Tuesday, August 28, 2012

NORTH-EAST: Big Brother And The Seven Sisters

More than 15 years ago, Krishna Prasad, now Outlook magazine's Editor-in-Chief, me and a photographer colleague, T. Narayan had traveled through three states of the North-east following a massacre of non-trial Bengalis in Tripura. Apart from the killing, we tried to make sense of the region's varied challenges and problems. Ethnic and communal divide, under-development, over-dependence on the Army, cynical politicians, reluctant bureaucrats and hapless common people--we encountered all.

When I was re-reading that extensive story (and accompanying smaller stories) we did in Outlook in March 1997, it suddenly occurred to me that I could find the situation eerily similar--with only minor variation and may be a change of setting, old actors replaced by new ones! 

It pains me to see that the North-east hasn't really moved forward despite all the claims to the contrary. Yes, there has been some development but the old fissures still remain and fires--small and big--continue to burn and be stoked by those who stand to benefit. Read on for whatever it is worth.

MARCH 1997

Neglected by the Centre and ravaged by the rebels, life is an endless nightmare

EVERYBODY in the North-east—people, politicians, policemen, armymen, everybody—believes the solution to its nightmare does not lie in handing over the reins to the Army. "This is a political problem, and a political problem demands a political solution," iswhat you’ll hear in Agartala, Guwahati, Kohima, Imphal and everywhere else in-between. Yet, all it takes to see why the seven sisters are plunging into an abyss is to look at what happened when 90-odd Bengalis were butchered in communist-ruled Tripura in mid-February.

As some 34,000 people, correction, as some 34,000 Bengalis took shelter in 22 makeshift camps after militants of the All-Tripura Tigers’ Force (ATTF) had killed and rioted at will, Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, the Communist Party of India’s stalwart in the United Front Government, gave that great healing touch Indian politicians are famous for. He paid a ‘flying’ visit to the ‘affected area’. Good politician that he is, Gupta said there was no need to impose the ‘draconian’ Disturbed Areas’ Act which enables the Army to swing into action.

Yet, within 12 hours of his departure, the Army was demanding—and getting—the Act enforced in the worst-affected Khowai sub-division. "Our first task is to establish dominance in the troubled areas and avoid further ethnic clashes," said Brig. B.S. Choudhary, commanding the counter-insurgency operations. By nightfall, troops were being airlifted from distant Punjab. With 3,000 soldiers on vigil, the counter-insurgency grid was in place. "The situation is totally under control," said Tripura Chief Secretary V. Thulasidas.

For how long, he wouldn’t say. (By February 22, the Act was being extended to other parts of the state, too.) Cut to Assam. There, a month earlier, after Bodo Liberation Tigers set off a bomb under the speeding Brahmaputra Mail on new year’s eve to press their demand for a separate state, killing some 50 innocent people settling down to their supper, Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was making the usual post-dinner noises. He would, he said, continue to make efforts for a political settlement with the Bodos. But, sotto voce, he was asking for the Army’s help to launch a full-scale operation.

Never mind that the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which Mahanta led to power months earlier, had promised in its election manifesto to send the Army out of the state. Never mind that the CPI, a member of the AGP-led five-party alliance, didn’t—publicly at least—like the idea of calling in the Army to do the police’s job. But insurgency in the North-east has a strange way of pulling the rug from under realpolitik.

So, the same Indrajit Gupta made the same flying visit, and told the Assam government that there was no alternative: law and order had worsened far beyond the capability of the state police. Never mind that Union Home Secretary K. Padmanabhaiah was believed to have said that the state had "sufficient forces" to tackle the militants. Within days of Gupta’s departure, a Unified Command was in place, with an armyman in charge.

Just days earlier, Lt Gen. R.K. Sawhney, commander of the 4 Corps, had seemed like the reluctant groom. But within days, he too was getting used to the ‘peacetime assignment’. Two of the six regional commanders of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which is demanding a sovereign Assam nation, were neutralised in those wondrous incidents called ‘encounters’ in which the pursuers never die.

And having shackled his favourite foes, the Bodos (see interview), even Mahanta is happy: "The Unified Command has worked well in its first month. The desired results have been achieved. It’s the best possible arrangement." For how long, he wouldn’t say. (The ULFA, which never targeted the Army before, is ambushing military personnel with rocket-propelled grenades and AKs; Bodos are settling around Guwahati.) Maybe it’s too simplistic to blame all the ills—and there are ple -nty of ills—plaguing the North-east on mere deployment of the Army. But not to put too fine a point on it, the Army is further alienating an already-alienated people. Says Manipur People’s Party President Okram Joy Singh: "Such has been the treatment meted out to us, that if there’s a referendum tomorrow, 90 per cent of the people will say they do not feel like Indians." 

The North-east is a region of India like no other. Bountiful and beautiful. As Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir puts it so eloquently: "God has created the infrastructure here, but man has not exploited it." Closer to Hanoi than Delhi, as the crow flies, it’s been ill-served by insensitive politicians, national and local, whose minds tick merely in terms of votes-per-head. North-easterns cite Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s suspicion of people with ‘mongoloid’ features to justify the attitude of ‘door Dilli’ but then wasn’t Manipur the easternmost outpost of Hindu culture?

