In the Northeast of India they tell…

In the Northeast, they tell you, usually bluntly: “You Indians have the same attitude to us as the West has to the Third World. Normally, you ignore us completely. Our existence figures as a blip on your radar only when there is a disaster or calamity: massacres, serious ethnic clashes, floods, something bad. Otherwise, we are dead for you…”

I first heard these words in Nagaland and Mizoram more than 20 years ago. They greeted me again on my visit to the Northeast in mid-July. A remarkable achievement of the Indian state over the decades is that such resentment is now widely shared by the people of all seven states of the region.

The worst cesspools of discontent today are Assam and Manipur. The Assamese are upset not so much at the terrible floods and the havoc they are wreaking everywhere, including Guwahati city, as at the government’s apathy, the failure of its relief programme and its lack of preparedness and planning.

As most people know, relief provision has become a big racket involving crores of rupees. People have learnt to expect floods, and to great extent, to live with them: they know floods can’t be prevented or contained. But what they do expect is a warning from the state about the imminence and severity of floods, and some plans for timely evacuation. This alone could reduce loss to life by almost 100 per cent and damage to property by up to 80 per cent at a modest cost.

Instead, the government spends hundreds of crores on “flood control” — a massive scam which consists of building barrages and dams that will be washed away in no time, or which swollen rivers bypass.

One such project is a dam being built on the Pagladiya river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. This is a “multipurpose” affair, meant to establish “flood control” over 40,000 hectares, irrigate 54,000 hectares and even generate a token 3 MW of power. Three years ago, the project was meant to cost Rs 543 crores. Its estimated cost has more than doubled to Rs 1,136 crores — although it’s not even half-complete. The cost meter is running — and fast. The Pagladiya project came in for sharp criticism last year in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture.

I was on an Environment Ministry “Expert Committee” on river valley projects in 1996-98. The Pagladiya dam was referred to us. “Pagladiya” literally means “mad river” because it changes its course wildly, drastically and suddenly. This is the result largely of seismic factors which cause mountainous masses of earth to shift position, creating landslides, huge silt flows and floods. The effect is compounded by deforestation and other man-made factors.

A minority within the committee, including me, opposed the project because no dam could possibly address the root-cause of the floods or the river’s “migration” (shifting of its bed) by tens of kilometres at a time. A three km-long dam would be useless, for instance, on a river which changes course by 30 km in 4 years!

The project, we argued, is doubly irrational because in the name of “irrigation”, it would create water-logging in places. Half the power it might generate in a good year would be used to pump out the accumulated water from “irrigation” — to prevent floods!

The project was approved under pressure from the Centre and irrigation lobbies. Today, the same “mad river” is creating havoc through floods and by depositing coarse silt on fertile paddy-fields — causing local shortages of food. The Pagladiya, reports The Hindu, has turned Namati village (pop 8,000) in Assam’s Nalbari district “into an island. Three villagers, including two women, [have] died of diarrhoea due to lack of safe drinking water. The district administration has now installed four tube-wells”. The irony of drilling tube-wells amidst floods should be self-evident!

At any rate, continues the report, the large amount of sand the river carries “gets deposited on the bed, raising its level. As a result, it easily breaches the banks, causing catastrophic damage. This year, too, [the] Pagladiya changed its course and converged with another river, Buradiya”, no less!

The purpose of describing the “flood control” racket is to highlight the nature of the Centre-Northeast relationship. If New Delhi can be so supremely cynical and callous towards the region’s largest constituent, with a quarter-century-long history of insurgency, one can only imagine its attitude towards the smaller states.

Manipur is a perfect, if sordid, instance of this. It has witnessed angry month-long protests at the alleged abduction, torture, rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year old Manipuri woman on July 11 while under the custody of Assam Rifles. The protest’s most dramatic form was a demonstration by women in front of the headquarters of Assam Rifles in Imphal on July 15. They stripped themselves bare and held up two banners: “Indian Army, rape us; Indian Army, take our flesh.”

Also Read: Manipur — Looming Implosion

The Manipuris are convinced that Assam Rifles personnel kidnapped and raped Manorama and then claimed that she was a militant activist who tried to escape and was shot dead — a predictable, familiar account of hundreds of “encounter killings” in the Northeast and elsewhere in India.

This version is belied by tell-tale torture marks and the location of as many as 16 bullets in Manorama’s body. It has further infuriated the Manipuri public which has long opposed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, one of the most draconian laws ever on India’s statute books. Such is the abuse (or rather, normal use) of this law — and 450 allegations have been levelled against its application in the Northeast since 1990 — that it evokes popular revulsion. A poignant protest against the killing of 10 innocent civilians under the Act four years ago has been led by Irom Sharmila Devi who has refused to eat anything since November 2000. (She is force-fed through her nose.)

What’s wrong with the AFSPA? Basically everything. It’s modelled on the colonial Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance 1942, which was enacted to neutralise the Quit India Movement. Under it, the government can declare any area, district, or a whole state, “disturbed”, conferring upon the armed forces extraordinary powers — without accountability. An officer of any rank in a “disturbed” area can “enter and search any premises without warrant”, destroy it, and carry out an arrest on “reasonable suspicion” that a person has committed or is about to commit a cognisable offence! It allows the killing of a person who, in the “opinion” of the officer, violates prohibitory orders.

If the officer “is of opinion that it is necessary to do so”, he may kill any person who violates prohibitory orders including trivial ones like Sec 144. The Act’s most obnoxious part is Section 6 which grants immunity to the armed forces — “no prosecution… or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done” under the Act. “Purported to be done” takes the cake.

POTA is an obnoxious law. But it at least has an appeal process, norms of evidence, and other (inadequate) “safeguards”. The AFSPA’s sole “safeguard” is Section 5, which says that any person “taken into custody under this Act shall be made over” to the police “with the least possible delay” — “least”, as determined by the army, of course. The AFSPA is a disgraceful and dishonourable law. It must be repealed back, stock and barrel.

That’s the unanimous demand of the Manipuris. The Centre is mulishly resisting it. The people’s moral-political pressure has impelled Chief Minister Ibobi Singh to lift the AFSPA from the Imphal municipal area — an obviously inadequate step. The Centre, technically, can re-impose the Act on Imphal, or it can clamp President’s rule on Manipur. But that would begin a potentially catastrophic confrontation with a state of the Union.

The Centre has already provoked suspicion and anger in the Imphal Valley by extending the ceasefire agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M) for another year. The agreement covers all Naga-inhabited areas and not just the state of Nagaland. These include four hill districts of Manipur. The Manipuris understandably fear that a literal interpretation of the agreement might lead to their state’s division. True, the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme promises to maintain “the integrity” of India’s Northeastern states. But this has not fully assured the Manipuris.

Suspicion of the Naga accord has lent an edge to the anti-AFSPA agitation. The Centre must assuage the Manipuris’ hurt even as it talks to the NSCN(I-M). Manipur is a site of many conflicts: between the Imphal Valley and the hills, Meiteis and tribals, Nagas and Kukis. The Centre must not aggravate matters by adopting a mindlessly insensitive stance or imposing bad compromises like shifting the Assam Rifles headquarters while continuing with the AFSPA. The consequences could be unspeakable for the entire Northeast.

Praful Bidwai