Democracy, Development & Displacement:
The struggle of indigenous people in Northeast India and CHT Bangladesh

3rd November 2012, Boston:

The forum at  at Harvard University on 3rd of November 2012
The forum at at Harvard University on 3rd of November 2012

The Alliance for Secular and Democratic South Asia (Boston), USA organized a forum titled "Democracy, Development & Displacement: The struggle of indigenous people in Northeast India and CHT Bangladesh" on the 3rd of November 2012 at Harvard University.

The forum speakers included Erendro Leichombam, a World Bank Fellow at Harvard University, and the Founder of The Manipur International Center; Pradyot Deb Burman, Chairman and Editor, The Northeast Today Magazine, and Founder of The Royal Tripura Foundation; and Maung Nyeu of Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Founder of Our Golden Hour (Boston). The forum was moderated by Dr. Abha Sur, lecturer in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

THE MANIPUR INTERNATIONAL CENTER, a research and advocacy group based in Boston, USA co-sponsored the forum. The Center is a non-partisan, non-sectarian, and not-for-profit organization that promotes peace and development initiatives in Manipur and the Northeastern Region of India. The Center partnered with Our Golden Hour, conceived at Harvard University, Graduate School of Education, and co-sponsored the event with THE ALLIANCE FOR A SECULAR AND DEMOCRATIC SOUTH ASIA (Alliance). Founded in 1993, the Alliance is made up of concerned residents in the Boston area. It represents many South Asian countries as well as people of South Asian descent in the US. Since its conception it has consistently sought to spread awareness about the challenges against secularism and democracy in South Asia. It has also always expressed solidarity with other movements against injustice and oppression. In coalition with other progressive groups in the Boston Area, the Alliance offers an open platform to all for participation in creative solutions to the challenges facing our people.

Erendro Leichombam kept the focus of his talk on Manipur, from where he "drew broad generalization for the rest of the Northeast region." After giving a brief background on Manipur and its history, he shared with the audience that restoring democratic rights, and economic independence to the people of the state will be key to solving the problems in the state. He argued that India's policy in Manipur should be transitioning from a "welfare state" mentality to what he referred as the 3S STATE STRATEGY—Small, Sustainable & Self-sufficient State.

Leichombam contended that the state's dependence on central government funding (upto 90% of the state revenues by some estimates) is the main cause of "corruption, conflict, and collapse" in the state. He argued that in "the absence of self-generated sustainable income and its consequent lack of proportionally larger revenue contribution," political leadership lacks accountability to the people, thereby annulling democracy altogether. Near exclusive accountability to New Delhi allows the leadership in Imphal to sustain a "delicate but bizarre equilibrium among the insurgents, the Manipuri people, local leadership, and the central Government, who, rather than finding long-term solutions for the state, has been quite happy to channel resources as long as the state remains relatively quiet." Within such a low expectation setting, if the insurgents "throw fewer bombs, and the neighboring states create survivable economic blockades" the local administration regards that as "improvement, and development."

Leichombam also brought up the 12 years long hunger strike by Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila, and her struggle for democracy and social justice. He urged the audience to support the struggle to repeal AFSPA 1958, which, he believes, further fuels violent insurgency in the region rather than dampen it. He argued that a sizeable number of people are "silent about the act," or even encourage it quietly because currently "they believe that the act does not affect them directly." But the speaker reasoned that the act, enacted in 1958 before any violent insurgency started in Manipur, was a "strategic prepositioning policy intended to drive a long lasting wedge between the population." He considers the act "intrusive, perverse, and pervasive" and argued that it affects everyone but "allows some to benefit at the expense of everyone else." The prominent silence of the so-called babus—influential leaders and bureaucrats only points to the "divide and rule" aspect of the AFSPA.

However, Leichombam maintained that all conscientious people around the world should reject the act; including those who think they are not affected by the act currently because the "negative consequences of it are bound to catch up with everyone in the end." Quoting the American Civil Rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr., "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends," he urged the silent groups in the region and around the world to stand up against this inhumane law, and increase pressure to repeal it before it is too late. Leichombam particularly urged the Manipuri and Northeast diaspora around the world to unite and be unafraid of possible political persecution. The Manipur Center founder also expressed his determination to reach out to the Indian diaspora in the US to seek their support in fighting against injustice, and to partner for accelerated development in the Northeast.

Pradyot Deb-Barman, in his speech, pointed out the flaws and errors of democratic exercising in the Northeast. He argued that "development should not come at the cost of displacement." Citing the case of his own home state of Tripura, he emphasized the need for balancing "development, and displacement." He argued that the conflict between East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) and West Pakistan led to a huge influx of Hindu Bengalese to the tiny state of Tripura, increasing the demographic growth to over 165% between 1957 and 1965. This dramatic influx, he argued, were often justified on the grounds of Humanity and economic hardships. However, the newly arrived population managed to subvert the law and gradually, within 4 to 7 years, successfully managed to become Indian citizens, eventually contesting elections and becoming "local leaders."

However, Deb-Barman argued that "the indigenous population of Tripura was left in complete shambles and the effects of which is still seen today. 'The successive state governments regardless of their political affiliations took certain measures which speaks itself of subversion of fundamental rights in the name of development." He called for protecting the rights of the indigenous population in the Northeast from any future influx, especially in Tripura. He also decried the affects of constructing large-scale hydropower projects, and dams without considering the environmental, and human displacement potential in the region.

Echoing similar sentiments, Maung Nyeu spoke about the displacement of indigenous people in the Northeast's neighboring region of Chittagong Hill Tracks, in Bangladesh. He highlighted flooding of 40% arable land following the Kaptai Dam, and the eventual migration of 35, 000 indigenous people from the Hill Tracks to Arunachal Pradesh and other Northeast States of India. He decried the lack of constitutional recognition of the indigenous status of hill people in CHT by the Government of Bangladesh, a close ally of India. Citing government sources, Nyeu challenged the official position that proclaims that "Bangladesh does not have any indigenous population."

In his talk Nyeu also expressed grave concern over the plight of the indigenous languages and culture that are on the brink of extinction. Nyeu criticized the Bangladeshi policy of "Single Bangla language policy;" Rigid centralized curriculum, and the lack of relevance of content to the indigenous people of CHT. Nyeu emphasized the importance of indigenous people in the Northeast India, and CHT Bangladesh to unite for mutual interests and expressed his hope for civil society leaders to come together to solve common problems faced by indigenous population across the porous border.

The forum was participated and well received by a very engaging group of activists, scholars, professors, and researchers from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), including active participation by the distinguished professor Bruno Della Chiesa of Harvard University.

The Manipur International Center
Email: info(at)manipurcenter(dot)org

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* This info was sent by The Manipur International Center who can be contacted at info(at)manipurcenter(dot)org
This Press Release was posted on November 09, 2012.

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