Shambhu Singh is among those bureaucrats in North Block whose every moment is a race against time. The 1986 batch IAS officer of Manipur cadre has the challenging assignment of overseeing one of the most troubled zones of the country, the northeast region, as joint secretary (northeast) in the home ministry. Though the geographical distance between New Delhi and this region has contributed in creating a mental hiatus between the rest of India and the northeast, Singh’s primary task of keeping his ear to the ground and initiating remedial measures without loss of time is immensely daunting. In an hour long, wide-ranging interview with Yash Vardhan Shukla, his phone keeps ringing, making it abundantly clear that his hands are full. Here are the excerpts from the interview.
The northeast is a complex subject which seems too far off for those sitting in New Delhi or any other metro. Can you explain to us the initiatives the home ministry has taken to bring this part into the mainstream?
The northeast has always remained a focus area for New Delhi. It is through the efforts of and actions initiated by the home ministry that you now have a ministry of development of northeastern region and the northeastern council. The role of this ministry is a kind of mixed bag involving several activities, which cannot be deliberated upon here, as well as the internal security. I do not think mainstreaming is the real issue any longer. Increasing geographical mobility and greater interaction with people from other regions of the country as well as increasing exposure including marriages have contributed a great deal to this. However, the region remains complex in terms of aspirations of various tribal groups and these aspirations are rooted more in anthropogenic issues. Any action of or for one group has a direct bearing on the reaction of other groups. The situation there has to be very delicately handled and actions of the government must appear to be even-handled for all.
The crucial factor in the northeast is your relations with neighbouring countries. Do you have the support of Bangladesh and Myanmar?
Yes. Both the neighbours, Bangladesh and Myanmar, have of late been quite supportive. An important thing to counter anthropogenic forces in the northeast is all-round development irrespective of whether there is insurgency or not. The crucial factor is bringing down the cost of transportation of goods as well as the cost of travel. For goods transport, it would me much easier to take them by ships from Kolkata or Haldia to Chittagong (Bangladesh), Sittwe (Myanmar) and there onwards transport them by river route and partially by road to Tripura and Mizoram respectively. Over-land, goods can be taken to Manipur also from Myanmar. Tripura’s rail connectivity is being extended up to the border town of Sabaroom from where Chittagong port is only 70-odd kilometres. From there goods can be transported by rail to Manipur, which is being connected by rail, Assam and Nagaland. The cost of goods will then reduce considerably.
All the projects are under implementation and soon we will see urbanisation and economic growth along these routes. A bus service is planned between Moreh in Manipur and Mandalay in Myanmar. We already have an Agartala-Kolkata bus service through Bangladesh. Once the trilateral highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand is completed it will open up the whole region towards a totally new paradigm of growth.
Myanmar has a key role to play in resolving the problems of the northeast. How much support do you get from it in your efforts? Is there any qualitative change in the relationship after the election there?
We have interactions with the Myanmar government at various levels frequently. The tribes in Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram have extended families in bordering areas of Myanmar. In fact, Myanmar has a sizeable Indian population. The kinship across the border is strong and the international border is quite soft. Because of that the locals can travel up to 16 km from either side of the border freely. In fact, from the Myanmar Naga Hills people travel into India to buy their provisions on a regular basis.
How much support have you received from Myanmar in containing insurgent groups believed to be hiding in that country?
It is true that most of these outfits are taking advantage of the tough terrain and the international border to hide from Indian security forces. We get cooperation from the Myanmar administration almost on all the issues. In my understanding, even people in Myanmar are not taking kindly to fugitives from India. This is a good development for us.
How do you view the situation in Nagaland? Has it been contained following long-winding negotiations with Naga rebels?
The situation in Nagaland is by and large under control. We have ceasefire with all the three major Naga groups. However, these groups keep violating the terms of agreement particularly by extorting money from people and business at large. While they keep promising that extortions will stop, when confronted they claim that they are also (part of) governance in their own right and have the authority to impose “taxes” on their own people to raise funds for themselves. Their actions like recruiting cadres and the efforts to keep replenishing weapons clearly indicate a deficit of trust on both sides. These actions are not encouraging for the government either.
Why has the state failed to check it? It implies the state does not exist there.
No. The state makes all the efforts to check such activities and several of their cadres have been arrested and weapons seized. However, people are scared of their guns and fear reprisals if they report the matter to the police and the security forces. However, the government is certainly determined to ensure that the law of the land prevails.
Manipur has been facing a series of economic blockades as a result of the ethnic hostilities. Much of the problem seems to be related to a consolidation of identity politics which helps local leaders. Why did the government ignore these blockades which are nothing but miseries inflicted on hapless people by local politicians?
You see, we did intervene in the blockades and assured supplies of essential commodities. But the emotions involved in this ethnic strife are so intense that it becomes difficult to take effective and prompt measures. For instance, Nagas have been demanding a greater Nagaland which comprises many parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Similarly, Kukis have been demanding a separate statehood where Nagas and Meiteis would have no influence. These are not issues which can be resolved in a jiffy. Often, the issues are used to hold people to ransom.
How seriously are you thinking of diluting or removing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)?
AFSPA has been an issue raised particularly in Manipur because of the ongoing fast of Irom Sharmila, but hardly anybody discusses it in other states, which shows that the actions of the armed forces are no longer harsh which could be violative of human rights. The forces have been prescribed strict dos and don’ts and a standard operating procedure has also been framed and issued to them recently.
What is your vision of the northeast ten years down the line?
Ten years down the line I visualise it as a region quite at peace with itself. It would have enough power plants to meet its energy requirements. Connectivity through roads, railways and sea routes would make the entire region an attractive destination of immense opportunities. All this will happen in not too distant a future.