Meghalaya’s ‘Anti-Railway Protests’ Highlight Complexities of the Development Discourse

Can the anti-railway protests in Meghlaya be seen in the context of rising indigenous protests against the appropriation of land and livelihood? Or, do the Khasi Hills (and other parts of the North East), call for a different kind of reading of what protest against development means, given the North East’s distinct arrangement with the Indian nation state? This article attempts to answer these questions.

For over a year now, Mission 2020, a North East Frontier Railways initiative to connect the capital cities of the North East as well as extend the railway line to other parts of the region, has run into obstacles in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. In particular, two ongoing projects—the Teteliya–Byrnihat line and the Byrnihat–Shillong line for which approximately ₹ 4,500 crore has been earmarked—have been put on hold. 


Initiated by the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) and the Hynniewtrep Youths’ Council (HYC), there are now a host of dissenters against the railway extension plans. They demand that without a proper mechanism to check the influx of immigrants, the railway project must not proceed. As a result, land surveys have been interrupted, “No Objection” certificates have not been provided, and village headmen have denied railway authorities access into villages. On the other hand, the state government sees the introduction of the railway as an important means to improve the economy of the state through tourism and reduced costs of goods. At the same time, it is committed to checking the influx of migrants through a number of administrative and legal ways, including fencing the international border with Bangladesh. 


At the end of May 2017, the protests began to turn violent, leading to altercations between the protesters and the police. By July 2017, the protests were temporarily halted with the state government providing verbal assurance of considering the protesters demand. After this, continuing incidents of damage to railway equipment led to the backing out of the contractor of the Tetelia–Byrnihat line. This prompted the North East Frontier Railways to approach the governor of Meghalaya, who in turn wrote to the government for action on the stalled project. At present, given the impending state assembly elections, the government has tentatively suggested that it will consider entry and exit checkpoints for migrants into the state before resuming work on the railway expansion. Meanwhile, while no new incidents of violence have been reported, the KSU has kept up its demand for abandoning the project through peaceful means.


This is not the first time that introduction of the railways into the Khasi Hills has been protested. Since 1983, the KSU has been successfully opposing the extension of the railways from Assam into the Khasi Hills on the grounds that it will lead to an influx of outsiders into the hills. The target groups have changed over the last three decades—from Nepalis in the 1980s to Bengalis in 1990s, and the threat from unchecked “illegal” migration from Bangladesh since the 2000s. While the KSU has remained the key organisation launching these protests, other organisations have joined in at different junctures and with varying degrees of involvement. Thus, in the late 1980s, the Federation of Khasi–Jaintia and Garo People (FKJGP), while agreeing to allow the entry of goods trains, was vehemently opposed to the introduction of passenger trains.


In the present protests, many organisations, including those from the Garo Hills have joined the KSU and HYC-led protest. The present protests are also linked to demands for an Inner Line Permit (ILP). This demand has been made from the 1990s, but it culminated in KSU-led massive protests in 2010–12. Introduced by the British in order to safeguard the hill territory, the ILP essentially allows for the exclusion of certain territory from access by non-natives. The demand in Meghalaya is to allow document-based entry and exclusion through checkpoints, thereby regulating the alleged swamping of the state by outsiders.


This connection to the past notwithstanding, the current protests against the railways must also be viewed from the vantage point of the present, particularly the question of state-led development in the region, which is different from the situation in the 1980s or even the 1990s. First, the North East is undergoing a transformation in its political economy. With the setting up of the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) in 2001, there is greater financial investment in the region that in turn has led to a new set of expectations.


One such expectation is that the North East becomes India’s gateway to East Asia. Initially termed as the “Look East Policy,” the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the centre has termed it the “Act East” policy, suggesting a more proactive approach. It has made infrastructural development of the North East a key component to operationalise this policy. The Act East policy proposes the development of the infrastructure of the region by building roads and highways, expansion of air connectivity, extension of railway networks, opening of trade routes, as well as creation of infrastructural conditions for border trade. Such an aim has translated into the vision of individual states in the North East. For example, the Meghalaya Vision 2030 (Rao et al 2011) has a whole section dedicated to infrastructure development of the state as a means to produce "a congenial investment climate" and "economic opportunities for the neighboring country" that will take forward the Act East policy.


