Thursday, July 9, 2015

DURABLE DISORDER- by Sanjib Baruah ...A review

Insurgents belonging to the NDFB(National Democratic Front of Bodoland)(Shobonjit faction) kill a 16 year old girl Priya Basumatary over charges of being a police informer. It is an offshoot the anti talk faction of NDFB which has since laid down its arms and is now in talks with the government of India. Local media accuses certain sections of politicians of cultivating young boys and girls as informers at the cost of their lives. This is the quagmire of politics that North Eastern India fondly called “NE” sees everyday. A vital asset if not the crowning glory of India’s nationalist project NE has often been a disjoint function with the rest of mainland India. It is towards understanding these fundamental questions of homeland nation and role of NE in the Indian project that Sanjib Baruah’s acclaimed book Durable Disorder comes highly handy.

It is a collection of essays which tries to put NE in the correct perspective while clearing a lot of myths on the way. It is not a revisionist project aimed at stimulating the secessionist tendencies and arming armchair activists with votaries of secession. Rather it is a rationale look at why after six decades North East continues to be a troubled cauldron. India has seen long spells of violence and activities against the state in two regions the Kashmir and the North East. In the case of Kashmir there is recorded evidence of outside powers influencing and fermenting trouble against the state but in the case of NE such evidences are hard to find. Indeed a lot of the misgivings against the state are often localized issues.

While a few common threads run through the multicultural terrain of North East yet each state particularly those where insurgency has run amok for decades now presents its own peculiar nature of trouble and its relation with the state. And in each of the different essays of Baruah tries to highlight these peculiarities one at a time .The introduction of this book begins with the usual question of democracy, nation and development. Social scientists have often argued that the modern concept of a nation is perhaps a construct where communities have a common imagination. In this context of nation Baruah tries to introduce us to a new term “subnationalism” .Subnationalism has been defined as the power to assemble, politicize and mobilize people while at the same time lacking the clear cut goal or idea of a separate statehood. Baruah tries to find a place for subnationalism in the multicultural project of India while still framing it strongly within the constitutional and geographical borders of the country. Baruah in a sense also tried to forecast the “development” debate that rages within the country today. Is number of roads a parameter for inclusion and development? What if the area in question is a reserve forest would the parameters stand even then Baruah counters? He quotes William Sachs while claiming that development is perhaps sometimes a mirage that communities chase and in fact a majoritarian narrative.

In the first formal essay about nationalizing space Baruah counters this particular argument of nation and nation building while taking up the peculiar case of Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most pristine regions of the country endowed with natural resources in form of flora and fauna as well as rivers with a very little population density. Yet Arunachal Pradesh has regularly been earmarked as underdeveloped for the lack of major industries etc. The author illustrates the point of a FICCI report where Arunachal is declared backward on the basis of less number of industries available in the state. The author argues if another parameter for development cannot be developed one which is based on a higher standard of living with good basic health education while an industry developed around agro products and sustainable tourism. Instead of a mad race for roads and infrastructure can there be an alternate view of development which does not involve a replica of development in other parts of the country. Nationalizing the mental space is a different arena from nationalizing the physical space of any frontier area and the author believes that nationlising the mental space in a cohesive and inclusive manner towards national integration is a better way rather than nationalizing the physical space.

In the essay generals as governors the author tries to link up the question of appointing generals as governors of frontier areas and how far it helps towards integrating the nation. A governor is often seen as a Centre’s lynchpin in state domain and the general democratic experience with regard to the position of Governor in free India has been rather mixed. In a federal polity with a unitary bias like India the position of Governor assumes great significance and in the troubled polity of  NE it assumes an even larger role. How far would the policy go towards integrating the nation is something that the author questions. A case in point is Lt Gen SK Sinha who was Assam’s governor during the troubled “ULFA”(United Liberation Front of Asom) era. SK Sinha is credited with bringing mainstream Assamese society into the cultural discourse of Indian narrative while instituting a bust of Assamese hero Lachit Barphukan in NDA(National Defence Academy) and ensuring that Gopinath Bordoloi the first Chief Minister of Assam received the Bharat Ratna.It was part of the Governors three pronged strategy which aimed at ending insurgency in Assam.The jury is still out as to how much success this the Governor achieve nevertheless it is indeed an example of how vital Generals are as Governors in the fractured polity of NE India.

