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Northeast Report 2017: Politics, Protests and Power Struggles

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Looking back on the happenings in the country’s restive northeast.

Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal distributing appointment letters to teachers for the colleges named after Deendayal Upadhaya in Guwahati. Credit: Twitter

As we bid farewell to 2017, The Wire looks back at some of the markers of disruption that affected different spheres, from politics and economics to technology and films.


New Delhi: Sudden, unusual episodes, leading to commotion, triggering public protests, events engineered to upset the normal flow of life – that, in a nutshell, is how one can look back on the happenings in the country’s restive northeast in 2017.

Assam

Among all the northeastern states, Assam certainly topped the 2017 list of disruptions – primarily on two occasions, both triggered by policy decisions of the Bharatiya Janata Par-led Sarbananda Sonowal government.

One at the end of February when the government took a cabinet decision to make Sanskrit compulsory in all state-run schools till the eight standard.

In a region where linguistic and identity politics rule, the decision at once raised quite a few eyebrows.

While the opposition Congress took on the government for “increasing the burden on children” as they already study three languages, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) criticised the move and asked why Assamese was not being promoted instead.

The Asom Jatiotabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) was more direct, hitting out at the BJP’s ideological fount, the RSS, for what it termed a “well-orchestrated conspiracy being micro-managed and monitored from Nagpur”. They were joined by the influential Asom Sahitya Sabha, the largest literary body, asking the government to teach history and geography to students first. The protests spread and soon a few tribal Sahitya Sabhas joined in, questioning the state government on what it was doing to promote their languages in schools.

The first to hint at the likelihood of the government revoking the decision was the forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma. She told reporters that the government “is ready to review the decision if warranted.”

On March 7, speaking to reporters in Guwahati, education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said Assam doesn’t have enough teachers to make Sanskrit compulsory. Thus, making it clear that his government would not go ahead with the controversial move.

The second policy decision of the Sonowal government triggered much wider disruption in the state. It was in response to a July 31 decision of the government to name all the 22 ‘model’ colleges that it planned to start in the state, after Sangh ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya.

What particularly raised tempers in Assam was Sarma’s statement that “All the colleges that the government will set up in the next four years would be named after Deendayal ji.”

Widespread protests and bandhs erupted in the state with organisations hinged on the strong sentiments of sub-nationalism or jatiotabad, taking to streets demanding that the government name them after local luminaries. Many openly asked, “Who is Deendayal Upadhyaya?”

The public outrage pushed the government to step back yet again. Sarma soon told the assembly, “We named five model colleges after Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya as this is his birth centenary year. We did it out of respect to his ideology, which has given us two prime ministers (Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi). We will set up more model colleges but they will not be named after him.”

Akhil Gogoi seen in Guwahati with his supporters after his release. Credit: Special arrangement

Akhil Gogoi seen in Guwahati with his supporters after his release. Credit: Special arrangement

Yet another political disruption that the state saw towards the end of 2017 was the government’s decision to throw its bitter opponent, the farmers’ rights activist Akhil Gogoi, into jail by, first, heaping charges of sedition on him for a public speech he made, and then under National Security Act (NSA) by clubbing 12 old and new cases registered against him in different police stations.

When the Gauhati high court cleared Gogoi of the NSA charges, the Assam Police heaped yet another case on him in a bid to keep him in jail.

After being incarcerated for over three months, Gogoi was finally set free by the courts on December 27.

Sikkim

The smallest state of the northeast saw two prominent disruptions in the year gone by. One was imposed all of a sudden on the people by the government, and the other was seen sprouting in the political scape of the state – much to the consternation of the ruling dispensation.

Both are, however, interlinked, and aimed at ploughing the political field fertile for the 2019 assembly elections.

The ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) may be an ally of the BJP and a partner of its regional alignment bogey, the North East Democratic Front (NEDA), but the astute politician in chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling perhaps understands the BJP’s ambition in the region much better than any top regional leader. Perhaps he also feels that he has the wherewithal to counter it, unlike his counterparts in some other NE states.

The five-time chief minister of Sikkim – he has continuously ruled the state since 1994 – knows that he not only will have to battle anti-incumbency but will also have to remain politically relevant by seizing the plank of the BJP’s majoritarian politics much before the BJP itself engages in it, openly, in the state.

So, Chamling matched BJP’s cow politics. His government brought in a legislation, The Sikkim Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 2017, this past August which made the state the first in the northeast to make slaughter of cows a cognisable offence.


Also read: ‘Unless Assam Is Allowed to Develop on Its Own Resources, Unrest Will Always Be There’: Hiren Gohain


In Sikkim, while the native population of Bhutias and Lepchas (B-L) traditionally consume beef, the majority Nepali Hindu population does not. And therein lay Chamling’s game plan.

More so, because of the other disruption – seen in the state in February this year. It came in the form of a new political party – Sikkim Republican Party (SRP) – which promised to “change old laws” tilted towards the Bhutia-Lepcha community and give justice to all the communities living in the state.

The SRP’s political plank is simple. “It is not fair that the Bhutia-Lepcha community, which constitutes 18% of the population, has 12 seats reserved for them but the Limboo-Tamangs, who form 15% of the population, get only five seats.” Interestingly, this November, the Modi government decided to act on the long standing demand of the Limboo-Tamangs (L-T) to increase the number of assembly seats from 32 to 40 and increase their share of reservation.

Though the SRP’s assertion triggered considerable unease among the B-L community in 2017, fearing that their entitlement as the original inhabitant of the state would be snatched away, Chamling, whose government had brought in a resolution in 2009 to increase the number of seats for the L-T community, has, however, said the number of seats reserved for the B-L community shouldn’t be tinkered with.

2018 is bound to see more developments in this front.

Nagaland

The biggest disruption in Nagaland came in the form of a Supreme Court directive to its government to conduct the long pending urban local body (ULB) elections by April 2017 with 33% reservation for women candidates. The apex court order was in response to a petition filed by the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) seeking reservation in seats like in other states.

Chief minister T.R. Zeliang. Credit: PTI

Chief minister T.R. Zeliang’s decision to adhere to the directive by holding the polls in February this year snowballed into a massive political storm. Various tribe leaders opposed the move stating that customary laws are what that would rule them. Those rules typically deny political space to women. The leaders felt that Article 371 (A) of the constitution allows them to make their own laws and the state needn’t follow other Indian states. Violence erupted. Bandhs and deaths occurred, leading Zeliang to postpone the elections. The Naga women, in spite of a Supreme Court ruling, couldn’t get their due.

The political pressure weighed so much on Zeliang that he had to step down and clear his way for Shurhozelie Leizeitsu, the president of his party, the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF).

Things didn’t stop there. In the coming months, that disruption triggered an ugly power struggle between Zeliang and Shurhozelie. So much so that NPF nearly split, each faction declaring their own party president.

Even though Shurhozelie refused to step down and return the chief minister’s chair to Zeliang, he, with considerable help from his party’s junior partner, the BJP, and governor P.B. Acharya, managed to wrest it this past July. Many accused the governor of not going by the rule book.

However, in end November, reconciliation was seen between the two factions of the ruling party, more so keeping in mind the assembly polls in early 2018. After all, NPF leaders know too well that they will have to work to placate the growing anger among Nagaland’s public for losing an entire year in their power struggle even as the common man faced hardships due to a crumbling civic system.

Tripura

Kerala may have been the hotbed of a murderous power struggle between the BJP and the ruling Left for some time now, but the growing violence in Tripura, where the BJP is running an aggressive campaign to grab power from the Left Front government in the 2018 assembly polls, is no less ugly.

Even as two journalists have lost their lives in related issues, every other day, the warring opponents of differing ideologies have either lost their cadres in violent deaths, or their leaders were found sprouting venom in public.

The two journalists who lost their lives: Sudip Datta Bhaumik (left), Santanu Bhowmick. Credit: Facebook

This is certainly a disruption for the people of the otherwise less newsy state sharing a long border with Bangladesh. However, the biggest interruption in the general discourse of the state came in the form of the revival of a party that asserted the rights of the indigenous tribal people.

