Eleven of us were packed into a shared-taxi and I found myself crushed in the last row of the bouncing yellow sumo. My legs numb, I looked out of the window as we climbed the mountain above the rain clouds. I tried to hold onto some semblance of will power, alternately whispered to myself, ‘you can make it – no pain no gain – it’s your fault, who told you to travel to Nagaland.’ When we pulled up outside a dhaba, in Wokha village, my sense of relief and jubilation to feel my butt again was inexplicable.
At six foot two, wearing a rucksack, my attempts to ‘blend in’ with my surrounds had failed miserably. As I stepped out of the sumo, now somewhat feeling my legs, I was greeted by a wrinkled old man. He stood a little over five feet and was dressed in a coat and trousers. He tipped his cap and asked me my name and where I was from. “Avalok and I have come from Delhi” I replied. He smiled and said, “Ah, very nice. You have come from India.” Slightly confused, I thought to myself ‘isn’t Nagaland in India’, but not wishing to press the matter I bid him farewell and moved on. I was on my way to the NSCN (IM) camp in Mokokchung and I figured General Phunthing Shimray, a top leader of the Naga rebel group labelled ‘the mother of all insurgents’, would have the answers for me.
It has been three years since I made my way to the NSCN (IM) camp in Mokokchung village to speak to General Phunthing in a thatched hut, and today, he is the commander and chief of NSCN (IM) and I am questioning a lot of the realities of the Northeast. I went into the region wide eyed, naive, open minded and in awe of people fighting for their rights. I learnt of how the Indian government had wronged them, lied to them and betrayed them. How the state machinery has been used to beat them, kill them, rape them, all in an attempt to bring them into the fold of India and prove to them that they belong with ‘us’, strange isn’t it?
While all this is true and the people of the Northeast continue to suffer, conflict isn’t black and white and with time you start to see the grey. The recent bomb blast that damaged an oil pipeline at Makum in upper Assam’s Tinsukia district, for which the ULFA claimed responsibility, is a clear example of the grey. A group losing its relevance, trying to assert itself and remind the people of Assam, that they are the victims.
There is a sense of victimization in the Northeast, a sense that they have been wronged by the Indian state and they have. However, the cycle of exploitation has shifted. For years the Centre, ignored and exploited the Northeast, sent in the armed forces when it should have sent in mediators, but today the centre is pumping in money for development. The seven sisters have the highest per capita investment from the centre in the country averaging Rs.2,574.98 against the all India average of Rs.683.94 and this is without taking into account special arrangements and initiatives routed through the NEC and/or DONER. While lion’s share of the state budgets are earmarked for development activities, according to a Finance Commission report, the region has the lowest level of infrastructure in the country.
Who is to blame for this? Yes, the centre should have better checks in place, but the lack of development is at a state level. However, the State governments which are elected by the people every five years are not held accountable. Why? Since people are benefiting from the conflict they maintenance the status quo.
The region is littered with underground groups(UG) fighting for the cause of the people, while most people are now disconnect from their freedom fighters, these groups remain largely unaccountable. According to the Tehelka article – Wages of War – by Jimi Dey Gabriel, the Naga underground groups siphon off Rs. 600 crore a year from the Central funds allotted for development in the state. The leadership of the ANVC ,in Meghalaya’s Garo hills, has a share in the states coal mines. Julius Dorphang, the surrendered chairman of the Khasi HNLC admitted that his daily income from his personal betel-nut plantations in Bangladesh was Rs. 30,000 a day. What makes matters worse is that the Nagaland Home Minister Imkong L Imchen, admitted to Gabriel that politicians depend on the UG to win elections, as did a Congress MP from Nagaland when I met him a few years ago. But no one really holds the politicians or the UG groups accountable.
So politicians use conflict to demand money from the centre in the name of development. They win elections with the support of the UG and then turn a blind eye when they collect tax, run arms and drugs. But what completes the circle is a new middle class. For the first time, the Northeast faces a class divide. The insurgents in the region have pushed the outsider businessman out, opening the door for well to do locals. They have come in and monopolised the businesses, making a killing. But they don’t allow the money to trickle down as they hire outsiders. Yet again no one blames them. There are many local businessmen who operate as fronts for outsiders who take the lion’s share of the profit outside the region, but yet again no one blames them. Today, the Northeast is exploiting the Northeast.
Now don’t get me wrong, the centre as well as the Indian public has largely ignored and/or failed the Northeast, there is no denying that. Their sense of alienation is understandable as they are widely discriminated by an ill-informed India. While peace has not been achieved, the heavy deployment of the armed forces is a problem. However, the region needs to undertake a massive introspection. Corruption is open and in your face, with a little digging those responsible can be held accountable. The political system has largely failed the people; they need to make their vote count. There exists a severe lack of business acumen and the desire to push the limits. While some entrepreneurs are starting to find their own, by and large people are supported by their families or clans and therefore don’t feel the need to strive and save for the future. Training centres set up in the region aim to export the youth out of the region and into the hospitality and medical industry, but not to develop their own states. A sense of complacency and victimhood has gripped the region and a section of the population is benefiting from it.