Corruption of the systems


Corruption, as in the rest of India, is not an unknown commodity in the Northeast too, says Dr. Bhupen Sarmah. It manifests itself mostly in the very patriarchal social and political systems of the region.

The dappled phenomenon commonly comprehended as corruption, has always been embedded in social, economic as well as political spheres of every organised political formation, whether ancient or modern, across the world. No wonder, therefore, Kautiliya in the fourth century B.C enumerated the “forty ways of embezzlement” in his Arthashastra.

As it is all-pervasive with varying degrees of damaging consequences in different times at different places, the word ‘corruption’ is frequently used sloppily, implying a wide range of practices starting with the incidence of petty bribery and nepotism to massive scams, involving the bureaucrats and political decision makers.

Today, corruption has generally been referred to as ‘the abuse of trusted authority for private gain’, or as an economic concept. The anti-corruption movement across the world is now focusing sharply on transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. In the specific context of India, the Right to Information movement essentially to make the corrupt bureaucrats accountable, the present strategy followed by the government in the form of ‘demonetisation’ etc., reflects the state initiatives to diminish corruption in the country. However, political corruption rooted deeply in the existing form of Indian democracy remains as a basic question to be reckoned with.

Northeast and corruption
The questions pertinent to corruption in the specific context of India’s Northeast must be addressed going beyond the commonalities that the region shares with the country as a whole. The colonial construction of the idea of the ‘Northeastern Frontier’ with deep rooted politico-economic and social exclusion was reshaped by Partition as a new political reality in the form of ‘Northeast India’ to be integrated with the nation state after Independence. For instance, the Indian ‘Nation Building Project’ had to confront with the political aspirations of the Nagas, what appeared to be ‘autonomy aimed at safeguarding the Naga way of life’ or their ‘desire for the restoration of their independence that the British had snatched from them’. The Naga rebellion which inaugurated an era of armed separatist movements in the 1950s in the Naga Hills district of erstwhile Assam, was followed by the Mizos in the Lushai Hills district. Secessionism soon started smoldering in other parts of Assam, Manipur and Tripura, gradually spreading over Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.

The pan-Indian nationalist leadership approached the colonial frontier with the conviction that merger of Manipur and Tripura, the two Princely States, could be achieved through negotiation. The present state of Arunachal Pradesh could be made an administrative unit of the government of Assam as the North East Frontier Area (NEFA) without making a departure from the colonial system of governance. The question, however, was regarding political integration of the remaining hills, reconciling their aspirations for political autonomy. The instrument for integration designed by the Bordoloi Committee in the form of ‘Autonomous District Council’ with legislative, judicial and executive powers, was accepted by the Constituent Assembly to constitute the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India. The primary concern was national security in the changed circumstances caused by the Partition.

Although, the instrument was avowedly designed to protect the cultural identity of the hill societies, essentially, the attempt was to accommodate the political aspirations for autonomy in the national political system characterised by centralised bias on one hand, and the need to facilitate a process of assimilation of the tribal societies with the plains on the other. Accordingly, district councils were constituted in 1952 in the United Khasi-Jaintia Hills District, the Garo Hills District, the Lushai (Mizo) Hills District, and the North Cachar and the Mikir Hills Districts uniting both into an ‘administrative district’. The arrangement was done without altering the colonial map of Assam, with the imagination of politico-cultural assimilation of the Hills with the plains, retaining the hills under the hegemonic political control of the Assamese. While the political integrationist logic largely failed to trim down the counter forces during the first three decades after Independence, the Nation State approached the region with a developmental agenda, reinforcing the binary between the mainstream and the Northeast. The North Eastern Council (NEC) was constituted in 1971 to mark ‘the beginning of a new chapter of concerted and planned endeavour for the rapid development of the Region’.

However, the paranoia of national security impelled the State to place it under the Ministry of Home Affairs. This was followed by establishment of a plethora of institutions, all prefixed by ‘Northeastern’ and located in Guwahati, such as the North Eastern Handicrafts and Handlooms Development Corporation Ltd. (1997); the North Eastern Regional Agricultural Marketing Corporation Ltd. (1982); the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd.(1995); to name a few.

After having institutionalised the political whims and populism, a new project was launched in 1996 called the ‘New Initiatives for the Northeast’; a combination of economic packages and politics of unconditional talks with the insurgents. Subsequently, a high-level commission was constituted to work out the strategy for pushing the region to the level of development of rest of the country in next five to ten years. The commission made 173 recommendations, which included recommendations to formally delink the NEC from all security functions and to detach from the Ministry of Home Affairs; and to restructure it as the North East Development Council to be placed under the Planning Commission. With a vision to accelerate the pace of socio-economic development of the Region, a separate ministry was constituted in 2001; the Ministry of Development of Northeastern Region.

The NEC, now as an integral component of the newly created ministry, published in 2008, the much talked about vision document ‘Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the Northeastern Region: Vision 2020’. The document identified three critical non-economic requirements to condition economic performance, and the critical gaps are, law and order, good governance, and diplomatic initiatives with the neighbourhood of the Northeast.

The devious ways of corruption
The much talked about corruption and misuse of the development fund is not an exception, but more importantly, the political class could put in place a hitherto unknown process of primitive accumulation in connivance with the bureaucracy, subduing the customary laws and the traditional mechanism of regulations. Protecting the customary laws as a marker of identity, and prohibiting transfer of land to non-tribals under the system of modern regulations, the newly emerged political class invented many devices for accumulation of land in their hands deliberately avoiding enactment of land ceiling regulations. Consequently, the hill societies are increasingly becoming a class-divided society in which a few people have managed to acquire huge tracts of land and control the lucrative extraction of timber, coal, and other resources, while the number of those with insufficient or non-existent access to land is increasing day by day.

With the benefaction of the statist developmental projects involving huge flow of fund either from the government or other international sources such as the World Bank, the political class in the hill societies has now made its conspicuous presence, having sole control over the political life of the people, but at the same time, remaining unaccountable to the larger society by not allowing any democratic institutions to grow. The traditional institutes are preserved as the markers of identity, and also for hegemonic domination containing democratic space for the people at large at the village level.

In most of the cases, except for Tripura, the Autonomous District Councils avoided constitution of the village councils, leaving the space largely open for control of traditions and customs, the glass case of tribal identity. The question of gender has always been kept on the back bench in the name of customs, tradition and customary laws, which categorically denied presence of women in the decision making at the grassroots. Nagaland provides the best example of denying the political space for women in the name of custom and tradition. The customary laws relating to inheritance of property have been preserved to reinforce patriarchal form of domination. These are only some of the instances of the nature of the ‘institutions of inclusive governance to assure inclusive growth’ glamourised by the statist development discourses, which largely remained indifferent to the question of accountability of the political class.


Dr. Bhupen Sarmah

Dr. Bhupen Sarmah is currently Professor and Director, OKD Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati.