Saturday, October 01, 2005

Dark clouds over the clouds' abode

This incident deeply anguishes me. There is a lot of news around the world that makes me very sad, but somehow there is a deeper personal note here. I have always been fascinated by India's North-east, althought the furthest I travelled was Guwahati in Assam. I still have very fond memories of the place. In college, many of my buddies were from the North-east, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Nagaland, etc., warm, fun, intelligent and generous. And I do have an elaborate plan of traversing the region when I have the resources and time to do so.

Firing with assault rifles on a crowd of student protestors is not acceptable. There are more humane and effective ways of dealing with the situation, but given the heavy handed way in which the region has been ruled for decades by the Indian central government, I'm not surprised. Even now, instead of trying to hold the guilty officers accountable, the government chooses to call out the Army and impose curfew in the region. That's been the stock response for years every time protests have errupted for altogether genuine grievances in the region, call the Army, impose curfew.

Given the fact that India has had to increasingly come to terms with regional assertion in the past decade, hopefully the central government would not become paranoid about protests in the region and treat every such move as a step towards secession. Let's hope we've matured enough as a democracy to deal with this in civilized ways.


Blogger PS said...

Hi! first things first, being a journo myself I can tell you that BBC's coverage can get a wee bit exagerrated when it comes to reporting about India, especially violence. So if the Indian news agencies would say the number of casaulties is 9, BBC would peg it at 12. Not that I'm against the news agency or being defensive about Indian media, but it helps to take any Indian news reported by any foreign news agency with a pinch of salt. Other than that, you're right, opening fire on students in Meghalaya reminds me of Tianamen square episode (if you can call it that!)....We really can't scoff at countries like China on human rights issues, coz we are no better ourselves.
As for the Army bit, I pity the poor chaps coz they do everything other than what's on their job profile -- protecting the nation's borders. They are supposed to be on beck and call for everything from curbing violence during elections to helping flood victims to even manning the nook and corners of your city in times if curfew!

4:30 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

PS, I agree with everything you say. Certainly the BBC can exaggerate at times, although all their reporters are of Indian origin, so this is not some ingrained Western bias.

Also you are right, if we need to hold high moral ground about being a democracy with freedom of speech, we need to make sure that such acts of oppression by state machinery are not repeated .

It's very sad that the Army that is supposed to defend the country against foreign invasion is asked to train its guns against our own citizens. For no fault of its own, it has become the single most hated entity in the North-east, because our politicians do not have the vision or the intelligence to look beyond quick fixes.

3:22 PM  
Blogger K said...

Swati, keep in mind that the police and the army in the NE tend to be extremely trigger-happy, almost as bad as the red-neck army in Iraq. Also in Meghalaya, the Khasi's are the tribe in power, so to speak (domintaing the poile corps also). Now, while a politician in the rest of India would hesitate before opening fire (other than on a minority protest march in Gujarat), things in the NE depend heavily on the tribe involved - A Khasi cop/politician would never have ordered firing had it been a bunch of Khasi students protesting.
Plus, I do agree with PS that the Beeb tends to overdo things a bit. But I guess that also stems from India's culture of wildly underestimating numbers (remember the Tsunami - initial bodycount 250).
Are we a mature democracy? Sometimes I seriously wonder.

11:42 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

K, I don't doubt that many of them are trigger-happy as indeed many armies around the world would be, if not for checks and balances enforced by a committed executive. That unfortunately is not always the case in India, and the Army is allowed to get away with the worst excesses.

As for the American army, their lack of discipline is legion. My friend who works on a US Army funded project is shocked at the lack of respect and insubordination of junior officers to their seniors. Compare that to the far greater degree of discipline and professionalism in the British army, as well a more rigorous system of accountability, and you'd know why they are rarely as trigger happy.

A professor of mine, a Vietnam war veteran (a strong anti-war proponent as most Vietnam veterans are), is shocked at the decline of the military as a profession in the US, now reserved for desperate mercenaries who are otherwise unemployable in the economy. But I digress.

