Our Estranged Northeast: Delving into its Complexities & the Way Forward

Today, China is fully in picture about various issues in the North East. That is: demands of secessionist outfits, feelings of the people in the region, India’s response.

Our Estranged Northeast: Delving into its Complexities & the Way Forward

(This article is based on a recent letter sent by the author to the Prime Minister)

That Beijing is the main player in India’s North East (NE) needs no emphasis. The questions, as such, which need to be taken note of are: Whether this view is sustainable? What has prevented India from resolving the complex issues of NE in the last 30-40 years? Why have we failed to negotiate for a transit route through Bangladesh to NE? What have been our shortcomings and reasons for failure which we must put right with promptitude? India’s options and what New Delhi must do, so that it does not lose NE to Beijing in the long run?

Today, China is fully in picture about various issues in the NE. That is: demands of secessionist outfits, feelings of the people in the region, India’s response, in other words, its total environment to take full advantage of the confused environment in NE.

Because it is clear about its overall aim! Which is to dominate NE (as part of its larger strategy for SE Asia), to capture its markets and to keep New Delhi (its chief competitor) deeply enmeshed, involved and entangled without a clear policy. Concurrently, by subtle propaganda, it has been triggering the imagination of NE’s citizens, that their future is bound with China. That,they will be better off-politically and economically with their northern neighbors.

That, New Delhi has been pilfering their resources to benefit the rest of India. That it would continue to do so. That it is not serious to resolve their problems or complete the promised development projects while China has finished its infrastructural projects all along the Sino-Indo border which can be seen and would do the same in their states for development. Therefore, why remain at the mercy of an outsider? Whose only entrance to NE lies through the narrow Siliguri Corridor?

In addition, with an exceptionally strong and secure military base in Tibet, built over a period-after getting rid of Dalai Lama and which is now being connected by road and rail with Nepal, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh(AP) China is in a domineering position to influence and even exercise authority on furtherance of its objectives, directly or through Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and in due course Bhutan or AP.

It needs some more time, which it is gaining by delaying the settlement of Sino-Indian border dispute and claiming Sikkim and AP. While New Delhi’s past record of ‘Reactive responses’ makes Beijing confident and certain, that India, dare not gamble and is not in opposition to risk a confrontation with China. Nor is New Delhi energetic enough-with its policies to prevent and block China’s future designs. Which in a nutshell amount to total domination of NE with India remaining a mute observer?

Our Shortcomings (Past & Present)

Before proposing solutions or plans to reinvent NE, it is essential to state our shortcomings. The facts in brief are: That we have not been able to deal with ULFA, NSCN (IM), Bodos, GNLF, AITF, NLFT etc, We positioned retired bureaucrats, after giving them extensions-in one case 8-10 years, to negotiate but to no avail. Accordingly, there are serious communication gaps between the Centre, the Polity viz:- these outfits.

The former are not seized of the realities on ground. They come, they see and go away. They pay short and hurried visits, make promises and are in a rush to get back to Delhi.

In other words, we have been dealing with various issues in an ad hoc manner without any long term mission and strategy. This is really a colonial way of functioning and will not succeed. While Chief Ministers of NE states seek clarifications our citizens enquire about the implementation of development promises. Concurrently, ex Chief Justices of India and ex Vice Presidents of India make disturbing statements about lack of political will to deal with terrorist activities or to fulfill promises.

In addition, there is multiplicity of resources in the shape of Governors, intelligence agencies, Para Military Forces, the regular Army and the IAF besides protection forces for tea gardens and oil depots and pipelines and reserve battalions, created by respective states. That is not all, at the central government level, there is a posse of advisors from the NSC (23 mercers), NIA, NSAB, Services headquarters, R&AW, DIA, MEA, MOD, and NSA-just to name a few.

Yet there is no firm and clear policy on the NE.As regards the countries surrounding NE. Our policies are not Pro-active or bold enough with China, Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh or even Bhutan. There is hesitation to admit that problems of NE cannot be resolved without understanding the intentions, capabilities and policies of these countries.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials do not seem to have applied their minds to this issue. They are more seized, with the vision of ‘Look East’ instead of locking at the realities in North East. Also, in a worst case scenario, it would be possible to wage a 2nd Proxy war in NE against the Indian Union, after coordinating the actions of various outfits, training and supporting them from countries surrounding NE.

