Generalship and the Northeast

06 Jun, 2014    ·   4497

Lt Gen (Retd) Arvinder S Lamba PVSM, AVSM responds to Thangkhanlal Ngaihte's commentary, 'India’s Northeast and the New DONER Leadership', published on the IPCS website

An article by Thangkhanlal Ngaihte, an independent researcher, draws a negative dimension in its exhortation of linking the appointment of a General to oversee the Northeast-specific ministry in a perspective of Generalship, and alleging that this symbolises the BJP Government’s view of the need for military control over a “troubled region with the loyalty of its people being suspect.” He also alludes to Sanjib Barua’s reference to the practice of sending “Generals as Governors”.

Interpreting the Indian Army’s long history of involvement in the Northeast as one of just quelling the people is as naïve as forgetting the true causes of insurgency and turbulence between the tribes, states and the people, and as much a grave misgiving as the Army’s first induction in 1949 in the face of the Naga Revolt. The Indian Army’s acrimony towards the people of the Northeast has often been focused on and flogged endlessly, giving adverse publicity to the Army, but the ironic truth lies far from this perception. The history of conflict and military presence in this region needs to be put into perspective.

The phenomenon of conflict in this region can be traced back to the tenth century. WW Hunter (1879), the British Administrator, observed that the Northeast witnessed constant friction and tension between numerous ethnic groups, tribes and peoples from the tenth through the eighteenth centuries, leading to a series of wars with the Chutiyas, Ahoms, Kacharis, Tripuris, Meiteis, Mons, Burmese, Shuns and  others. The accounts of Elwin (1962, 1964), Furer Haimendorf (1969,  1976), Hutton (1921), Mills (1922, 1926, 1937) and other British administrators also show that various ethnic groups, for example  the Angami, Sema, Lotha, Ao, Rengma and Konyak and other Naga tribes were involved in feuds, inter-khel (clan) quarrels and headhunting. About Arunachal Pradesh, Elwin (1964:13) wrote: “In temper aggressive, reserved and suspicious, they have quarrelled among themselves for generations; there are still old blood-feuds taking their toll of human life and cattle-theft had long been common.”

The Indian Army’s bond with the Northeast is older than even people from the region would know. It is pertinent to recall that the EIC (East India Company) troops predominantly comprised soldiers recruited from Eastern India till the 1857 revolt. As the Eastern India publication of Princely States' contribution to the Indian Army (2009) recalls, Cooch Behar, Tripura, and Manipur sent soldiers to take part in WW-I, the 1st Tripura Bir Bikram Manikya Rifles and the Tripura Mahabir Legion were part of the Burma campaign in 1943, and the Bihar Regiment and Assam Regiment troops participated in WW-II. When these small armies were disbanded, Communist and other militant movements in the Northeast drew recruits and arms from some of these, sowing the seeds of conflict.

The Indian Army’s deep bond with the people of the Northeast has been scripted favourably by an array of authors who have lived and known the intricacies of this region. Nation-building and the development of the Northeast has been a prime focus of the Indian Army that has struggled to requisition maximum funds and resources to reconstruct and rebuild this region. This has been regardless of the challenges it has faced from the several militant movements and groups not only combating the state or the nation but also inflicting irreparable damage on the people and property of this region.

Notwithstanding provocative writings against this institution, the Indian Army has continued to give to the people the environment, infrastructure, medical help, and employability to earn their livelihoods. Dubbed “scrupulously apolitical,” the Indian Army’s greatest achievement since Independence is keeping the Indian nation united despite ethnic dissonance and externally aided insurgencies. The large-scale development of border roads by the Army has led to the development of far-flung and remote under-developed parts of the country. In these outposts of the nation, the army is the flag bearer and visible face of India.

The security concerns of the Northeast in terms of aggression, transgression, infiltration and militancy are more than any region or state of India faces. The Army’s presence in every state of the Northeast as part of the Eastern Command is to meet these multifarious threats, a fact that every civilian, government functionary and political leader knows and understands well. The humiliation of 1962 and increasing challenges ever since, and the spate of insurgencies fuelled by outside powers, have retarded the growth of this region to an extent that has denied its people education, higher jobs and secure futures. It is perhaps in this context that the practice of Generals as Governors posted to this environment needs to be viewed.

Generalship is not about disposition; it is about an institution, an encapsulation of experience, responsibility, commitment and unflinching trust and faith bestowed by the nation to these faithful leaders who understand the complexities of external threats and the internal security and safety of its nation and its countrymen.  In a way, who else could be better suited to undertake challenges that they have faced, fought, emerged as victors and survived through times of travesty or threats to their personal selves on many occasions in their careers? The Government and the North East,  would benefit immensely from the assignment given to  Gen VK Singh, a thorough professional, a forward looking General, and more importantly , backed by his experience as GOC in C Eastern Command.

Many amongst the Indian Army Generals have served and died with dignity and honour for the sake of their countrymen from this great region. It is not strange that the battlefields and now famous cemetery of Kohima in the Northeast bears the epitaph: “When You go Home, tell them and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

Lt Gen A S Lamba, PVSM, AVSM, Ph.D,  retired from the Indian Army as Vice Chief Of the Army Staff recently. He is a veteran of the 1971 War on the Eastern Front and later western front, has served five  tenures in the North East, as a capt in Sikkim , brigade major of a counter insurgency brigade , as a  Col in  Division HQ ,as Counter Insurgency Brigade Commander in Nagaland, Manipur, and later Brigadier General Staff in the North East. The officer is a member of the Executive Committee of the IPCS.