Delusions of regional grandeur The Times of India, July 20, 2003

Dear Jaswant Singh,

You were doubtless grieved by the Cabinet’s decision not to send troops to Iraq. So too were others who share your view of India as a regional power that acts as an arbiter or peace.

But all is not lost. Let me offer you a large regional agenda that can establish India’s reputation as a peace-keeper without going as far as Iraq. The troubled regions I have in mind, which desperately need a peaceful end to insurrection and sabotage, are far larger in area and population in Iraq. They include parts of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra, Bihar, the north-east and Kashmir.

Start by looking at northern Andhra Pradesh. For two decades, it has been plagued by Maoist insurrectionists. Different factions have in recent times blown up a Coca Cola factory and a milk plant owned by none other than Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of the state. Surely you should bring peace and stability to this region before looking abroad?

Neighbouring Orissa has long been plagued by insurrection by the People’s War Group. Former Orissa chief minister Biju Patnaik once invited the late PWG leader, Kondapalli Seetharamiah, to join formal politics and become a real ruler. Seetharamiah declined, saying that by joining politics he would become part of the corrupt establishment that he sought to overthrow.

When militants have such views, you will notice how difficult it is to bring about peace by merely stationing men in uniform with guns.

Maharashtra is the most developed state in India. Yet Maharashtra’s eastern forests are ruled by sundry Naxalites. The chief of Ballarpur Paper, India’s largest paper company, once told me that while he paid the state government a royalty for extracting timber from the forests, the really big and relevant royalty was the one he had to pay the Naxalites. You can evade the arm of the government but not the Naxalites in eastern Maharashtra. Surely a regional power should be able to conquer this region?

You will notice that I have not mentioned Kashmir so far. And yet, can any discussion of regional power ignore that region? For over a decade we have stationed 600,000 military and para-military forces in Kashmir. Yet what these vast forces are doing cannot accurately be called peace-keeping.

At least 40,000, maybe 70,000 have died in the state since 1990, and no end to the carnage is in sight. We are told that the indigenous Kashmiri insurrection has definitely been checked, that the problem continues only because Pakistan keeps sending in foreign mercenaries.

Really? Assuming that as many 20,000 foreign mercenaries are in Kashmir, how come they cannot be taken care of by 600,000 Indian forces? And if a ratio of 30 peace-keepers per militant is not enough in Kashmir, have you worked out what ratio might be appropriate in Iraq?

I grant you, no external power is aiding disgruntled Iraqis the way Pakistan is in Kashmir. So let us set that region aside and go to regions further east. The jungle belt covering Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh remain infested with Maoist insurrectionists.

Some of them have started contesting elections in Jharkhand, even while retaining their arms and private armies. They have inspired similar private armies among land owners and sundry caste groups.

The rule of law has been replaced by the rule of guns. This is a huge region crying out for peace. What has a regional power done to bring peace to this troubled land? Among other things, it has imprisoned children and women under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, using the act many times oftener in Jharkhand than in Kashmir.

Yet neither men in uniform nor draconian laws have brought about peace.

The picture gets murkier as we move to the north-east. For decades we heard horror stories of the Naga underground, the Mizo underground, and other sub-soil characters. But go today to the north-east and you will find that underground is overground: you can have cocktails in a bar with supposed militants. They impose taxes and enforce collection strictly. Official taxes are, of course, largely ignored.

Supposedly communal clashes between Kukis and Nagas in Manipur are in fact clashes between armed gangs of the two communities to control the lucrative drug traffic from Myanmar. Assam boasts not only ULFA (formally the underground) and SULFA (supposedly reformed ULFA regulars) but even DULFA (the dummy ULFA, meaning freelancers extorting money by claiming to be ULFA).

So, if we are to be a regional power, let us focus on our internal regions before venturing to external ones. Otherwise we will become, in the words of the poet T S Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’. And remember the introductory line to that poem. ‘Mistah Kurtz, he dead.’ .

What do you think?