Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Knowledge of history is essential for understanding the present and building the future. However, Indians by and large tend to be an un-historical people and such history as is taught is mostly of Aryavarta or the Ganges basin. The rest remains marginalised. This is as true of the Northeast as of the Southern states, Gujarat or Orissa.

The Way Forward : Realising Upendra Nath Brahma’s Vision


By B G Verghese

U.N. Brahma Award Lecture, Guwahati, 7 July, 2013 / see citation

I am greatly honoured and humbled to have been selected to receive the 2013 UN Brahma Soldier of Humanity Award for such services as I may be deemed to have rendered to the Bodo community and other aspiring people in the Northeast and beyond in reaching out to the future. In so doing, I follow in the footsteps of nine distinguished earlier recipients of this honour.

Upendra Nath Brahma, born into a humble home, was a self-made man. In trying to restore his own community to its earlier glory without injury to any other, he was a soldier of humanity. If the part is uplifted, the whole must surely gain. Bodo well-being was not posed as something to be achieved at the cost of the Assamese people and others but in concert with them as equal partners in a shared homeland and for the greater common good.

The Bodos, like all other people, are proud of their identity and aspire to grow and flourish in accordance with their own genius. Rejection of their demands for further autonomy within Assam or a separate state, growing land alienation and joblessness culminated a painful social explosion in July 2012 with Bodos clashing with Muslims. As many as 400,000 persons fled the scene and were huddled in refugee camps for months until calm and confidence were restored. The violence was sparked by alleged illicit immigration, resentment over encroachment on lands and forests and mounting unemployment. That was a tragedy that must never be repeated.

Knowledge of history is essential for understanding the present and building the future. However, Indians by and large tend to be an un-historical people and such history as is taught is mostly of Aryavarta or the Ganges basin. The rest remains marginalised. This is as true of the Northeast as of the Southern states, Gujarat or Orissa. The pity is that the history of the peoples of the Northeast too remains to be written. The royal chronicles of Manipur and Tripura, the Cheriathol Kumbaba and Rajmala respectively, tell an unbroken story of the past two millennia. The Ahom Burunjis too go back to the 14th century. But none of these have been widely disseminated. But what of the rest? There is a proto-history of myth and legend but no definitive history despite archaeological evidence uncovered in many places. Further, since most of the Northeast’s tribal people are age-old immigrants from central China and Southeast Asia, Tibet, Nepal and Middle India, any study and understanding of Northeastern history must include this far wider socio-cultural, political and ecological landscape. This is almost completely missing and remains a geo-political vacuum.

The Bodo people have a rich and ancient history. But it remains sadly hidden for the most part. The great Bodo-Kachari kingdom that once spread from North Bengal to Tripura through the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys had had to contend with the rise of the Ahoms and subsequent Mughal onslaughts and was finally absorbed in the Raj as part of Assam through the Doctrine of Lapse. This gave impetus to a gradual process of Bodo cultural assimilation into an encompassing Assamese society, enhanced by steady land alienation as a result of development and settlement. The protective cover earlier created by the constitution of Tribal Belts and Blocks suffered steady erosion, especially with the grow-more-food campaign launched during the Second World War with immigrant Bengali and Nepalese labour and the ensuing post-Partition refugee influx.

Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma, the great Bodo social and religious reformer, had earlier been influenced by Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Brahmo Samaj in the early 20th century and saw in its teachings an instrument for the social and religious regeneration of the Bodo community. The movement took root as Brahmodharma and helped advance Bodo education, stem conversion to Christianity and combat colonialism. The Bodos nevertheless wished to maintain their identity and petitioned the Simon Commission for autonomy when it visited India in 1930 in the run up to constitutional reforms. This was however not conceded.

Independence saw application of the Sixth Schedule to the hill districts of Assam but not to the plains areas where the homelands of the Bodo-Kachari family, a conglomeration of 18 or so scattered tribes, mostly living on the North Bank, were located. The refusal by the States Reorganisation Commission in 1956 to carve out a separate Bodo area led to the formation in 1960 of the Plains Tribal Council, encompassing tribal belt and blocks. The demand for Udayachal followed in 1967.

Matters rested there until the mass anti-foreigner Assam agitation in 1979. This was born out of mounting anxiety that years of illicit immigration from East Pakistan/Bangladesh was fast altering the demographic, political, economic and cultural balance in Assam, against the indigenes largely in favour of the predominantly Muslim Bangla infiltrators from outside. The rallying cry was to “detect, delete (from the electoral rolls) and deport” foreigners and outsiders. What followed is a well-told but complex story whose ending is not yet altogether in sight. The Bodos, like other plains tribals, had sided with the Assamese. But the record of the Asom Ganatantra Parishad after the Assam Accord was seen as a let-down, causing a rift in Bodo-Assamese relations.

In the agitation that followed, Upendra Nath Brahma led the fight for Bodo self-determination with a 92-point charter centred around the creation of a separate Bodoland state on the North Bank, a regional council for non-Karbis in Karbi Anglong and an autonomous region for Bodo people living on the South Bank. He also spoke for the rights of other smaller Plain Tribals, ethnic cousins within the larger Bodo family. Alas he was a dying man and was taken away by cancer in May 1990. His people hailed him as Bodofa or Father of the Bodos.

