By Dr. Jyoti Prasad Das
United we gain, divided we lose.’ If we fail to abide by this guiding principle, then we will have no one else to pin the blame on, for our threatened existence, but ourselves. We must not accept the hapless situation that we are mired in, as fait accompli, when concerted and collective civil activism and awakening can change the face of our society, state and the nation as well. If we let our ethnic identities overshadow our collective Assamese identity, then there will be no Assamese left; but a Boro, a Karbi, a Rabha, a Kalita, a Brahmin, and so on. If our state, which sends just 14 MP’s to the Lok Sabha, degenerates along ethnic faultlines into smaller states, then what will be the political weight and bargaining power at the Centre of these individual states? There is a growing public outcry against the Centre’s lackadaisical attitude towards Assam and the other Northeastern states. Now, can the breakaway states with diminished political clout routinely grab the Centers attention?
The Union government is run by joint secretaries. Policies are made by them. Do we have a crop of such officers who hail from this region, with extensive knowledge of our socio-political conditions, and are well suited to make policies for this region? It is heartening to learn that more and more of our youths are competing in the civil services. But it would take years for the successful ones to rise to those coveted ranks and make their indelible mark in the entrenched bureaucracies of the North and South Blocks. And in the interim period until that happens, how do we grapple with the crises that threaten to plunge Assam into perpetual turmoil? Through a firm-footed approach of the government on the following issues. If these are not dealt with, then peace will remain elusive and our collective wish to see Assam as a top performing state will remain a pipedream.
First, let us consider the issue of ‘ethno-exclusivism’, which RN Ravi (a former IB official) had broached in one of his columns in the Assam Tribune. When a particular ethnic group, not a demographically dominant one, is entrusted with major powers and rights over a certain territorial belt, in the form of an autonomous council, then there will inevitably be a backlash from the other ethnic groups settled in that area for rights and resources. There are 21 such autonomous councils in Assam and the population in each of these councils, is definitely not homogenous. The gravity of the problem is further compounded by heightened fears of unabated influx of illegal migrants who jostle for the depleting land and forest resources. This does not augur well for the safety of our society. Dissolution of the councils, is not an option as that would lead to a vicious cycle of bloodletting, but shying away from redressing the grievances of the long-settled weaker sections and leaving the issue unattended for another day, isnt cerebral either.
Second, reports have surfaced that apart from the youths undergoing rehabilitation who retain a large cache of weapons with them, the increasing presence of illegal arms with other nefarious elements in the society is also a grim reality. Sources have pointed out that the spurt in the crime rate of the state vis-à-vis the other Indian states, is linked to the rampant proliferation of arms in Assam. This trend must be curbed. The government must instill confidence in those who are waiting to join the mainstream. The inmates at the designated camps must not be made to wait endlessly in agony and despair. The chances of some of them deserting the camps and returning to the jungles are not slim. If Assam fails to usher in an era of peace and stability, industrialization will not follow. The cliché in policy circles is that the region cannot absorb investments. Even under tranquil conditions, large industries may not make a beeline due to infrastructural impediments, but small and medium enterprises will definitely spring up. They will generate employment for our youths who can be recruited after being imparted with adequate skills.
The Centre runs several skill-development schemes, some of which are specifically for the Northeastern youths. When employment grows, disgruntlement dwindles. This realization has largely helped the Han-dominated totalitarian CPC to run a country the size of China for so long.
Calls for sealing the Indo-Bangladesh border has reached a fever pitch. We need to look beyond the conventional forms of border fencing, security and surveillance in the wake of the expose of unearthed tunnels in the Samba sector and the repeated bids of incursion in the Northern sector. The most heavily-guarded borders in the world are also not free of such incidents. The Minutemen Project, which was set up to monitor the US-Mexico border, has run into controversies. Reports of tunneling and trans-border smuggling are rife. Reports of skirmishes and tunneling in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between N. Korea and S. Korea running along the 38th parallel have also come to the fore. The fencing along the China-N. Korea border between the Yalu and Tumen rivers have not dampened Chinese nationalism among the diaspora who live in the 3 northeastern provinces of China.
There is an undeniable linkage between the China-based Koreans and the S. Korea-based Damul (reclaim all) movement. This can be likened to the fundamentalist nationalism propagated by radical forces in Bangladesh which is detrimental to the stability of the Northeast in particular and the nation in general. The Philadelphi Corridor (Egypt-Gaza border) is known for the thriving tunnel industry. The Isreal-Gaza border has become relatively calmer following the induction of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system by the IDF which has blocked shelling from Gaza to a large extent. We need to look into the pitfalls of these border management mechanisms while chalking out a tangible strategy on border security. There is also a boundary row between Bangladesh and India. The issue of ‘chitmahals’-border enclaves- must be judiciously settled as this is integral to the long-term success of our border security plans.
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Finally, the most challenging issue of deporting the legally detected migrants. Delhi has not taken any pro-active step in meaningfully engaging with the Awami League government, which is considered to be quite sympathetic to Indian concerns. Delhi must first help Dhaka in evolving a multipartite consensus on this nettlesome issue which has political ramifications in both countries. Consensus building will only gain traction when there is a substantial economic incentive to Bangladesh. India’s powerful corporate sector must step in to step up investments in that country which can then absorb the deported migrants. There must be some form of an economic union between India and Bangladesh with a more or less balanced trade and the Norhteast in the vanguard. This is essential for our ‘Look East Policy‘ to take off in a big way. Guest workers from Bangladesh can be brought in to meet the rising demand for labour in our booming construction sector with work permits or temporary work visas.
The views expressed are the author’s own