Can Kiren Rijiju bring the Northeast closer to North Block?
Shantanu Nandan Sharma
[dropcap]A [/dropcap]week before Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India last month, minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju addressed a gathering of strategists at leading US thinktank, Brookings Institution, based on Embassy Row in Washington DC.
The government of India restrained itself from giving publicity to the event where Rijiju, hailing from Arunachal Pradesh, talked at length about the need to step up border infrastructure in India’s eastern-most state which China claims as its own.
In his 40-minute address followed by an hour-long interaction, Rijiju also touched upon issues such as left wing extremism, intelligence gathering, police modernization, disaster management and food security, but his references to India-China skirmishes ahead of Xi’s India visit prompted New Delhi to take that extra precaution.During Xi’s stay in New Delhi, Rijiju was conspicuous by his absence. The opposition Congress questioned why Rijiju was absent in delegation-level talks and also at the state banquet hosted by the President of India in Xi’s honour. “I am sure a day will come when Rijiju in his official capacity will need to visit China and the Chinese authority will say: please come, you don’t need a visa,” says one of his aides.
There is, of course, a precedent to this: the 1997 visa row when the then chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh Gegong Apang was told he could visit Kunming in the Yunnan province without a visa. New Delhi apparently did not allow Apang to visit China without a valid visa.
Part of game plan
Many in the corridors of power say Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a game plan when he handpicked the 42-year-old lawyer-turned-politician from Arunachal Pradesh as minister of state in the highly sensitive ministry of home affairs (MHA).
Among the subjects that Rijiju handles in MHA are police modernization, visa issues for foreigners, and disaster management.
But he has also been asked to handle border management, which includes creation of new infrastructure on the frontiers.
Senior minister and former party president Rajnath Singh reportedly gives him enough freedom on issues concerning northeast India. No wonder it was Rijiju, and not any senior minister of Modi sarkar, who announced a fortnight ago the Centre’s grand plan to construct a 2,000-km-long road along the McMahon Line from Mago-Thingbu in Tawang to Vijaynagar in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh.
It’s no small project. In the backdrop of hostile terrain, mostly snow-fed, the project cost could run up to Rs 40,000 crore, according to Rijiju. And this border road will be the biggest single road project in the history of India.
China, which has already created all-weather road infrastructure in Tibet bordering Arunachal Pradesh, lodged strong protests, only to be rebuffed by New Delhi.
Beijing must have noted by now the moves of this young minister from Arunachal Pradesh. But experts say mere symbolism will not scare away China which in 1962 temporarily occupied parts of present-day Arunachal Pradesh, then called the North-East Frontier Agency or Nefa.
No impact on China
Ajai Sahni, executive director of New Delhi based think tank, the Institute for Conflict Management, says Rijiju’s appointment in the Modi sarkar will have no significant impact on China’s orientation.
“The only element that will influence China is India’s real military and economic capacities, and the equation of power between the two countries,” says Sahni.
Apart from the China angle, Rijiju’s placement in North Block is expected to aid Modi sarkar on two other counts. First, he could help woo northeast insurgents into the mainstream and signing permanent pacts with them within the framework of the Indian Constitution.
And, secondly, the presence of a prominent northeast face in MHA was expected to curb the menace of racial attacks on northeasterners in metro cities such as New Delhi and Bangalore, a phenomenon that has flared up in recent months.
Binalakshmi Nepram, a northeast activist and founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, says Delhi alone has registered 700 incidents of verbal and physical assault on north-easterners in the last 10 months, making a case for an anti-racial law.
Former home secretary GK Pillai does not think yet another law will help curb such attacks. He advises Rijiju to take steps towards making changes in history textbooks, and in the national anthem. “It’s sad that no northeast hero finds a place in our history books.
Also, our national anthem mentions the Sindh or Sindhu which is no longer an Indian river. Why can’t we replace it with a river from the northeast?” Pillai asks.
(The MHA in the previous government took the stand that the versions of the national anthem with Sindh and Sindhu mean the same and may refer either to the river or the Sindhi community.)
Rijiju has, however, scored some brownie points, at least internally. As ET Magazine has learnt, a number of top militants have met Rijiju in recent months and expressed their willingness to come into negotiated settlements. “Many armed groups from the region are finding it more comfortable to deal with someone from the northeast rather than approaching home ministry officials.
Rijiju has met them and forwarded their case to officials concerned,” says an MHA official on the condition of anonymity. What often worries most insurgents willing to give up arms is the MHA’s tactic of lengthening the peace process, thereby weakening their muscle. The peace talks with Naga militant group NSCN (IM), for example, have continued since 1997.
Naba Kumar Sarania, a former Ulfa commander and now a member of Parliament from Assam, feels Rijiju will bring in confidence among northeast insurgents to abandon their secessionist agenda if peace talks are made time-bound.
During Ulfa days, he was nicknamed Hira Sarania (a fear factor among people in the Assam-Bhutan border areas). But he left Ulfa in 2010 after sensing that common people were distancing themselves from the extremist forces.
After winning the last Lok Sabha election from Kokrajhar with a record margin of 3.5 lakh votes, Sarania has met both Rajnath Singh and Rijiju. “If the peace process continues for years, many low-rung cadres turn extortionists. But arms remain with them and ultimately the people suffer.”
In BTAD (Bodoland territorial area districts) itself, there are at least 2,000 illegal AK series weapons. The government must craft a smarter policy to bring northeast insurgents for peace talks,” says Sarania.
The BTAD came into existence in 2003 after the surrender of cadres of the Bodoland Liberation Tigers Force. Can Rijiju now convince more insurgents to lay down their guns?