The central logic behind grouping is to isolate insurgents from the general population from which they derive their support, cutting off their food and other supplies. In the counterinsurgency literature, however, for example, in the writing of Sir Robert Thompson, the British counterinsurgency expert on Malaya who also advised the American government in Vietnam, this is euphemistically described as ‘protecting’ the population from the insurgents, who are portrayed as lacking legitimacy and preying on the people. By concentrating populations under government control, it is also possible to organize them into supporting the government.
We are invariably told that the Malayan regrouping ‘succeeded’ while the Vietnam strategic hamlets ‘failed’. In the Indian context, regrouping we are told, ‘succeeded’ in Mizoram where a peace accord was signed between the Mizo National Front (MNF), which had been seeking independence and the Indian government in 1985, but it ‘failed’ in Nagaland, where the movement for selfdetermination continues.
In its ostensibly more benign form, the ‘winning hearts and minds (WHAM or sometimes simply HAM) approach’ pioneered by General Richard Templer in Malaya as an advance over the Briggs Plan, grouping must involve improving the economic and living conditions of villagers, so that they have a reason to support the government rather than the insurgents.
Grouping is thus something that is positively good for people. When cast in these terms, population relocation for counterinsurgency is not very different from ‘voluntary’ relocation or collectivization, as well as displacement for large hydel or industrial projects. Small, scattered hamlets are seen as breeding not just insurgency, but also social and economic ‘backwardness’. Some re-locations are required by war, and the others by modernity and ‘development’.
In the more honest, if less palatable for public consumption, ‘cost-benefit approach’, counterinsurgency must focus on making the costs, including starvation, torture and other brutal forms of pacification, far higher than any benefit the public gains from supporting the guerillas.
Based on interviews with civilians who endured grouping in the Indian states of Nagaland and Mizoram in the 1960s and 1970s, this paper shows how for them, there was no ‘success’, only hardship.
What they remember is not the agricultural extension agents, the pharmacists or the administrative officers who ostensibly manned the regrouped villages/ camps as part of a supposed ‘hearts and mind approach’, but the army search operations, the starvation, the regime of curfews and the reduction of identity to a roll call and a piece of paper. Separation from their fields, their homes, and their forests filled them with a yearning which no amount of ‘improved poultry and piggery’ could compensate for.
In Mizoram, the grouping was far more extensive than in Nagaland and lasted much longer, almost fifteen years, compared to the two-three years for Nagaland. After regrouping ended, almost all the families in Nagaland went back to their original villages, but many in Mizoram stayed on in the grouping centre or moved to Aizawl On the other hand, the conflict in Nagaland continues, so when people talk about grouping, it forms part of an ongoing continuum of perceived oppression. In both cases, the grouping was preceded by burning, so that villagers could not return home, and the insurgents could find no shelter; and was almost always accompanied by search operations.
Most scholarly accounts of Indian democracy argue that it is strong on procedural features such as elections, independent courts, a free press and so on, even if relatively weak on substantive achievements, given the inequalities of class, ethnicity, caste and gender. Most would agree too that the Emergency of 1975-77 marked a significant watershed in Indian democracy, even if they disagree on whether it has been downhill or uphill from there, and where to begin dating the crisis, assuming there is one.
This paper shows, from the perspective of borders populations who have suffered emergency rule since the 1950s and 1960s, much before the rest of India knew what it meant, how questions of social contract, representation and voice have been configured very differently in the outposts of the Indian state (as well, perhaps, as at its inner frontiers).
The worrying issue is not just the gap between procedural and substantive democracy, but the ease with which democratic procedures are suspended in the name of counterinsurgency. In a sign that the borders may finally be having their revenge, these issues have now moved to the centre-stage of the debate in India and elsewhere, in the context of anti-terror laws.