Linkages between Development and Extremism in North East India

India’s North East Region is a quagmire of economic backwardness, though it certainly does not deserve to be so. The economic backwardness of the region can be partly attributed to its chequered colonial history, its integration with the Union of India and then the history in independent India. Its backwards is partly because it is a part of a large developing country and its geographical and economic isolation from the rest of the country. We can see the development and its links to the extremism in North east via two perspectives viz. Colonial history and Post Independence History.

Colonial History

Since ages, India’s north east is home to a large number of tribes and communities living in a relative isolation in their own cultural niches. They were largely autonomous and had their own ways of social and economic organizations, which in some ways rivalled the modern practices. The British formally entered in North East in 1826 and with this, the process of integration of this extremely diverse region into the British Empire commenced. Two significant aspects of British arrival and conquest are important here to note. One is that the North East Region was brought under a single administrative umbrella by subjugation of many distinct and interior territories. Second is that the focus of the activities was not the people of the region but the natural resources such as oil, tea and timber, which served the direct interests of the Colonial masters. This second aspect became detrimental to the people and generally to the region as a whole, because it promoted a policy to make the North East a developmental frontier.  The treatment of North East as a developmental frontier also led to a culture of carpetbaggers[1]. The north east as a developmental frontier remained under exploitation of the outsiders.

Post Independence

After freedom, first two decades of India kept the country marred with great difficulties including resettling post-partition displacements, integration of the country as a single unit, food shortages, three wars and other problems. During this period also, the North East remained as a Developmental Frontier of the colonial era. The North East region’s natural resources such as Oil, Tea, Timber and mineral wealth such as coal, Uranium remained a focus but NOT the aspirations of various people, tribes, their customs, languages, cultures and so on. Moreover, natural resource systems of the region are quite fragile and needed careful management while utilising them.

When the second five year plan was launched with industrialization as its buzzword, the natural resources essentially meant the mineral resources. This began a faster rate of exploitation of the natural resources. Apart from oil and coal, the region is also endowed with rich timber resources and hydro-electric potential. The industrialization of the country did not pass the benefits of the natural resources to the people and it did more harm than good to the region.

After the India was opened to the economics of Globalization in the early 1990s, Indian economy started growing with leaps and bounds with the advent of foreign collaboration, investment and increasing external sector trade and commerce. However, the North East India could not reap the benefits because of its geographical isolation from the Indian mainland. This was because; the products and services from this region would take more time and money to reach anywhere else because of fewer roads and rail connectivity. Thus, this region remained backward. During almost the last two decades, quick progress has come to other countries nearby such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. This implies that if the communication and external trade was promoted and appropriate physical linkages were developed with this region, North East could have benefited immensely. However, still today, the seven sisters remain to tackle the backlogs in their basic minimum services and infrastructural needs.

Development Extremism Links: Various Facets

The development and Extremism are linked into two ways. First, development is vital for tackling extremism or strengthening national security. Second, growth of extremist organisations, coupled with their ability to influence the process of legitimate politics and the alleged nexus of political parties with such forces, are undoubtedly impeding the development process. Thus, underdevelopment breeds insurgency and insurgency retards development. This two are mutually reinforcing and created a vicious cycle of underdevelopment-insurgency-underdevelopment.

Underdevelopment is more prominently linked to left wing extremism in central India in comparison to North East India, yet, it is linked to other drivers of the extremism, which are discussed below.

Infrastructure

North East region is grossly deficient of infrastructure to tap the available resources and push the economy forward. The lack of infrastructure has not only spoiled the prospect of economic development but has also given a thrust to extremism by creating a horizontal division among various ethnic groups affecting the fabrics of social harmony in the region. Due to absence of connectivity, all the “constituent states of the region are internally locked–themselves and unable to connect with each other physically in terms of poor transport links, and more seriously, unable to make connections intellectually and emotionally with their closest neighbours, or even with and among their own people. The result is the displacement of common understanding and linkages for peaceful coexistence and regional cooperation. Thus, speedy development of infrastructure in the North Eastern region is absolutely necessary, if it is to be saved from the curse of extremism.

Human Development

In terms of human development index capturing the three dimensions of human development viz. economic, education and health-the region have done reasonably well than most of the states of Indian union. Among the eight states, Assam ranked the lowest, which has been placed in lower middle category and Mizoram in high category while rest of the states are either in high middle or middle category. The success of these states in this regard is mainly induced by the education sector. Apart from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya the literacy rate in the remaining states are higher than the national average.

However, quality of education is an issue that is linked to extremism. Most of the educational institutions in the region are like those in rest of the country. They churn out the army of unemployable degree holders. In absence of quality jobs, and further absence of other avenues for a respectable livelihood, youth can be easily attracted to path of militancy.

Economic Development

The economy of the north east region primarily depends on agriculture sector. Ninety per cent of the people in the Northeast depend on agriculture for their livelihood. But increasing population, lack of state land reforms, oral traditions of land ownership, jhum cultivation, immigrant population, and intensive cultivation, the pressure on land for food and livelihood is on the rise. This leads to a sense of insecurity among the tribals.

Industrial Development

Industrial sector in the region continues to be in pathetic condition. Industrially the region is one of the most backward regions in India. Only Assam, and to some extent Meghalaya, have moved ahead of the rest of the states in terms of industrial development whose industrialization also is centred on tea, oil and timber.

[1] Carpetbaggers refer to any outsider who attempts to gain political or economic advantage. This term has its origin from the westward movement in the United States, especially after the railway network expanded. The western parts were swarmed in by new townships of land-grabbers, prostitutes, cowbiys etc. who degraded the culture of the indegenous population.

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