as we have already wasted a great deal of time. The point to note is, that the foreign arms sellers are supplying not only to the regular forces but to the insurgent outfits' as well. The tragedy is that besides India, the entire region has become dependent for arms and other defence hardware, on foreign countries, Accordingly. forays by arms merchants would continue.

Second, considering the complexities in the north-east, India cannot do without a full-time Minister for the region. He should be supported by a group of professionals from intelligence, the services, intellectuals and dependable citizens from the north-east. Further, the Government must come out with a White Paper on the north-east which should be debated in Parliament.

Third, the National Integration council must be made more active. In must play an active role in bringing the people of the region to the national fold.

Four, immediate steps need to be taken to rationalize the number of paramilitary forces which we have created. Ultimately, what India needs is an internal security force and a separate one for the border in addition to the regular forces. This is a self created problem. So far as Bangladesh is concerned, instead of being grateful to India, It has been letting Pakistan’s ISI use bases for training insurgents.

There is much useful work to be done in the north-east. So far,  unfortunately, it has been treated as a frontier post of the Centre. The issues involved are complex and challenging. Left to fate and circumstances, this time bomb remains ticking not knowing when it will explode?

About The Author

Maj Gen. VK Madhok is a product of the 1st Course JSW/NDA and was commissioned into the 3 GR. He was the BGS HQ Southern Command and the COS at HQ 4 Corps. He retired as the ADG (TA). He lives in Pune. The author can be reached on Email: [email protected]

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