It has paid a heavier price for Partition than Punjab. Blood did not flow, multitudes did not cross over. But geo-political isolation as the scalpel scythed through the region, and its consequences in terms of insurgencies and inequities, has gone completely unappreciated. Under one per cent of its boundaries are contiguous with the rest of India; the remaining 99 per cent are international boundaries. "Partition cut us off from our roots and routes which were in and through East Pakistan now Bangladesh," explains economist Jayant Madhab. "Except for Nagaland, all the insurgencies were because of the lack of economic development as the region lay cut off from the rest of India." Dr Manmohan Singh’s liberalisation wand just hasn’t touched these parts.

IT’S a vicious circle," says Mizoram Chief Minister Lalthanhawla. "Industries don’t come here because there is no peace. And there is insurgency because there is no development." Finance Minister P. Chidambaram says he can only persuade industries to go to the North-east, he can’t force them. But asks Manipur Tourism Director P. Vaiphei: "Did insurgency lead to neglect or vice-versa?" So there is anger, fear, frustration, unemployment, drugs and AIDS here. Yet all Delhi—and its servile satraps here—can think of is bringing in the Army. There are no schools, colleges, hospitals, power plants, industries, roads, trains, airports; yet all the Northeast has got so far are vacuous promises, like Prime Minister Deve Gowda’s Rs 6,000-crore package, not a pie of which has reached.

Which is why it’s not difficult to see just how long the Army can keep the simmering discontent under the lid. When the Nagas launched a movement for an independent nation in the mid-’50s, New Delhi’s response was, as always, to send in the Army. It was expected to spell finis to the rebels, to crush them into submission. More than 40 years later, the Indian Government is trying to reach out to Naga leaders in Bangkok to sue for peace.

What’s more, the Naga struggle has spawned half-a-dozen equally powerful underground groups in the region. Over a lakh attended a rally in Imphal last October to question Manipur’s merger with the Indian Union in 1949. Says Prof. Gangumei Kamei, president of the Federal Party of Manipur: "Successive Indian governments are only continuing the British legacy of using the North-east to guard the frontier by using the Army." Yet, there are those in the Army, like Lt Gen. S.S. Grewal, commander of the Dimapur-based 3 Corps in Nagaland, who permit themselves rare moments of candour. "Insurgency in the Northeast continues," he says, "because there are people with vested interests who want it to go on." Sometimes they can be politicians, sometimes insurgents, sometimes it can be the Army itself.

The opposition in Tripura, for instance, believes the ruling CPI(M) is abetting the ATTF. "The party is losing ground in its strongholds," says former Congress chief minister Samir Ranjan Barman. "It’s creating fear among a section of non-tribals so that it can benefit in the revision of electoral rolls." The CPI(M), expectedly, refutes the charge. Points out Gautam Das, editor of the party organ Desher Katha: "The Opposition, having been routed in all elections in the past four years, is desperate to malign the Left Front. Engineering riots is the easiest way to discredit our government. The National Liberation Force of Tripura (NLFT) is abetted by the Congress." While the slug-fests go on for a few votes more, the victims lick their wounds. "We do not know who is behind the killings. And why. But my mother was shot dead in front of my eyes. Who will bring her back?" wails twentysomething Dipankar Chakravarthy.

While Tripura’s chief secretary rests content that the situation is now "totally under control", no one will address the real issues. No one will ask why the very sick Dasarath Deb has not been replaced by a more hands-on chief minister. No one will ask why the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system to arrest the land alienation is not introduced. No one will ask how the ‘demographic inversion’ (a euphemism for the majority becoming the minority and vice-versa) was allowed to take place.

There were just 30 per cent non-trib-als in land-locked Tripura in the ’50s. Now they comprise 70 per cent, most of them refugees. This has led to great resentment among tribals. Khowai, where the strife took place, has Bangladesh on three sides.

The ATTF are known to have been trained and even armed by the ULFA. "Sometimes, the ULFA participates in ATTF operations," says a senior Army officer. "And the NLFT has links with the NSCN (Muivah)." Attempts to impose curfew along the border are opposed by politicians, bail pleas of arrested militants go unopposed by the Government, no effort is made to improve the efficiency of the police. "If the Government does not give any serious indication of fighting insurgency, how can the Army do it," asks Lt Gen. Grewal. It’s a tack his counterpart in Assam takes. "We can at best bring down the law and order situation to an acceptable level, but ultimately the answer must be found at the political level," says Lt Gen. R.K. Sawhney.

Sawhney’s troops have been hurled a great deal of flak lately over alleged encounter deaths. The Army is alleged to be settling land deals on behalf of rich businessmen. Mahanta’s opponents accuse the chief minister of using the same tactics as that of his Congress predecessor, Hiteswar Saikia, to crush the rebels. "The Army is treating the rural masses like aliens. We were enjoying a partial democracy here. That has gone with the Unified Command coming in," says Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, editor of the mass-circulation newspaper Asomtya Pratidin. "If the influx from Bangladesh and other states is not stopped, there will be more Assams." 

Although Mahanta has been more sympathetic to the ULFA than to the Bodos, ULFA sympathisers say there is no reason for the government not to begin peace talks. "If former ministers can be deputed all the way to Thailand to talk to Naga rebels, what’s preventing them?" they ask. What are the ULFA’s demands? It wants an independent sovereign Assam, it wants the talks to be held in a third country and it wants the Army withdrawn before the negotiation process can begin. Which brings things back to square one.

Paying Up At Gunpoint
For most people, it’s a case of ‘tax deduction at source’. Or else...

