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Home > India > News > Columnists > Dr Anil Athale

Provincialism: A new internal security threat?

March 17, 2008

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The recent events in Maharashtra, where the North Indians, were the target of mob violence, ought to ring alarm bells. There are several reasons for it. Most important being that Mumbai, which was the centre of these incidents, is the financial capital of the country.

Maharashtra is no remote Nagaland, and instability and violence here can badly affect the economy of the country. But even more worryingly, India has seen in the past where extremism has flourished under the garb of provincial pride or language and in some cases has turned into a full blown insurgency and terrorism.

What happened in the northeast and Punjab in the early 1980s ought to be remembered. It is true that public memory is short, but surely analysts and the government should know better. I was in the operations branch of the Army's Eastern Command dealing with internal security and it fell to my lot to deal with the outbreak of violent movements in the northeast, the reverberations of  those events still continue to be felt in Assam, Manipur and Tripura.

Unlike in the case of Nagaland or Mizoram, where secessionist demands formed the core of the troubles from the beginning, in case of Assam, Tripura and Manipur, troubles began as students movements to rectify alleged injustice or threat of 'outsiders' taking up jobs/political power at the expense of locals. It is at a later stage that these movements 'graduated' to full-blown insurgencies and even terrorism.

At the other end in the west, Punjab saw the beginning of a militant Sikh movement led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale that led to a 10-year long bloodbath.

It is undoubtedly true that the troubles in Maharashtra were blown out of proportion by sensation hungry 24-hour news channels, who fuelled the violence by repeated telecast of isolated incidents and did irresponsible scare mongering. But the pro and con views that have been widely aired on these incidents show that there is indeed a deep sense of grievance on both sides. This makes it all the more necessary to take it seriously. Especially so since in less than a years time the country goes to polls and there is no limit to which some politicians could go to fortify their respective vote banks � the future of the country be dammed!

Identity, pent up grievances and perception of a partisan Centre:

The tiny state of Tripura is an example of what havoc demographic changes can bring to a peaceful society. The troubles in Tripura began at the time of Independence when a one way movement of Hindu Bengalis out of the erstwhile East Pakistan took place. Almost within a decade the original tribal inhabitants of Tripura found themselves swamped by the refugees. The situation in 1980s was such that the original inhabitants numbered just 20 percent of the population. Bengalis formed near 80 percent and got absolute political power and the tribals became a minority in their own land. The backlash against this loss of identity land was violent. At a place called Mandai, in 1980, the tribals attacked and killed over 200 Bengali men, women and children who had taken refuge in a temporary camp. Till Dawood Ibrahim [Images] excelled them in 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, this remained the single biggest terrorist incident in the history of independent India. The security forces launched usual operations and a low level insurgency led by the Tripura National Army continues to date.

The plight of Tripura had its echo in the entire northeast. The troubles in Assam began as a students' movement against the unending flow of Bangladeshi immigrants. Assamese feared that sooner or later they would be a minority. The government of India and many home ministers have repeatedly acknowledged the problem of illegal migrants. But such is the lure of 'vote banks' that nothing has been done over the years. When the students of Assam under AASU (All Assam Students Union appropriately aasu or tears in Hindi) began their agitation it received support from the entire Assamese society. Writers, professionals, artists and even government bureaucrats of Assamese origin had their sympathy for the agitation.

This was a time of second oil shock (when crude oil prices doubled in a year) and the AASU decided to wield the oil weapon by stopping the flow of oil from Assam. Oil was likened to the blood of 'mother Assam'. The army successfully broke the oil blockade (Operation Indra Vajra) but the bitterness caused by ignoring the rightful concerns of Assamese soon manifested into an armed struggle. The United Liberation Front of Asom, a violent, armed organisation was born out of this agitation and continues its depredations. It is ironic that ULFA has now teamed with Bangladesh and joined the Pakistanis and other anti-national elements.  

At that very time in Manipur, under the aegis of Manipur Students Association, the Meiteis, the indigenous tribe, began an agitation for concessions at par with  Scheduled Tribes.  Following the example set by the Nagas and Mizos, it was only a matter of time before the student agitation morphed into an armed struggle for 'independence'. Two groups, PrePak and PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) soon began an armed insurgency that again continues to date.

The Punjab issue was slightly different. Sikhs were a well integrated community and had more than its share of jobs and wealth. Yet, shortsighted political manipulation and the urge to outdo the Akali Dal in religious zeal, politicians in Delhi led by Indira Gandhi [Images] created a monster called Bhindranwale. Older people in Mumbai may remember the massive procession in which he was welcomed in Mumbai in 1976, with truckloads of his followers armed to teeth with rifles and sten guns (the 9mm stengun was a favourite weapon of the late Bhindranwale and in all his photographs he is cradling the same).

The plot went horribly wrong. Many analysts (wrongly) claim that it was the Sikh-Nirankari clash in 1979 that began the Khalistan movement in Punjab. The long and short of the story is that a large number of Sikhs in Punjab felt that they were being discriminated and the Centre was not just or neutral. Following the Assam pattern, these misguided people then played into the hands of rabid Islamists (the very Islamists who murdered their three Gurus) based in Pakistan and began a violent secessionist movement.

Consequences of the follies of 1980s have followed India in the 21st century.

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retired) is the coordinator of Initiative for Peace And Disarmament, a Pune-based think-tank.

Part II: Provincialism: The problems of Mumbai

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