Mineral extraction is another area that is attracting more national interest. The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) has shown interest in uranium mining in Meghalaya and highlighted the importance of that to India’s economy and security. The opportunities for mineral extraction have been noted by national organisations like Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) through its Northeastern Space Applications Centre (NESAC) in Meghalaya that (as per its website) offers “technological support in managing rich natural resources.” These recent national expectations from the North East suggest that questions of infrastructural development of roads, railways and airports in Meghalaya (and North East at large) is no more confined to the choices and whims of the ruling local government, as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. More than ever before, development of the North East has become a national agenda with a much higher involvement of agencies like ISRO, National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), and the Indian Railways.


Unlike the 1980s and 1990s when protesting against the policies of the local government was sufficient, does the changing political economy warrant a rethinking of the scale at which protest against infrastructural development becomes meaningful? 


If viewed from the perspective of indigenous protests to developmental projects, similar questions can be raised. As Virginius Xaxa (2016) has noted, while the Anthropological Survey of India identified 46 ongoing "tribal" movements in one single year (1976–77), that number seems to have gone up after the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s. Other scholars have also argued that at the time, state-sponsored capitalism got a fillip in the name of development. Can the present anti-railway protests be seen in the context of rising indigenous protests against the appropriation of land and livelihood? Or, do the Khasi Hills (and other parts of the North East), call for a different kind of reading of what protest against development means, given the North East’s distinct arrangement with the Indian nation-state? Can the anti-railway protests provide us an opportunity to rethink the agenda of protest against development in the North East? 


Infrastructural Development and Security

One aspect that appears to be stronger now than in the past is that practices of development in the North East are linked intimately to practices of security. The kind of security invoked here is state security that is assuring the continued dominance of the state in holding political power. As is very well known (but poorly documented), unlike most parts of the “mainland,” the state’s authority (monopolising political power and territorial control) has been repeatedly contested in the North East. A classic example of this is border control—an important, albeit mythical symbol of state authority. For example, veteran journalist Subir Bhaumik while recounting the tumultuous years of insurgency in Tripura notes:


"insurgents had easy access to hideouts on foreign soil just across the border in Bangladesh … reportedly, two prominent insurgent groups had 51 camps spread over Sylhet and the Chittagong Hill Tract region, from where they would send ‘action squads’ into Tripura. They could also procure weapons and ammunition from the black markets of Southeast Asia and smuggle them into Tripura, via Bangladesh.” (Bhaumik 2009)


It is also well known that the state has attempted several militarised counter-insurgency operations. As political theorist Ranabir Samaddar argues, alongside the massively violent and hugely debated use of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) as well as other coercive techniques to thwart insurgency, the nation state has also relied on counter-insurgency measures that are linked to practices of social governance, which have had a particular historical trajectory in themselves. The present focus on infrastructural development may be seen as a strategy of this form of state control.


At the risk of reifying the North East into a singular historical experience, Samaddar (2015: 1–19) outlines the phases of this new type of governance. In the first phase of the conflict, territorial reorganisation, grant of statehood, and peace accords are the characteristic features at this attempt at social governance. The second phase, from the 1970s onwards, is marked by a greater focus on decentralisation along the state hierarchy, the initiation of surrender schemes, monetary compensation, and rehabilitation of surrendered militants. Samaddar suggests that these practices of integration and control have now led to a third phase of heightened focus on the governance of peace in the region through what he calls the “marketisation of economic relations.” This is indicated in policies of opening up the North East to greater commercial interests. The success of the Act East policy depends on the infrastructural development of the North East as the conduit to East Asia. This includes investment in a wide range of transport and communication networks. 


Indigenous Protests

That this infrastructural development story does not hold together in the present moment of protests shows the fissures in thinking about development entangled with questions of state security. Clearly, protest against infrastructural development is not a phenomenon peculiar to the North East. Indigenous movements against the alienation from land, dispossession arising from large-scale mineral exploitation, industry, multipurpose hydroelectric and dam projects, roads and railways, have only grown since independence (Xaxa 2016).


Even though there are multiple contexts in which these protests have taken place, a large number of them are for safeguarding of basic rights to land and livelihoods. Land (in these protests) is understood both as a means of livelihood and in a few cases as a marker of territorial sovereignty. Examples of loss of livelihood are several. They pertain not only to the mineral intensive indigenous belts of central India, but also to loss of forest commons and forest produce as seen in the Amrit Mahal Kaval Grasslands, Bellary mining, and Nagarhole Tiger reserve in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This goes to suggest that indigenous communities’ rights to land are not adequately protected in practice. While claims to land as markers of territorial sovereignty are less common, a recent example is the protest against uranium mining in Meghalaya. One of the claims by protesters on the issue was that UCIL's exploration into Meghalaya will result in the loss of land rights of the indigenous people of Meghalaya and this loss of lands and resources from the hands of the community will lead to a loss of culture (Karlsson 2009). 


