India's North East is a vast rainbow of tribal communities. Simple, hardy, cheerful, fun loving, people of the seven states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya welcome guests with an open arm. Here not just each state, but every town, each valley and village has a unique culture. So far this area was closed to people from outside allowing the locals to retain their culture. The region is also the lynchpin of India's much famous Look East policy. Thus with coming of the information age and globalization, it was time to open the doors.
The government of India is attempting to promote this as a tourist destination. With such dynamic personalities as Mani Shankar Aiyar and Jairam Ramesh of the Congress Party at the helm of affairs of the North East in the Centre, the region could well become a hot tourist destination; such is the hospitality of the people and beauty of the country side. To encourage the 'babus' of government, North East is also being touted as a LTC (Leave Travel Concession) destination for government servants. This entitles them to take a tour of the region at 'sarkari' cost with their families in tow to these areas and some could well afford to go by air. I suspect though that not many are likely to volunteer.
The reasons for this hesitation are not far to seek. While addressing the Chief Ministers at the conclave on 20 December, the Prime Minister alluded to the nexus of extortion amongst various groups in the North East. The networked nature of militancy in the North East is evident with deep rooted linkages between various groups of the state. Thus lack of funds has been no barrier for outfits as the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) which has an understanding with the NLFT in the Jaintia Hills to carry out extortion and Assam-based NDFB in areas of Ri Bhoi district, bordering Assam, while in West Khasi Hills district, the HNLC is being helped by the NSCN(I-M). The threat of kidnapping and ransom is so grave that a report in the Sentinel indicated that Insurance companies as ICICI Lombard, Tata AIG General Insurance and Oriental Insurance have started Kidnapping and Ransom (K & R) insurance cover for the top executives in the North East with some groups insuring their executives for as large a sum as Rs 200 Crores.
The extortion arrangement has hit even Arunachal Pradesh, where former Arunachal MP Wangcha Rajkumar was killed by suspected NSCN(IM) militants denoting a different level at which such networks function and the nexus between politicians and insurgents. The former MP and MLA was serving as an advisor to Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu. NSCN(IM) is said to be active in Tirap and Changlang district and Rajkumar had reportedly received threatening calls from the outfit before he was murdered.
With Arunachal Pradesh poised to be a future hydel power source for the country, with 23,591 mega watt hydro power potential, involving 42 projects, militant groups are likely to shift their focus for extortion, kidnapping and, 'taxation' to the State in the days ahead. The State has already earned a revenue of over Rs 158.64 Crore as processing and up-front premium from 35 projects with a proposed capacity of 13,361 mega watt from 14 power companies.
That this nexus is all pervasive across the North East and extends across the border to Bangladesh is evident with HNLC leader, Julius Dorphang who recently surrendered to the police highlighting bases provided to North East groups by Dacca. In an interview to the Daily Telegraph, Dorphang claimed to have stayed as a normal citizen in Dhaka for many years in an apartment close to the airport. Similarly he indicated that other top leaders of the North East were lodged in flats in Bangladesh capital.
The leader of an emerging militant group in the North East, Adivasi National Liberation Army, told the police that his organization had been getting assistance from the mother of all groups in the North East, the NSCN IM. This Naga outfit which is now under threat of rebellion with the Sema faction wanting to unify with the rival NSCN Khaplang group has tentacles all over the North East extending to Meghalaya and traversing the borders into Bangladesh.
Another powerful organization, operates, 'franchises' of extortion and kidnapping groups in all states of the North East extending to West Bengal in the Cooch Behar corridor. In Manipur, after forcing drug companies to wind up shop a few months back, militants are now threatening banks and schools to cough up money. Here there is a strict division of area and no trespassing is permitted. When occasionally there is an intrusion, local leaders lured by the moolah, frequently kill each other. Even the Central government has been exasperated with Manipur government for allowing things to come to such a pass.
Thus while the idea of encouraging tourism in the North East is noble, instead of a network of travel, tour agents and hotels what we have is a nexus of militant outfits who call the shots. We cannot thus blame the government servants in Delhi to give the North East a slip and head for Goa or Kerala for their LTC. The state and central government needs to provide fool proof security at the same level enjoyed by the ministers surrounded by a horde of police and para military personnel to the citizens. Obviously this will not come by deploying more police but by using smart tactics to snap off links of these networks in the region. Alas! Where policing is just a job or a bribe spinner lacking dedication displayed by the likes of Julius Ribiero or KPS Gill, tourism in the North East will remain an empty slogan.