Dialogue July- September, 2005, Volume 7  No. 1

North-East Scan

Mizoram – Legitimising ViolencePatricia Mukhim

John F Kennedy once remarked that conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth. In tribal societies there is often a great need to project to the outside world a picture of unity and homogeneity in thinking. More advanced individuals among the tribes stress on their less enlightened brethren that conventional thinking and comformity are imperative to the survival of the tribe. They would even go one step further and say that dissent within a society shows up the cracks within it and would be taken advantage of by “outsiders”.                                                                                                                                                                                        
    In India’s North East, the resistance to outsiders and outside influence has isolated the tribes from mainstream intellectual discourse and enquiry which question the status quo and critique the function of institutions both traditional and modern and point out serious loopholes in their behaviour. Traditionalists are opposed to change and resent criticism. In fact there are overt and covert attempts to quash dissent in tribal societies by labeling critics as enemies of their society. Some states more than others have been caught in this mesh of having to conform to expectations of pressure groups within their societies.
    Mizoram is a case in point. Here is a state which claims to be an island of peace amidst a sea of storms. Leading the bandwagon is State Chief Minister, Mr Zoramthanga who regularly drums the,“Mizoram is a peaceful state”, rhetoric. So convincing was Zoramthanga that he was even given a peace bonus by the Central Government. Unfortunately, the mere absence of militancy does not make a state a peaceful one. While militants are rightly accused of using violent methods to achieve their ends, they are not the only ones who take recourse to sadism. 
    To a keen observer, Mizoram is a prisoner of its own contradictions. There is a constitutionally elected government but there is also the Young Mizo Association (YMA), a non-state body, also elected but not by adult franchise, in the sense that not every resident of Mizoram votes for office bearers to the YMA. YMA is a youth body meant to carry out certain traditionally prescribed tasks such as regulating the conduct of funerals, engaging in wholesome social work in order to train the young in social responsibility. In the absence of any critique or challenge, the YMA assumed an authoritative role. They became a vigilante group who together with the Church took on the task of regulating elections to the state assembly and parliament.
    In a scenario where the slogan ’who has the money wins the votes’, had become common currency, the emergence of the YMA as a social auditor was a welcome respite. People who genuinely wanted to contest elections with the purpose of ushering political change but did not have the wherewithal, agreed wholeheartedly with the YMA’s modus operandi. To them, the YMA opened up opportunities for a career in politics without having to auction off their life’s savings. But, the more public plaudits the YMA won the more powerful it became. In fact YMA is today a repository of power feared even by the elected government. MLAs, ministers and other political wannabes desirous of contesting the next elections all make sure they placate the YMA.
    It is interesting to see what this translates into. YMA can make or break the political career of any person including that of Mr Zoramthanga should he decide not to kowtow to their eccentricities and their propensity to adopt violence as a means to an end. In recent times the YMA have launched what they call a “war on drugs”. To achieve this goal they have adopted the most brutal methods to deal with drug and alcohol addicts, suspected drug peddlers and bootleggers. Ironically the State is looking the other way even as atrocities committed by the militant wing of the YMA, namely the MTV or Mizo Tlang Val have gained momentum.            
    Mr Zoramthamga’s Government which is the legal constitutional authority appears to have abdicated its constitutional duty to the YMA. Government is happy that some group is doing something which their police and enforcement wings have failed to do. As a reward for their vigilantism the YMA is even sanctioned funds by the Government to meet their objectives. YMA is having their annual conference in a particular area which does not have a motorable road. The organization has been sanctioned an amount of Rs one lakh to construct the road to this destination.
    Unlike other youth organizations, the YMA comprises members from the civil services, the teaching profession and other occupations. Paradoxically these members of the YMA often travel on the business of the organisation but at the expense of the Government. And no one seems to mind.
    Perhaps the only group today in Mizoram with the courage to take on the YMA is the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN). Its chairperson Ms Vanramchhuangi has become the target of the YMA’s ire. What this organization is saying is that every suspected drug peddler must be dealt with according to the law. Addicts must be rehabilitated. But the YMA defends its stand, claiming that drug peddlers are enemies of society and must be eliminated and treated by the methods they have devised. Anyone who protests against the YMA method is accused of being hand in glove with the peddlers. This of course is a predicted recourse of all belligerent vigilante groups. Members of the HRLN are being threatened. In fact some are so scared of their lives that they have abandoned their fight. But Vanramchhuangi says she will carry on even if she has to do it alone. This courageous lady is now treated like a pariah. No one is willing to support her because the path she has chosen is fraught with dangers. 
    Surprisingly, the very articulate, very educated and morally upright members of the Mizo society including the Church are afraid to speak up and to defend the cause of liberal thinking in Mizoram. Church leaders who are otherwise so quick to point fingers at politicians have become dumb when it comes to condemning the kangaroo courts of the YMA. Sadly even the MIzoram State Women’s Commission and the MHIP are unwilling to step out of their comfort zones and to confront the YMA and its uncivilized methods. If women’s organizations are reluctant to defend a member of their sex who is challenging the authoritarianism and despotic methods of a non-state actor then their very existence is questionable.
    From all accounts, the State of Mizoram has failed to provide security and legal recourse to its citizens. The State has in fact lost its moral authority to rule. Otherwise why should a non-state actor take on the mantle of the state with the collusion of the state authorities. If Mr Zoramthanga has any scruples he should step down and allow someone else who understands the working of modern liberal democracy to take over. Mr Zoramthanga may be familiar with the jungle laws since he is a former rebel. But Mizoram is not a jungle and the laws of the jungle are not acceptable to the Mizo people.
    It is time for civil and human rights activists across the country to study the degeneration of legal and constitutional bodies in Mizoram and to make interventions to restore the rule of law. Thus far the loyalty of people has been to the values of the YMA which they have identified with the institution and its roles. Now that those values are no longer respected by the leaders of the YMA, people should be provided a non-threatening space to voice their dissent. Sadly, this dissenting space may not be available in Mizoram at the moment.