INSURGENCY is big business in the North-east. It’s an industry with a turnover of over Rs 600 crore per annum. The rebels levy annual ‘taxes’ on big business houses and traders, and collect monthly taxes from government servants, offi-cials, doctors and engineers. "Insurgency ended 20 years ago," says former Meghalaya chief minister B.B. Lyngdoh. "There are only extortionists and robbers now in the garb of insurgents." With the police nowhere in the picture, it’s all as official as it can get. On pay day, representatives of the rebel groups station themselves in government offi-ces and deduct the tax (between 1 and 10 per cent of the basic salary) at source.

Private individuals receive notices, complete with the official seal, to pay up or else. All payments are acknowledged. Admits Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir: "Militants are taxing people from all walks of life heavily, government servants included." Intelligence sources say tea companies in Assam shell out Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh every year by way of subscription to the ‘Rebel Fund for Revolution’.

Bigtime contractors cough up to Rs 2 lakh, professionals Rs 50,000. Abductors demanded Rs 20 lakh from an engineer in Manipur in January.

Although big companies fight shy of admitting they pay protection money, Goodricke was bold enough to acknowledge it in one of its annual reports. "Insurgency offers easy money for frustrated youth seeking quick bucks," says Bolin Bordoloi, a Tata Tea executive who was abducted by the Bodo Security Force.

With no visible economic activity around, extortion has also become the only source of income for disgruntled, unemployed youth. Different sections of National Highway 39 which passes through Nagaland and Manipur are controlled by different groups. Vehicles passing through have to pay each group.

Petrol and oil tankers are a special target. Result: Indian Airlines flights to Delhi from Imphal are regularly cancelled because planes cannot be refuelled. Petrol is rationed for vehicle-owners.
In most states, vehicles now move twice a day in convoys, escorted by the Army to steer clear of extortionists. As a result, it will take 13 hours to traverse 250 km from Dharmanagar and Agartala on NH 44.

With Bangladesh freezing bank accounts of insurgent groups, the rebels, who earlier targeted big business, have turned their attention on the common man. In Manipur, where even Chief Minister Rishang Keishing’s staff pays protection money, several doctors have sold their Marutis and opted for two-wheelers. Access to huge sums of money enables the militants to purchase modern weaponry and travel abroad unhindered. Although the stated aim of North-east insurgents is to expiate the ills affecting tribal societies by exterminating non-trib-als , they are having a problem hiding their growing prosperity.

The police found a lap-top computer on a militant nabbed in Guwahati; a top NSCN leader, the arrested militant revealed that he kept financial records on it. Elsewhere, 800 pairs of Lotto shoes were found in a ULFA hideout—part of the boys’ ‘uniform’.

As seven-time Rajat Kamal winner Bhabendranath Saikia, whose next film deals with insurgency, says: "The worst part of the movement has been that people have joined it only for their good; people who wanted to make money without reasonable hard work."

Another Upsurge?
Muslim fundamentalists join the gang

WHILE New Delhi struggles to cope with mainstream insurgency, a clutch of Muslim fundamentalist organisations (MFOs) have sprung up in Assam with distressingly familiar objectives: self-defence and, yes, a separate homeland for the state’s 28 per cent Muslim population.

Admittedly, the Muslim Liberation Army, the Muslim Liberation Tigers, the Muslim Security Force and the Islamic Liberation Army of Assam are still nascent outfits. And mercifully none has yet indulged in criminal acts in their quest for an independent Islamic state. Even a meeting of MFO leaders last November to float a united front came to nought.

But intelligence agencies feel the MFOs’ raison d’etr e, which is protection of Muslim interests, and their area of operation—ULFA-dominated districts—bodes ill for the region’s security scenario. "Take it from me," says a senior intelligence officer in Guwahati, "Muslim militancy will be a big threat in 10 years’ time." Like elsewhere in the North-east, Muslims came to Assam as mostly cheap labour and constituted a huge votebank for their political masters to encash, which ensured their survival. But native fury at the resultant ‘demographic inversion’ appears to have activated their defence mechanism.

The MFOs have come up in mostly Muslim-dominated districts like Assam Chief Minister Mahanta’s home constituency Nagaon, Morigaon, Goalpara, Dhubri, Kamrup and Barpeta. This has made it very tough for security agencies to detect and weed them out although there has been no trouble so far.

But given the ULFA’s strong presence in all six districts (the Bodo Security Force calls the shots in the last two), intelligence sources say it’s only a matter of time before the MFOs and ULFA-BdSF are at daggers drawn. All six MFO districts are used by the ULFA as hideouts.

Not much is known about the leadership pyramids of the MFOs and their cadre-strength. They are said to be collecting funds from rich Muslims in Goalpara, Dhubri, Morigaon and Barpeta. Intelligence sources say the Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh is providing the vital external support.

The MFO cadres reportedly go across the border for training, thanks to the hospitality of their backers. And there are indications that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) too is fishing in the muddied waters, along with the Bangladeshi Field Intelligence Chief of Army Staff Shankar Roy Choudhury admitted recently that the Army had definite proof of the ISI’s involvement in providing funds, training bases and administrative support to insurgent groups in the North-east. Security agencies are hoping the picture will change with Bangladesh promising to make things difficult for groups using that country as a sanctuary.

