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Northeast

Power and Persuasion on the Frontier

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Northeast push is spurred by political and military reasons
When BJP leader Padmanabha Balakrishna Acharya was named Governor of Nagaland this July, it was, without doubt, a reward for the long years he spent drafting people of the Northeast, especially students, to the party fold. As founder General-Secretary of Student Experience in Inter-state Living (SEIL), a student exchange programme with branches in ‘seven sisters’—Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya—he brought students from the region to cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, housed them with BJP families and financed their education. For years, several students lived in his Mumbai home, starting from the late 1960s. His efforts were in line with the RSS mission of integrating the region with the rest of the country and keeping alive its Hindu traditions, something that was reiterated early this year by Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS sarsanghchalak, who rued: “The nation knows that the region exists, but fails to realise that it’s a part of the country.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no stranger to the RSS’s decades-old political agenda in the region, this week announced various initiatives for the region besides flagging off new trains and promising to build new roads in the region. In Guwahati, Assam, he flagged off the first passenger train from Mendipathar to Guwahati that virtually put Meghalaya on the railway map of India; the Prime Minister also laid the foundation stone of the new broad-gauge railway line from Bhairabi to Sairang in Mizoram. Later in Kohima, capital of Nagaland, where Modi appeared in public wearing the traditional Naga costume while inaugurating the Hornbill Festival, he talked about the need to bring in development and to create an economic zone in the region. He also reminded the people of the region that his government has earmarked Rs 53,000 crore in the Union Budget for development of the Northeast. Besides, Rs 28,000 crore has been earmarked for construction of new railway lines, Rs 5,000 crore for improvement of intra-state power transmission systems and Rs 5,000 crore to improve mobile connectivity in the region.

As usual, Modi played to the gallery and declared, with a touch of philosophical flourish: “It is believed in Vastu Shastra that the northeastern part of the house must be proper. Then things will be good at home. If we take good care of the Northeast, the entire country will move ahead.”

UNLIKE THE REST

Dr Rajen Singh of Manipur University says that the RSS and the BJP are aware that the aggressive Hindutva politics practised elsewhere won’t “wash” in the Northeast. “They should work as meaningful agents of social change, as social workers, perhaps with the purpose of spreading Hindu values that are not valued by the next generation of Hindus in the region,” he says. Professor Sajal Nag, a professor of history at Assam University who has extensively studied the political under- currents of the northeastern region, agrees. Which is why, he avers, organisations such as the BJP are more focused on development of the region so as to secure acceptability. After all, despite numerous incidents of forced conversions to Christianity in some states and an influx of illegal Muslim migrants in states like Assam, aggressive posturing by pro- Hindu outfits haven’t produced much results across Northeast, he points out.

Argues Nag: “Remember, Hindu Mahasabha made very early inroads into Assam in the 1930s, when it tried to communalise the Muslim immigrants issue but failed completely. Actually Assam should have emerged as the stronghold of Hindutva politics right from the 1930s given its geopolitical situation. Assam was plagued by immigrants of Muslims from erstwhile Bengal districts. The entire politics in that period was dominated by this one theme— Muslim immigrants. Assam was the only province that had three successive Muslim League ministries. It was a province, which despite being Hindu majority, was demographically transformed and was demanded [by the Muslim League] in the proposed state of Pakistan. Other than Bengal and Punjab, it was the only province which [directly] experienced Partition. Yet despite very early and strong initiatives, neither would Hindutva politics take root in Assam nor were there any communal riots until a minor one in 1950.” The historian says it is a tribute to the secular character of the people of Assam and Tripura that despite having all the potential of Hindutva politics, they remained steadfastly unmoved by any communalist propaganda or mobilisation.

Nag has a point. And certainly, the RSS and the BJP were aware of it. The likes of Acharya were not aggressive proponents of Hindutva politics. “Instead he was someone who tried to counter the way Christian missionaries whispered the Gospel of Christ into the ears of people by educating them and by co-opting them to the Hindu scheme of things,” notes a BJP leader who has known the Nagaland Governor for a long time. According to his own brief bio, Acharya was actively engaged in ‘My Home is India’, a project run by the BJP’s student arm, ABVP. He was also active with the publication wing of the pro-RSS NGO, Indian National Fellowship Centre, which has over the decades brought out 10 booklets on Tribal nationalist leaders such as Rani Ma Gaidinliu (Manipur), U Tirot Singh and Jaban Bay (Meghalaya), Dr Daying Ering and Narottam (Arunachal Pradesh) and also published Tribal proverbs, folk-tales and poems. “When in the Northeast, do as the northeasterners do. That is the RSS-BJP policy,” insists the BJP leader. Phairembam Newton Singh, who teaches at Sikkim University, partly agrees, “Maybe this is why the BJP is using the ‘development’ card [rather than the religious one] in the region with all these sops [announced in the budget specifically for the region].”

STRATEGIC INTERESTS

There’s certainly more to Modi’s interest in the Northeast than mere party politics, says Dr Nag. It is no secret that the RSS had prepared the ground for the BJP’s spectacular performance in Lok Sabha polls in the Northeast in a subtle fashion. Modi’s outbursts against illegal immigration from Bangladesh enhanced his popularity among the locals. The BJP secured half of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam and opened its account in Arunachal Pradesh by winning one constituency. The BJP won as many as 36.6 per cent of the votes polled in Assam. “The RSS worked silently and Modi’s stellar image also worked wonders at least in Assam,” another BJP leader recalls.