Paradise Shattered

Terror is no longer an oligo-polistic business or the proud privilege of a few states in India’s North East. Arunachal Pradesh, which was until a couple of years ago, the only peaceful sanctuary has now joined the charmed circle. Another paradise is invaded and peace is shattered. Three known militant outfits are operating in the eastern sector of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering the states of Nagaland and Assam. Of the three, the National Liberation Front of Arunachal (NLFA) has close links with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, Isaac- Muivah (NSCN-IM). Koj Tara, the NLFA supremo who was recently arrested from Dimapur, the commercial capital of Nagaland, was mentored by the NSCN (IM) and possibly acted at their behest.
    Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh have been safe havens for both factions of the NSCN – one led by Isaac and Muivah and the other by Khaplang. The two districts border Myanmar and are thickly forested thus affording the militants a steady income through timber logging and smuggling. Militancy is never a stand-alone activity. Spin-offs include extortion, drug peddling, arms and timber smuggling and a host of related criminal activities. Lack of employment opportunities within the region attracts able-bodied youth to militant outfits which actually pay the cadres a monthly salary.
    Proliferation of militant activities devoid of ideology only goes to show that the present day  youth no longer question or care about what they are doing as long as they are doing something profitable. Youthful innocence and naivety are today replaced by a cynicism that is frighteningly akin to that of a hard-core terrorist operating in any part of the globe. Ruthless ambition has taken the place of hope and trust in a system which is increasingly seen as insensitive, unresponsive and corrupt. Name any state in the region and you have a litany of grouses against politicians. They care for themselves and their own and of course their party cadres. The rest of the ‘janta’ be damned! Nepotism has taken a whole new dimension in all of the north eastern states. Naturally those who do not belong to the clique of influence peddlers are bound to be discontented. And the numbers of the disgruntled is steadily rising.
    Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh are of course contentious spaces.  They are part of the map of Nagalim or Greater Nagaland – that sovereign territory which the NSCN (IM) is negotiating with the Indian state. What could shatter the peace of Arunachal Pradesh completely and list it among the most troubled states of the region is the operational space it affords to its own militant outfits and also those from other states of the region. Assam’s most virulent insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), is presently an itinerant pedestrian of the thick forests of Arunachal Pradesh. One advantage that militants enjoy is Arunachal Pradesh’s vast uncharted territory and its difficult terrain which is a formidable battle ground.
    Politicians are the most upset lot when militancy strikes. No wonder Mr Gegong Apang,  Arunachal Pradesh’s street-smart, astute politician who is also the longest serving chief minister, has briefed Delhi about the impending danger. Militancy is the only element of surprise that politicians are apprehensive about. For one, militancy creates too many contenders for that ‘pie in the sky’. Development funds now have to be shared by more people. While politicians extort through more beguiling tactics, militants do it the crude  way. They use potent weapons and do not believe in the polite language of negotiations. No wonder the comfort zone of politicians is disrupted. However, it cannot be denied that a symbiotic relation does exist between the two especially during elections. At such times a quid pro quo is worked out that serves both groups well. It is this symbiotic relationship between politicians and militants that makes tackling militancy that much harder.