However, the present protest against the extension of railways into the Khasi Hills is not being carried out in the name of livelihood protection or for preserving territorial sovereignty; rather, as discussed above, in the name of regulating the inflow of outsider population into the state. While it would be incorrect to argue that the Sixth Schedule status has had the same benefits for people across the socio-economic spectrum, the threat of infrastructure development in Meghalaya is not the same as in central India where people are being uprooted from their sources of livelihood. The central plank on which the protests in Meghalaya seem to rest cannot just be the regulation of movement of people into the state. The protesters’ justification that Meghalaya may become like Tripura (in the sense that non-indigenous population will exceed the indigenous population) is not convincing, because it does not take into account the difference in the distinct historical development of these two states. The history of cross-border migration in Tripura is unique and has a much older impetus.


Immigration policies of the ruling Manikyas were liberal towards Bengali immigrants and the Manikyas were themselves hugely influenced by the Bengal Renaissance. Both Maharaja Birendra Kishore and his successor Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore (who ruled over Tripura from 1923 to 1947), allocated huge tracts of land to their displaced guests. These immigrants, mostly from the Sunderbans, sought refuge for food and shelter. In later years, as British imperialism peaked, members of revolutionary communist groups such as Anusilan and Yugantar from West Bengal also sought, and were readily provided political refuge. The Manikyas, of course, were not without vested interests. Efficient plough cultivation by the immigrant Bengalis revived the dwindling economy of the region. This in-migration led to an upheaval in the demographic configuration of the region, so much so that at the time of Tripura’s accession to the Indian state in 1949, the indigenous population of the state formed only 37% of the total population (Bhattacharya 1988).


This has not been the historical trajectory of immigration in Meghalaya, and comparable threats to its demographic composition do not seem justified. What then is the anti-railway protest’s lasting contribution to a critique of infrastructural development in the North East? 


Protest as Critique

The need for a more robust critique of development cannot be overstated. The current discourse seems to be overly determined by the state's agenda, and is in a need for a counter view to restore some form of democratic choice-making. The point here is to develop a critique—not criticise, but to ask questions of and to problematise the present and what is to come. One way of engaging constructively with the present focus on development is to think about its effects—good or bad, and ways of mitigating the latter. Even when the state government has agreed to put the railway project on hold, it has already acquired land or has planned to acquire land for the project. What will be the effects of this land appropriation on the people who will be made to sell their land or give it up voluntarily? We already hear a chorus of complaints from landowners who have had to face delays in receiving compensation for land given up for infrastructure projects (Shillong Times 2017). The New Umtru Hydro Electric Project and the National History (NH) 44 highway project are recent examples (Shillong Times 2014).


Beyond questions of land appropriation and compensation, there are also questions of effects on agricultural land. How will dumping of debris (a common feature around large infrastructural projects) affect agricultural land? One of the effects of large-scale iron ore mining at Bellary was the destruction of fertile agricultural land (Shrivastava and Suchitra 2011). Further, what will be effects of displacements and migration of labour (within the North East and from outside) that large infrastructural projects bring in their wake? There is also the question of inequality affecting poor, impoverished people who will come in contact with new infrastructure but will have little opportunity (and maybe desire) for access.


Another way to think about effects would be to think about the governance of development. What kinds of institutions will participate in making choices about what is to be built and where? What laws will be invoked and at what junctures? What will happen if and when laws beyond local jurisdictional boundaries are invoked, such as the Atomic Energy Act of 1962, to sanction the extraction of "strategic minerals" (Karlsson 2009)? Will any kind of social impact assessment be carried out? If so, by whom? 


The limited focus of the model of governance of peace that aims to secure the state’s future, unfortunately leaves out what some might call “strategies of substantive development.” Seen in economic terms, the ratio of central grants-in-aid to total revenue receipts (a measure of a state’s ability to sustain its growth) was between 50%–60% for North East in the mid-1990s (Samaddar 2015: 39). In general, since the revenue generating capacity of the states in the North East has been relatively weak, it is not immediately apparent what the effects of infrastructure will be on the development of society at large.


Further, infrastructural development brings in its wake a new class of dealers, contractors, and other middlemen who act as liaisons between the state and ordinary people. Rather than blaming immigrants for all the troubles that befall people, thinking about these effects may help us better understand the politics of the manifold transformations underway and their consequences for the fabric of social relations in the Khasi Hills.

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