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The Culture of ‘Bandhs’ and the Absence of Local Governance in the Northeast

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 25, 2010

    In common parlance and academic literature, good governance is the prime indicator of the success of a state. While many would argue that India’s experience with governance after independence is mostly unique based on a delicate interplay between a modern state and a traditional society, it is also equally true that governance in India depends to a large extent on individual rationality, which is “bounded by the local context and embedded values, based on the perception of sanctions, welfare and identity as well as general trust.” Thereby, the level of governance in a state is conditional on its ability to transform citizens into stakeholders in the process of governance itself. This in turn is co-related to the pay-off structures in which abiding by the rules is viewed by citizens as offering an incentive structure for a better living.

    The most important indicators of good governance are institutions based on rules, absence of disorder, riots, murders, unwarranted state closures, and violence of any nature. As far as we can see, the Indian state since independence has been committed to individual rights based on the constitution, and no one group or community has the right to deter the free movement and entrepreneurial aspirations of another.

    In stark contrast to this optimal understanding of governance in the Indian context, the culture of ‘bandhs’ (state closure) paramount in the Northeastern states like Assam, Manipur and Nagaland goes against the notion of individual rights, is a stigma on the effectiveness of local governance structures, and is unconstitutional to say the least. For instance, Manipur suffered from ‘bandhs’ almost every day during the two month-siege of the state by Naga groups earlier this year as a protest against Thuingaleng Muivah, leader of the NSCN (IM), being refused entry by Manipur to his native village due to security concerns. When the author was in Manipur in August 2008, there were nearly 19 bandhs in that month alone due to protests related to the doping controversy of Monika Devi, the weight-lifter from Manipur during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This resulted in all roads being closed, prices of basic commodities tripling, and a loss to the local economy in crores. While the ‘bandhs’ were underway, called either by armed groups like the United National Liberation Front of Manipur (UNLF) or the Manipur Civil Society organizations, the state functionaries including the Secretariat merrily closed down as well without any accountability whatsoever. For local government officials, it was just one more holiday added to their list of holidays in the official calendar for which nothing is deducted from their monthly pay. So, state government employees might be absent for nineteen days of the month including Sundays and other holidays and effectively work for less than 10 days a month and yet get their full monthly salaries.

    This ‘bandh’ culture, while coming down drastically in states like Mizoram and Tripura with a pro-active public and responsive state governments, is a disease in Assam and Nagaland. The call for ‘bandhs’ in Assam are issued by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the All Assam Students Union (AASU), or any other local group through local newspapers, and is strictly observed by the local people. ‘Bandhs’ in Assam have a rippling effect all over the Northeast as most basic commodities like rice, pulses, medicines, vegetables, poultry, etc., reach the other states via Assam either by road or by rail. In Nagaland, ‘bandhs’ are called by either the NSCN (IM) or the National Socialist Council of Nagaland led by S S Khaplang [NSCN (K)] and is followed by the local people for fear of being killed, despite great hardship caused by multiple ‘bandhs’ in a month.

    While the fear of the locals to abide by the diktat of the armed groups is understandable, what is perhaps not acceptable is the adherence to these ‘bandhs’ by the local state authorities. The very fact that state governments cannot negate this ‘bandh’ culture, and are unwilling to ensure that common people are secure during the ‘bandhs’ even if they defy it, smacks of the lack of legitimacy and democratic grounding of these governments. It is also an abysmal state of affairs when armed insurgent groups like the ULFA or the NSCN (IM) with a membership of 1000 to 5000, respectively, can hold the entire population of a state amounting to millions hostage by just issuing the call for a ‘bandh’. This culture of ‘bandhs’ has resulted in crores of rupees in losses for the local economies, especially the private sector. The most affected are of course the daily wage workers, who are dependent on day-to-day earning to feed their families.

    Governance in the Indian context is dependent on “the ability of the modern institutions to accommodate embedded values, undertake strategic reform and maintain the difficult balance between force and persuasion in the management of law and order,” as argued by Subrata K. Mitra in his book The Puzzle of India’s Governance (2006). It requires not only effective party systems, but also a federalism that works well for the common man. The ‘bandh’ culture in states like Assam, Manipur and Nagaland are not only a negation of individual rights but goes against the strategic choices of many, thereby throttling citizens’ initiatives. The most adversely affected from the ‘bandhs’ are the common people in these three states, while the local state governments absolve themselves of any responsibility to counter this culture, when they should ideally have been at the forefront punishing those who disturb public order. (It is important to note that ‘law and order’ is a state subject in India and hence states in India are obligated to maintain a secure environment based on the ‘rule of law’ for their citizens).

    The time has therefore come for citizens of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland to stand up against the negative culture of ‘bandhs’ issued by armed groups who invariably represent only themselves, and hold their state governments accountable for poor governance, in order to enable their future generations to have a progressive and peaceful life.