Mission 2020, a Northeast Frontier Railways initiative to connect the capital cities of the northeast as well extend railway line to other parts, has for over a year now run into obstacles in Meghalaya. In particular, two ongoing projects – the Teteliya-Byrnihat line and the Byrnihat-Shillong line for which approximately Rs 4500 crore has been earmarked, have been put on hold. Initiated by the Khasi Students Union (KSU) there are now a host of dissenters against the railway extension plans, demanding that without a proper mechanism to check the influx of immigrants the railway project must not proceed. As a result, land surveys have been interrupted, NOCs from KHADC have not been provided and headmen have denied railway authorities access into villages. On the other hand, the state government sees the introduction of these railway lines as an important means to benefit the economy of the state – through tourism and reduced costs of goods, while committing to check influx through a number of administrative and legal ways including fencing the international border with Bangladesh. At the end of May the protests began to turn violent leading to altercations between the protesters and the police.
While the main newspapers have regularly reported the sequence of events and the accompanying violence that has been perpetuated in its name, there is a lack of a public discourse around the protests beyond the common trope of resistance to modernization and development. Neither has there been an attempt to make clear the different organizations that have come together to carry out the protests nor the multiple agendas, some explicit some tacit that are part of these events. Since there has been a temporary halt on the protests with the state government and the anti-railway protestors coming to some kind of truce, there is a danger that nothing more will be said about this issue.
Can the anti-rail protests be seen in the context of rising indigenous protests against the appropriation of land and livelihood
However, if one sees these protests from a broader political economy perspective in India, the first thing to be said is that protest is here to stay. Whether it is a question of building a road network, railways, airports, India’s obsession with infrastructural development is bound to have run-in’s with other ways of imagining the world. Well-known scholar of indigenous people in India, Professor Virginius Xaxa (also former Professor at NEHU, Shillong) says that while the Anthropological Survey of India identified 46 ongoing “tribal” movements in one single year – 1976-77, that number seems to have gone up after the liberalization of the economy in the 1990s, when, as other scholars have argued, state-sponsored capitalism got a fillip in the name of development. Can the anti-rail protests be seen in the context of rising indigenous protests against the appropriation of land and livelihood, or does Meghalaya (and the northeast at large), call for a different kind of reading of what protest against development means, given the Northeast’s distinct arrangement with the Indian nation-state? Can the anti-railway protests provide us an opportunity to think about what development means in the northeast? On the other hand, given the development agenda in the northeast and what it portends, what can be considered an adequate protest, and to what end?
Infrastructural Development and Security
One aspect that appears to be stronger now than in the past is that practices of development in the northeast are linked intimately to practices of security. The kind of security invoked here is state security that is assuring the continued dominance of the state in holding political power. As is very well known (but poorly documented), unlike most parts of the “mainland” the state’s authority at monopolizing political power and territorial control has been repeatedly contested in the Northeast. A classic example of this is the fungibility (and farce) of border control, an important, albeit mythical symbol of state authority. Veteran journalist, Subir Bhaumik while recounting the tumultuous years of insurgency in Tripura notes – “insurgents had easy access to hideouts on foreign soil just across the border in Bangladesh…reportedly, two prominent insurgent groups had 51 camps spread over Sylhet and the Chittagong Hill Tract region, from where they would send ‘action squads’ into Tripura. They could also procure weapons and ammunition from the black markets of Southeast Asia and smuggle them into Tripura, via Bangladesh…” On the other hand, as is also well known, the state has attempted several militarized counter-insurgency operations. But as the political theorist Ranabir Samaddar argues, along side the massively violent and hugely debated use of AFSPA as well as other coercive techniques to thwart insurgency, the state has also relied on counter-insurgency measures that are linked to practices of social governance which has gone through a particular historical trajectory, culminating in what can be seen as the present strategy of infrastructural development. At the risk of reifying the Northeast into a singular historical experience, Samaddar outlines the phases of this new type of governance, in his 2015 book Governance of Peace. In the first phase of the conflict, territorial reorganization, grant of statehood, and peace accords were the characteristic features of this attempt at social governance. The second phase, from the 1970s onwards was marked by a greater focus on decentralization along the state hierarchy and the initiation of surrender schemes which offered monetary compensation and re-habilitation of surrendered armed cadre in industrial and business undertakings. This in turn has given rise to a new class of dealers, contractors and leaseholders that liaise with the state administration to channel the funds that come from the projects earmarked for the Northeast, most prominently under the Ministry of DONER, leading to what has been called crony capitalism. Samaddar suggests that these practices of integration and control have now led to a heightened focus on the governance of peace in the region through what he calls the “marketization of economic relations”, indicated in policies of opening up the Northeast to greater commercial interests – the GOIs Look East Policy whose success depends on the infrastructural development of the Northeast as the conduit to east Asia and investment in a wide range of transport and communication networks that bring peripheries in contact with city centers. The limited focus of this model of governance of peace that aims to secure the state’s future unfortunately leaves out what some might call strategies of substantive development. Seen in economic terms, this gets represented in the ratio of central grants-in-aid to total revenue receipts, a measure of a state’s ability to sustain its growth. This ratio was 60% for Meghalaya in the mid 90s, and has moved up to 80% in 2011-12. Thus while revenue generating capacity of the states in the northeast have been relatively weak, it is not immediately apparent how the focus on infrastructural development as a means to guarantee security will be beneficial for the development of society at large.