Further, we have failed to tackle the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam and elsewhere. Also, we have been unable to contain and check Pak ISIs activities through Bangladesh. It is surprising that there is seldom any meaningful debate on these issues in the Parliament. We are not visualising the implications as to what happens, when China completes 22-23 dams on River Brahmaputra and diverts its flow to the storage tanks on its side of the border. What answers will we have for the NE states?

In addition, while intelligence agencies might have warned the Government about the flow of arms and ammunition to various outfits, from abroad, the MEA does not seem to have warned these countries whose arms factories are working overtime to supply secessionist outfits. These factories have to earn profits and therefore will not stop from doing anything. Besides, the majority of development projects are behind schedule. Although funds are released but they are eaten up en-route by politicians, bureaucrats and contractors and seldom reach the projects.

So far as the Military is concerned they have not realised, that while they face China their logistic infrastructures in the rear (air and oil fields, oil and gas pipelines/railways and roads, Ordnance depots, EME workshops, cantonments) are under threat.Which can be a demoralising factor for troops and their commanders at the front. Finally, we have failed to convince the citizens of NE, that their resources are not being utilized to benefit the rest of India.That these are meant for them.And that, their future lies with India.

Inferences from the Past & Current Situation

A Northeastern rebel outfit out in the jungles; File Photo

Our processes for interaction with secessionist outfits or with people or for development or for fulfilling premises made during visits or otherwise are painfully slow-and remain unfulfilled. The Accountability and Implementation factors so crucial in the Governance of a state and its policies are missing,NE has turned into an arms market.Where besides China, other arms factories have three different types of clients: Militants and Ultras, Para military forces and the regular troops.

The Governors of these states are mere ceremonial figures, with no worthwhile contribution to their credit. In fact, the states would be better off without them. It is surprising that we don’t have a counter terrorism doctrine and that too in a region like NE which is riddled with secessionist outfits and problems, nor, a mechanism to bring together the Chief Ministers or DGs Police or Chief Secretaries and intelligence agencies at least once a quarter.

Also,that policies are being made from air conditioned offices or at seminars held by NSC, NSAB, NIA etc, at Delhi. Members of such councils and Boards should have toured NE individually or collectively to make any worthwhile contribution. They seem to excel in rhetoric, advice and speeches and are functioning in water tight compartments.

The Youth of NE (future leaders) have an important contribution to make. But where are the common Youth programs? In Jun 2008, the Government had set up 6 high level groups comprising 10 senior political officers of the rank of IG Police and above to thrash out their problems and missions. The Government planned to set up a separate directorate for these groups which was likely to be designated as Mission Directorate.

It seems to have died a natural death. We have heard nothing about it. Further, as a secular country we have to put an end to all those schools which are based on religion.Whether these are Christian, Muslim (Madrasas), Sikh or Hindu.

The Suggested Way Out

Unless we sensitize our bureaucracy and politicians to the existing realities on ground or critically analyse the intentions of countries surrounding NE (including China),set up mechanisms for focused response to include intelligence gathering, time bound implementation of development projects, youth programs, coordinating and monitoring, a responsive administration we will not be able to resolve NEs problems.

We have already lost 20-30 years in this region and cannot lose more. Unless we wake up/in the worst case scenarios, we may either see the NE states opting to join China or the emergence of a 2nd Proxy war-supported by China in the region against the Indian Union.

Conclusion & Recommendation

This Missive makes some recommendations for tackling the long pending problems of the NE region. NE has now become a puzzle. And it requires firsthand knowledge of the issues concerning its Citizenry and that is why a suggestion has been made in  that the Union Cabinet should consider functioning in this region at least for a week in one of the states in the NE. Or it will remain a hostage to the recommendations (watered down) of Bureaucracy, myriad intelligence agencies and hearsay.

Concrete Recommendation for Resolution

Personnel from the Assam Rifles have been bearing the brunt of the CI efforts in the NE; File Photo


The complex NE demands an innovative, yet a firm and transparent approach. In fact, on the lines of a military mission, with a clear aim-based on Government’s policy and well defined time based objectives, but without compromising the Constitution. A point to note is that there are too many actors on the scene.

These being: Secessionist outfits with their claims, the 7 NE states with different social and political cultures, myriad agencies, think tanks and advisors at the Centre, political parties with varied interests and their own agendas, 4 major countries surrounding NE-their intentions and policies, foreign arms factories who have to sell their defence hardware in the NE arms markets along with dearth of connectivity and different cultures.

And most important, lack of coordination and implementation of policies besides ignorance and absence of knowledge about ground realities by the policy makers at New Delhi. NE is thus a puzzle. And yet the riddle can and must be resolved before it is too late.

