Militant violence has significantly dropped in the Northeast region, especially Assam. Even Manipur that continues to log the highest incidence of violence, has far lower levels than earlier. Ten years ago annual fatalities in that state caused by militancy were 150 civilians, 40 SF personnel and 218 militants. Last year, civilians and militants killed were 23 each, and nine SF personnel. The situation in Assam has changed even more dramatically. In 2000, 400 civilians and 80 SF personnel were killed by militants; 330 militants also died. Last year, three civilians, five SF personnel and 18 militants were killed.
This quantum drop in killings reflects the changed security environment. Recall 1990, when Brooke Bond Group had overnight evacuated its executives when faced with ULFA’s extortion demands. Abduction of tea estate managers and oil executives, murder of army-officers, ambush of district SPs in broad daylight, and assassination of political leaders were symptoms of an extreme breakdown of governance. Similarly, indiscriminate killing of tea-planters by NDFB, targeted killing of non-ethnic communities and acts of pure terrorism like the multiple bomb blasts in Guwahati (2008) had made life a nightmare for ordinary people. Worse, it led to a flight of capital and business skills from the state.
When militancy is no longer a major threat, why is there a continuing perception that the region is ‘unfriendly’ to investment? Crime cannot be the reason: the incidence of reported crime in NER is just over 1.5 % of the cases reported countrywide, with most occurring in Assam. Only abductions and economic offences are proportionately higher – Assam records 10% of the abduction cases registered all-India annually, and 5% of economic offences
The exceptionally high rate of cases in the Northeast region under special laws like UAPA and of offences relating to public order, hints at sub-surface fault-lines -10% of all student agitations in the country are in Assam. Sudden bandh calls paralyse life; NH-2 through Nagaland to Manipur was blocked by protesting groups for as many as 300 days in a year. Moreover, the near absence of corruption cases registered, and negligible cases registered in this once heavily forested region under categories like the Forest Act, Wildlife Protection Act and Environment Act, are an indicator of weak enforcement of laws. The lack of engagement of communities in maintaining order is an aspect needs to be taken into account since Northeast region is home to over 200 different ethnic communities and customary laws still play a role in several states. There have been instances when initiatives intended to boost local development like highways or rail links, have been opposed. Local communities did not see any benefit since implementation would be by outside mega construction firms, and such infrastructure would affect the traditional way of life; only facilitating influx of outsiders.
An indicator of an effective justice system is the disposal of cases by the justice system. All-India, the proportion of cases chargesheeted by police is 81%. In Northeast region, states like Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura exceed this, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh are lower,and Assam lags significantly behind, while Manipur is a dismal 13 percent. All-India convictions rates are 46%.; in Assam it is 12 percent. At the same time, the sheer volume of cases pending trial are swamping the judicial system. In Assam; almost 50,000 cases are added each year, yet trials are completed in only 30,000 creating a huge backlog. This inability of the criminal justice machinery to address the extraordinary situation prevailing in the region has often led to extra-legal options exercised by SF and police personnel faced with ground-level realities. The Supreme Court has set up an S I T to probe an alleged 1500 extra-judicial killings in Manipur; a state that is in the forefront of the movement to withdraw AFSPA, a legal protection deemed indispensable by SFs deployed from outside to counter militancy .
To tackle multiple militant movements, policing in the region was based on deployment of central forces, while individual states raised many armed battalions under central schemes like the India Reserve battalions. For example, Assam has 29 state armed police battalions, Manipur 15, Tripura 12 and Nagaland 16 battalions. While this lop-sided armed policing structure cannot be wished away immediately, it is critical to increase strength of the civil police to improve delivery of regular policing services. Policing of NHs and expanding rail network is grossly inadequate, affecting not just Assam but all the NE States.
Policy makers stress on a stable law & order environment as a pre-requisite for sustained development. That’s because apart from physical infrastructure, access to finance and availability of suitable skills, a sense of security is indispensable for progress. UN Resolution 2151 states, “Good governance and the rule of law…are essential for sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty and hunger.” Goal 16 of the UN’s SDGs calls for strengthening relevant institutions, for building capacity at all levels to prevent violence and crime.
To make a reality of aspirations like “Advantage Assam”, the primary need is to generate a perception of security and upholding of rule-of-law. Better governance, an expanded civil policing system and an engaged community can help make the region an attractive investment destination and a springboard to South-East Asia. Assam as the gateway to the region can work in partnership with other states toward a ‘secure north-east’ if “Act East”is to become a reality.
Assam needs central support to ‘win the peace’. A vital component is strengthening the criminal justice system, including capacity of civil policing services. A holistic, not fragmented approach, is needed to achieve a better managed security environment shifting the governance paradigm to civil policing. Public representatives and opinion-makers in Northeast region need to take up the baton to support building up of an appropriate security system, using all available forums. The requirement to improve criminal justice delivery as an essential precursor to achieve declared economic objectives.
Jayanto Narayan Choudhury is former DGP of Assam. He can be reached at [email protected]