Conspiracy of the guns

My friend, RN Ravi, who retired in May as IB's Special Director was in-charge of the North-east for a number of years and knows the inside stories of how north-east is treated in the corridors of power. He has started writing on the region's affairs quite regularly since he demitted office. But this  piece in The Statesman last Monday is particularly hard-hitting and deserves to be read by all right thinking people. 

And lest any one thinks that all government officers criticise governments only after they retire, let me assure you that Ravi was as outspoken while in service as he is in this write up!

So I have taken the liberty and his permission to reproduce the article in full here. Read on and draw your own conclusions.

From The Statesman: 

26 August 2012
rn ravi
IT has been over a month and the conflagration in Assam is not yet fully doused. In its trail are some 80 dead and several hundred thousand homeless. Several thousand panic-stricken North-easterners in different parts of the country, fearing reprisals, rushed home to safety. Governments — the Union and the state — instead of confronting the pathology that breeds such scenarios are scrambling to set right their optics through cosmetic measures.

The Centre dispatched a CBI team to Kokrajhar, the epicentre of the riots, to do its magic. As expected, the CBI could not cast its spell. Instead, it got into a controversy. Bodo organisations dubbed it partisan because a Muslim officer led the team. Induction of the CBI to the scene of an active riot is nothing but a red herring to con the people and deflect their ire from a predatory government that has long ceased to be a protector of its citizens and wilfully abandoned its part of the social contract.

In recent years, a dangerously sinister situation has emerged in Assam. The state has got into symbiotic relations with, one after another, numerous non-state militias. It fosters them with the taxpayers’ money, ignores their day-to-day retail and wholesale criminal depredations and uses them in pursuit of its cynical politics to gain and retain power.
Between them there is a conspiracy of cynical silence. In this insidious equation between the two, the ordinary folks are mere disposable variables and inconsequential collaterals. 

It all began with the Union and the state governments soliciting the Bodo Liberation Tigers, a militia with track records of insane violence, with a hefty moneybag and unexpected political powers in February 2003. The BLT leaders received hundreds of crores of rupees as solicitation money besides an institutionalised hegemony over 35 per cent of the state’s territory and its inhabitants that became the Bodoland Territorial Area District. It is public knowledge that the prodigal leaders of the outfit, awash in cash spoils of the deal, showered expensive gifts, including BMW and Mercedes cars, on their beloveds and fiancés. Political power was handed over to them on a platter — not by the people but on their back!

It was left to the BLT to decommission as many of their foot soldiers and weapons as they chose to notify. They retrenched mostly their elderly cadres and old weapons and retained their core lethal capacity disguised as volunteers of sorts. They are used for suppressing any potential challenge to the BLT’s hegemony, including the likely emergence of an alternative Bodo voice. They are the main suspects in several riots including the current ones. In the 2006 elections they helped a teetering Congress party retain political power.

When a sullen and intransigent National Democratic Front of Boroland, a rival militia not yet in cahoots with the state, killed more than 50 innocent non-Bodos in three days of a frenzied death-dance beginning 2 October 2004, the birthday of arguably the greatest prophet of non-violence in modern history, and in its wake wrote to Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi asking him to send his troops to barracks and have a deal with them, he promptly obliged them. Counter-insurgency was stopped and a charade of peace-talks began. 

In order to determine the size of the moneybag, as an interim sop, when asked to submit the list of their cadres, they gave a staggering list of 1,027 to the state intelligence chief. Central and state agencies were unanimous that the outfit was never near so large and at the time did not have more than 150 boys. In December 2003, the outfit was decimated in Operation All Clear of Bhutan, where its critical assets were located. However, the grossly inflated claim was promptly accepted by the state even without a semblance of scrutiny. They received fatter solicitation money commensurate with the projected size.

While at “peace”, the NDFB continued its violent depredations. Its traumatic terrorist act – the high intensity serial blasts on 30 October 2008 in lower Assam — killed 90 and disabled for life more than 350 people, shocked the country and catapulted Assam onto the map of international terrorism. An outraged state in one voice cried for justice and demanded the state immediately call off the farcical “show of peace” with the promiscuous killers. 

Insensitive to the collective despair and popular outrage, the state refused to stop mollycoddling the killers. The tragicomedy again came to the fore when the outfit abducted Vilas Bardekar, a senior officer of the Indian Forest Service, and released him after 80 days on 1 August 2010, only after extracting Rs 1 crore in ransom. The state, at peace with the abductors, acted as a broker in the safe transfer of the ransom money.

On 11 February 2010, Gogoi, flanked by his police chief, three-star generals of the Indian Army and senior officers of the Union home ministry, shook hands with 412 purported gunmen of the Karbi Longri NC Hills Liberation Front, a tribal militia. They had wreaked widespread havoc on common folk and had chosen, at their convenience, to respond to the enticing solicitations of the state. Of them, more than 250 were innocent boys who had nothing to do with militancy and were forcibly corralled, from villages, into the fold by the KLNLF days before the public show. When I brought this to the notice of then Union home minister P Chidambaram, in Gogoi’s presence, they exchanged cynical glances and moved on with the insidious farce.

These boys were soon trained into hardcore terrorists in the designated camps of the outfit under the benign eyes of the state. The Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel Garlosa), a Dimasa tribal militia, was raised in 2005 with patronage of a minister from the same tribe in the state cabinet for securing his shaky seat in the elections due the next year. It unleashed unrestrained terror in the North Cachar Hills district and killed over 300 persons, mostly labourers engaged in infrastructure development works.