That this infrastructural development story does not hold together in the present moment of protests shows the fractures in thinking about development entangled with questions of state security. Clearly, protest to infrastructure development is not a Northeast phenomena. As mentioned above the compendium of indigenous protests globally and in India by Virginius Xaxa shows that Indigenous struggles to this form of development have only risen with the development of the post-colonial state. Indigenous movements against the alienation of land, dispossession arising from large-scale mineral exploitation, industry, multi-purpose hydroelectric and dam projects, roads and railways, have only grown since independence. Without reducing the multiple contexts in which these protests have taken place, two underlying features stand out. First, a large number of these protests are for the safeguarding of basic rights to land and livelihoods. That is, protest has emerged because of a threat to everyday existence. Land is central to these protests. Land here is understood both as a means of livelihood and in a few cases as a marker of territorial sovereignty. Examples of loss of livelihood are several and not just pertaining to the mineral intensive indigenous belts of central India, but also loss of forest commons and forest produce as in the cases of Amrit Kaval Grasslands, Bellary mining and Nagarhole Tiger reserve in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, suggesting that Indigenous rights to land are not adequately protected in practice. While claims to land, as markers of territorial sovereignty are less common, a recent example is the protest to Uranium mining in Meghalaya. One of the claims by protesters, as reported in an Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) piece on the issue was that Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL’s) exploration into Meghalaya will result in the loss of land rights to the indigenous people of Meghalaya and loss of lands and resources from the hands of the community leading to loss of culture (See Karlsson 2009). A second underlying feature of these protests is that these protests have led to some form of social mobilization in which indigenous peoples, their organizations and other civil society organizations working on these issues, have produced action that has led to some landmark developments. Two popular examples are The Provision of Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act and the Forest Rights Act 2006. While much is waiting to be done for their proper implementation, their coming into existence changes the discourse of indigenous rights to a certain extent in India.
Even when the state government has agreed to put on hold the railway project, it has already acquired land or has planned to acquire land for the project. What will be the effects of this land appropriation by the state on the people who will be made to sell their land or give it up voluntarily?
The protests against the extension of railways into Meghalaya is not being carried out in the name of livelihood protection, neither in any clear way for preserving territorial sovereignty, but rather in the name of regulating the in-flow of non-indigenous population into the state. While, it would be incorrect to argue that the 6th schedule status has had the same benefits for people across the socio-economic spectrum, still the threat of infrastructure development in Meghalaya is not the same as it is in central India or elsewhere, which as suggested above is to do with uprooting people from their sources of livelihood. However, neither can the central plank on which the protests in Meghalaya seem to rest be the regulation of movement into the state. This is because its justification – Meghalaya may become like Tripura, is not convincing since it does not take into account the difference in the historical development of these two distinct spaces. The history of cross border migration in Tripura is unique and has a much older impetus. Immigration policies of the ruling Manikyas were liberal and the Manikyas were themselves hugely influenced by the Bengal Renaissance. Both Maharaja Birendra Kishore and his successor Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore (who ruled over Tripura from 1923 to 1947), in addition to keeping up their liberal foreign policy that welcomed Bengali immigrants, also began allocating huge tracts of land to their displaced guests (several scholars have documented this phenomenon). These immigrants, mostly from the Sunderbans to the West of Tripura, sought refuge for food and shelter, though in later years as British imperialism peaked, members of revolutionary Communist groups such as Anusilan and Yugantar from West Bengal, also sought, and were readily provided, political refuge. The Manikyas of course were not without vested interests. The local practice of shifting agriculture or jhuming had never been a profitable activity. On the other hand, efficient plough cultivation by the immigrant Bengalis revived the dwindling economy of the region. This in-migration led to an upheaval in the demographic configuration of the region, such that at the time of Tripura’s accession to the Indian state in 1949, the indigenous population of the state formed only 37% of the total population.
