A visitor to Nagaland who enters through Dimapur cannot miss the bleak scenario. The roads or whatever are left of them are now all rubble and dust. In this dry season, people cannot move around without covering their noses and mouths because the air is thick with dust. In the rainy season it’s so slushy that one cannot see a crater in the middle of the road if there is one. The vehicle can end up with a broken suspension or exhaust or the tyres being damaged. But while car parts can be repaired the hurt caused to the human body is irreparable. Yet no one seems to care. Life goes on as usual. Its only the occasional traveler who is held up for hours together in the horrendous traffic, that frets and fumes and curses his/her fate for having to travel through such decrepit roads in the 21st century and in a country that continuously asserts that it is headed to become a global superpower.
But perhaps India is not bothered at what happens to its distant periphery. Earlier the North Eastern states especially those bordering China, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and Myanmar were seen only from the prism of security. The states had to be held together to be part of the “nation.” They needed to be controlled militarily since Nagaland and Manipur are notorious for their armed conflicts. Later Assam and other states joined the bandwagon of militancy to assert their grievances. It’s a different matter that militancy has now degenerated into large scale extortion that is bleeding its own people in each of the militancy afflicted states.
To make up for the developmental deficit in the region several hundred crore of rupees have been pumped into the state government coffers. But without any mechanism to monitor how the funds are utilized, the money has only enriched a tribal elite that has been co-opted into the “Indian mainstream” system and which helps to safeguard the borders of “nation.” This outflow of funds into the North Eastern states is not unintentional. It’s one way of legitimizing the power of a central government which is seen as the patron while the states are mere clients.
This deadly cocktail of feudal and predator capitalism under the direct patronage of a liberalized soft state that allows its clients to go as they please has entrenched corruption in every aspect of life. In fact corruption is so organized that it is hard to break the circuit. Corruption has ravaged the courage of conviction, resolve and integrity among those at the cutting edge of governance and politics.
Nagaland became a separate state way back in 1963 and was carved out of Assam. Its armed movement for a sovereign nation started in the 1950s. Till date the problem remains alive since the peace negotiations with Government of India are ongoing. But this long and tardy process that started in 1997 has taken a huge toll on the moral fiber of the Naga people. A host of armed groups which are breakaway factions from the original ones such as the NSCN, the NNC etc., are in the business of extorting. They control the entire trade and commerce of Nagaland state and the hills of Manipur where their cadres dominate. Young and enterprising Naga women and men who wish to do clean business are frustrated. There is a mafia operating even in the second hand clothes market. Naturally the youth are disillusioned.
Those who own buildings in the swanky areas of Dimapur have chosen to take the easy way out and rent their premises to non-Naga, non-tribals and in recent times to the Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant (IBI) although that term is a misnomer since all those with doubtful Indian identity have their papers issued from Karimganj district of Assam. It appears that getting documents such as PAN Cards, EPIC and even the Aadhaar Card is no big deal. Even in Dimapur there is a system in place where Aadhaar cards are issued in a jiffy. The question is what happens to the Naga entrepreneurs if their opportunities are snatched away by the more enterprising people from across the Bangladesh border?
It was shocking to learn that there are as many as 20 madrassas in Dimapur alone. This is not a vacuous claim but has come out of diligent research. What does that tell us about? Is Dimapur still under the hegemony of the Nagas or has the economic control passed out of their hands? Many Nagas are in a state of denial. Others are more pragmatic. The people of Mokokchung district for instance have decided not to rent out their premises to non-Nagas with doubtful identities. Others are beginning to discuss the matter quite seriously.
There is, however, a small minority that benefits from the benami trade where even taxi permits in the name of Nagas are actually run by the IBIs, as claimed by those who know. Several of those taxis are plying between Kohima and. These beneficiaries deny that the IBIs are a threat to the larger Naga social and economic future!
Already the corruption levels in Nagaland beggar description. One cannot recall ever driving on a good road in that state. Even the much touted Asian Highway -1 linking Nagaland to Manipur and beyond to Myanmar, seems to take its own time. I am sure that even the construction of this highway is not free from extortion, so the kind of road that will ultimately appear may not last its tenure. And roads are a good indicator of the state of governance in any of our states. Hence there is a sense of futility; of public cynicism, of complacency and for some there is a brazen immersion in one’s exclusive well being. The youth who see this and feel helpless take to social media with a vengeance.
Every now and again the discourse on social media platforms shifts to the outcomes of the peace negotiation which is now pregnant with hopes of a settlement. But will the settlement change the moral fiber of a people? The peace talks are like a dish in a pot; everyone is stirring the pot without adding anything of substance to its contents. The discourse is emotionally charged but intellectually deficient. There are several civil society groups but they don’t come together to look for a common solution. Each one is talking about the other but conversations that rise above tribal and group loyalties have not emerged. Some of the more prominent organisations have lost credibility for taking their cue from the NSCN (IM) and speaking only what the outfit allows them to. No wonder the process is hamstrung.
While it must be appreciated that the NSCN (IM) has been on the quest for peace for the longest period and that the senior leaders have made immense sacrifices to keep the movement going, the time has arrived for those leaders to rise to the stature of statesmen and invite other voices to find place in the peace framework because the negotiated settlement, if it comes, will impinge on the Naga people in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, even if territorial integrity is not affected. The Naga people may have started out as tribes with their village principalities but today they have assimilated democracy and its virtues no matter how flawed the present democratic system is. They will not wish to return to a dictatorial system where a few at the top of the hierarchy decide their fates. They want to be part of the peace process, no matter how weak their voices may seem. That is the essence of democracy.
It is time for the NSCN (IM) leadership to take stock of these emerging realities. Mount Hebron is not a democratic space. It is a place where prayers are held but the heart does not change. Once the armed groups come out of that safe zone where only their voices count, they will have to learn to listen, live and let live. For too long people have been silenced by the gun! But for how long can this intimidation carry on? How much more fratricidal killings can the Naga people endure? These are questions that the NCSN (IM) needs to boldly face.
-By Patricia Mukhim
The writer is the Editor with The Shillong Times and can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org