No Lasting Peace in Northeast

PEACEMAKING is a messy business. Avoiding or ending violence often requires compromises that some consider appeasement, injustice, or undemocratic. Yet, a flawed peace may be preferable to continued violence. Ideally, compromises to end violence induce future participation in rule-based competition for political power.

Therein lies the distinction between compromising with violent actors as a means of transforming the political system versus creating a local autocracy. A compromise with local militant actors will only bring about lasting change if it is followed by enforcement of democracy and rule of law in the local partners’ dealings with the public, rivals, and with minorities.

In Northeast India, central assistance to beleaguered state governments or New Delhi’s agreement to a ceasefire or peace treaties do not mark the beginning of normal political competition. Instead, the Centre tolerates ongoing repression and corruption so long as there is an end to attacks on strategic or government targets. This has several perverse effects. First, initiatives aimed at diminishing mass grievances, such as land reform or poverty relief, are hampered by elite corruption. New Delhi pours large sums of money into the NE, ostensibly to address popular grievances. For example, per capita central government grants to the NE were about six times higher than the average funding received by other states. Yet, corruption in the administration of these funds is massive. Thus, the region still performs poorly in terms of the outcomes most important to political stability, such as economic opportunities for the younger cohorts otherwise most likely to perpetrate state-level unemployment rates among urban males aged 15–29 averaged 16 per cent in the NE, compared to 11 per cent elsewhere in India. The average state unemployment rate for graduates was about 10.4 per cent in the NE compared to around 8.4 per cent elsewhere. Nationwide, the government estimates that a little over 60 per cent of children drop out of primary education before their tenth year of study. The Northeastern states have an average dropout rate of over 70 per cent. Localised autocracies limit peaceful political competition.

Violence as Popular Tool

The absence of institutionalised and rule-based means of politics, changes to the local distribution of power lead to violence by challengers looking to seize control of resources or leaders seeking to reconsolidate dominance. The case of Darjeeling especially demonstrates these dynamics, as do other cases in the NE.

The establishment of local autocracy ironically creates incentives to use violence against the Centre if the local leader’s power is challenged by rivals. High levels of popular grievance mean that a campaign against government targets might win over a frustrated public. Just as important, if the Centre is willing to support localised autocracy, violence is useful to induce the Centre to shift its support between local leaders, even if substantial policy concessions are unlikely.

The primary accomplishment of the BLT insurgency, for example, was not gaining major concessions on autonomy but rather forcing the Centre to accept that group’s hegemony over local rivals. Opportunities and incentives for violence due to localised autocracy are dangerous, given that the NE is particularly conducive to insurgency. At present, opportunities for violence against the Centre are at low ebb because India has had success in cross-border military offensives against militants in Bhutan and Myanmar. Ceasefires with a few powerful militant groups have curtailed the flow of assistance to smaller rebellions. Why does the Centre and state governments continue to use the strategy of supporting local autocrats in the NE? Ideally, New Delhi would use periods like the present, when opportunities for major violence in NE India are diminished, to insist on democracy and rule of law.

Poor Rule of Law

However, perhaps such insistence is infeasible given India’s low level of state capacity. After all, the rule of law is not very good in much of India anyhow. In the NE, distance and terrain strain power projection; the cultural competencies of the bureaucracy and military are poor; and a substantial portion of the local population is deeply ambivalent toward the Centre. Yet, analysts examining the rest of India have argued that poor rule of law there has less to do with insufficient resources and incompetent civil servants than with the politicisation of the police and bureaucracy. This is particularly true of failures of the rule of law at the elite level, which are often a reflection of impunity rather than the civil service’s lack of money, personnel, or training. A lack of political will, rather than state incapacity, also helps explain localised autocracy in the NE. There is little political pressure on the Centre to find lasting solutions to violence in the NE because events there do not seem to perturb politicians and voters from other, more populous, regions of India. For example, the Centre responds decisively to attacks on migrants in the NE only if they are from politically important groups. At the same time, the short-term incentives emanating from India’s very competitive national political scene compel political parties to vigorously court leaders who control local election outcomes. Central party apparatchiks have never been very discriminating about how politicians deliver seats. Localised autocracy is thus protected by competing bids for leaders’ political support.

Problematic Ethnic Politics

NE India is presently an area of diminished concern for national security and in the foreseeable future, the Centre seems likely to continue using localised autocracy here. This involves massive economic transfers, a security presence to counter the greatest threats and secure the borders, and reliance on local leaders who use violence and corruption to remain in power, curbing electoral and party competition and, by extension, ethnic mass mobilisation. Much of NE India today is, in fact, governed by these localised autocracies, which serve the purposes of the Centre by curbing violence directed at strategic installations and government security forces. Relegating ethnic relations to local autocrats is a particularly attractive strategy for the Centre. The relative electoral insignificance of the region shifts the concern of ruling parties in the Centre away from addressing broad popular concerns and toward minimalist, short-term goals of preventing violence and winning a few parliamentary seats efficiently. In contrast, long-term initiatives for fixing the Northeast’s problematic ethnic politics are all hampered by the lack of rule of law at the local level and corrupt local leaders who manage these programs.

Negative shock to India’s coercive capacity in the region could be easily exploited by militants tapping into the area’s complex economic grievances and identity-based rivalries. Thus, the potential for the re-emergence of severe insurgency continues. As in the past, such violence will probably not pose an existential threat to India, but the potential costs are certainly not negligible, especially in terms of the quality of India’s democracy and the well-being of citizens in the NE.–INAV


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