A dormant Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) was injected with life by retired All India Radio director Narendra Chandra Debbarma in 2009. The IPFT once again took up its long held demand – a separate state of Twipraland comprising the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC). The Council constitutes two third of Tripura’s territory.

This past July 10, the people of Tripura saw an indefinite road and rail blockade by IPFT supporters, which snapped the supply route of essential goods, leading to their serious shortage. Though BJP was said to have been supporting the cause initially, it later joined the other political parties, including the Left, in rejecting it. The IPFT leaders camped in Delhi to meet the BJP’s central representatives about their changed stance but nothing much could be achieved, considering their demand finds little or no support from the state’s majority Bengali community. In the poll-bound state, the risks were too high for the BJP.

2018 is likely see the BJP playing more carefully the delicate balancing act of appealing to the majority community and keeping the tribal interest going in order to work its way to dislodge one of the longest running state governments in the country – the Manik Sarkar regime.


Also read: Gender Equality Remains a Far Cry in Northeast State Assemblies


Manipur

If you watch the political scenario in Manipur in the run-up to the March 2017 assembly elections closely, perhaps it won’t be too hard to assess the BJP’s ability to manoeuvre the balancing act between combating communities in a state. While it lent continuous, covert support to the powerful movement in Churachandpur demanding that the then Okram Ibobi Singh government take back the three “controversial” bills, it also gave moral backing to the United Naga Council’s (UNC) 130-day-long economic blockade which nearly broke the back of the state’s economy. And, the party then benefitted from the inroads that the RSS made into the majority Meitei community. The added factor was the steady fall in the popularity of the Congress government, seen by many to have blood on its hands.

So, this March came the biggest disruption in the 15 years of continuous political rule in the disturbed state, with the BJP stitching together an alliance government with the National People’s Party and Naga People’s Front to throw out the Ibobi government.

Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh in Churachandpur. Credit: Twitter

Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh in Churachandpur. Credit: Twitter

Though the irony was, a former aide of Ibobi Singh was named the state chief minister (N. Biren) and his former police chief the deputy chief minister (Yumnam Joykumar Singh), it was nevertheless a change of hegemony of a leader who wielded power singlehandedly.

Though the BJP is yet to bring in major policy changes in the state that conforms with its idea of cultural nationalism or openly pushing its right wing ideology – like it tried out in neighbouring Assam – 2018 may be different.

Meghalaya

If shock and public anger that spilled on to the streets qualify as disruptions in everyday life, then Meghalaya did have two major ones in 2017. Both concerned two public figures – one an independent MLA supporting the Mukul Sangma government, and the other the person who held the highest constitutional post in the state. Unfortunately, both were related to allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

MLA Julius Kitbok Dorphang was arrested on January 7 on the charge of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl on two occasions. As many as nine FIRs were filed against him by the state Commission for Protection of Child Rights besides one by the victim herself. What also angered the public was that Dorphang allegedly committed the crime at a guest house owned by the family of the state’s home minister H.D.R. Lyngdoh. Led by women’s organisations, many took to the streets on January 11 demanding action not only against Dorphang but also against Lyngdoh. While the chief minister came in support of his home minister, Dorphang, to the shock of the people, was named as the head of two assembly committees in July even though he was in jail.

The assembly secretariat had to take back its decision due to public pressure.

The other shocking news that created a sensation in the state was about governor V. Shanmuganathan.

V. Shanmuganathan. Credit: Facebook

V. Shanmuganathan. Credit: Facebook

Shanmuganathan was accused of molesting a woman applicant for the post of a public relations officer at the Raj Bhavan during her personal interview with him. Though the incident was said to have happened on December 8, 2016, it became public after a report was published on January 23 in the local daily Highland Post.

Though Shanmuganathan denied the allegations, on January 26, he stepped down from his post.

Arunachal Pradesh

BJP-ruled Arunachal Pradesh saw the biggest disruption this past September when news spread that the central government, as per a Supreme Court directive in 2015, would finally be granting Indian citizenship to the Chakma and Hajong refugees from East Pakistan residing in the state since the mid 1960s.

The local population of the state has been vehemently opposed to it. The state had seen a long drawn agitation, led by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) against granting citizenship to the Chakmas and Hajongs which had become a legal battle too.

