Editorials - 17-04-2021

The Assam Rifles faces the twin challenges of checking smuggling and preventing illegal crossings into Mizoram even while overseeing the much-delayed and ambitious Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. Dinakar Peri reports on the paramilitary force

Dressed in combat uniform and with AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders, Jagriti, Sophie and Lucy are living their dream. The riflewomen, posted in Mizoram, are among the 200 women soldiers serving with the Assam Rifles in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir. Training in Assam Rifles for women began in 2013 and formal induction took place in 2014.

Jagriti, who hails from Aravalli district of Gujarat and is posted with 3 Assam Rifles battalion, said: “I have completed four years of service. Earlier, I was deployed in Nagaland, and Jammu and Kashmir, and took part in counter-insurgency operations. Throughout my childhood, I saw my uncle in uniform. It was my dream to join the forces. Now I feel proud.”

Jagriti, the most experienced of the three, has also served in Nagaland and along the Line of Control (LoC) at Pharkian Gali in north Kashmir, known for heavy infiltration from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Similarly, Riflewomen Sophie, who hails from Serchhip in Mizoram, and Lucy, from Churachandpur in Manipur, have served in diverse roles. Lucy and Sophie are posted with 46 Assam Rifles Batallion. Lucy, selected in 2017, said, “I took to the uniform after seeing people living close to my native place joining the forces.” Sophie had earlier served at Sadhna Pass in Tangdhar sector near the LoC. “I was told that I have to go to Kashmir along with other troops. I was happy to serve the country. Our focus was to check women suspected of smuggling goods,” she said. In fact, interceptions have revealed that 60% of the conduits are women. Women soldiers are deployed for patrol duties and also at check posts.

Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, is administratively under the Ministry of Home Affairs and operationally under the Army. Riflewomen have played a stellar role in the short time since they were inducted into the force, said several officers to a group of print and television journalists from Delhi who visited Mizoram in March. Recoveries of narcotics and contraband have gone up significantly since riflewomen have been deployed, one officer said. The women perform all tasks and work equally with their male counterparts. Most importantly, they can check women carrying contraband, said the officer.

But while the authorised strength is 2,000 riflewomen, Assam Rifles has only 200 riflewomen. Jagriti’s battalion has 16 women soldiers. To increase recruitment, “we need more women to apply,” said another officer. To this end, in their current deployment, Lucy and Sophie are training women who come for the pre-recruitment process, organised by the Assam Rifles.

Rampant drug use

The Assam Rifles faces the twin challenges of checking smuggling and preventing illegal crossings into the State which has a porous border and also a Free Movement Regime up to 16 km for residents on both sides. It also has to oversee the much-delayed and ambitious Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which seeks to ease India’s access to Southeast Asia and also provide an alternate route between the landlocked Northeast and the rest of India. The project is finally nearing completion.

Drug use and smuggling remain the biggest challenges for Mizoram, which shares the longest border with Myanmar among the four north-eastern States that border the Southeast Asian neighbour.

“Narcotics is a big challenge for us,” said Brigadier Digvijay Singh, Commander 23 Sector Assam Rifles, responsible for Mizoram.“But we are doing all that is in our hands. In the three months of 2021 alone, we have recovered narcotics worth almost Rs. 25 crore. As Mizoram is a dry State, cheap and easy availability of drugs has a wide impact on society. Mizoram has the highest percentage of drug addicts,” he said.

According to data available with law enforcement agencies, in 2020, 21 kg of heroin and 130 kg of marijuana and Methamphetamine tablets worth Rs. 47 crore were found. In 2020, 190 smugglers were apprehended while over 53 were apprehended this year.

India is a prime market for illicit opiates originating in Asia. Government estimates say India witnessed a 455% increase in drug hauls between 2011 and 2020. Last year, on June 26, which is observed as International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, an annual anti-drug action plan for 2020-21 for 272 districts was launched by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. In a recent survey conducted by the Social Welfare Department, 27.8% of the total drug users in the State came from Aizawl and the least from Lawngtlai (5.9%). The most alarming fact is that most of the respondents of the survey are educated — nearly 40-45% completed middle school, 35-40% up to high school, and about 10-15% are graduates. Today, more than 200 million people are estimated to be consuming illegal drugs in India.