Our Constitution has given the Centre enormous powers under article 355, which casts upon the Union the responsibility to protect every state against internal disturbance and to ensure that the Governance of every state is carried out in accordance with the Constitution. Therefore, under this authority and clause, why can’t we set up a mechanism on the lines suggested in the succeeding paragraphs to resolve issues?

Set Up a NE Council & Treat the 7 Sister States as a Seperate Block

Its Tasks

(a) Firstly, to negotiate with leaders and delegations of Secessionist outfits within India and certainly not outside, assess their demands as well as mood of the people, consult Chief Ministers and Governors of 7 NE states, ambassadors to the states surrounding NE, the Service chiefs, RAW, the NSA and Chairman NSAB etc., and put up a draft policy paper for dealing with NE problems for approval by the CCS, within 6 months of establishing of NE Council.

(b) Secondly, to implement the policy decisions within one year from the date of approval of policy by the CCS.

Composition: To consist of a Chairman and a team comprising of an ex chief Justice of India,4 serving Joint Secretaries (one each from MEA, MHA, MOD and Finance), a serving officer from R&AW, two secretaries to the Chairman and an office of Secretary level to act as Chief of staff to the Chairman.

Tenure: Two years from the date of establishing the NE Council: extendable by the CCS, if necessary.

Sub Committees

  1. Policy Making & Advisory: To consist of 7 political officers-one from each NE state, of Joint Secretary level. They will draft the policy papers and put up the same to the Chairman NE Council, as per his directions. And also, act as Liaison officers with their respective state governments.
  2. Unified Command: Chairman GOC 4 Corps. To consist of IGs of Police of NE states Chiefs of Staff of the army corps deployed in NE, DG Assam Rifles, Hony Secretaries of NE states, heads of Para military forces and intelligence agencies in NE.To implement directions given by the NE Council.
  3. Development Community: To consist of Chief Engineers of 7 NE states and of army corps deployed in NE and Border Roads Organisation along with senior representatives from the railways and construction establishments besides a serving officer of Joint Secretary level from the Ministry of Finance. This committee will take action towards completion of current development projects, assess priorities and recommend new projects and see towards their completion.
  4. Coordinating & Monitoring Cell: To coordinate and monitor progress of decisions taken in various meetings held by the NE Council including ongoing proposals. Issue minutes of various meetings, maintain close contact with other committees and carry out other tasks assigned by the Chairman. To consist of 3 serving officers of Joint Secretary level including an army officer.
  5. Logistic Cell: To provide  administrative support to the NE Council. To consist of 4 army officers of Colonel’s rank, one each from ASC, Ordinance, EME and Signals and plus an IAF officer (Gp Gapt). To ensure that NE Council is self sufficient in transport (air and ground), accommodation, communications, etc.
  6. Intelligence Cell: To consist of heads of intelligence agencies deployed in NE, answerable to the Chairman.
  7. Location: The permanent headquarters of NE Council will be located at Tezpur under the arrangements of headquarters 4 Corps. It should have alternative locations at New-Delhi and in 7 NE states as the Chairman and members of various committees' will have to do a lot of running around.

Miscellaneous Actions

Territorial Army (TA) Units: These can be in the form of Infantry-to assist the regular army or Pioneers to provide labour for construction of railways, roads and bridges or Ecological Task forces. DG Territorial Army should be given this task. Each state should have at least one TA unit.

NCC: Make this compulsory in every educational institution up to class 12. DG NCC should be given this task to submit proposals.

National Integration Council: To begin, with, its meeting should be held in one of the 7 NE states, presided over by the PM.

Tourism: The Ministry of Tourism should step out to encourage students and industrialists to undertake tours by road or by air with concessional tickets and vice versa from the NE to other states in India.

Encourage NGO's

The Road Ahead

Above recommendations for resolution need detailed discussion and examination. Let this be understood that there is no end to measures which can be taken to tackle problems of NE. The selection and appointment of Chairman NE Council is vital. He should be a non political figure with credibility and integrity as he will be accountable for functioning of the NE Council and the entire responsibility will rest on his shoulders. He should have the geography of NE on his palm and its complex issues on his fingertips and be a man of energy and drive.

He will have to deal with a very large number of agencies-both military and civil to include intelligence, police Governors, Ambassadors and political leaders besides leaders of various outfits. Preferably, he should be a military leader who has served in the NE and knows its problems thoroughly.

(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]. Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')


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