After home minister Rajnath Singh informed his junior minister and MP from the state, Kiren Rijiju, and Arunachal chief minister Pema Khandu in New Delhi on September 13, Rijiju, in order the lighten the public repercussion back home, blamed the Congress for “settling” the refugees in the state.

While both Rijiju and Khandu received widespread public flak for not standing up for the interest of the people of the state, AAPSU led protests in different parts of Arunachal declaring to the media, “This is just the beginning.” It also pointed out that a curative petition filed by the AAPSU and the state government is pending.

AAPSU-led protest in Itanagar on September 19, 2017. Credit: Special arrangement

While Khandu soon shot off a letter to Rajnath Singh seeking postponement of the central move, describing the matter as one of “deep emotional concern”, Rijiju too backed off on September 18, telling reporters that the Centre would urge the Supreme Court to modify its order.

Mizoram

Yet another northeastern state which saw disruptions in the political scape of the state concerning rights of the Chakmas, was Mizoram. Unlike Arunachal, the Chakmas have political rights in the state and have an autonomous council. However, problem began when the state government suddenly withdrew MBBS seats allotted from the government’s quota to four meritorious students belonging to the Chakma community.

The decision of the Lalthanhawla-led Congress government was in response to a vociferous protest led by Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP). Most Mizos don’t consider Chakmas as the “original inhabitants” of the state considering their roots lie in the Chittagong area of Bangladesh, with which the state shares a border. MZP, a powerful student body, was driven by that popular sentiment. It demanded that the government should reserve the seats only for students belonging to the Zo or Mizo community.

Since Mizoram doesn’t have any medical college, the Centre allots it a number of seats in different institutions from across the country every academic year, which are then distributed among the meritorious students based on their scores in the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET). The four Chakma students were first selected based on their NEET scores.

Congress minister Buddha Dhan Chakma resigned from the ministry on the issue of denial of MBBS seats to Chakma studnets in Mizoram. Credit: FacebookCongress minister Buddha Dhan Chakma resigned from the ministry on the issue of denial of MBBS seats to Chakma studnets in Mizoram. Credit: Facebook

Congress minister Buddha Dhan Chakma resigned from the ministry on the issue of denial of MBBS seats to Chakma students in Mizoram. Credit: Facebook

Even as the issue was disrupting public life in the state with a number of protest meets and bandhs, and the blockade of the only national highway that connects the state to the rest of India – some of the protests was seen in New Delhi too – the Modi government further turned on the heat on the sensitive issue.

On August 22, the central government cut the number of annual allotment of the MBBS seats to the state from 25 to 17 without giving any reason. Considering the state has already been facing paucity of doctors in district hospitals which have led to many local protests, political observers view it as a likely attempt by the BJP to politically aggravate the issue for its benefit in the poll-bound state.

A day before the Modi government’s move, as if in a choreographed manner, the lone MLA from the Chakma community, Buddha Dhan Chakma, put in his papers in Aizawl, alleging racial discrimination against the four students by the state government. BJP is said to be making fast inroads into the largely Buddhist Chakma community in the Christian majority state.

The issue around seat allotment is still going strong in Mizoram with the battle lines firmly drawn between the two communities. It is surely going to draw more traction in the run-up to the 2018 polls.

Other developments

*After much delay the partial draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) will be ready this December 31, as per a Supreme Court directive. Throughout 2017, it created disruptions in the state over many an issue related to the update process, the prime one being the Gauhati high court’s refusal to accept the panchayat certificate submitted by 48 lakh people to prove their linkage to their families. This December, the Supreme Court set aside the high court order.

*Throughout 2017, the wife of former Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Kalikho Pul tried to get the attention of the Supreme Court, the vice president of India and Modi to institute a probe into allegations of corruption as mentioned by her husband in his 60-page suicide note but failed to get a favourable response.

*Yet another year has passed by with the oldest separatist movement in the northeast still nowhere near a firm solution. The framework agreement for a Naga accord, signed by the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) and the Modi government in mid 2015, is still a secret, thus triggering large-scale apprehensions throughout 2017 in sections of public in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal, fearing it to be one of the biggest regional disruptions in coming times.

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