In Mizoram, 1,645 people have died due to drug abuse since 1984. In 2020 alone, 67 people died, and 268 people were arrested on drug-related charges. In India, about 0.7% of the population is affected by drugs. In terms of the percentage of population affected, Mizoram ranks the highest in the country. Ya ba tablets, produced in the Wa State of Myanmar and which are in high demand in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, are smuggled through Mizoram, local officials said.

Mizoram also acts as a conduit for transshipment of drugs to other parts of the country, Brigadier Singh said. “Assam Rifles is conducting anti-drug campaigns to create awareness about the ill-effects of drugs,” he said.

Among the States bordering Myanmar, Mizoram is a peaceful State where “the insurgency ended with the stroke of a pen in 1986” as one official put it. With the other States affected by insurgency, Mizoram is the preferred route for transit, the official said.

A major anti-drug drive was launched by Assam Rifles in cooperation with the State government and local NGOs. As part of the awareness campaign last year, Mizoram Home Minister Pu Lalchamliana inaugurated an anti-drug campaign named ‘Ruihhlo Do’, which means ‘a war against drugs’. It was organised along with 46 Assam Rifles in three phases.

Recoveries have gone up significantly in the last two years as the anti-narcotic grid has been strengthened by the deployment of women soldiers of Assam Rifles, sniffer dogs, and X-ray machines.

According to official data on recoveries in the Northeast, narcotics including Methamphetamine and Ya ba tablets worth over Rs. 368.19 crore were recovered last year. In addition, contraband such as gold, gems and teak worth Rs. 52.61 crore and other miscellaneous items including foreign currency worth Rs. 16.56 crore were recovered.

Apart from being an easy substitute for alcohol, drugs are very easy to be conceal and carry, said Colonel Viplav Tripathi, Commanding Officer of 46 Assam Rifles, responsible for north Mizoram. “People are doing a lot of business as a small quantity of a drug earns them big money. A Methamphetamine tablet costs around Rs. 10-20 in the border areas. In Aizawl, it is Rs. 350-500. And once it reaches mainland India for the festival season, it costs Rs. 2,000,” he said.

Apart from drugs, other major items smuggled include gold, wildlife, weapons, Indian currency and foreign cigarettes. Mizoram is one of the fastest growing hubs of gold smuggling from China, one officer at Aizawl said. More than 8 kg of gold was recovered in 2020, and about 70 kg that was recovered in other parts of country is believed to have gone through Mizoram, said the officer. Weapon recovery data show that in 2020, around 30 AK-47s, two Chinese pistols, one air rifle, around 600 rifle scopes and about 1.5 lakh detonators were recovered.

Local issues

Mizoram has a very high literacy rate of 91.2%, but very few employment opportunities. This is another reason why people turn to smuggling, according to observers. Speaking to the media at Zorinpui near the border where the Kaladan Project enters India from Myanmar, H. Lalmuansanga, an elected member of the Lai Autonomous District Council, said this was one of the most backward districts of the country and appealed for Central government help. “The Kaladan Project is the gateway to Southeast Asia. Before the project is completed, we need to uplift the local people. The economic condition and education status here is very poor. We need the Central government to concentrate on this area. We need to boost the health system,” he said.

Joseph Lalhmingthanga, Secretary, Central Young Lai Association, echoed his views. He said that apart from more recruitment into the Assam Rifles, they also need institutions where skills development is taught and job opportunities are created for the locals. “I hope the Central government concentrates not only on international strategic policy but also on meeting local demands. Our population is very small and our needs can easily be met with a little attention,” he said.

As the long convoy of vehicles meandered its way through the hilly terrain, the road from Aizawl to Lwangtlai was black-topped and good for the most part. But the real test of our spines was from Lwangtlai to Zorinpui. A common sight as we drove across the State was of people carrying cans and drums of water to their homes. Officials said water supply is a major issue across the State.