The intensity of their terror compelled the Centre to set the National Investigation Agency — the main anti-terror entity created in the aftermath of the 26 November 2008 attack on Mumbai — after them. The NIA, indeed, had a tough time chasing the terrorist leaders who enjoyed state protection. Finally when they were nabbed outside Assam, the state government hired a bungalow in Guwahati, notified it a jail and lodged them there with all conveniences, including orderlies, cook, laptops and telephones. Chidambaram was persuaded to rein in the NIA and facilitate their release soon.

Luxuriant friendliness has been extended to renegades of the United Liberation Front of Asom, a militia with pan-Assam pretensions and considered emotionally closer to the state government. In fact, other militias in cahoots with the state often accuse it of being stepmotherly to them in comparison.

The happy coexistence of the state with non-state militias is a matter of state policy. With the air of an evangelist, Chidambaram informed the Parliamentary Committee of the home ministry on 9 February 2011 that the non-state militias were not “criminals” and the policy of his government was of “forgiveness and reconciliation” with all of them! Of course, no compassion or justice for thousands dead and disabled by them!

So long as the gun is the preferred currency of power and exchange between state and non-state actors and people are mere collateral, peace will neither be redemptive nor sustainable. Isn’t it preposterous even to think of it?

The author is a recently retired special director, Intelligence Bureau, and can be contacted at ravindra.narayan.ravi@gmail.com

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Assam: Deja vu tinged with sadness

For Indian Express journalist Samudra Gupta Kashyap--my closest friend and travelling companion in the north-east--and me, the latest violence in Kokrajhar is like rewinding an old film.

In the past three decades, he--and I, till 2006--have reported on at least a dozen major ethnic/communal riots across the region.

The pattern is invariably the same: One targetted killing followed by a retaliatory attack; and then the dam bursts. Violence gets unleashed.

Innocent men, women and children, young and old, get maimed, killed, injured in a series of well-orchestrated attacks and are scarred for life.

Kuki-Naga clashes; Bodos -Muslim confrontation; Adivasi-Bodo feud; Bloody showdown between Reanga and Mizos, between Bengalis and tribals, the list has been endless.

The bloodletting peaks at one point, then ebbs following a belated crackdown by the government. Appropriate noises are made by all from Prime Minister downward.
Financial packages are announced; every political leader worth her salt visits the area, offers succour and sympathy but little else. NGOs and social organisations launch grand schemes for relief and rehabilitation.

Media lands up in droves. The usual stories of pathos, the humanatarian crises, the aparhy on part of the government occupy prime time news and front page headlines.

But only for a while.

As violence subsides, as it inevitably does, the focus shifts. The news gets relegated to inside pages and to morning and late night bulletins and then disappears altogether.

It has been no different this time.

The homeless and the displaced will be left largely to their own devices. Some will shift out of the conflict zone; others will compromise with the adversary and trudge back to their old habitat but most will continue to live in fear in the so-called relief camps, sans basic amenities, proper food or shelter.

And yet, as my friend tells me, all this could have been avoided had the government been little more alert.
For weeks, if not months, the warning signs were flashing. Tension between Bodos and non-Bodos, especially Muslims, was peaking.

No one noticed little signs of impending trouble. The killing of 6th July of two Muslims, the lynching of four Bodos, one of them a former militant on 20th July, the increasing belligerence of displayed by a newly-formed minority protection body.

Apparently, a Assam Pradesh Congress Committee delegation had reported to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi that there is trouble brewing in Bodo areas, no one took it seriously. 

Now how many times we have heard this before? Several times, I am afraid. 

So when violence erupted from 21st July onward, everyone pretended as if  this came as a surprise.
The Chief Minister and his close advisers were slow to react. No firm orders were passed to quell the violence.

More than 75 people died. At one point there were more than four and a half lakh refugees in camps. Just over a month later, two lakh plus have left the camps to pick up the pieces. But many are afraid, not willing to go back home.

The analysis of the root cause of the violence and subsequent exodus of north easterners from Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune is a subject of a separate piece but as I and Samudra travelled once again to lower Assam last week, we couldn't help but ask ourselves: how long will the bloodletting and politics over dead bodies continue?

Its a question to which there seems to be no ready answer. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Gen Bikram Singh putting his own team in place

Army Chief, Gen Bikram Singh, who took over the top post on 1st June, has started making his own choices for some of the most crucial appointments in the top hierarchy.

According to well-informed sources, Gen Bikram Singh intends to replace the current Director General Military Operations (DGMO), Lt Gen Ashok Choudhury.

Lt Gen Choudhury, whose name was twice proposed by the previous Chief Gen VK Singh for the post of Director General  Assam Rifles--but was rejected by the Defence Ministry--may be shifted out as GOC of an area in the East. 

If that happens it would be one of the rare such moves as three star officers who function as Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) in the Army HQ, normally retire from there. 

Gen Bikram Singh in Eastern Ladakh on Saturday: Photo:
Courtesy: Indian Army
This transfer--if it materialises--would be seen as a downgrade for the current DGMO.

Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, currently Director General, Infantry is tipped to replace Lt Gen Choudhury. Lt Gen Bhatia, a paratrooper, was the 33 Corps Commander before taking over as DG Infantry late in 2011.

Lt Gen KS Bajwa, currently Commandant Infantry School at Mhow may take over as DG, Infantry.

Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, currently at the Strategic Forces Command, may take over as DG, Assam Rifles.

It is not known who will replace him at SFC and Lt Gen Bajwa at the Infantry School, if the proposed postings go through.

Interestingly, Lt Gens Bhatia, Bajwa and Ranbir Singh have worked closely with Gen Bikram Singh during his stint as Eastern Army Commander. While Lt Gen Bhatia was GOC, 33 Corps, based at Sukna, Lt Gen Bajwa was Chief of Staff and Lt Gen Ranbir Singh was MGGS ( Major General, General Staff) with the current Army Chief in Fort Williams.

The new appointments, proposed last week, are currently with the Defence Ministry.

Once implemented, Gen Biram Singh would have put the stamp of his authority over the top hierarchy.

While eyebrows may be raised over the downgrading of the current DGMO--if that happens--the Army Chief is well within his rights to choose his own team.

Past Chiefs have brought in their own choices in crucial appointments. Apart from these top changes, several new divisional and Corps Commanders will be selected in the next six months as tenures of incumbent officers get completed and new promotions take place.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reestablish the trust

Also watch: 


As the overcrowded train from Bangalore chugged into Guwahati railway station early on Saturday morning, the occupants let out a spontaneous scream. 

More out of relief I think than joy.

After all they had traveled more than 56 hours in unreserved compartments in searing heat fleeing a perceived or real threat to their lives in states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

And arrived safely home.

Tired, unwashed and vaguely afraid, most of the young men (there were hardly any women on this train) worked as security guards, hotel, restaurant and hotel boys. Mostly leading a hand-to-mouth existence. 

But at least they were fending for themselves without burdening their poor parents back home.

Some had spent over nine years in the Garden city; some just about six months. But all of them said physical and verbal abuse of some of their friends and panic calls from parents and families back home forced them to leave in haste. Most were hesitant to put a timeline for their return.

Some others were defiant.

A young security guard, Bikash who has spent over three years in Bangalore told me at the railway station: "We are Hindustanis, we have the right to stay to anywhere in the country. I will go back when situation is better."

He won't specify what is his definition of "better." 

Bikash and his friends who alighted from the train on Saturday morning with just one bag each, also could not put a finger on why, who and where the rumours of attacks on people from north-east, particularly Assam started. Some said they were stopped on the road and asked: "Are you from Assam?" That was enough to spark fear since Bikash and friends were watching riots in Kokrajhar on Assamese satellite channels and had heard rumours that Muslims were out to take revenge.

Others heard from friends that an sms had warned of "something" terribly wrong happening after Id on August 20. This was immediately after the Mumbai riots last Saturday.

Staying as they were in one closed group, hardly interacting with the rest of the cosmopolitan society in Bangalore or Hyderabad, the fear felt by a couple of these boys got immediately transmitted to the rest of the group inducing large-scale panic. 

Absence of any social links with local residents because of the tendency to live in close-knit, cloistered groups, further aggravated the problem. As I wrote in Outlook in May this year in a different context: "Clan and ethnic loyalties often take precedence over regional identities. A larger community often discriminates against a smaller ethnic group. A surfeit of student groups and associations formed on tribal lines in most big cities bears testimony to this reality. All of them prefer to keep to themselves, trying to find protection in numbers." With no one to counsel them or offer assurance, these boys started landing up at the railway station on the evening of 15th August. 

As images of the huge rush started flashing on local channels in Karnataka, Assam channels picked up the news, feeding the frenzy back home, forcing anxious parents to call up children in panic. As Abhijit Miri told me: "My parents saw reports on TV and said come back. Money is not important." When Abhijit said he was hopping on to the next available train, a couple of his his friends too decided to leave!

No amount of assurance by the government and allurement by the employers could keep these professional back in Bangalore or Hyderabad. All of them simply wanted to go back home even if for some days.

As national channels and newspapers picked up the story, the exodus got radiated to other cities too. In Pune, attacks on North easterners further added to the fear.

A clueless government initially blamed the social media and offending smses or mmses for the panic but later realised that the establishment was not reacting fast enough.

It took close to 48 hours for the Central government as well as state governments in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra to take a grip on the situation.

On Saturday afternoon, when I spoke with Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, he said:  "Our desire is that they go back. We will arrange for special trains from here to southern states whenever they want." Gogoi said he had spoken to all Chief Ministers, the Home Minister and the Prime Minister too. The government meanwhile has promised to track down those who triggered panic in the North-Eastern community in Bangalore and other cities by sending out threatening and incendiary messages.

As tempers cool down and the huge rush of returning migrants gets reduced to a trickle, a calmer rethink will prevail among all stake holders. 

All those who have worked, studied and lived in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune or Chennai will certainly like to go back.; the service industry and employers in other sectors, heavily dependent on the north easterners would like them back at work as early as possible; the professionals would also like to restart their livelihood.

 It is therefore incumbent on each one of us to ensure that life goes back to normal by ensuring that rumour mongers are meted out exemplary punishment and at the same time genuinely assuring north-east migrants that they are an integral part of idea that is India.
We owe this to ourselves.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Suicides in Army: A comprehensive review needed

Suicides and fragging by army jawans have become a more frequent occurrence in the army of late. The Samba incident last week once again compels me to ask: What is it that drives a jawan to desperation? Is it just the tension of operating in the counter-insurgency? Or is there something more to it than meets the eye?

