An Article from the Asian Human Rights Commission
In 1958, north east India was declared as a ‘disturbed area’ and the draconian legislation Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) was imposed to fight the ‘enemies’, who claimed to fight for freedom from a colonizing power. To date, the law and the declaration have achieved nothing. The fight of self-determination by the people of the north-east continues. The region remains ‘disturbed’. In fact, over time, the number of militant groups has only compounded and armed forces deployment has only escalated. The bad has become worse.
Intelligence and security forces in Assam have claimed that over the last two years insurgency activities have come down in the state. The same goes for human casualties. However, the notion of ‘enemy’ has not changed and state oppression continues under different excuses. Last year, the government of Assam apprehended that nine of its districts (Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Golaghat, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Cachar, and Karimganj) are affected by ‘Maoists’ and that his apprehension and label could become useful in inventing enemies.
Finally, Assam has now been declared Maoist affected and the tag of ‘disturbed area’ has been extended. The ‘disturbed’ area status will now apply to the entire state and the 20-km area I the bordering states of Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya for one more year, effective December 4, 2013. This is the first time the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has cited Maoists as one of the reasons for continuing with the ‘disturbed’ tag. A notification issued by Joint Secretary (northeast) Shambhu Singh states that a review of law and order in the state indicates that “Maoist presence in Assam and border areas of Arunachal Pradesh has been noticed and hence their activities were noticed in Golaghat, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Tinsukia districts of Assam and Namsai area of Lohit district in Arunachal Pradesh.”
The notification aims at continuing the application of the draconian piece of legislation AFSPA, which allows armed forces to use lethal force against any person. The notification states that the review by MHA indicates that “the law and order situation in the state of Assam continued to be a matter of concern due to the violent incidents caused by underground outfits.” Assam was first declared ‘disturbed’ in independent India in 1955 under the Assam Disturbed Areas Act 1955.
However, such declaration never addresses concerns with regard to excessive militarisation and uneven development witnessed in the last 60 years of conflict in the region. The history of Northeast India has been dominated by multiple conflicts between armed insurgent groups seeking independence or greater autonomy and the Government of India, as well as inter-ethnic tensions that have resulted from competing demands for self-determination.
Of late, North East India is witnessing growing conflict over resources, especially over access to water and hydropower. Many activists in the region believe that the next cycle of conflict in North East India will be over water. The potential for hydro-electric power (HEP) generation has made the region the ‘future power house’ of India and, as a result, hundreds of small-scale hydro projects have been established over the years. A combination of under-development in the region and a growing demand for electricity throughout the country has led the Government of India to pursue an ad hoc strategy of ‘mega-dam’ construction. About 168 mega-dams have been planned in Arunachal Pradesh alone; several others in Assam.
However, such a plan has been resisted by the people of the region on the grounds of social and environmental security. According to a study ‘Damming Northeast India’ by environmentalists Neeraj Vagholikar and Partha J. Das, North East India is a part of 34 bio-diversity hotspots in the world and construction of a large number of mega dams in this region is going to result in irreversible damage to this biodiversity. Neeraj Vagholikar states that ‘this [mega-dam construction] will greatly affect agriculture and wildlife in the floodplains and wetlands of Assam, including the Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage Site’.
Adverse impacts of mega-dams are well known. Hence there is genuine concern about the conservation of eco-systems, about water volumes dictated by annual monsoons, and about the seismic nature of the region. People are concerned that the dam construction may impede natural flow of rivers & block fish migration, destroy forests, habitats, lands, and cultural heritage. For example, according to a report published in The Telegraph newspaper on January 20, 2012, seventy-eight lakh trees will be chopped as part of the forest clearance process for the 1,500 MW Tipaimukh hydroelectric project in Manipur state, an exercise Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says will be taken up for “national interest”. In Assam, Subansiri dam construction has witnessed wide protests by civil society groups and has put the government in an uneasy position over completion of its construction.
Assam and other parts of north east India have been witnessing wide protests against the proposed dam constructions and extraction of natural minerals by multinational corporations. Though the HEP projects are promising better access to power and energy not only for the region but also for the whole of India, what troubles the inhabitants of North East India are the social and environmental impacts of ‘mega-dams’, the increased militarisation that is seen to accompany controversial projects, and the perception that the region’s abundant resources are not being used for local development but for the ‘greater good’ of ‘mainland’ India.
The modes of popular resistance against dam constructions are mostly economic blockades, road blockades, mass protest marches, voluntary mass arrests, and hunger strikes. Popular resistance to resource extraction in North East India is further undermined by corrupt local and state governments and the misapplication of planning and environmental protection laws which exclude local communities from planning decisions and marginalize environmental concerns. Branding of human rights activities and anti-dam activists as ‘Maoist’ and silencing them is a common state practice.
Central India, affected by Maoist movement, was never declared as ‘disturbed’, and armed forces empowered by a special law like AFSPA has not been used to counter the movements. However, in the case of north east India, government prefers to depend on armed forces; it appears as an extension of the notion of ‘enemy”.
With respect to the extraction designs on the North East India’s natural resources, there is growing concern that ‘counter-insurgency’ is being used as a pretext to secure areas required for controversial projects that include HEP and mining. And, there is concern that India’s repressive security laws are being used to clamp down on protests, particularly those by settled indigenous communities facing displacement.
The current declaration of Assam as ‘Maoist’ affected will make it easier for the government to paint the growing anti-dam movement in Assam and northeast India as part of the ‘Maoist’ insurrection taking hold in other parts of the country, and to falsely accuse protestors of links to armed insurgent groups. Hard days are ahead for anti-dam activists and for the future of the anti-dam movement, not to mention average people and the ecology.