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October 12, 2004
Human life in India is woefully cheap, but some lives, it would seem, are cheaper than others.
Last week, on Gandhi Jayanti, there were serial bomb blasts and terrorist attacks all over Assam and in Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland. In just two days, some 60 people added their names to the unending list of victims of terrorism. Last Independence Day, an explosion in Dhemaji led to the death of 16 schoolchildren. The timing device used for the blast was much more sophisticated than anything the authorities have so far stumbled on.
As the incidents took place in Assam and Nagaland, rather than in Bhiwandi or Begusarai -- the catchment areas of low-brow television news channels -- the outrage was predictably muted. Yes, the home minister who had been repeatedly alerted to the threat by the IB, did take the first special plane east and mouthed some inanities, a few of which were even comprehensible.
The former home minister, now the Leader of the Opposition, held a press conference about the UPA government's mishandling of internal security, which politically correct editors relegated to less than a column on the inside pages. And there, apart from a one-day controversy over the US ambassador's surprise offer to call the FBI to assist investigations, the national supply of crocodile tears ended.
Also Read: Yes, to FBI!
In an act of colossal callousness, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has sworn on affidavit that he is a permanent resident of Assam, did not deem it necessary to visit the state that has provided him a Rajya Sabha berth for two terms. No one berated him for this astonishing lapse.
Our dominant sense of nationhood these days appears to be determined by a blend of North Indian mofussil insularity and noveau riche cretinism. In this hierarchy of values, the Northeast comes somewhere near the bottom of the heap. The region has become synonymous with a thousand insurgencies waged by mysterious outfits, known only by their acronyms. It has become synonymous with grandiose announcements by successive prime ministers of many thousand crore packages that disappear without trace, leaving a handful of political brokers very rich. And in the Indian bureaucracy, a posting in the Northeast is treated on par with incarceration in Siberia. Unwilling, homesick these babus are prone to callousness.
In the months to come, it is possible that the problems of the Northeast may be injected with a dash of glamour and even find their way into the proceedings of conflict-resolution workshops sponsored by angst-ridden Scandinavians and shady Americans foundations.
That's not because there is a sudden realisation that the problems of this part of the world have been neglected for too long and that it is time to make amends. Life, unfortunately, is not all that innocent.
Washington (and let's face it, it is the US alone that matters) isn't interested in the Assamese or Bodo insurgents because of some over-weaning desire to destabilise India, as the Left loonies believe, or promote Christianity in the region, as the Hindu alarmists feel. The suggestions are flattering but simply untrue.
Its offer of FBI assistance was prompted by the recognition that Bangladesh, like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, is becoming an important outpost of radical Islamism outside the Arab world. In a tangential way, the terrorist problems in Northeast India have become linked to the security of the US.
There are three separate problems in the region. The first centres on insurgent groups whose activities cover a wide swathe of territory from Nepal to Myanmar. These groups in turn are linked to the heart of India through terror groups like the People's War, whose leaders are now being feted as state guests by the Congress government of Andhra Pradesh. More to the point, these groups are now nurtured by the State apparatus in Bangladesh, a development that dates back to the installation of the Khaleda Zia government in 2001.
The second problem is the network of madarsas covering the Terai belt, Assam, West Bengal and Bangladesh. These madarsas have served as facilitation centres for the indoctrination and military training given to at least 5,000 Assamese Muslims in Bangladesh and, in some cases, Pakistan. They form a reserve army of jihadis.
Finally, there is the unchecked illegal immigration from Bangladesh that has led to the border districts of Bihar, West Bengal and Assam becoming Muslim-majority zones. The problem is not new and the process has been continuing since the 1960s. However, as the furore over the recent exercise in religious demography so vividly demonstrated, the problem has assumed absolutely alarming proportions. There is now a corridor extending from the border districts of West Bengal and Bihar to the border districts of Assam where the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh exercise a strategic clout. A possible alliance of the indigenous Muslim population with the Bangladeshi migrants could have an explosive impact on future developments in eastern India.
The past three years have seen the three strands coming together under a proverbial unified command based in Bangladesh but remote-controlled from Islamabad. It is this grand alliance of Northeastern insurgents, radical Islamists and the Bangladesh government that has made the threat to national security more potent. The categorical statements by Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister Shivraj Patil pinning responsibility for the blasts on the ISI, have to be viewed in this light. However, pinning Pakistan down is going to be difficult because the operations have been conducted with what the intelligence agencies call a 'high degree of deniability.'
After Punjab and Kashmir, we are seeing the rapid evolution of another insurgency aimed at bleeding India. It is also aimed at ensuring the shift of some of India's defence capability from the border with Pakistan to the border with Bangladesh. The fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan resulted in Pakistan losing its strategic depth. The disadvantage is sought to be mitigated by the creation of a second front for India.
Of course, the challenges will be fought met gusto. But the robustness of India's response will be greater if the national attitude to the problems of the Northeast isn't laced with either indifference or condescension. We also need to set our own house in order.
The killings in Assam and Nagaland aren't a part of some obscure and remote problem. They have a direct bearing on our future in Delhi and Mumbai.