Continuing with the focus on Assam in the next essay the author illustrated how present clash of resources among communities of Assam can be viewed from a colonial historical perspective. When the Britishers took over Assam after the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 as opposed to Bengal Assam had vast stretches of pristine land. And the Britishers viewed this in many ways as land gold mine. When tea was first grown in Assam it set cash registers of London stock exchange ringing and there was a mad scamper of land for tea gardens and other commercial agricultural enterprises typical of colonial projects. Yet such commercial enterprises didn’t bring any benefit for the local population of the state. And when India became a free nation Assam continued to be a colonial experiment with large vast swathes of land continuing to be under tea cultivation while now there was actue land crisis. In understanding land one must also understand the movement of the hill people and the plains and that the farmers of the plains didn’t always lead a sedentary life .The farmer of the plains in Assam for example the Bodo population regularly shifted its cultivation from one place to another. Successive government in Centre and state failed to understand such dynamics and when the Assam government issued the policy of not allowing any “encroachments” in forest lands the Bodo peasents rose in revolt. It went a long way in fermenting the Bodo self righteous movement. The author in the end argued that imagining North East as a homogenous group of people applying perceived notions of sociological and anthropological reasoning may not always yield the best results.

Subsequently the author devotes three more essays on Assam where he talks about the rise and fall of ULFA .In doing so the author tries to decipher the role of Assam movement in shaping ULFA since it was the radical strand of the Movement which eventually took up arms against the state. Yet the author argued that subnational aspirations though not blatantly anti national have existed in the mainstream Assamese society where the idea of a proud nation sometimes find relection in the songs of Late Dr. Bhupen Hazarika as well. Yet the author beleives that rather than discarding such elements there should be efforts to understand and accept such strands as diversity of the Indian nation.After more than six decades of free independence India must now be confident enough to be able to handle its mainstream voices of dissent and rather than convincing them through power and might rationalize them through discussions and debate.

There was an era in the 90s when ULFA superimposed itself on the Assamese society. It was not merely an insurgent organization with a secessionist goal it saw itself as a custodian of the Assamese way of life and culture. But because of the vexed nature of polity in the NE it also gave rise to another phenomenon the Surrendered ULFA or SULFA which was when Assamese society nosedived into new lows. The lure of surrender was so great that “boys” surrendered enmasse to avail benefits of “rehabilitation”. The author laments what model the government seeks to display when former murderers are seen moving with private security and living lavish life to the new generation. Perhaps the policy of handling surrendered militants warrants a new look;. While it must be the target of the government to wean away as many misguided youths as possible from the clutches of misguided campaigns yet it must not be seen as a way of “easy life” by the next generation.

In the case of Nagaland the author tires to place the debate on the Naga identity question alongwith the concerns of Manipur another frontier state which has forever been a source of trouble. The NSCN-IM with whom the Indian government has a almost a two decade long ceasefire now looms large over political and social life of the Nagas living not only in Nagaland but also the states of Manipur Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The project of “Greater Nagalim” sets it with a collisionary course with the other powers of NE including Manipur and Assam. In the end the author tries to devise solutions which would give a cultural integrity and unity to Nagas while keeping the territorial boundaries of the other North Eastern states intact.

In the end the author tries to bridge the gap between mainland understanding of NE which is often clouded by a military vision and security perception and trying to build an image for a inclusive NE within the colorful imagination of the Indian project. Eventually the NE has to play a “transnational” and a major role in India’s Look East policy and it is towards this objective and framework that NE must be placed in policy discourses. A region that is unique can be integrated seamlessly into the national polity rather than being viewed with trouble and suspicion. The author offers us an understanding of looking at NE not as spolit troublemakers but rather as a historical gap with the rest of the nation that can be bridged with a proper understanding of the region.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Analyzing the Bibek Debroy Committee Interim Report on Railways

In September 2014 the government set up the a high level committee under Prof Bibek Debroy to look into restructuring of the Indian Railways. On March 31 ,2015 the committee submitted its interim report which has suggested sweeping changes in the workings of the Indian Railways .  The reforms targeting the successful restructuring of IR will require, as a prerequisite, continued and committed support at apex levels; use of effective “change management” and “internal communication” strategies; involvement and buy in from various stakeholders, and strengthening of the human resource function to enable it adequately support the management.