There are no straight answers but figures available since 2003 clearly indicate that that the Indian army is facing one of its biggest challenges in history. Consider the figures

In 2003, 96 army men committed suicide

In 2004, this number was exactly 100

In 2005, 92 of them took their own lives

In 2006, 131 army personnel committed suicide

In 2007 and 2008 the recorded figures were 142 and 150 respectively.

Since then the numbers have come down but still remain over 100.

2009: 111; 2010: 130; 2011: 102. 

Given that India has an 11-lakh strong army, these numbers may not be huge but for a force that prides itself on its standards of training and discipline, it is certainly a matter of concern if not alarm.

One can also point out the fact that in the American Army this year alone the rate of suicide (till June 8) was one-a-day.  That's hardly a consolation.

Therefore, like I had done in 2007, its time to ask the question: Is the Indian Army feeling the heat of being in perpetual operations? Are our soldiers' stress levels peaking dangerously? Making them prone to acts of indiscriminate violence?

Come summer, winter or rains, soldiers continue their daily patrols along the line of control in Kashmir. Every day and night at a thousand foot patrols spread out in in Jammu and Kashmir to try and corner terrorists. The job is risky and can even get monotonous. A bullet can come from anywhere any time. So one has to be always alert. but the chase is mostly futile. Nine out of ten times the patrols returns empty-handed.

After nearly 14 years of counter-terrorism in Kashmir, the Army has got used to the apparent hardship of uninterrupted operations. The fear of the enemy, claims each man that I have talked to, is nominal. "We have no tension in this respect( counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency), we had joined the army precisely for this kind of work," is the constant refrain from soldiers.

Officers say their biggest duty  is to ensure that men are fully trained to face any situation in counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism. "A fully-trained soldier is a confident soldier and effective soldier," Commanding officers say whenever one meets them.
But this practicised auto-reply could cloak a very different reality.

A psychiatric study by army doctors a couple of years ago on "Evolving Medical Strategies for Low Intensity Conflicts " revealed the huge range of issues soldiers in such situations have to confront contradictions between war and the low intensity conflict situations and particularly the concepts of 'enemy', 'objective' and 'minimum force'.There are no clear-cut victories like in wars. Some other findings:

  • In general war the nation looks upon the soldier as a saviour, but here he is at the receiving end of public hostility.
  • A hostile vernacular Press keeps badgering the security forces, projecting them as perpetrators of oppression.
  • Continuous operations affect rest, sleep and body clocks, leading to mental and physical exhaustion. 
  • Monotony, the lure of the number-game and low manning strength of units lead to over-use and fast burn-out.
Leading psychiatrists also feel that there is disconnect between what a soldier is trained for and what he ends up doing in low-intensity conflicts
I remember that some years ago Dr. Nimesh Desai, a practicing psychiatrist had told me: "There is a certain dissonence in what the soldier feels when he operates in low intensity conflict. He is trained for war, to go all out against an enemy but in insurgency, he is told to hold back. Plus there is no end in sight for such operations. It is the constant tension that gets him.

Operating in tension-ridden counter-insurgency environment does lead to certain stress among the jawans but that is only one of the factors. The main worry are the problems back home--land disputes.. tensions within the family, rising aspirations, lack of good pay and allowances, and also the falling standards of supervision from some officers, all these factors have led to major stress.

Company commanders who lead field units in counter insurgency situations also believe that tensions at home transmit themselves much quicker today.
Since almost 80 per cent of India's foot soldiers come from rural and semi-urban areas, most of them have strong links with land. 

For the ordinary soldier, the smallest patch of land back home is the most precious property. 
Again, I have frequently come across  a common thread where soldiers say there is no tension in actual work of counter-insurgency. The main problem for the fauji comes from his domestic situation. Very often land gets encroached in the village back home or there is dispute over even smallest of property. "There is  always a tension. Police doesn't listen to us. My parents feel helpless, I become tense every time I go back home," I remember a soldier telling me in the Valley.

One more common thread among soldiers from Rajasthan to UP, from Tamil Nadu to Haryana was how little respect they seem to command today in society which devalues their work.

As a former Army Commander had once pointed out: "You see he comes from a society where he compares himself with others and when he realises that he is at a disadvantage since acceptance wise, the kind of respect that his predecessors had is no longer there."

Very often insensitive civil administrations create tensions. 
Senior officers point out that most suicide and fratricide cases take place after soldiers return from a spot of leave. T
he feeling of frustration can bring in helplessness which in turn leads to suicides and fratricide it creates an impression that no one listens to the army. It is the system that sends the man uniform in depression. 

It is precisely this concern that had prompted defence minister AK Antony to  write to all chief ministers some years ago asking them to sensitise district administrations in their states to the needs of the soldiers. State governments were asked to set up a mechanism at district and state levels to address soldiers' grievances. 

The harsh reality is that men in uniform no longer command the respect they did in the early years after independence. Today, they have fight for getting equivalence with officers of Group A Central Government services!

And yet, the Army must look within too.

Soldiers these days are better educated and consequently better aware of their rights. This, coupled with falling standards of command and control among some of the undeserving officers who have risen to command units, is becoming a major cause for worry.

Soldiers no longer accept a wrong or unjustified command blindly. The old attitudes among some of the COs, of lording over ORs and expecting them not to protest/revolt must change.

