Debananda S Medak
Can the Act East Policy and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 go ahead together? Can the rebels and the government forces come and stand along? Perhaps not. However, the massive rebranding and promotion on Act East Policy seems to mean so. As if, these two can go hand in hand.
The ambitious (?) and overtly promoted ‘Act East Policy (AEP)’ is driven by three operational words - ‘Connectivity’, ‘Development’, and ‘Trade & Commerce’. Through AEP, Guwahati has been projected synonymous to the ‘expressway to ASEAN nations’, ‘nerve centre of development’ and so on. Going beyond these slogans, the whole of Northeast has been termed as the new growth engine of India. May God bless us to realize the dream!
The promotion of AEP is so extensive that starting from Union ministers, respective Governors of the north-eastern States and the Chief Ministers to the bureaucrats, praising lines on AEP have been occupying their public deliberations on various occasions ever since its introduction.
Recently, twenty journalists from ASEAN nations toured the State’s capital, Guwahati in a tree-day familiarization visit under ‘India-ASEAN Media Exchange Programme’, coordinated by the Union Ministry of External Affairs. Notably, the aim of the coordination was to provide exposure to the ASEAN journalists on contemporary developments in India.
After all these, anyone would simply wonder: is a massive development project going to take off in this geographical space? Along with the BJP regime at the Centre, AEP is almost four-year-old now. Under the auspices of AEP, it is hoped that the erstwhile terra incognita of the Colonial ruler, the Northeast is going to shift its paradigm from merely a geopolitical space into a huge resource location having attention and concentration from across the Southeast Asian countries.
Let us share some of the realities that have been going across the Indo-Myanmar Barrier for decades after decades. The neighbouring Myanmar is bordered by four north-eastern states – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. Across these four states, 1624 km along the Indo-Myanmar barrier has been porous even after 80 years of India’s independence. The districts like Tirap, Changlang and Longding in Arunachal Pradesh; Phek, Tuensang, Kiphire and Mon in Nagaland; Chandel, Churachandpur and Kamjong in Manipur and Champhai, Lawngtlai and Saiha in Mozoram border immediately with the Republic of Myanmar.
These border districts have been quite isolated, neglected and oppressed ever since the Colonial days. As soon as India attained its independence from the British Raj, these districts were gifted with the highly controversial Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act which was later renamed as Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Although AFSPA is a sleeping law now in Mizoram, the people residing in the border districts of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur have been subject to torture both from rebels as well as armed forces. The respective State governments have been shamelessly acting as silent spectators. Contrary, the law makers of the respective border districts have been taking advantage from the rebel groups.
The economic potentiality of Arunachal Pradesh with Myanmar was strengthened by two reasons – a) there have been Naga ethnic groups like the Tangsa, Nocte and Tutsa on either side of the border and b) the Stilwell Road built during the World War II.
Nevertheless, the draconian AFSPA is the rule of law in these districts. Along the Stilwell Road from Nampong to Pangsaw Pass, merely a 10/12 km distance, in Changlang district one needs to cross at least three check posts of security forces. Across these border districts, opium has been one of the major cash crops. There is no sign of trade in these three districts.
A host of youths from Lazu circle of Tirap district, while talking to this scribe recently, said, “No one dies here of diseases. If someone dies, he or she must be shot dead either by Assam Rifle or NSCN (numerous factions). Paying house tax and business tax to numerous rebel factions have been crippling us ever since they emerged.”
Moreover, ever since the Colonial era, Vijayanagar, one of the remotest circles of Changlang district, is yet to be connected by a road. Residents of this circle are forced to walk 150 km to and from Vijaynagar and Miao. Is this what we mean connectivity?
The ethnic conflicts between the Nagas and Kukis, fuelled by their respective insurgent groups in the districts like Kamjong (recently curved out from Ukhrul district), Chandel and Churanchandpur in Manipur have been making people to starve for decades after decades. Taking advantage of the devastation, government officers hardly make their presence in the remote circles of these districts. The historical Tedim road used by the allied force during the World War II passes through Behiang village of Churachandpur district. Though the potential of trade between India and Myanmar through Behiang is spectacular, the road has been left to desert for years.
Talking to this scribe, a middle-aged man from Shelon, Chandel district, said, “If there is something in the name of governance, it is only the Assam Rifle as we know.”
The Centre as well as the respective State governments in the Northeast must realize one thing that only upgrading airports, improving some national highways and promoting certain LCSs into ICPs like Moreh will not serve the greater purpose. The politicians of this region must dare to revoke AFSPA; they must reduce rampant corruption and interest with the factional rebel groups. Or else, the Act East policy will fade away like the Look East Policy.