Friday, June 12, 2015

Nitin Sethi: Northeast India : only a frontier?

My sister in Itanagar made me realise it yet again. For most of us living in the mainland, India’s northeast is only a border. It is India’s territory. It is no one’s homeland.

Four days ago she posted on Facebook: schools have been ordered shut for three days in Arunachal Pradesh’s capital because of incessant rains. I checked for news and came to know from regional newspapers: nearly 80,000 had been people displaced in Assam by then because of incessant rains and rising water levels in Brahmaputra. No Delhi media had reported it by then.

At current rates, the numbers shall range between 1-2 lakhs by the time monsoon peaks in the region. By then, in the entire northeast, villages will be inundated, cities will be flooded. Roads will get washed away, bridges collapse. Forget villages, even district headquarters will be cut off. Lives shall be lost and societies will be stranded out of reach from rest of humanity with little access to basic amenities for long periods as rains pour down.

We in Delhi and in the mainland shall hear near zilch about it. There is a good reason why.

The media beams stories from the region to us as they should from a frontier post. Militants from the borders ambush Indian army. The Indian army strikes back in the deep dark jungles of the eastern sector. For us, ‘the civilised’ in the rest of the country, these stories fit our need to hear some stories about the others’ lives on that wild eastern frontier.

When life caught in the cross-fire becomes unbearable for tribals in central India, a rare few national political leaders make some noise about protecting the innocent crushed in the conflict and not look at a purely militaristic solution. I don’t remember even these few leaders coming out to show the same symbolic sympathy for 'our fellow citizens and children’ in the northeast as combing operations make people run from their homes in fear and set an entire state anxious about what awaits them.

Ideas that we deem morally abhorrent for citizens of the mainland are exported to the region, such as army controlling civilian life or bumper-to-bumper dams.

Take the case of dams in Himalayas. The religious value of Ganga for us in the mainland forces governments to at least pretend to save the river and the people around it from the contract and concrete driven madness.  But the same governments do not think twice about displacing entire cultures that flourish in the Brahmaputra basin building the same bumper to bumper dams on the Brahmaputra basin, bending rules regulations and policies for ‘strategic interests’. The irony is lost on us when we cordon leftover lands of these cultures in ‘compensation’ for the loss of ‘India’s’ wildlife and forests to the inundation that follows.

We govern their homelands like a frontier – sending out-of-favour governors and officials on punishment postings. The only government institutions that keep a constant vigil on the region are the home ministry, the defence ministry and the intelligence establishment. For much of the rest, it’s that dark pit where funds are sent (after the due share is cut) to disappear without a record or a road to show. 

When a state erupts in anger against the killing of an innocent fifty plus woman activist, as Manipur did just a few days before the militant attack, we remain blind (Until of course the women of the region shame us and our government naked). Killed soldiers are rightly called martyrs. The innocent frontier-dwellers killed, raped, tortured or caught in the teeth of a combing operation are collateral damage who can hopefully be ignored at the altar of national security.

Did the above sound like an emotional angry rant rather than an analytical and well-argued journalistic piece? Sorry. I thought of people I go back home to in the region and it upset me. In Delhi today, the newspapers (with few exceptions) told me the rainfall so far, on average, is near normal – suggesting that there is hope 2015 may not be a drought year for India.

Media and the government are all preparing for a possible drought in the mainland. Lakhs who live on the country’s northeast frontier are preparing for the regional shut down and the damage torrential rains shall cause. By today nearly one lakh people are reported displaced in Assam. Sorry chaps, life is always tough during border postings. And you are posted at India’s northeast frontier for a lifetime.