This report in its findings recommends certain changes that are not only path breaking in its format but also in its approach. First of all it gives a clear time frame of seven years within which it envisages the transition of IR into a fully government owned Special Purpose Vehicle(SPV).The major recommendations can be divided into commercial , operational ,human resources management and finally financing aspects .

With relation to the commercial changes the committee recommends the movement to a more simpler accounting system because the present accounting system of the Railways is complex. Next it recommends setting up of a completely independent tariff regulating authority that would take tariff decisions only on the basis of economics while absolving itself of the political commitments that pose to the tariff issue today. Any increase in fares must be accompanied by the betterment of passenger amenities and services. A railway infrastructure company should be created which takes care of the rolling stock and the infrastructure which is delinked from the daily operations of train running. Suburban services should be hived off or integrated under a Joint Venture mechanism with respective state governments. Private entry must be allowed in operational level eventually.

With regards to operational aspects the committee delves into the present functioning of the Railways and recommends entry of private sector in the operational aspect of Railways as well.It should distance itself from non core activities like running of hospitals and schools and concentrate on the core activity of running trains. Another major recommendation is delinking the RPF or the Railway Protection Force from the IR mechanism. All existing production or manufacturing units must be integrated into one Indian Railway Manufacturing Company (IRMC) and no privatization must be contemplated at least initially. There is a need to shift focus to business/customer units like freight business, passenger business, suburban business, parcel business etc. which is essential for IR to be competitive, for its long term-economic viability, customer satisfaction and for being an adaptive/flexible organization. All A1 and A type stations should be manned by gazetted officers as station managers. This will also enable Group A services to have mandatory exposure to working at the grass-roots level in stations earlier in their careers, perhaps for 2 years. In the Junior and Senior time-scale, these posts will have to be re-designated as general posts. Supervisors and other staff who work in the stations will report to their departmental divisional officers only through the station manager. The committee also recommended that there are too many Zones and Divisions and thus a rationalization exercise is
required. Further, Kolkata Metro should not be treated as either a Zone or as a part of IR.

IR with its 9 major services often suffer from what is called departmental squabbles. The five engineering services absorb officers via the Indian Engineering Services exams while the four non technical services the Indian Railway Traffic Service, the Indian Railways Account Service, the Indian Railway Personal Service and the Railway Protection Force officers are absorbed via the Civil Service examinations. Apart from these there is a separate Indian Railway Medical Service. The committee recommends the abolition of this system and creation of two major services technical service IRTechS and a non technical service IRLogS, while the IRMS must be restructured and eventually abolished. Also GM’s and DRM’s must be given greater autonomy and greater financial powers.  Apart from these the committee recommends setting up an Indian Railways General Management Cadre from within the officers of the two above mentioned services to man the posts of GM and DRMs to be selected by UPSC in a fair transparent manner. This Committee recommends that Railway Board Secretariat Services (RBSS) and the Railway Board Clerical Services (RBCS) be merged with the Central Secretarial Services.

With regards to financing of IR the committee had a few prescriptions as well. State governments must show greater partnership with Railways especially in terms of forming JV’s with regard to suburban projects. The Central Government should review the dividend policy for IR and provide it with a GBS net of the dividend payment. The committee also stressed that it is very important for GOI to provide funding for projects that are commercially viable to IR not in form of grants, but as loan guarantees, so that the corporate entity implementing the project is market-focused from inception. The committee opined that IR must reach out to multilateral funding agencies as well as tapping its land banks for funds.

Overall most of the proposals mooted in this report have been in vogue in connection with the workings of IR for a few years now. IR has already started looking towards multilateral funding agencies and state governments for funding of projects. While it is easy to pitch a role for the private sector very often the IR acts in its social capacity in connection to setting up new routes etc which would initially be economically non viable for e.g. a train line to Naharlung , a risk which the private sector would not be willing to participate. While the departmental squabbles are a reality in Railways yet it cant be denied that with 17 lakh employees Railways is unlike any other organization and hence it requires specialization at operational levels. To smoothen the inter services seniority process and the access to open line posts like GM’s the policies must become more transparent and steps like rotational posts for each of the service for the GM posts can be thought of. Nevertheless the report is pragmatic and gives a certain direction towards which IR can work in the future.