An ambitious project

After missing a few deadlines and crossing several hurdles, India’s ambitious infrastructure project is nearing completion.

Since the February coup in which the military junta overthrew the democratically elected government and took control of Myanmar, hundreds of Myanmarese nationals including policemen crossed over into India seeking refuge. This prompted India to seal all the border points. Despite this, work was on full swing on a bridge at the border at Zorinpui, next to a bailey bridge built by the Army last year for the project.

Officials dismissed any impact of the coup on the project or any threat from the Myanmar-based insurgent group, the Arakan Army. “Of late, there has been no incident where the Arakan Army has tried to hinder the progress of the Kaladan project. The project is progressing as per the timeline. It will have a huge economic impact on society as well as in the development of south Mizoram,” said Brigadier Singh. “It is supported by the local people in Myanmar as development in Rakhine State is not great. So this road will bring a lot of prosperity and business opportunities for those people,” he said.

The project has three legs — a 539-km sea stretch from Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar, an inland waterway on the Kaladan river from Sittwe to Paletwa extending to 150 km, and the 110-km land route from Paletwa in Myanmar up to Zorinpui in Mizoram. There is also another 88-km road stretch from Zorinpui to Lawngtlai in Mizoram.

The private company RDS is executing the stretch from Lawngtlai till the border at Zorinpui. There is another stretch of 109 km inside Myanmar. The Ministry of External Affairs is executing the project and appointed IRCON (Indian Railway Construction Limited) to monitor the project, explained Captain Vikas Sharma near the project site at Zorinpui. IRCON floated the project and tenders were given to EPIL and C&C, a joint venture company, Captain Sharma said.

The area was named Zorinpui, which means ‘Mizoram’s greatest hope’, in 2008 when the Kaladan Project started. The place around the project site is populated by Mizo communities.

The joint venture started work in 2017 but stopped in 2019 as C&C declared bankruptcy. Subsequently the joint venture subcontracted work to another joint venture, RK-RPP, to complete the work between Kaletwa and Zorinpui.

“Five km of the road has been constructed though it is yet to be blacktopped. Jungles up to 20 km have been cleared for the road and 10 km of road has been surveyed,” said T.S. Negi, project coordinator. Negi said a major challenge is working in the jungles where there are a “lot of mosquitoes”.

“We are trying to work with everyone,” Negi said adding they have hired labour from villages on both sides of the border as they are economically backward and this is a good opportunity to take them along.

Many obstacles

Over the years, the project has seen several interruptions including monsoons, local issues and red tape.

“There was also a break because of the pandemic. There was also some fear because of the Arakan Army but work is now progressing smoothly,” said another project official.

In early 2019, in a two-week-long coordinated operation with the Indian Army, the Myanmar Army destroyed 10-12 camps of the Arakan Army which set up camps in the Rakhine area, posing a threat to the project. In November 2019, the Arakan Army abducted five Indians from the project site, one of whom died of a heart attack while in custody.

There is no longer any threat from the Arakan Army. It too is supportive of the project as it wants development in the region, a local official said.

The project was first conceived in 2003 and an agreement was signed in 2008 at an estimated cost of Rs. 536 crore. The cost has since gone up to Rs. 3,200 crore and the deadline revised twice. It is expected to be completed by 2023.

The project, which opens an alternative route for India’s landlocked Northeast to Kolkata through Myanmar, also opens connectivity to Southeast Asia. Kaladan can be a major push to counter China’s influence in the region, another official said. As of now, the work on Sittwe seaport as well as the dredging of Kaladan port are complete. In June 2017, India handed over six cargo vessels to Myanmar. The final stretch is now the roads.

Work is being done to convert the 100-km road on National Highway to four lanes, between Zorinpui and Lawngtlai. Further on, from Lawngtlai to Aizwal, the existing 246-km National Highway 54 connects to Dabaka in Assam.

The Kaladan Project holds the promise of not only ease of movement but development too in a long-neglected State.

