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Impressions of an IDSA Seminar on the North East

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 10, 2006

    On September 25 and 26, 2006, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, conducted a seminar on Peace and Development in the North East in Shillong, Meghalaya. This was done in collaboration with the North Eastern Council (NEC) and the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong. The two-day seminar provided a forum for scholars, media personalities, military personnel, bureaucrats and politicians from the region to express their views and thinking on the subject at hand. During the course of the seminar, an interesting mix of political vision, academic analyses, and hands-on experience of journalists and the military, interwoven with some very stimulating discussions on issues vital to the North East, were observed. The seminar, a novel gesture on the part of the IDSA in the region, registered strong local interest and media coverage. The inaugural session was aired on live television throughout the North East.

    In his welcome address, H. V. Lalringa, Secretary, NEC, appreciated the IDSA's gesture and stated that the seminar could not have come at a more appropriate time given the ongoing Naga Peace Process and its likely positive impact on peace in other states of the region. IDSA Director, N. S. Sisodia, identified the North East as one of the most important regions of India, given its strategic location, its rich culture and an abundance of natural resources. Tapping the human and economic potential would be extremely beneficial for the region and would also at the same time open the doors for cross border linkages with an economically vibrant South-East Asia. He stressed on the importance of peace and development in the North East and indicated that the seminar was the start of a process for further cementing bonds with institutes and universities in the region.

    In his inaugural address, P. R. Kyndiah, Union Cabinet Minister for Tribal Affairs and Development of North Eastern Region, pointed out the deep concerns about the foreign nexus in aiding North Eastern insurgent groups set up sanctuaries in neighbouring countries. He expressed satisfaction with the Centre's efforts in engaging in peace talks with rebel groups and hoped that the North East would witness higher economic activity with various developmental schemes in place. R. G. Lyngdoh, Home Minister in the Government of Meghalaya, spoke against any governmental incentives to surrendered militants. He candidly argued that such packages indirectly encourage youths to take up the gun and later surrender in the hope of enjoying government-funded benefits.

    The broad topics covered in the Seminar included: Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency, Identity and Conflict, Peace and Development, and The Way Ahead.

    Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency

    The IDSA has dealt with topics of defence and strategic issues related to the North East since its inception. Dr. Pushpita Das, an Associate Fellow at the IDSA, gave an excellent overview of the work that has been done at the Institute in this regard. The earliest publication in the IDSA journal was the paper titled "Perspectives from Nagaland" by Prof. B. K. Roy Burman, which analysed the Naga insurgency in two contexts - South East Asia and India. In its early years, the Institute also published three papers on the Sino-Indian imbroglio with a focus on Arunachal Pradesh. In subsequent years, the IDSA has followed these up with several in-depth articles, papers, monographs and books, all primarily dealing with insurgency and security.

    Insurgency in the North East thrives on cross border flows of finance and small arms. As a result, when the stock market in South East Asia crashed in the late 1990s, some of the biggest losers were insurgent outfits of the North East. The 'economy' created by these outfits collects revenue through parallel taxes, extortion, ransom, foreign aid, profit sharing with corporate houses, siphoning off state developmental funds and arms and narcotics trade. These issues were brought out by Prof. Sajal Nag of Assam University, Silchar, in his paper titled "Financing the Resistance: Political Economy of Insurgency and the Structure of Non-State Economy in North East India."

    Prof. K. Ibo Singh's (Manipur University) paper on "Insurgency in Northeast India and India's Neighbours" was an excellent recap of the trans-border network feeding the insurgency in the region. Insurgency in the region thrives on several external linkages and connections with contiguous countries. The unfortunate attitude of Dhaka is manifest in active shelter and support to militants of the region bolstered by the 'sworn India hater' - Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence (ISI). The Myanmar connection is kind of 'traditional' with the base provided by the World War II 'veterans' lineage in the form of the American trained and armed Kachin militants. However, Myanmar's current interface with North East outfits is provided by S. S. Khaplang's faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, a rather easy task given the porous nature of the Indo-Myanmar boundary.

    Another important paper "The Changing Scenario of Insurgents in Manipur" by Prof. Joykumar Singh (Manipur University) reflected on the existing 'culture of violence' in Manipur today. In his view, revolutionary activities by the youth are motivated by a feeling of desolation resulting from the Indian state's inability to bring about meaningful assimilation of identities and culture. Also, non-violent protests against the Government of India's decision to situate Manipur within the categorty 'C' states gradually spiralled into violence and separatist tendencies. Referring to the concept of the 'moral efficacy of violence', Prof. Singh lucidly argued that New Delhi's lacklustre response to non-violent dissent has radicalised the youth and forced them to conclude that violent movements get attention whereas non-violent protests do not.

    The North East of India abounds in 'social capital' within the civil society discourse, which can be vitally used for peace and development. This is a resource that is almost unexplored and therefore untapped. However, this concept has a downside because even though there are strong bonds among smaller groups based on kinship and tribal affiliation, it is weaker in larger groups. The remedy lies in better communications, which creates bonds on shared values and issues, impacting upon the larger group. This perspective was expertly dealt with in the paper titled "Role of Civil Society" by Dr. Archana Upadhyay from Dibrugarh University. A case in point is the Naga reconciliation moves and the growth of a common sense of purpose.

    Identity and Conflict

    The first paper under this theme titled "'Acculturative Stress and Identity in National Minority of the North-Eastern India" by Dr Zokaitluangi from Mizoram University dealt with issues of identity, attitudes, values and adjustment from acculturation based on a study of five hundred and thirty five Mizo students. It makes interesting inter-scale/sub-scale factor analysis on psychological measures. These measures are analysed with the help of multiple regression analyses on three independent components of acculturation, namely, heritage acculturation, mainstream acculturation and the resultant acculturative stress. Acculturation is the process when two or more cultures with different origins, behavioural traits and lifestyles interact continuously and directly leading to the process of adaptation. Heritage refers to an individual/group's culture of origin, mainstream indicates the 'other' dominant culture that an individual/group comes across besides the heritage culture, and acculturative stress arises on account of the process of adaptation by an individual/group with the mainstream culture. This is especially true for a minority due to the consequences of identity conflict and ethnic values. A case in point is the Naga identity and conflict arising out of acculturative stress. This identity stress has been for long a bone of contention due to rigid posturing by both parties to the issue.

    Dr. Nani Mahanta of Gauhati University debated on the necessity of an interface between policy makers, insurgent leaders and civil society. He argued that civil society could be a third face if consultations between the first two sections reach a deadlock. Dr. S. Bhattacharejee of Tripura University provided a detailed perspective based on identity complexities in Tripura, where the differences between tribal/non-tribal identities are an everyday reality. Professors A. L. Ao and A. K. Singh's "Identity and Conflict: Nagaland Perspective" emphasised on the Naga issue from a critical standpoint. The authors claim that the Nagas are a separate nation, with a distinctive culture and lifestyle and that the so-called Naga 'insurgency' is actually a movement to preserve and protect this distinct identity.

    The Naga crisis draws its strength and supposed legitimacy from a historical baseline. This was examined vis-à-vis the other more contemporary contributing factors to the crisis in the paper titled 'Contested Domain of the Naga Narrative', by the author of these impressions. Based on historical evidence, the author argued that the Naga claims of uniqueness and distinctive identity do not hold true, given that Naga tribes had strong linkages with the Meitheis of Manipur and the Ahoms of Assam. Moreover, the British had occupied their lands by the end of the 19th century and established an administrative set up in the Naga Hills.