    Coming back to another very crucial point, not many would have missed the news item appearing in several newspapers of this country a coup of days ago, that Paresh Barua the ULFA chief who was languishing in a jail in Bangladesh has been invited to Karachi by ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency.  Barua is scheduled to visit Karachi in September this year to attend a meeting which is aimed at better coordination between Islamic fundamentalist groups operating from Bangladesh. This is a very alarming development as far as the North East is concerned. If the recent blasts in Bangladesh are the brain-child of Islamic fundamentalist groups who ostensibly want that country to become an Islamic state, the echoes will reverberate beyond its borders. More so if the ULFA and other militant groups operating in different states of North East India and who use Bangladesh as their operating base, become involved in the ISI design of unleashing terror in the region.
    Jaideep Saikia writing for Dialogue in the chapter entitled, ‘Revolutionaries or Warlords, ULFA’s Organizational Profile’, says, “one of the most important contradictions in the ULFA movement and one that symbolizes its increasing deviation from its revolutionary character and principles, is the sudden shift in stance that it engineered towards the  illegal immigrants( referring to Bangladeshi migtants)”. Saikia avers that while the ULFA preamble puts the blame on illegal migrants for ‘turning the people of Assam into street beggars and minority in their own country”, the outfit took a completely different stance later on. Perhaps the ULFA’s ambivalence is best illustrated by Udayan Mishra in his book, “The Periphery Strikes Back”, when he says…  ‘there is reason to believe that military needs have compelled the outfit to shed much of its earlier intransigence towards foreigners and outsiders on Assam soil and adopt a position which would ensure support and sanctuary in Bangladesh’. Mishra points out that once safely ensconced in Bangla soil, the ULFA distanced itself from the AASU-led anti foreigners movement and from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and even termed the movement as ‘emotional’.
    Military exigencies and the need for extended hospitality in Bangla soil will once again force the ULFA to shed its sanctimonious self image as the saviour of the Assamese people and instead lend its shoulders to the ISI to fire its destructive missile. In this emerging scenario how is it possible for promoters of peace to speak of a dialogue between ULFA and Government of India? Perhaps the dialogue drama at this critical juncture is aimed at buying time. What happened at Bhutan had dislocated the ULFA cadres and dislodged their money collection circuit. The ULFA budget for 2001-2002 was to the tune of Rs 31 crores. According to Saikia, out of the above amount, the ULFA cadres who were at the time not more than 1200 in number were paid a paltry sum of Rs 2000 per month as salary. An amount of at least Rs 28 crores was kept by the top three leaders, Arabinda Rajkhowa, Paresh Barua and Raju Baruah who invested the money in various business ventures.
    What is clear is that ULFA and other militant outfits in the region have a one-point agenda which is to assume the role of warlords by accumulating wealth and becoming the capitalists that they had derided and even killed when they began their revolutionary journey. Our problem is that the state response to this whole challenge has been pretty unintelligent. In several cases the state has been reactive and thereby reinvented an equally terrifying method of dealing with terror. The saga of secret killings that have now surfaced tell their own story. How is it possible to have peace when there is so much falsehood, corruption, misleading statements and double standards from the terrorist groups as well as from the state?  It seems we will have to wait a long time before regaining paradise.