The correspondent’s trip was facilitated by the Assam Rifles

In the post-pandemic period, developing economies should rise to meet the U.S.-led liberal hegemonic world order

The International Institute for Strategic Studies puts the overall estimate of China’s military budget at $230 billion (https://bit.ly/3sofrDw). The intentions for global supremacy are apparent, chiefly to outrun the Pentagon. The primary geopolitical rivals, namely Russia and China may possibly provide the strategic and tactical counterbalance to the hegemony of America. Moreover, the international order is under threat of the rising economic power of the BRICSnations, with China dominating in its economic and military capacity.

Rising powers and an agenda

Though it is a far cry from surpassing the United States in its military prowess, particularly Russia which has no ambitions of a global outreach, it is apparent that the future of global politics requires a significant programmatic agenda in the hands of the rising powers that are aggressively building a parallel economic order envisaging new centres of hegemonic power. It forebodes the final decline of American ascendency that began after the end of British imperialism in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis (1956) when a wrap on the knuckles by America led to the withdrawal of Britain and France. Pax Britannica gave way to Pax Americana.

From the Renaissance period onwards, 14th-15th century Europe began its hegemonic ambitions through trade and commerce, taking almost 500 years to colonise and influence nations across the world. The tectonic shifts in the postcolonial era saw the interrogation of Eurocentrism and its biased accounts of the East, especially with the appearance of Fanon’sThe Wretched of the Earthand Edward Said’sOrientalismwhich began to propel freedom struggles against western-centric perspectives inherently inadequate and biased for the understanding of the emerging new world order. It was the Bandung Conference of 1955, a meeting of Asian and African states, most of which were newly independent, that set the schema for the rise of Asia, politically and economically. The confrontational stance was therefore the expected corollary in third world struggles to create a parallel order.

Dents to American supremacy

Nevertheless, in all likelihood, America will continue to play a prime role in international affairs though its image representing universal brotherhood has sharply declined under the Trump regime, particularly his foreign policy of threatening to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Furthermore, his bare-faced racist obsession and his handling of the marginalised immigrants has left the democratic world aghast. The rising tide of far-right ultra-nationalism and ethnic purity experienced in the Brexit phenomena, in Trumpism and in the promotion of the right-wing agenda in India, has set in motion the wearing down of liberal democracy. Other threats such as terrorism, ethnic conflicts and the warning of annihilation owing to climate change necessarily demand joint international action where American “exceptionalism” becomes an incongruity and an aberration. This indeed has chipped away at the American global supremacy.

The world is, as a result, witness to a more decentred and pluralistic global order, a rather compelling vision of the empowerment of liberal forces standing up for an international order incentivised by long-term structural shifts in the global economy, indicating the evolving nature of power and status in international politics, especially in the context of the rising impact of Asian Regionalism on international trade and commerce.

Direction by China

This is the evolutionary path the developing nations are already embarking on, though the current raging novel coronavirus pandemic has retarded economic development and sent many economies such as Brazil, India, Turkey and South Africa into a downward spiral. It is hoped that in the post-pandemic period, these economies would rise to meet the American-led liberal hegemonic world order. With China spearheading Asian regionalism, a serious challenge is possible but there is deep scepticism about China’s self-enhancing economic and military greed reflecting its personal economic rise. China must strengthen the opposition to the West through the promotion of regional multilateral institutions . Its self-centered promotion of building its own stature through the recent concentration on principle of the Belt and Road Initiative and the Silk Road project has, indeed provoked an understandable clash with India and Japan. More than having individual partners or allies, China must embrace and give a push to multilateral affiliations in order to not further exacerbate regional tensions.

Power rivalry in a multipolar world would remain a possibility with military conflict not ruled out. It would be overly optimistic to imagine that the threat of war is behind us, though it can be safely said that it is unlikely. Regional military activity can be seen in Russia’s assertion of power in Georgia and Ukraine, Turkey in the east of the Mediterranean, India’s disputes with Pakistan and China’s infiltration into India as well as its rivalry within its periphery. History is a witness to nations beginning to flex their muscles once economic rise is assured and recognised across the world. Indeed, the international state of affairs is rather fuzzy and frenzied.

