North-East India: Where Army Generals become Governors
The appointment of the former Indian Army chief General Joginder Jaswant Singh (retired) as the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh state on 24 January 2008 has raised some vital questions in the minds of the conscious citizens of the Northeast.
The former Indian Army chief, Mr Singh retired last year and has now been sworn in as Arunachal Pradesh's Governor by the Indian President Ms Pratibha Patil.
Mr Singh, who was honoured with Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM), Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) and Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM) during his four decades service in Indian Army, has joined two serving Governors in the insurgency stricken Northeast India, who are also from the Indian Army background.
Lieutenant General (retired) Ajai Singh, PVSM, AVSM took over the responsibility as the Governor of Assam state from another Lieutenant General (retired) four years back. The former Assam Governor Mr SK Sinha was transferred to Jammu and Kashmir. Another Lieutenant General (retired), who has been serving Mizoram state is MM Lakhera, PVSM, AVSM, VSM. On the other hand, the state of Tripura has a retired Indian Police Service (IPS) official Dinesh Nandan Sahaya as its Governor.
Thus four States (out of eight) in Northeast have their Governors from the background of 'Man in Uniform' – the Indian Army or Police!
A chief minister in India is identified as the head of a State government and the Governors are recognized as the Constitutional heads of the State. The Indian Constitution has given most of the political power to the chief minister, but the Governors are also empowered with some special powers under various provisions of the Constitution. While, a chief minister (with his council of ministers) of a State is directly accountable to its citizens, the Governors are normally made accountable to the President of the country only.
The Governor, under the provisions of the Indian Constitution, enjoys the right to be kept informed of all major decisions adopted by the State government. Moreover, the governor appoints the chief minister and also appoints the council of ministers of the State following the advice of the chief minister. In fact, every minister in the state cabinet takes oath from the Governor. Similarly, the governor summons the state legislature and also dissolves the legislative assembly. He addresses the legislature. Each and every bill passed by the state legislature must be endorsed by the governor before it turns out to be a state law. In a particular situation, the governor can send a report to the President of India that may invite President's rule after dissolving the State Legislative Assembly.
However, there are plentiful examples in India, where the difference of opinions between a chief minister and Governor has made the political equation sour. The Governors are usually kept above the public sphere. But at times, the Governors virtually shed negative influence in the socio-political development of a state. In reality, those Governors serve the vested interest of some strong lobby of the Union Government, which is against the spirit of the constitution.
The repeated appointment of the Army Generals as the Governors of many Northeastern States raises the vital question, whether New Delhi prefers to maintain a second epicenter of power in the States, notwithstanding for the interest of the Nation.
The Northeast has a volatile stew of militant organizations, most of them ethnically based. According to some counts, there are as many as 35 such groups in the region, some of them Islamist. Armed groups use the jungles of southern Bangladesh and northern Burma as their hideouts and training camps. The land-locked region has slowly turned into a land of extortion, explosions and assassinations by the militants. New Delhi is definitely worried with the development and many times it has gone trouncing the elected State governments of the region, whenever the question of territory has emerged.
One classic example that reflects the attitude of New Delhi towards the people of Northeast is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) which has been in affect in the region for five decades now.
The AFSPA empowers the security forces to arrest people without warrant, and use excessive force (including shooting or killing, even if the lives of the members of the security force are not at imminent risk). It facilitates impunity because no person can initiate legal action against any member of the armed forces for anything done under the Act, without permission of the central government.
It will be a very difficult task to find an example anywhere in the democratic world, where a draconian law like AFSPA could continue for such a long period even after mass uprising against it.
New Delhi had earlier ignored the recommendations of a recent committee to repeal the black law. The Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission (2004), which organized public hearings in various parts of Northeast, recommended the repeal of AFSPA, but the government was not convinced.
So whenever there is news of the appointment of a retired General as a Governor in Northeast, the pertinent question that arises is whether New Delhi always prefers to treat the region as a war zone?
As in a battlefield, the central government seems to make it a habit not to take the State governments into confidence in case of counter insurgency operations. And hence, the region has been poured with the ex 'Man in Uniform' as the constitutional heads of the States, so that New Delhi continues to enjoy the last say in managing the troubled zone, where larger section of conscious population still nurture anti-New Delhi sentiment even after 60 years of India's Independence.
(The author is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based independent journalist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Seoul Times, Seoul, South Korea (18 February 2008)