Atrocious blockade on NH-39 makes Manipur look for alternative routes

Pradip Phanjoubam

The indefinite economic blockade of Manipur by the ANSAM, supported by other Naga organizations such as the NSF and the Naga Hoho, has been relaxed after 52 days of coming into force. There are no clear conditions or time limits to the relaxation except for the adjective “temporarily” that preceded relaxation, and a veiled threat that the Naga people would respond befittingly if the government of Manipur backtracks.
    One thing is however certain, even if the immediate flare-up over the mistimed holiday declared by the chief minister, Okram Ibobi, is resolved, the core conflict around Naga integration and Manipur’s integrity would remain. Hence, let there be no doubt whatsoever that the current problem would only be going into an incubation to resurface again another time in another incarnation, perhaps the next time the NSCN(IM) peace talks run into another roadblock.
    It is unfortunate too that as far as it is foreseeable there are only roadblocks ahead, the biggest ones of these being Nagalim and Naga sovereignty. Nagalim, as the NSCN(IM) has made it clear is only the first major step to a sovereign Nagalim.
    This is not suggesting or denying that the NSCN(IM) was a player behind the curtain in the just concluded economic blockade. However, nobody can dispute the fact that the stated objectives of those behind the blockade and those of the NSCN(IM) almost totally overlap.
    In fact the blockade is over a holiday declared by the Manipur chief minister, Okram Ibobi, on June 18, calling it “Integrity Day”. On this day in 2001, there had been an uprising in Manipur over the extension of the NSCN(IM) ceasefire without territorial limits, as this was seen as the first step to the creation of Greater Nagaland or Nagalim in the language of the NSCN(IM).
    The blockade was in spirit against the state glorification of the opposition to this particular demand of the NSCN(IM).
    A few other things have also become clear. Economic blockades cannot make Manipur submit. This is on several considerations. First, the valley is a rice bowl and because of it, the state can hold out the worst sieges. Second, the airways cannot be blockaded. Third, the commitment to profession of some of the state’s very basic services, such as its truck drivers will always make sure that no blockade is complete.
    It is going to be much more difficult now for those who still believe blockades can work. In the next few years, it is almost a certainty that there would be more serviceable highways to serve as alternative to the vulnerable NH-39, which passes through not just Manipur hills but also Nagaland. The Nipheu Rio government’s commitment to open up the highway during the blockade was never convincing for whatever the reason.
    Other respectable institutions in Nagaland, such as the Nagaland Baptist Church Council, and the Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee, however, in moves that were hailed in Manipur, came out against the blockade in univocal terms – gestures that must have dampened the spirit of the blockaders.
    The sad thing about the ANSAM blockade was, it was not just a token show of protest aimed at flagging a dissenting point against the government with the necessary punch. What the blockaders atrociously termed as “democratic” indefinite blockade of a state was hardly a token protest, but more of an act of war, unconsciously strengthening the resolve of believers in Manipur never to succumb.

Worst Into Best

    Sometimes the worst circumstances turn out to be blessings in disguise. The ANSAM blockade was one such situation for it broke a dreadful ennui in the state and opened up new initiatives and ideas about the future. It has for instance made the state take stock of the reality that having only NH-39 as the state’s lifeline will always make it vulnerable to all kinds of pressure groups, including those who have no interest in the state’s core interests.
   The urgency to cut alternative lifelines along other mountain passes has become so real that this new will of the state is finding echoes even in the corridors of power, not just in Imphal but also in New Delhi. In all likelihood, NH-53 that connects Imphal to Silchar via Jiribam, would be retrieved from the archives of the state’s consciousness and made fully capable of taking heavy freight and passenger traffic again. If the indications are correct, another mountain pass via Leimatak in the Henglep subdivision of the Churachandpur district that skirt past the Tipaimukh area and hits Jiribam in a much shorter distance than NH-53 and through much easier topography, would also see a highway in the following years. This route was identified by a World Bank road project in the state some years ago, and is already in parts, black-topped.
    These developments are hailed in Manipur for more reasons than just the concern of the vulnerability of complete dependence on just one lifeline, but also the fact that the state is being made to identify an important trade wind ahead of time. These new routes, would be connecting to the Silchar Expressway, already under construction, which undoubtedly would become the lifeline of the entire northeast in the next decade. In the longer run still, this route would become part of the much anticipated and awaited Trans-Asian highway too.

Ending Mobocracy

    The blockade has thrown up another profound questions. Can democracy be translated as rule by the people? For far too often, too many self-proclaimed gurus of democracy in this troubled region have been abusing the definition of a political system that may be the closest in guaranteeing basic freedoms to its subjects. They forget too that freedom and democracy mean very different things when they are not bound by limits that discipline them. And so we have “democratic” blockades, “democratic” indefinite choking of lifelines. Very soon we may begin hearing of “democratic” lynching and “democratic” murders, followed by “democratic” ethnic cleansing etc.
    The disturbing question often has been, what if the people, or at least a majority of the people begin wanting these things? Would democracy still be comfortably defined as a rule by the people, for the people and of the people?
    Many eminent democracy scholars, including the well known scientist turned philosopher, Karl Popper, came to the conclusion that the spirit of democracy, if it is not routed through the formal system of representative government can only amount to anarchy, or in modern journalese, mobocracy. Manipur today is proving his theory in practice.