However, the capabilities of the rising economies cannot be underestimated. China and India clearly have the age-old potential to lead as, historically, they have been pioneers of some of the oldest civilisations in the world. Whereas, China’s military capabilities must not make China lose its bearings, economically it must spearhead the challenge to the established western world that has ingrained its superiority in the consciousness of the developing world for centuries. China indeed is a valuable bedfellow for the launching of a union which could be a formidable challenge to the West at a stage when multifaceted transnational threats confront the world and need the collective universal attention. The fragmentation of global governance consequently can no longer be handled solely by America.

Thus, a more nuanced understanding of power in the circumstance of the declining authority of the West has to be arrived at especially when China is still far from approaching U.S. power in just about any area, particularly in its economic or military strengths, its multinationals that lead just about in every category. Its defence advantages that are unparalleled.

China, on the other hand, is indisputably a serious rival to the U.S. in the South China Sea, a world leader in renewable energy, and a formidable actor on the global stage of investment and trade, penetrating India, Israel, Ethiopia and Latin America. As Tongdong Bai writes in his bookAgainst Political Equality, China has risen in its global power by “adopting the idea of absolute sovereignty and following the nation-state model, which is in conflict with the Western ideal that human rights override sovereignty…. But it cannot continue to rise by doing what it has been doing and it must eventually follow the liberal democratic models”. China must remember that its growing power has compelled Anthony Blinken, the current U.S. Secretary of State, to encourage NATO members to join the U.S. in viewing China as an economic and security threat.

Thus, a kind of dualism persists in the world order with no clear hegemony that can be bestowed on one single nation. Global power gradually extends across a wider range of countries, restoring contestation necessary for the smooth working of a balanced world order, thereby allowing multiple narratives to co-exist on the international level. This has implications for the functioning of a civilisation that is not controlled by the indomitable will of one.

On sharing and treaties

The emphasis, therefore, would be a move towards restructuring and advancement, as well as adopting an oppositional posture as a robust replacement of subservience to western hegemony. The challenges of the 21st century can be met head on through mutual sharing of knowledge and more ground-breaking inclusive treaties. It is feared that there could be a possibility of a multipolar world turning disordered and unstable, but it is up to the rising nations to attempt to overcome territorial aspirations and strike a forceful note of faith on cultural mediation, worldwide legitimacy, and the appeal of each society in terms of its democratic values. Interestingly, the sun is now setting on the empire and the rising nations are gradually waking up to a new experience of freedom and self-confidence.

Shelley Walia has taught cultural theory at Panjab University and is the author of ‘Humanities at the Crossroads’

The government needs to convince Indians that the vaccine exports have not been made at the cost of their health

On March 18, V. Muraleedharan, Minister of state in the Ministry of External Affairs, while responding to a question in the Rajya Sabha on the “Distribution of Covid-19 Vaccine in Foreign Countries”, noted, “External supplies are done factoring in domestic production, requirements of national vaccination programme and requests for the ‘Made in India’ vaccines. These supplies will continue in the weeks and months ahead, in a phased manner, depending on production and needs of the national vaccination programme”.

As an obligation

Mr. Muraleedharan also stated that India was sending these vaccines abroad in the “form of grant, commercial sales of manufacturers GAVI’s COVAX facility (https://bit.ly/3x0J4yg)”. Eight days later, Mr. Muraleedharan made the same points while answering a question in the Lok Sabha but he also, significantly, added, “The supply to GAVI’s COVAX facility is an obligation since India is a member of this multilateral body and also a recipient of vaccines from this body (https://bit.ly/32l2gbO).”

As on April 13, India had supplied over 65 million vaccines to 90 countries. Of these more than 10 million were sent as grants, almost 36 million on a commercial basis and about 19 million under the COVAX programme. These estimates are based on the Ministry of External Affairs statistics. Taken together, these supplies come to around a month of India’s current COVID-19 vaccines production. An analysis of the timing of these supplies is revealing. Vaccines were sent as grants from the third week of January through March; some small quantities have also been sent this month. Vaccines were exported on a commercial basis mainly from end January through February, with a small number in March. The COVAX despatch was made overwhelmingly in March, though some small supplies have continued in April.