The struggle continued with armed pressure and a short-lived Bodo Autonomous Council was established in 1993 and a somewhat enlarged and a rather more empowered Bodo Territorial Council was inaugurated in February 2003. Bodofa’s dream was beginning to be translated into reality. Yet, the larger vision of ‘Live and Let Live” that he espoused remains to be fulfilled as the 2012 episode demonstrated. What next then?

The Bodo story is not very different from the story of other Northeastern communities who are asserting their distinctive identities or Peoplehoods within the enormously large, extraordinarily diverse and churning Indian Ocean of humanity. India is an ancient civilisation but a relatively young modern state-nation or a state made up of many proud nations, big and small – seeking its destiny as a democratic commonwealth of nations that accommodates all its greater and lesser traditions, races and pluralities as equal partners. The stirrings within the Northeast constitute a revolution within the greater Indian revolution, with the challenge of multiple transitions by the day. But, we shall overcome.

Fragmentation was in order after Independence as a means of accommodating latent ethnic identities. But once a new comfort level had emerged through this nation-building process, the need for national consolidation began to manifest itself.

The ancient Bodo-Kachari empire embraced what we today call the Northeast, including part of North Bengal. So the nomenclature, The Northeast, given to this part of the country is not inappropriate and represents a geo-strategic construct, especially after Partition. It should be seen as a single geo-political entity (logically including North Bengal) with a multiplicity of states and ethnicities within it. It is therefore necessary to see the units as part of an interactive whole rather than as a series of competing territories and peoples.

The 2012 unrest revolved around three concerns: land, forests and jobs. Population has grown as a result of natural increase and in-migration. Development has in turn entailed the reclamation of land for agriculture, the construction of roads, railways, townships, industries, essential infrastructure and refugee rehabilitation, resulting in reducing land-man-forest ratios. The situation is similar in almost every part of the country. Pressure on the land does not offer hope of providing increasing numbers with a livelihood, especially at current low levels of productivity. The problem is therefore not so much in-migration, which has seen some reduction, as more rapid job-creation by improved agriculture, and growing off-farm employment through agro-processing, services, the development of tiny and small industries and industrialisation. The pace and pattern of development needs attention. If the Northeast is to catch up with the more advanced states in the country in terms of development, it will in fact find itself short of labour, especially skilled labour, as official studies have shown.

Unfortunately political and social turbulence in certain parts of the region have caused hampered development and fuller exploitation of the region’s immense plantation, natural resource and tourist potential. The North Eastern Council and DONeR are poorly conceived and structured bodies. Like the State governments, they ack the imagination or capacity to deliver the goods or manage the Northeast-Look East interface. The Guwahati international airport and the Moreh-Tamu Road are both outstanding examples of expensively planned failure for which the Centre must bear equal responsibility. The ambitious inter-modal Kaladan corridor project from Mizoram to Sitwe port in Myanmar may go the same way unless immediate steps are taken concurrently to plan operational requirements in concert with multiple stakeholders.

Infrastructure is lacking and the North Bank cannot progress, racked as it is by floods. Embankments are of limited utility and have become a sink of corruption. Integrated water management of the upper catchment has come up against some get-rich-quick fixes in Arunachal and opposition to storages in Assam on grounds that do not always bear scrutiny. Recurring floods and poor infrastructure (land management, limited irrigation, credit and inputs, etcetera) have led to high-risk, low-yield, subsistence farming. A depressed agriculture generates little employment and has a low multiplier. Displacement and resettlement on account of growth-oriented projects pose challenges but can yield very positive cost-benefit ratios. The Brahmaputra Board has alas been reduced to a shell. Inland water transport is being sought to be revived, though largely along the Brahmaputra and Barak National Waterways to the continued neglect of smaller streams, beels and ox-bows.

There has been foolish worry over exaggerated reports of Chinese plans for the northward diversion to the Gobi desert of the Tsang-po or Yaro-langpo. The Tsang-po becomes the Siang or Dihang in Arunachal and only takes the name Brahmaputra after being joined by the Luhit, Dibang and Noa Dihing near Sadiya in Assam). More imaginatively, the Government of India should invite Beijing jointly to survey with other basin sates and the international community the techno-economic and social feasibility of developing the enormous power potential of the Tsangpo-Dihang U-bend from Tibet to Assam. The 48-54000 MW of clean energy that might possibly be generated would fetch huge carbon credits by precluding the burning of hundreds of millions of tonnes of “dirty” coal. The energy could be fed into a SAARC-ASEAN-China power grid with appropriate project cost-benefit sharing among the partners.