Silence of Statesmen

    Silence they say is the biggest enemy of the democratic system. Manipur, more than any other should comprehend the truth in this cliché. Those who should be speaking up on issues, maintain deafening silence when their voices are needed the most, while those who would be best appreciated silent make it their mission to scream on any issue.
    A peculiar pattern has been for students and juveniles to take over politics and statecraft whenever the service of mature leadership and saner counsel are called for. Small wonder then, that the place has become rife with civil conflicts of all nature and intensity in as many permutations and combinations of the different communities living in it. The doomsday prediction of the Manipuri proverb that when children and juveniles play doctor, the graveyard would be full (angang-na maiba saraga mang thalli) is visiting Manipur in all its horror.
   Come to think of it, be it in the valley or in the hills, the formal political system and administrative mechanism, have either receded into the background or else totally surrendered its authorities to self-proclaimed civil society bodies and juveniles under the guise of students. Many of these “youths”, it will be discovered, are well over 40, and the “men’ behind the students movements are not students in any conventional sense of the term. Students as the world understands it, are young men and women in pursuit of formal knowledge in schools and colleges, not street fighters and street politicians.
    In Manipur the definition has been reversed almost totally, and our statesmen and leaders are allowing this progressive degeneration. For them it seems, statecraft is all about ministerial berths and access to the state exchequer and nothing else.
    The blame for this degeneration must not go only to the politicians and leaders, but also to the larger civil society, constituting loosely of the intelligentsia, academia, elders and other formal as well as informal institutions which should have been providing the moderating influences (not diktats) on how the society upholds its dignity and sanity. They too have for long forgotten their unwritten duty and obligation to the society to unobtrusively oversee and define what roles are appropriate for children, students, teachers, businessmen etc, and what behavioral deviations are outside the social parameters of propriety.
    In fact, this lapse is more serious than that of the formal institutions of politics and administration. These unwritten and undefined institutions, unlike the formal ones, are not something a society can build overnight. They evolve through ages of negotiating life’s problems and internalized into the society’s collective consciousness. The quality and richness of this archetypal would be what distinguishes civilization from the lack of it. By systematically destroying the codes of this archetypal, Manipur is allowing its own codes of civilization to slip.
    The hills were in the grip of “students” and “youths”. If the trouble had gone on for another week or so, the valley would have also seen disturbances. There were already threats of counter agitations when the blockade thankfully was called it. The cycle of juveniles as social doctors would then have been complete, and if all went per script, the place may have been witness to the eerie silence of the graveyard.
    The question is, why didn’t the statesmen, in the ruling parties as well as the opposition, ministers, MLAs, ex-ministers, ex-MLAs, belonging to the Meitei, Naga or Kuki communities, come out into the open to speak up on the issue? Were they all party to the deadly politics that was unfolding? Even if they were, the debate should have been allowed to come into the open. Or, was it a case of lack of spine that made them surrender the moral authority that they in so much earnest claimed for themselves, to students and juveniles. For things to normalise once again, these leaders must once again assume the mantle of leadership of the people’s affair.

Manipur’s Basic Strength
    Manipur also displayed where its strengths were. Predictions that the state would witness a communal strife because of the blockade were proven woefully alarmist even after a month and a half of the atrocious state of siege. The society proved its enormous capacity to absorb shocks and provocations, much like it did during the June 2001 upheaval.
    On that occasion too, despite fears of an imminent communal mayhem, despite 18 people who lost their lives protesting a government of India decision, and despite the inferno that important institutions and symbols of the establishment including the state Assembly building and national flags were thrown into, not even a single individual became an intended victim of communalism.
    It is true that a number of Naga residents of the Imphal valley ran away to safer distances, quite understandably apprehending violence in the midst of the explosive situation. But the fact is, none of the dark scenario painted ever became a reality. In the current imbroglio too, if there were sinister elements wanting to provoke a communal backlash, their purpose would have been frustrated up.
    The state’s resilience were in public demonstration. Life went on. People did have to queue up overnight outside petrol pumps but they took the bad times in stride as if this was part of a bad patch in their life.

    Ordinary men and women in very ordinary services also proved that they are the sinews that hold the society together. Who can deny that without the commitment of the state’s truck drivers, things may have been very different. Repeated damages to vehicles, repeated personal injuries, repeated exposures to threats and dangers, repeated stranding on highways for weeks, all failed to deter them and they continued doing what they were supposed to do. Who else can deserve to be called heroes than these men and boys? There are more services like these, which despite low wages, despite poor working conditions, have acquired a life of their own, attracting dedicated professionals. They rather than all the white collared government jobs together, are who have planted Manipur’s economy to the ground. We for one would be happy if “Drivers Day”, as a symbol of all the state’s basic services, were to be celebrated as Integrity Day.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

              Astha Bharati