‘Why’ as a crucial query

Mr. Muraleedharan’s responses to the Parliamentary questions focussed on ‘how’ vaccine supplies were sent. They also mentioned that these exports were contingent on requirements of the national vaccination programme, vaccines production and the compulsion arising out of the GAVI membership. They do not however go to the basic question: ‘why’ send vaccines at all. That is certainly a crucial query for the enormous domestic need for vaccines made each dose precious; hence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis that no vaccine should go waste.

An answer to ‘why send vaccines’ was given by Mr. Modi during his address to the Raisina Dialogue on April 13 when he said “…we in India have tried to walk the talk (https://bit.ly/3gfdDKl).” Speaking at the same forum, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said, “I think equitable access (to vaccines) is critically important in this. Because we all know that no one will be safe till everyone is safe.” Clearly, India wishes to signal that it is a responsible global power which does not self-obsessively think of itself alone. Significantly, India has not been shy of comparing its record with that of advanced western countries. Last month, Mr. Jaishankar asked, “Tell me, how many vaccines have internationalist countries given? Which one of these countries have said while I do (vaccinate) my people, I will do (inoculate) other people who need it as much as we do”?

A side to foreign policy

This desire to be a good global citizen can be traced to the Objective Resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Constituent Assembly on December 13, 1946. It noted,inter alia, “This ancient land attains its rightful and honoured place in the world and make its full and willing contribution to the promotion of world peace and the welfare of mankind (https://bit.ly/3ggh1or).” Mr. Modi followed this vision when he also told the Raisina Dialogue, “And we must think of the entire humanity not merely of those who are on our side of the borders. Humanity as a whole must be at the centre of our thinking and action.” The Modi government also time and again invokes the ancient phrase ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”; Mr. Jaishankar did so at the Raisina Dialogue too. The premise of the ideal ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is no different to that of the Objective Resolution.

These approaches are the idealistic side of the foreign policy coin whose other face is fashioned by cold and ruthless realism and exclusive self-interest. Foreign policy makers often seek to emphasise a country’s tradition of altruism and the imperative of enlightened self-interest — in all peoples’ safety and prosperity lies our own — to justify the assistance they give to other lands. But they have to ultimately justify it to their own people on the basis of tangible short- or long-term strategic and economic interests. This is particularly so in times of shortages when the welfare of a country’s own citizenry is directly and obviously at stake. India’s vaccine supplies to foreign countries will be judged by its people on this criterion. How do they measure?

Factors that mattered

The implications of Mr. Muraleedharan’s responses show that the government made estimates of the vaccines that could be sent abroad on the interplay of three factors: domestic production, the demands of the national vaccine programme and requests for vaccines manufactured in India. What is not known is how these factors were collectively addressed in the decision-making process. For instance: did the health authorities come to an independent judgment of domestic demand and base the national vaccine programme on this independent judgment? If this was the case, then the foreign supplies that have been made have been only of those vaccines that the health authorities thought could be spared to be sent outside. In such a scenario, the onus for answering questions on the making of the national vaccine programme would lie squarely with the health authorities. It would obviously not be so if domestic availability of vaccines was reduced by the number that had to be sent abroad on any consideration.

Mr. Muraleedharan clarified that it was obligatory to send vaccines contracted under GAVI’s COVAX facility. Experts in international law can weigh in on this assertion because sovereign states can always invoke supreme national interest to over-ride obligations. Certainly, the vaccines sent as grants were voluntary and the commercial contracts of the company concerned could always be disregarded under existing laws. Thus, all in all, vaccines sent abroad were for general foreign policy considerations for which there is some justification. But that is insufficient. Specific clarifications are needed to convince the people that these exports have not been made at the cost of their health.

