In Retrospect

North-East: Another Kashmir

Unless people themselves realise that victims of the 1947 partition are not ‘termites’, India’s North-East runs the risk of becoming a war zone – much like Kashmir

Many fear that another Kashmir is in the making in North-East (NE) India. In the last few years, a series of disturbing developments in NE have created a genuine apprehension in the minds of citizens and political analysts about the future of this resource-rich region.

Through the division of Bengal in 1947, India has created a landlocked, fertile, region in the northeastern part of the country, surrounded by five foreign nations – China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. NE's only physical contact with the mainland is through the Siliguri corridor, often termed as 'chicken neck'. This lack of connectivity has further crippled the region's economy, making it entirely dependent on others, even for basic necessities.

Historical blunder

On August 15, 1947, two Indian states were divided. Quite some time before the Muslim League demanded the partition of India on religious lines, Bengal-based industrialist G D Birla, had plead for it. On January 11, 1938, he wrote to Mahadev Desai, Gandhi's secretary: "I wonder why it should not be possible to have two Federations, one of Muslims and another of Hindus......if anything is going to check our progress, it is the Hindu-Muslim question – not the Englishman, but our own internal quarrels." Not only did Birla try to persuade Gandhi todivide India on communal lines as early as in January 1938 but he also approached Viceroy Linlithgow with the same proposal in the same month.

Accordingly, Punjab and Bengal were divided in 1947 and millions of people were uprooted from their ancestral homes. As apprehended, the exchange of population was not peaceful – thousands were killed in communal riots.

Unlike Punjab and Bengal, Muslim dominated Kashmir was not divided. But "the immediate impact (of partition) was in Jammu. Muslim subjects from different parts of Jammu province were forcibly displaced by the Dogra Army in a programme of expulsion and murder carried out over three weeks between October-November 1947". The Muslims, who constituted more than 60 per cent of the population of Jammu region, were reduced to a minority. To quote a August 10, 1948, report published in The Times, London: "2,37,000 Muslims were systematically exterminated – unless they escaped to Pakistan along the border – by the forces of the Dogra State headed by the Maharaja in person and aided by Hindus and Sikhs. This happened in October 1947, five days before Pak invasion and nine days before the Maharaja's accession to India." Within hours of Kashmir's accession to India, Pakistan Army had occupied a major portion of northern Kashmir and the state was divided into Pak Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Indian state of Kashmir.

The next Kashmir

There are many reasons that empower the apprehension of NE becoming Kashmir – once beloved, then torn. Like Kashmir, this region is also strategically significant to our neighbouring countries China and Myanmar. Second, Hindutva philosophy of ruling Indo-Aryan parties faces strong resistance from the Tibeto-Burmese and Austro-Asiatic tribes who dominate this region. Third, NE tribes have a long history of conflicts among themselves and with the State.

In 1958, The Armed Forces (Special Power) Act (AFSPA) was enacted to empower Indian armed forces' 'special power' to maintain public order in 'disturbed areas'. Incidentally, till date, AFSPA has been executed only in the northeastern states (except Mizoram) and in Jammu & Kashmir. Fourth, lack of proper connectivity with the mainland has alienated this region from the investment radar of national and foreign capital. Human and natural resources have not been utilised to their potential.

Fifth, Pakistan's close association with China has made it a stronger enemy for India. The Delhi-Mumbai-Ahmedabad centric ruling oligarchy is looking for a softer enemy around NE to shift the war zone away from India's power centre to the periphery.

Sixth, the rise of Bangladesh as an emerging 'Tiger' of South-East Asia is a major blow to proponents of the religion-based Two Nations Theory. After the division of Bengal, the Muslim majority East Bengal went to Pakistan (East) while Hindu dominated West Bengal remained with India. In 1971, East Pakistan declared independence from Urdu hegemony and became Democratic Republic of Bangladesh. Since then, language, not religion, has become the principal identity of Bangladesh. Now, Bangladesh is ahead of Pakistan in almost all socioeconomic parameters. In 2017-18, it was ahead (USD 1,751) of its sister West Bengal (USD 1,500) in per capita income (in current price) and it is estimated that Bangladesh, one of the world's most densely populated countries, will exceed India's per capita income in the next few years. To the Hindu nationalists of India, the existence of Bangladesh as an independent thriving nation is an embarrassment. To them, Bengali refugees are like 'termites'. And, to fight these 'termites', they have decided to strengthen their hold in West Bengal first.

Vicious circle of poverty

The division of Bengal had landlocked NE, surrounding it by five foreign countries. The umbilical cord remains the 'chicken neck' corridor at Siliguri. Due to lack of proper market and adequate support from the government at Delhi, the region could not utilise its huge economic potential for the benefit of its citizens.

During 2000-2018, NE states could attract only 0.03 per cent of the FDI equity flow which entered India. Not only FDI, even Indian commercial banks have not extended due credit to NE people as they deserve. The credit-deposit ratio of NE has remained nearly half of the national average. Lack of funds and sustained siphoning of people's savings and natural resources like tea, timber, oil, coal etc., to other parts of the country have resulted in a vicious circle of inadequate resources, poverty, unemployment and political unrest. Instead of breaking this vicious cycle, political leaders have tried to sustain it for their selfish interests.

Possible way out

NE's policy-makers should reflect upon which side they must look at, East or West, for the long-term development of their region. Better economic and cultural engagements with Bangladesh and West Bengal are likely to offer them brighter prospects at breaking their geophysical trap and help gain access to huge global markets using the sea.

Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhaya, in his lectures 'North East, Act East', delivered on January 31, 2017, at Indian International Centre, Delhi, also echoed the same opinion. According to him, Assam had enjoyed one of the highest growth rates under the colonial economy built on trading tea, timber and oil with Calcutta, to which it was linked. The epicentre of growth radiated down the Bay of Bengal via ports of Calcutta, Chittagong, Akyab (Sittwe), Rangoon, Moulmein, Tavoy and Singapore. He argued that 'if transport through old Bengal and present-day Bangladesh was crucial in the growth of the old Assamese economy, then every diplomatic effort must be made to restore such connectivity for the present day North-East.'

To the landlocked people of NE states, Bengali speaking people of Bangladesh and West Bengal are not 'termites' rather these people are their true friends. They are all victims of the 1947 partition of Bengal. Unless this truth is realised and internalised by today's people, the entire region runs the risk of becoming another war zone, like Kashmir.

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