This is not the historical trajectory of immigration in Meghalaya, so threats to its demographic structure do not seem justified, at least in comparison to Tripura. What then are the protests lasting contribution to a critique of infrastructural development that the Northeast has been swayed under?
Protest as Critique
The need for a more robust critique of development cannot be overstated. The current discourse seems to be overly determined by the state’s agenda, and is in a need for a counter view to restore some form of democratic choice making. A cursory glance at the Meghalaya Vision 2030 document produced by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in 2011 has a whole section dedicated to infrastructure development of the state as a means to produce “a congenial investment climate” and “economic opportunities for the neighboring country”. So does the Look East Policy (now termed the Act East Policy by Modi) that according to a recent report in The Wire has “military, political and economic components” and which proposes developing the infrastructure of the region by widening the roads, expanding air connectivity, extending railway networks, opening new and reactivating dormant trade routes, as well as facilitating border trade and transit points. Another source of thinking about how development is being planned in the region and to what end is the wikileaks revelation of the US Diplomatic Cables, reported by Raiot. The point here is to develop a critique – not criticize, but to ask questions of and to problematize the present and what is to come. One way of engaging constructively with the present focus on development is to think about its effects – good or bad, and ways of mitigating the less desirable ones. Even when the state government has agreed to put on hold the railway project, it has already acquired land or has planned to acquire land for the project. What will be the effects of this land appropriation by the state on the people who will be made to sell their land or give it up voluntarily? We already hear a chorus of complaints by ordinary folk who’ve had to give land in order for infrastructure projects in the state, with respect to compensation below the promise rates – the New Umtru Hydro Electricity Project and the NH-44 highway project are recent examples. Beyond questions of land appropriation and compensation, there also questions of effects on agricultural land? How will dumping of debris a common feature around large infrastructural projects affect agricultural land? Remember, one of the effects of large-scale iron ore mining Bellary was the destruction of fertile agricultural land. Further, what will be effects of displacements and migration of labor (within the northeast and from outside it) that large infrastructural projects bring in their wake? Then the question of inequality that needs to be grappled from multiple stand points, including the effects on poor impoverished people coming in contact with shiny new infrastructure with little opportunity (and maybe desire) for access? Another way to think about effects would be to think about the governance of development. What kinds of institutions will participate in making choices about what is to be built and where? What laws will be invoked and at what junctures? What will happen if and when laws beyond local jurisdictional boundaries are invoked, like the Atomic Energy Act of 1962 by the Central government to sanction the extraction of “strategic minerals”, that Bengt Karlsson warns us about at the end of his EPW article on Uranium mining in Meghalaya. Will any kind of social impact assessment be carried out? By whom? Thinking about the effects that infrastructural development will have also helps us see what the relationship between the state, the political class, social discontent, low substantive growth and the absence of any adequate policy for local development and resource-generalization and utilization is, instead of blaming it all on immigrants. It may also change the demands that are made on the state, as for instance; resistance to the Gumti dam in Tripura also includes a demand for the same land to be distributed among the landless.
At the time of the Uranium protests in Meghalaya, comparisons were made, and arguments being drawn from the experience of the Navajo (Native American people of the Southwestern United States) with decades of mining on their lands. While their are obvious differences between the political and social histories of indigenous people in the US and Northeastern India, there still maybe an opportunity to think about what forms of critique can be developed from say recent Native American experiences of protests against infrastructural projects. For me, the most heartening aspect after months of protest against the Unites States Dakota Access Pipeline project (DAPL), is that the Native American people whose burial lands and access to drinking water was threatened by the project were joined by thousands of non-native people who shared their concerns, not just at the main site of protests, but also across university campuses, as the theme of lectures and class room discussions. How can we make the question of infrastructural development in the Northeast a topic of interest and debate beyond people who represent the state and a few NGOs? What needs to be done to make it the topic of a college essay competition or the theme of a university debate? Maybe the time is right, if not for collective action, at least for collective thinking.
Bhaumik, Subir. Just Development: A Strategy for Ethnic Development in Tripura in Baruah, Sanjib. Beyond counter-insurgency: Breaking the impasse in Northeast India. New Delhi: OUP, 2009.
Karlsson, Bengt G. “Nuclear lives: Uranium Mining, indigenous peoples, and Development in india.” Economic and Political Weekly (2009): 43-49.
Samaddar, Ranabir. Government of Peace: Social Governance, Security and the Problematic of Peace. Routledge, 2016.