While Nag may be right about the failure of the politics of aggressive posturing, ever since the resounding Lok Sabha poll triumph, the RSS has been busy instilling ‘nationalist pride’ in the Northeast. In July this year, RSS chief Bhagwat told members of its education wing, Vidyabharti, that the organisation should work towards “spreading the feeling of nationalism” in the Northeast. He had commended the ‘success’ of a Sangh-run school in Nagaland in ‘binding’ the people of that state with the rest of the country. “Five years ago, we started a Vidyabharti school in Nagaland. Today, the children are speaking in Hindi and we are glad that we have been able to spread the spirit of nationalism there. Tomorrow, they will be fearless and defend every inch of this country. Our vision is not restricted to just these areas,” he had said.

The attention being shown to the Northeast is not new, however. Since the region had been a Congress stronghold, all non-Congress coalitions have made efforts to establish a foothold in the seven states. “From the time of Prime Minister Deve Gowda, Northeast India has been receiving continuous attention. Atal Bihari Vajpeyee was not far behind. In fact, although the Northeast has been the traditional stronghold of the Congress, it was always the other parties that gave more attention to Northeast. Modi’s sops are not new but a continuation of that tradition,” says Nag. The difference now is that the Modi Government is giving more importance to the Northeast as a strategic frontier region with China. According to him, the new NDA Government has shown more than enough signs of departing from the age-old policy of keeping frontier areas backward. It should be so, says American military historian, Edward Luttwak, who adds that the Arunachal Pradesh he saw is “roadless and abandoned”, to the extent that there is no way India could resist an attack from China. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has come under sharp attack for providing poor-quality infrastructure for the Indian forces in areas near the Chinese border.

True, Modi’s thrust on developing the region stems primarily from China’s aggressive military posturing. For his part, Harsh V Pant, a professor of International Relations at King’s College London, has termed Modi’s push on the security front as “a new purposeful response” against China with a focus on border management and defence acquisitions. Modi’s strategy for the Northeast, pundits outline, is in sync with his assertive foreign policy, which, according to renowned strategist Brahma Chellaney, has a two-fold focus: regain India’s clout in its strategic backyard by reaching out to smaller neighbours that have traditionally been in India’s sphere of influence; and gaining closer engagement with the great powers. Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has often noted that, for Modi, issues of mistrust and latent hostility often constrain the pursuit of cool-headed diplomacy with countries like China.

Modi knows that he could be tested through Chinese provocations in contested territory, Kugelman maintains. In September, the Prime Minister had to bluntly tell visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping that Beijing’s intransigence on the border could impact bilateral ties. “Yeh chhoti chhoti ghatnayen bade se bade sambandhon ko prabhavit kar deti hain. Agar daant ka dard ho toh saara sharir kaam nahin karta hai. (Even such small incidents can impact the biggest of relationships just as a little toothache can paralyse the entire body),” Modi had cautioned the Chinese leader when China refused to pull back troops in the Chumar sector of eastern Ladakh even 24 hours after Xi said the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had been asked to withdraw. It is in this context that votaries of closer military collaboration between India and Japan argue that China, which often does not take Indian warnings seriously, cannot ignore an Indo-Japanese coalition. “The India-Japan relationship is a logical partnership—two countries linked by concern about China’s rising influence in the region. There is also a very heavy trade dimension to this relationship. Modi will want to deepen ties with Tokyo for sure,” Kugelman says.

Making better roads and bridges in the border areas of the Northeast is crucial for India’s military preparedness, and Modi knows that very well, says a government official. “At the moment, we have traipsing roads that are one above the other, like in any hilly terrain. We will need to develop the entire Northeast and also build its infrastructure and straight roads as part of our new strategy,” says the official. The logic is that straight roads can be rebuilt easily following an attack, while roads built one above the other take an awful lot of time considering BRO standards.

Nag emphasises that Modi’s political design is, therefore, “not so much with an eye to have few more seats in the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha”. The Northeast has only 25 MPs. And a large number of them are already with BJP. “The new dimension of the policy is with an eye towards China and its aggressive posturing towards India. The development initiatives are to integrate the Northeast more strongly with India through a network of railways, roads and other such infrastructural networks. That is why the sops are not in terms of doles but railways, roads, river projects and so on,” asserts Nag.

Meanwhile, the RSS would continue to work ‘silently’ among Tribals of the Northeast. Nag notes that the RSS is most active in Tripura, Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and among the Reang tribes of Mizoram. “They have several Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (BJP’s feeder organisation that works among tribals) units working among these people. The good point about their work in this region is that unlike other areas of the Indian mainland they don’t try to communalise them here. They concentrate more on apprising them about the rest of India and try to infuse ideas of Indian nationalism in them,” says Nag. He feels that the problem with this approach on the part of the RSS and BJP is that they start with a presumption that most Tribals in the region nurture an anti-India, anti-Indian attitude. “This is completely absurd. The other problems with this approach are that they work among those tribes or peoples whom they consider close to Hinduism or those who follow some kind of Hindu practices,” the historian adds.

A BJP leader who has long worked in the region concedes, “Politically, cracking the Northeast code isn’t easy. What is important now in the face of the growing Chinese threat is to aggressively develop the region and integrate people there with the rest of India. The threat from China is very real.” “The sight of the Prime Minister wearing a traditional costume is therefore very symbolic,” he adds, accusing the Congress of alienating the region from the rest of India. Clearly, the Northeast is hot for Modi, and he, a tireless campaigner, knows when to combine action with symbolism.

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