In the national narrative largely fashioned by a small coterie of a permanent Delhi media elites, North East nearly finds no representation except for convenient and cursory invoking of Irom Sharmila, that too intended to establish that our citizenry is absolutely oblivious to her heroic struggle and that its only the great media worthies residing in Delhi who have their minds engaged on her fast. It’s no coincidence that forked tongued doyens of Delhi media build a crescendo over Irom Sharmila when their political masters face the brunt of  popular protest movement. Remember when that Hazare and Ramdev took Delhi by storm, we were repeatedly asked why Irom Sharmila’ fast never attracted the kind of mind share that anti-corruption movements achieved. Anyway we should not be too hard on news barbies and boy toys of Delhi media. Many of them would be challenged to locate correctly seven states of North-east in India map leave alone any nuanced understanding of their distinctive socio-economic-cultural composition.

On the other hand narrative that emerges from north east is largely based on standard grievance template based on utter neglect by mainstream India. While we generally don’t encourage victimhood narrative, north-east sense of grievance is legitimate. After Independence, development of far flung areas that were naturally disadvantaged due to their geographic location was the least of priority for a cash strapped country. A single party dominated autocratic democracy without any opposition didn’t help either. The government of the day chose to go with the socialist model, and the only way economic growth or development could touch an area was through governmental intervention.

For whatever reasons not much investment reached the Notheast states. One explanation for that is the states that had powerful lobbies on account of the number of seats they occupied in parliament were able to corner the lion’s share of available government investments leaving smaller states with the little that was left. Everything else followed suit. Few new education institutes or any new infrastructure came up after independence, most of the infrastructure we see even today belongs to the pre independence era. The isolation was completed by the state owned media. The only news that came out of the region were of disasters and that too in true socialist spirit was restrained. Few people knew outside Mizoram when it faced massive famine and food scarcity.

Insurgency in the region began in Nagaland may have fuelled due to religious identity reason as many Nagas, though not all, did not identify themselves with India. However many contend that insurgency in other states began as a result of the neglect by the state. The famine and food scarcity in Mizoram led to armed uprising, made worse by indiscriminate use of force, even fighter aircrafts were used to bomb capital Aizawl that led to massive collateral damage and civilian casualties. Similar feeling of alienation resulted in a bloody insurgency in Assam along with agitation by the people that culminated in the signing of Assam accord, the insurgency still persists. That four out of seven Northeast states have had insurgency speaks volumes about the sense of detachment and the flawed policies of the state.

Many people shifted to other cities for better education and employment prospects where they were not exactly welcomed. Many locals saw them as outsiders competing with them for limited resources and jobs. Although the conflict between locals and outsiders was not entirely unexpected, some handled it better than the others but it also led to reinforcement of the sense of alienation in some of them.

The human tragedy, armed uprising, agitations and insurgency finally managed to attract Center’s attention towards the region and concerted efforts were made to undo the damage caused by earlier policies. The counter insurgency operations by the Armed forces was able to quell insurgency and restore democracy in most areas. Efforts were also made to develop the economy of the region through investments in infrastructure and a few industries too came up like a refinery in Assam, doubling of Railway track, IIT and few other institutions etc. But despite that the sense of alienation stays, the general perception is that nothing gets done unless there is a massive hue and cry, coupled with the prejudices suffered by those who ventured out to other states for education, employment etc has only reinforced the earlier held beliefs.

How did things come to this pass? Why does it take a human tragedy of such proportion just to get noticed? While it might sound a over-simplistic formulation, Nehruvian socialist policies are the reason for the stunted economic growth of Northeast region. If the government didn’t have funds to invest in the region at least it can create conducive conditions for private investments to come. If suitable incentives are given to private investments, there is no reason why it won’t come. The SEZ route can be been explored.. If the economy is liberalized adequately and necessary reforms carried out to an archaic system, there is no way industry would overlook the region. The narrative must change from looking up to Center for intervention to how sustainable economic growth can be achieved under own steam.

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Sanjay Chetia

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