As for being a mature democracy, yes, I have my skeptical moments. But then I look at China and Saudi Arabia think it could be much, much worse.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Soumyadip said...

The paramilitary and military forces deployed in north eastern India are undoubtedly trigger happy, especially when it is against the local indigenous population. The CRPF has earned some ill will over the years (In the recent Tura and Williamnagar firing it was not the Meghalaya police who pulled the trigger, but it was the CRPF).

I disagree a little with K's observation that the police in Meghalaya is Khasi dominated. My experience says that there are more Garos in the police ranks than the Kahsis (But it is only an observation and I might be incorrect). In Meghalaya people joke that Garos are either constables or ministers. But recently the Garo domination in Meghalaya politics has waned a little. Shillong being the centre of power makes Khasis have more say in the matters. The protests might have been a Khasi vs. Garo one, but I believe that the handling had less to do with tribal hegemonies. Past protests in Shillong by the Khasis on the same issue also drew violent reactions from the state police.

The Khasi student agitation over the last three decades has often left bloodstains on Shillong roads.

In India, whenever anything goes wrong the Army is called in. The Army is trained to kill; it is a fighting force and not suited for peacekeeping and rescue operations.

1:33 AM  
Blogger Gamesmaster G9 said...

And sticking my neck out and making a political statement.

What's wrong with secession anyway?

1:48 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Soumyadip, thanks for the insights into the local political equations. It would be great if you could clarify if the Central government decides on its own discretion to call in the CRPF and Army, or is acting on recommendations from the state government. If the latter, then obviously the ethnic differences do affect the state response to protest in the state. However, if it is the Centre acting on its own, then of course the Khasi-Garo divide wouldn't account for a lot.

Ani, I think a case can be made for secession given the dismal track record of governance over the last six decades in the North-east. However, I don't know if secession would necessarily bring in political autonomy and good governance, given the geopolitical sensitivity and the region's fate of being squashed between an elephant and a panda.

Economically, the difficult land-locked terrain would make it hard to develop industry, and similar regions in Bangladesh, Burma (Kachin land), Thailand (Isaan), and Vietnam suffer economic disparities compared to the rest of their respective nations. Even accounting for under-investment and corruption, it is true that the region has been continuously subsidized by the Indian government since Independence.

But certainly, Bhutan seems to chug along just fine, so there is a possibility that independent North-eastern states would do just as well, as long as they are able to forge patronage relations with either of their giant neighbours.

2:21 AM  
Blogger Gamesmaster G9 said...

I'm not actually saying that the Norhteastern states SHOULD secede, but pointing out that the Indian government really needs to be less heavyhanded when dealing with secessionists. Treating it as treason and coming down like a ton of bricks on them doesn't help either party. Let them talk it over, fight elections fairly, and ask the people what they want. In most cases, secession would be turned down. But in cases where it is the preferred option, the Indian governemnt should graciously accept the verdict and let them go in an adult fashion

2:01 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Ani, I agree with most of what you say, and certainly the central government in India has been contemptous of the democratic process in many parts of India, not just the North-east (witness states like Tamil Nadu and Punjab for instance).

The only problem with letting the electorate resolve it at any given point of time is that the voting public seems to change its mind frequently on issues, so of course it has to be a multi-stage process and not just a simple vote. I've read analysts who claim that a plebiscite in Kashmir would have yielded different results in different decades.

However, there is the case of Bahrain, that separated from Iran based on a referendum and has never regretted doing so.

2:40 PM  
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6:47 PM  
Anonymous マークバイマークジェイコブス said...

A professor of mine, a Vietnam war veteran (a strong anti-war proponent as most Vietnam veterans are), is shocked at the decline of the military as a profession in the US, now reserved for desperate mercenaries who are otherwise unemployable in the economy. But I digress.

12:20 AM  
Anonymous palmcop said...

Quite worthwhile data, thanks for your post.

4:37 AM  

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