Vivek Katju is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer

Darjeeling and Gorkha politics will testthe BJP’s vision for West Bengal and beyond

The three seats of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal may count for little numerically in the State Assembly of 294 members, but their political significance is a different story. The demand for a separate Gorkhaland State in the hills has singularly driven politics among the Gorkha population for more than three decades now. The agitation has been often violent. In 2017, during the last eruption of violence, the hills were in blockade for 104 days and several people were killed. The BJP’s close involvement with Gorkha politics suggests that it has certain plans for the region, which could have ripples in other parts of the country where demands for autonomy or separate States exist. It was in Darjeeling that the BJP got its foothold into West Bengal. From 2009 to 2019, the region sent a BJP member to the Lok Sabha. The BJP’s traditional position in favour of smaller States created an affinity for it, but more importantly, the fact that it had little stake in West Bengal politics in general allowed it to be experimental here. Though it never declared in clear terms its support for a separate State, by maintaining an ambiguous stance, it became acceptable to an expanding segment of the hill population. In 2014, then BJP prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi said he shared the dreams of the Gorkhas, and the BJP later on shifted to a promise of ‘permanent political solution’. Home Minister Amit Shah campaigned in the hills and reiterated the promise. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stayed away from campaigning, avoiding the contentious question.

The politics in the hills is framed in antagonistic terms with the Bengali population in the plains. Any concession to the Gorkhas, let alone a separate State, can be viewed unsympathetically by the rest of the population. The two experiments in the past of allowing autonomy to the region under the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council from 1988-2012, and the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration established in 2012, more than mitigating the grievance of the Gorkhas, splintered their politics. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha which dominated politics in the region is divided into two factions — one led by its founder Bimal Gurung and other by Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa. Ms. Banerjee’s TMC is said to be in alliance with both factions, which means little more than creating confusion. The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the party set up by Subhas Ghising who started the agitation, is an ally of the BJP. The experiments of alliances and self-governance led to an erosion of trust in local leaders. While Gorkha politics view Bengali leaders of all parties with suspicion, they have bought into the nationalist politics of the BJP to some extent. The BJP has emerged as a serious player in West Bengal and will remain so in the near future. Darjeeling will test its agility and vision, certainly for the State, but probably beyond its borders too.

The U.S. pullout without any settlementleaves the Taliban stronger

By announcing that all U.S. troops would be pulled out of Afghanistan by September 11, President Joe Biden has effectively upheld the spirit of the Trump-Taliban deal, rather than defying it. In the agreement between the Trump administration and the insurgents in February 2020, U.S. troops were scheduled to pull back by May 1, in return for the Taliban’s assurance that they would not let terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State operate on Afghan soil. When Mr. Biden ordered a review of the U.S.’s Afghan strategy, there was speculation that he would delay the pullout at least until there was a political settlement. But he chose an orderly pullout — the remaining troops (officially 2,500) will start leaving Afghanistan on May 1, with a full withdrawal by September 11. Besides the U.S. troops, the thousands of coalition troops under the NATO’s command are also expected to pull back along with the Americans. Mr. Biden’s push to revive the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban has hit a roadblock. A U.S.-initiated, UN-led regional peace conference is scheduled to take place in Ankara, Turkey, on April 24. But the Taliban have made it clear that they will not participate in it, and have threatened to step up attacks if the U.S. did not meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline. It is not clear whether the peace conference will go through without the Taliban’s participation and what it would achieve even if it goes through without the Taliban.

This leaves the already shaky Ghani government in an even more precarious situation. After September, the government will be left with itself on the battleground against the Taliban. For now, Mr. Ghani has held together the powerful sections of the state and society against the Taliban at least in the provincial capitals. But once the Americans are gone, the balance of power in the stalemated conflict could shift decisively in favour of the Taliban. In the recent past, whenever the Taliban overran cities, U.S. air power was crucial in driving them back. The country is already witnessing a series of targeted killings of journalists, activists and other civil society members opposed to the Taliban. This does not mean that the government is on the verge of collapse. The U.S. has promised that it would continue remote assistance to the government. The role of regional players such as Russia, China and India, which have a shared interest in a stable Afghanistan, will also be crucial in deciding the country’s future. But one thing is certain: the U.S., despite all its military might, has lost the war and its withdrawal, without any settlement or even a peace road map, leaves the Taliban stronger and the government weaker. That is an ominous sign.