-          Ibu Sanjeeb Garg ( The author is currently an Indian Revenue Service probationer undergoing training at National Academy of Direct Taxes ,Nagpur and was previously working with the Indian Railway Traffic Service IRTS )

Thursday, March 19, 2015


In the troubled socio political narrative of North East India Assam has always held a prominent face. At the forefront during the national movement Assam has acquired a trajectory that is very dissimilar to the trajectories other Indian states have taken post Independence. And it is in this context that the recent row in the Assam state assembly over the definition of an “Assamese” must be seen.

The state government while submitting itself in the Assembly declared that it has been unable to arrive at the definition of an Assamese and since then there has been a huge furore in the state regarding who is an Assamese. This question holds a special place in the spatial minds of the people because it leads to the larger question of who is not an Assamese. And finally the chimera of “Who is a Bangladeshi”?

Modern states in a post modern world are often heterogeneous projects. The concept of a nation state   primarily a European project in the 18th and 19th centuries spoke of homogenous existence where people with similar food culture and language were linked to a particular territory, their nation state their homeland. One of the earliest nations to defeat this very concept from its inception itself was India .India was a multitude of culture with various languages, customs and religions. An Indian was someone who shared a common history that had been shaped by the sands of time. Far from being a homogenous project India celebrated its heterogeneity.

And it is in this context that the northeastern state of Assam had always been celebrated as a mini India. It was indeed a completely functioning subnational project. This subnationalism stemmed from a feeling of proud history to being hoodwinked by the colonial masters in the Treaty of Yandaboo signed on Feb 24 1826. Assam, in the post independent India was a melting pots with different tribes the Khasis, the Nagas the Bodos and the Karbis alongwith the non tribal , the caste Hindus speaking in Assamese, the Bengali speaking Hindus in Barak valley ,the Hindi speaking trading community all lived in peace and harmony.

And it was here that the first break occurred. Often politics in frontier areas are convoluted around building power centers focused on a few individuals .Politics in these frontier areas often focused on a few regressive themes with the tool in Assam being the language Assamese. Assamese was being forced down upon the throats of those who spoke other languages. Naturally the tribes which had long shared a proud history of their own along with an equal relationship with the plains people resented such a move. It amounted to a colonial mindset and subjugation of a different kind a certain kind of linguistic chauvinism. The proud tribes protested and were able to carve their own homelands where the territory was linked to their ethnicity. It was one of the most poignant lessons histories gave to the people of Assam, that linking definition to a particular language would seek to destroy the fabric of Assam.
In the years that have followed Assam has seen a resurgence .A resurgence of cultural proud histories of people that inhabit its land .A striking example in this regard is the emergence of Bathow religion in the cultural space of the Bodo people. And rightly so this has brought about a new sense of identity that is linked to demands for a new state.

At the same time the Bangladeshi question remains far from being resolved. Even after repeated court hearings, the striking down of the IMDT Act and the setting up of foreigner’s tribunals. Nothing has ever been achieved in terms of eradicating the Bangladeshi problem. It is time that the administration as well as the intelligentsia think of new ways of countering it .But at the same time this new call for nomenclature should not become another round of hunting spree of Bangladeshi rounding up .The Bangladeshi question should now move into deeper realms of how to stop further migration if any and how do we shape the future.

Barak valley is often missing in the intellectual mindscape of the people of Assam. The Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims of the Barak valley have never been able to connect themselves with people of the Brahmaputra valley. The addition of Barak valley to the political map of Assam seems to be an administrative decision for ease rather than anything else.

Thus at such a time when the socio political narrative of Assam is anything but in equilibrium the question over an Assamese would undoubtedly create a new round of trouble in its landscape. There is a need to move away from this definition which is linked to a language even if unintended. Because this definition attached to a language would create doubts in the minds of those who don’t speak the tongue. A new exercise needs to be carried out. The definition has to move from Assamese to “PEOPLE OF ASSAM” . This definition would make the context much more wider .It would include everyone who live within the political boundaries of the state irrespective of whatever tongue they speak. The real challenge in this exercise would be the decide the cutoff date from which this would be in vogue and that would be the domain of academics in time to come.

As history has shown us chauvinistic projects however subtle have often felt flat in the world .Man’s need for expression and the yearning of freedom have always trumped the shackles of chauvinism of any kind. It is time that the socio political landscape its academics and its intelligentsia realizes this and put efforts into projecting Assam as a perfect example of heterogeneous identity rather than trying to bind it within the shackles of homogeneity.