In September, 1949, Maharaja Bodhchandra of Manipur was invited by the Governor of Assam, Prakasa to Shillong to discuss the terms of association. When asked to sign the Instrument of Accession, the King retorted that he is merely the Constitutional Head of a fully responsible government approved by the Constitution Act of 1947.
When the Maharaja returned to his quarters, he saw that its premises were surrounded by Army personnel. Virtually under house arrest, the King was not allowed to have any communication with the outside world, let alone Manipur. When Prakasa mentioned to an ailing Sardar Patel that the King may not sign the merger, Sardar retorted “No Brigadier in Shillong?” indicating the use of armed force if required. This was probably one of the earlier instances of solving political problems in the Northeast with the help of Army.
After three days of resisting, the King signed the merger, a development which continues to keep Manipur simmering. Seven decades after independence, Brigadiers continue to have too much say in case of Northeast.
Governors of the Northeastern state have more often than not been retired Army generals. The region has witnessed heavy militarization in forms of both insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. Be it AFSPA or the Unified Command, the solutions have been militaristic. The region importance has often boiled down to its geo-strategic location.
Just like frontier regions, Northeast also have often been seen through security lens. So much so that the North Eastern Council formed for the development of the region used to report to Ministry of Home Affairs till the DoNER Ministry was formed. Even DoNER Ministry was also headed by (Retd) General V K Singh.
In such a scenario, the comment by Army General Rawat is anything but surprising. Speaking at the conference “North East Region of India—Bridging Gaps and Securing Borders” held in New Delhi’s DRDO Bhavan, India’s Army Chief Bipin Rawat commented that the region is bound to see some migration which is being accentuated by India’s northern and western neighbours to destabilize the region and carry on a proxy war. And this is reflected in the fast pace growth of a party like All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) which grew much faster than compared to parties like BJP and which allegedly enjoys the support of illegal immigrants.
Such a statement assumes that a major part of the minority population of the state comprises of illegal immigrants and they en masse support AIUDF which rose very fast. AIUDF emerged as a feasible alternative for Muslims after the IM (DT) Act was scrapped by Supreme Court in 2005 during Congress rule.
Under the IM (DT) Act, if a person is accused of being a non-citizen, then the burden of proof is on the accuser. This is not so under the Foreigners Act. While for many Muslims of East Bengal origin, the IM (DT) Act saved them from unnecessary harassment; once it is scrapped they felt it has opened a doorway for harassment of genuine citizens in the name of finding foreigners. This is true to some extent as people have been randomly marked as ‘D’ Voters and Doubtful Citizens.
AIUDF also does not claim to solely represent Muslims and has put up many non-Muslim candidates in different elections. Nonetheless it has often taken up issues related to the condition of Muslims like the persecution of Bengali Muslims, the D voter issue, illegal immigration etc.
The party was also very vocal during the 2012 BTAD clash. While Muslims have voted strategically for Congress for security, a majority of Muslims shifted their allegiance to this new political formation. This explains the rise and gradual political ascent of AIUDF. The party won 10 seats in its maiden Assembly election in 2006 which went up to 18 in 2011.
However the latest Assam Assembly elections marked a beginning of decline of AIUDF. The AIUDF Supremo Badruddin Azmal who was hoping to play a kingmaker and be a crucial part of the new government saw BJP and its allies form a government on their own. While BJP stitched an alliance with the local regional and ethnic political parties, Congress did not ally with AIUDF as it would have led to further religious polarisaton.
Badruddin Ajmal, the MP of Dhubri, fought from South Salmara constituent assembly and tasted personal defeat for the first time. He lost to Congress’s Wazed Ali Choudhury. While the constituency was being represented by his son, he decided to contest himself. However he lost by a margin of 16723 votes. Their MLA count came down from 18 to 13.
The General while equating the rise of the party with the rise of Muslim population, forgot to take into account issues like the higher growth rate amongst Muslims, the lack of awareness etc and the disillusionment with the Congress party. In every election, AIUDF’s strength is exaggerated to polarize the electorate. The General’s statement might lead to a similar result. In present context it will have dangerous ramifications.
The region’s perpetual backwardness is a proof of excessive emphasis on securitizing the region without focusing on development enough. By further instigating concerns about planned infiltration and the bogey of Bangladeshis, the region may see further militarisation. Looking at neighbouring state of Manipur, this can never be a good development.
Parvin Sultana is an assistant professor in Pramathesh Barua College, Gauripur. She can be reached at [email protected].