India’s subaltern border citizen

Could Delhi be solving the wrong problem? What it chooses to define as a law and order problem is essentially a governance crisis of severe proportions and one that the Indian state is not yet willing to acknowledge.

Nimmi Kurian
16 October 2014

Why does the world’s largest democracy have one of the longest running draconian laws in operation since 1958? If there is one single symbol of the Indian state’s relationship with its sensitive border regions it is a law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) passed by the Indian Parliament that grants the armed forces legal immunity for its actions and authorises the right to ‘use force…even to the causing of death’ including the guarantee of ‘no prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding’.

Many of these so-called special laws can be traced back to the colonial period, borrowing not only the official raison d’etre but also even the language. The AFSPA was originally intended to be an emergency measure except that today it has virtually become an emergency without an end. At the core of this deepening crisis of legitimacy that confronts the Indian state stands an abdication of its responsibility towards the border citizen.

Why does the border represent a site where the security of the state has clashed with that of its citizens in unfortunate ways? The problem has to do with the border region being seen as the problem in the eyes of the state. For Delhi, the border region has always been a security periphery. Nowhere is this perhaps more stark than in India’s Northeast, a frontier region that has long international borders with China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The Northeastern region of India has 4,500 km long international borders with only a 22 km link to the Indian mainland. Given porous borders, it has been virtually impossible to insulate the region and its conflicts from the neighbourhood. There are an estimated 79 active armed insurgent groups in the Northeast and transborder linkages among these groups have compounded security challenges facing the Indian state. It has also been a region in ferment marked by separatist movements, protests and bouts of violence.

For the Indian state, it has been a public order crisis of its own making though. An obsessive and overriding fixation with security and high militarisation levels has brought in its wake growing alienation and a loss of public trust. The problem confronting the Indian state is not an easy one. A counter-insurgency strategy designed to exterminate insurgents and their network of supporters has today unleashed a reign of terror and insecurity in the border region.

Concerns about human rights violations, arbitrary killings, fake encounters, torture and disappearances have spurred violent protests against the state. The state’s campaign to win hearts and minds has done little to bridge the psychological barrier in the psyche of the citizen. It is a sobering moment to reflect on its democratic deficits.

Celebratory accounts of India as the world’s largest democracy often tend to assume that it is also necessarily transparent, responsive and accountable to the voices, needs and concerns of its citizens. Admittedly, the representative safe zone of popular elections provides an all-too-easy claim to legitimacy for democratic systems. But the feel-good story of Indian democracy is being tested and clearly found wanting at the borders.

Given the state’s overriding fetish with frontier security it is not surprising then that the need for integration has often trumped statutory provisions for autonomy. Central-local relations are shot through with a fundamental tension that has as much to do with a perceived need for integration as with a deeply ingrained fear of an erosion of state capacity.

The push for integration is bringing in its wake an increased role for the state, deepening centralisation of control and bureaucratisation. Take the instance of the disproportionately high levels of dependency of Northeast India on the Centre.  Going by the resource flows from the Centre, the Northeast unlike popular perception is far from being a neglected region. As Special Category States, the Northeast receives 90 per cent as grants from the centre and 10 per cent in the form of loans. But the absence of viable domestic sources of revenue generation has considerably compromised local initiative and in the long run, any prospects for meaningful autonomy. This double burden has ensured that the local level has lacked both the incentive and the resources to develop credible stakes in social stability. These have today become double-edged swords as huge financial transfers from the Centre have served to sustain a self-serving cycle of corruption, militancy and underdevelopment. As a result, the border region today is becoming more integrated with Delhi than with its immediate neighbourhood.

Could Delhi be solving the wrong problem? It could well be a case of not knowing what the problem is. What it chooses to define as a law and order problem is essentially a governance crisis of severe proportions and one that the Indian state is not yet willing to acknowledge. The manner in which Delhi has responded to dissent and resistance from civil society in the region has been unimaginative to say the least.

Irom Chanu Sharmila.

Irom Chanu Sharmila. Mongyamba/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The most remarkable face of this dissent has been that of the activist, Irom Sharmila who has been on a fast track to death for 14 years against the Indian state demanding the revocation of AFSPA. Yet intriguingly the state has chosen not to engage her or open negotiations with her, least of all concede to the need to review the controversial Act. Its response instead has been to place Sharmila under arrest on charges of ‘attempting to commit suicide’. This marks a squandered opportunity to repair the fractured compact between state and society in India.

The state’s abdication of its responsibility towards the border citizen has often appeared wilful. This lack of resolve was evident in Delhi’s response to protracted and crippling blockades that have gripped the border state of Manipur in 2005 as well as in 2011. In 2011, tribal organisations enforced a four-month long economic blockade of two national highways, resulting in an acute humanitarian crisis and disrupting daily life in the border state.

This was also underlined by the lack of will to even ensure the effectiveness of outfits such as the Road Opening Patrol, Rapid Action Force and the Rapid Reaction Forces that had been set up to ensure the free and safe movement on highways. The Centre’s lack of will to ensure the safeguarding of a critical lifeline of the state has only underlined its remoteness and administrative abdication of its responsibilities.

What these accountability deficits are doing is to create a holding pattern of instability, one in which the law and order discourse has become a foil as well as fuel for the state and insurgent groups to perpetuate repeatedly. Breaking Northeast India’s enduring conflict trap and public outrage over state excesses will not be easy. But unless the compact between state and society is repaired, security and development will continue to tread parallel tracks. How it decides to define the civic space for the border citizen will be the litmus test for the Indian state’s bid for legitimacy.

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