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A New Crisis For India Is Waiting To Explode

S Roychowdhurg

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Mumbai’s 26/11, the Great Mutiny in Bangladesh, and now Lahore’s 3/3, all set against the overall background of the coming Lok Sabha elections brings a surfeit of diversion and spectacle to a hungry Indian media and its public to last for a while. However, real life remains in perpetual motion whether television cameras are rolling or not, with new events unfolding and new hotspots emerging. One of these might erupt sooner than we think.

North Bengal, a long-dormant volcano in an obscure corner of India well outside the public eye, has been rumbling for quite some time. Here lies the Siliguri Corridor, perhaps the most prime strategic real estate in the country, India’s Chicken’s Neck if you like, an isthmus of territory linking mainland India with the seven (now eight) sisters of the Northeast by road (National Highway 31) and rail (the Delhi-Guwahati link). North Bengal is situated at the quadri-junction of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan - within easy marching distance of four international borders, and with the Chumbi Valley in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region not all that far away.

The region is a deceptively peaceful mini-ecosphere by itself, a lush tropical paradise of jungle foothills, tea gardens and rice fields, at times eerily and sometimes ominously reminiscent of Vietnam (as indeed is most of India’s Forgotten Frontier in the Northeast). But more important, it is also around here that Southeast Asia actually commences ethnographically, with the stratified social structures of the Gangetic plains giving way to freer, more egalitarian tribal cultures, and perhaps as a consequence, North Bengal is inhabited by a widely heterogeneous and highly volatile medley of ethnicities, to which have been added large doses of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, as well as so-called “non-state actors” from a variety of militant organisations ranging from the United Liberation Front of Asom and Kamtapuri Liberation Organisation, to Bangladeshi jihadis from Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B). The whole thing makes for a highly combustible social and political tinderbox prone to sudden and spontaneous conflagration.

The region has long featured in the war games of unfriendly neighbours as a high priority objective and a prime target for disruptive activities because it can be easily interdicted, whether by natural disasters, political unrest, civil disturbance, terrorist sabotage or external aggression. Indeed, a view can be taken that the process of slow fire ignition may already have commenced with political turmoil and civil disturbances in the region, by a variety of agitations demanding separate ethno-regional states, so far within the Constitution of India (but let’s see what the future brings), but definitely separate from West Bengal. The agitating groups include the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), with its demand for Gorkhaland in the Darjeeling hills and the Dooars, followed by the Kamtapuri Liberation Front and the Greater Coochbehar Movement, with their own demands for separate lebensraum in the Dooars. The Left Front in West Bengal has become identified, rightly or wrongly, as a party with essentially Bengali affiliations, which is naturally opposed to any diminishing of state boundaries, and accords tacit approval to movements like the Uttar Banga Jagaran Mancha, and Bangla O Bangla Bhasha Bachao Samiti, which counter-agitate in favour of maintaining the territorial integrity of West Bengal. The resulting confrontation between the state government and the agitating groups have vitiated long-established social and community relations, leading to polarisation and tensions between Gorkha and Bengali populations, with tea garden adivasis (”tea tribes” in Army recruiting parlance) forming a third ethnic factor. The West Bengal government has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the hill communities, and seems unable to control the Gorkhaland agitation, which enjoys wide popular support in the Darjeeling hills, where it has de facto replaced the writ of the government. In the Dooars region, Gorkhas do not form the majority population, and the efforts of the GJM to enforce its diktat have resulted in violent clashes with adivasi and other plains organisations. There are therefore three players and a host of “non-state” influences at work in this sensitive gateway region. The West Bengal government is in direct conflict with ethno-regional groups demanding separate states in terms of Gorkhaland, Greater Kochbihar and Kamtapur, which in turn are in conflict with pro-Bengali groups, with a substantial adivasi ethnic population bloc standing uncommitted locally, but adversely influenced by the events in Lalgarh and Jhargram in the adivasi belt elsewhere in West Bengal. Waiting in the wings are shadowy non-state groups which have a fairly substantial presence here, and are on the lookout to contribute to unrest. Political and civil confrontation by aggressive political workers periodically breaks into sporadic violence which interdicts and disrupts movement on the road and rail communications through the Siliguri Corridor, cutting off Sikkim, the Brahmaputra Valley and points further east from the rest of the country, something which surely sends encouraging signals to watchful eyes and listening ears in the appropriate quarters. even as whispers of “Maha Nepal” float in the air from nearby Nepal where the “Maobadi” Red Corridor commences towards the heart of India’s Naxalite regions.

The Siliguri Corridor and the rest of North Bengal is now literally a witches’ brew in a devil’s cauldron, ideal conditions for hostile agencies to strike at India’s strategic communications by fomenting instability and unrest. Therefore, despite the political differences at the Centre and scant sympathy towards the Left and its government in West Bengal, the national interest demands proactive and constructive engagement by both the Centre and the state authorities with the situation in North Bengal to secure this strategically vital region before disorder escalates out of control. To adopt a hands-off standoff posture in a situation of potential crisis is shortsighted, the same sort of political games which have bought endless grief in the past. The firefighters in Kolkata and New Delhi must join hands even in the midst of election rivalries to ensure security and stability in this region.

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