ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam), National Liberation Front of Tripura, National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland are just some of the names that have constantly made headlines in Indian newspapers in the past. The common thing that unites all such organisations is that they are all insurgent groups in the North-Eastern part of India. Previously called NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) and nicknamed the Seven Sister States, the Indian North East broadly includes the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya. Today while most of India makes its way towards progress and prosperity, it seems as if we have forgotten our people in this part of the country. Even after independence, there has been little development in this region. This isolation from the mainstream politics and economy arguably led to violent rebel groups mushrooming and shoving the region into a downward spiral of chaos and instability. India must recognise this grave situation and help out its North East before it’s too late.
Tensions exist between North East states and the central government though there are some interstate disputes as well. The natives have had concern over the growing number of migrants from other parts of India. States have accused New Delhi of overlooking the issues pertinent to them. It is this feeling of being excluded and neglected which has led the natives of these states to seek greater participation in self-governance. While most demand either a separate state or autonomy, there are some extremists who are fighting for the complete independence of their homelands. There have been occasional bombings and attacks and militancy is on the rise in the region. There are people who believe that many of these insurgent groups are sponsored by China and other external agents.
The British annexed the North East region to create a buffer between their colony and other countries. Thus, they never really meant to include the North East in mainstream India. Several attempts have been made by the Indian Government from time to time for the assimilation of the North East in mainstream India. Despite the setting up of councils and committees from time to time, studies have shown that even after the economic liberalisation of the 1990s the region lags behind severely in terms of development. This suggests that a more integrated and grass- roots approach is the need of the hour to rid the region of its troubles.
The need for action
In my three trips to the regions of Assam and Arunchal Pradesh, I noticed that North East India is a region unique in its diversity of ethnicity, languages and culture. It has a plethora of traditions and a rich heritage. Right from the kingdom of the Palas, the region has deep roots in Indian history. Besides being a melting pot of culture, the region is very rich in resources. Digboi in Assam is wellknown as the first oil refinery to be set up in India. Besides oil, the region produces some of the best tea in the world like the Darjeeling Tea. The North East also houses India’s last few tropical and subtropical forests. I feel that the natural scenic beauty of the North East is still unsung and has huge potential as far as tourism is concerned. There are natural sanctuaries and wildlife parks like Kaziranga and Manas that are home to the world’s most exotic animals like the tiger and the onehorned Indian rhino. There is potential for generation of huge amounts of hydropower from thisregion as well. In my view, India’s North East has a great role to play in the geopolitics of Asia as well as the world. Its geographical location, especially its proximity to China, makes it an ideal place for an engagement with the Chinese and East Asian economies. It is noteworthy how China recently invested huge sums of money in the infrastructural development of its remote regions in Tibet and even constructed the world’s highest railway there. India fought a brutal and costly war against China in 1962 over the region and now that the North East is a part of sovereign India, there is an urgent need to step up developmental and mainstreaming efforts in the region.
There is little doubt that the North East is an unharnessed source of immense potential. The government needs more concrete plans for the development of this region. For a start, the extremists must be pacified and the violence curbed. Once stability is established, investment must flow in. With improvements in infrastructure, the standard of living of the people can be improved. I believe that with that not only do the people of the region benefit, but the whole of India gains. The economy can be boosted, political extremists be shown the door and even India’s international image will be enhanced. So, as the bombs tick away in the North-East at present, there is an urgent need for the government to not just talk the talk but also walk the walk.
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