I have long proposed that the disputed border strips between Arunachal and Assam aggregating some 740 square kilometres should be converted from unproductive, criminalised no-man lands to Trusteeship Territories managed by the two states, with the Union Government as a key partner for a period of 50 years. These could become hubs for the development of infrastructure, training centres, and industrial zones to avail of the cheap power and plentiful waters coming down from Arunachal and the facility of the Brahmaputra waterway. Investors would flock to these trusteeship zones. Everybody would gain and up to a million new jobs might be created within a decade. Power should not be just exported from the region through the national grid but used productively in situ as far as possible. Electricity equals jobs. By merely exporting electricity, the NE would be exporting jobs.

However, at present, the Northeast faces water and power shortages on account of climate change and changing weather patterns. These need to be regionally studied and managed and detention reservoirs built to absorb storm surges and unseasonal water and to moderate silt discharge.

Are these mere pipe dreams? Possibly not, given visionary leadership and joint efforts. Such a course of development would require import of labour into the region. The danger of such ingress causing electoral imbalances as between local Northeasters on the one hand and “outsiders” and “foreigners” on the other can be averted.

“Outsiders” can be enrolled in a few general, non-territorial constituencies and enabled to vote by using electronic-postal ballot facilities irrespective of where they reside. This system prevails in elections to upper chambers, as for example in case of the so-called graduates constituency in Uttar Pradesh, as also in the so-called “general” as opposed to tribal constituencies of Shillong and Dimapur. Non-territorial balloting is entirely constitutional.

Foreigners enjoy all fundamental rights other than the right to vote. However, illicit immigrants have been able to procure relevant documents through underhand means and use these to get enrolled. Better border management in collaboration with our neighbours can prevent or reduce such occurrences and bona fide workers can be given work permits for specific jobs.

The problem is what to do with the backlog of undetected illicit immigrants. The processes involved in deportation are onerous and time consuming and have not achieved much success. Border fencing is an expensive and not very effective process as even the United States has discovered in endeavouring to stem illegal entry from Mexico. Given stringent border controls to prevent fresh ingress and swift and condign punishment of new illegals, their harbourers and employers, the earlier residue must be screened and filtered. After a cooling off period of say five years, those born in the country could be given citizenship. Those who can show a residence of 10 years can be naturalised after a further period of five years during which they will be declared stateless and disenfranchised but permitted to work against special permits.

There are still some stateless Indians in Sri Lanka after a considerable number were given citizenship in 2003 while some 400,000 Indian paddy workers in the Irrawaddy delta in Myanmar remain stateless after four generations. These are difficult problems but not insoluble over time.

Non-territorial administrative and political solutions are also available. Hiteshwar Saikia introduced apex councils in Assam to provide non-territorial autonomous councils or Apex Councils to regulate and foster the educational, cultural and developmental interests of small, scattered communities of Rabhas, Mishings and Tiwas and, later, a few more categories. All these are members of the extended Bodo family which is itself widely scattered to the extent that the Bodos constitute a minority in the BTC region. This may appear paradoxical but need not be oppressive given appropriate and safeguards and compensatory mechanisms. A parallel answer lies in the vigorous implementation of panchayati raj and PESA that ensures grassroots democracy through gram sabhas and local accountability consistent with tribal traditions and institutions.

There remains the question of employment. The idea of special Trusteeship Zones has been mentioned. These could extend along disputed border strips between Assam and Meghalaya and Assam and Mizoram as well. That apart, the vast and varied horticultural, herbicultural and floricultural potential of the Northeast can be harnessed not as isolated colonial tea garden-type enclaves but as smallholder cooperatives linked to large corporate processing and marketing houses that could provide extension and technical services on the Amul model.

Ethnicity and identity are important. But pushed too far they can be divisive, breed localism and inhibit economies of scale. The fractured Naga underground is united in demanding Nagalim that administratively integrates all Naga areas in a single state, spread over Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal and even Myanmar. This has met with stiff opposition and it is difficult to imagine that a 2000 year old historic entity like Manipur can be Balkanised. Naga peopled areas are not necessarily historically Naga. Dimapur is the outstanding example. It was the capital of the earlier Dimasa kingdom and only attached to the new Nagaland district that was carved out in 1936 to provide it a railhead.

A looser form of economic and cultural integration of the Naga peoplehood can be achieved by non-territorial bonding that would leave the spatial integrity of the other units such as Manipur intact. This provides yet another example of the kind of imaginative social engineering needed to realise Upendra Nath Brahma’s grand vision. But this is not going to happen without regional cooperation with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Tibet and southwest China and ASEAN too, linked by a future Asian Highway, a Trans-Asian Railway and energy grids. Bangladesh is the Northeast’s natural transit corridor and Chittagong its entrepot. Equally, the Northeast is a natural market and resource base for Bangladesh. Its rivers can only be optimally developed through a basin approach that could be taking shape after decades of conflict. Climate change compels such cooperation.

The challenges are obviously great but will not be overcome unless we think, plan and act beyond our own little territorial and ethnic boxes as Soldiers of Humanity. I strongly urge the Bodo people to join with your other Northeastern cousins to set up a high-level National Commission of Wise Men and Women to suggest a structural blueprint and phased plan of action to achieve the desired goal within a given time frame. Do not wait for Government’s to act. They will follow.

Upendra Nath Brahma died young. But his vision remains for us all to fulfil. On with the task!

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