While there is no single reason that can be cited as THE cause for suicides and the recent standoffs that have happened in a couple of units in the quick succession in the past three months, the Army leadership will have to take a hard look at the disturbing developments and come up with quick but effective solutions.

Further viewing and reading:

(I had made this film exactly a year ago. It shows the risks, the monotony and sheer thanklessness of the soldiers' job in Kashmir)


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Will the PM bite the bullet on 15th Aug?

The deadline set by the Prime Minister for the Committee of Secretaries (CoS) to resolve the six main anomalies in the implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission award for the armed forces passed today. 

In the usual secretive way in which the government functions, there is no clarity on what the committee may or may not recommend.

Although the Prime Minister will take the final call, the recommendations of the CoS will have a major bearing on what he decides.

As it is, the government had rejected the demand put forward by the three service chiefs last month that a military representative should be part of the committee that will decide matters military. Perhaps to make amends, the CoS once again held a detailed meeting with the three service chiefs on August 7.

During the prolonged meeting, the three service chiefs are reported to have once again forcefully argued on why the 5 basic issues need to be resolved forthwith. They are, as is well known by now:

  • Fixing common pay scales for all JCOs and ORs
  • Grant of NFU (non-functional upgardation) status to commissioned officers
  • Correcting difference in rank pay of commissioned officers
  • Extending the HAG+ (Higher administrative Grade Plus) scale to all 3 star officers
  • Granting One Rank One Pension to retired personnel
The Service Chiefs--Adm Nirmal Verma, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne and Gen Bikram Singh--pointed out during the discussion on 7th August that a lot of critical infrastructure development work is being affected in various commands because of functional problems brought about by disparities between officers in uniform and their civilian counterparts.

The Army Chief pointed out that recently, two Army Commanders have written to him specifically on this particular issue, conveying great concern at the adverse affect the unresolved pay issue was having under their charge.

Defence Minister AK Antony, it will be recalled, had told the Prime Minister, about the restlessness among the armed forces and had warned about the possibility of "things turning bad."

As a result of these strong inputs, the Cabinet Secretary-led CoS is now reported to have decided to recommend granting at least three main demands--NFU, OROP and common pay scales for JCOs and ORs--in the next couple of days in their report to the Prime Minister.

For the uninitiated, the One Rank One Pay scheme implies that uniform pension be paid to the armed forces personnel retiring in the same rank with the same length of service irrespective of their date of retirement, and any future enhancement in the rates of pension be automatically passed on to past pensioners.

But the issue that has upset and angered serving defence personnel is NFU. 

For those not in uniform it needs a bit of an explanation.

Buckling under pressure from Group A organised Services under the Central Government like Border Roads Organisation, Military Engineering Services, Postal Services, the 6th Pay Commission gave them a special concession. 

It allowed the officers in these services to be placed in a grade pay scale equivalent to an IAS officer two years behind that particular IAS batch. For example if the 1992 batch of the IAS officer got placed in the Joint Secretary grade in 2012, all Group A organised officers of the 1990 batch would automatically get the pay and allowance equivalent to the 1992 IAS batch, irrespective of the post and place they are serving in. That is the upgradation will be done on a 'non-functional' basis.

This has brought in huge functional problems in day to day affair when military officers have to work in close coordination with MES Civil Officers, BRO Civil Officers, IPS Officers in BSF, CRPF, ITBP, Defence Accts (IDAS), Test Audit (IA&AS), Ordnance Factory Board etc, with whom Defence forces officers interact regularly, will now get the salary and grade pay of Joint Secretary/Major General (Grade Pay Rs 10000/-) after 22 years of service, and will draw the pay of Additional Secretary to Government of India which is equal to a Lieutenant General (HAG  scale) in 32 years of service whereas military officers senior to them in rank and service will get less grade pay at the same level of service thereby creating a functional disparity giving rise to insubordination and subtle non-compliance.

Military officials have pointed out that this has adversely affected organizational command and control in multi cadre environment.  It also led to lowering the status of Armed Forces Officials vis-à-vis organized Group A officers and IPS Officers.  Organised Group A and IPS Officers reach HAG(Higher Administrative Grade) Scale at 32 years while only 0.2 per cent of Armed Forces Officers can ever reach that level.
With over 97 per cent Armed Forces Officers retiring in the Grade Pay of 8700, their exclusion from the NFU is seen as grossly unfair.  This differential not only disturbs financial parity, it pushes down the Defence services in status as even direct recruit officers of Group B services attain a better pay and promotional avenue and manage to reach the level of Joint Secretary/Major General before retiring.
Both the OROP and granting the NFU status to Armed Forces officials is not going to be expensive either. 
According to calculations done by the military, the annual outgo for granting One Rank One Pension to the approximately 21 lakh ex-servicemen would not be more than Rs 1300 crore. Similarly the NFU status, if granted, will cost the exchequer a mere Rs 70 crore annually but will go a long way in restoring the pride and status of the armed forces' officers.
The other core issues are minor in comparison but important nevertheless.
A week from today, the Prime Minister  will have a chance to assuage the hurt within the military by granting what straight away look like legitimate demands of the armed forces. Many Prime Ministers in the past have made significant announcement from the ramparts of the Red Fort during their Independence Day speeches. Rajiv Gandhi for instance announced the the signing of the Assam accord on 15th August 1985.

Will Manmohan Singh grasp the nettle and show  some sagacity?