Modi's Northeast Thrust Needs To Strike At Terrorism

22/02/2015 8:05 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
STRDEL via Getty Images
Indian villagers gather as they watch the homes of members of the Bodo community burn in the village of Tenganala in Sonitpur District, some 250kms east of Guwahati on December 24, 2014. Violence in the restive Indian state of Assam has killed 68 people including 12 children, authorities said, as separatist rebels dramatically intensified a long-running campaign in the tea-growing area. Heavily armed militants launched a series of coordinated attacks in rural Assam late December 22, pulling villagers from their homes and shooting them at point-blank range, witnesses said. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

On January 20, four Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) detonated in Manipur. By the end of the week eight had gone off in the state, including one near the chief minister's office. It was not clear which of Manipur's 40 militant organisations was responsible. No comment from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On February 6, an IED exploded in Arunachal Pradesh. Attackers also engaged armed personnel in a gun battle. Two civilians and one soldier died and eight army personnel were critically injured. The banned terrorist outfit United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and another militant group, National Socialist Council of Nagaland--Khaplang (NSCN(K)), appear to have been responsible. No statement from Mr. Modi.

On February 13, a bomb went off in Assam. Two deaths. ULFA, again, seems to have had a hand. The Prime Minister, still silent.

There is no reason to doubt Mr. Modi's commitment to the Northeast's eight states (counting also the Himalayan state of Sikkim). He will be in the region again this week, visiting Arunachal Pradesh on February 20 for its annual Statehood Day celebrations. His last visit occurred just in November and December, when he visited Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Tripura.

Beyond his frequent visits, Mr. Modi has engaged the region in other laudatory ways. As just one example, all union ministers--most of whom have very limited exposure to the region--have been ordered to visit it and consult with their counterparts there regularly; a mechanism has been set up and eight union ministers at least will be in the Northeast every fortnight. This measure should facilitate multi-dimensional progress in the region.

Yet, despite his many efforts towards the Northeast, Mr. Modi has remained silent on terrorism there. And the three episodes above don't even constitute all attacks in the region over the past month; many more have occurred.

To gauge how shocking the Prime Minister's silence is, consider, by way of comparison, how, say, an American president would have responded to serial blasts on American soil. He would be unsparing, clinical, vocal. Everything else would be secondary; the blasts would be the business of the day, of the week, of the month: no matter if they occurred in New England or the Midwest or the West Coast. The president would express condolences for the deceased and announce a policy response.

Excusing Mr. Modi's silence by saying he is too busy would be unconvincing. After all, ensuring the physical security of every Indian is a Prime Minister's first and sacred responsibility. (And Mr. Modi did find time to tweet congratulations to two record-breaking American climbers: on January 15, amidst two days of staying silent on the Assam blasts.)

Through his overall, multipronged efforts towards the Northeast, it appears Mr. Modi aims to change the nation's outlook towards the region - long one of indifference and paternalism. As one indication of the traditional outlook, consider that Manmohan Singh did not visit Nagaland even once in 10 years as Prime Minister. So, Mr. Modi's objective is praiseworthy, but he is undermining it by staying silent on terrorism in the region.

Indeed, publicly addressing terrorism in the Northeast will only advance the Prime Minister's objective. It will generate broader awareness about the geographically isolated states, according them the importance they deserve. It will compel the media to cover the region more actively; currently not one national newspaper maintains a bureau in the region's largest state, Arunachal Pradesh. Most importantly, addressing terrorism in the region would firmly let militants know where exactly the Prime Minister stands in position to them, letting them know they cannot operate much longer, and certainly not with impunity. At the very least, it would stem the perception (held perhaps by the terrorists themselves) that the Prime Minister is not cognizant of, or indeed condones terrorism in the region.

Will Mr. Modi make the change? Let us hope so, and let us hope he will address terrorism during his visit this week to Arunachal Pradesh.

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