Week's Person

Person of the Week: Jaideep Saikia

Dear Readers,

In this interview series we ask questions to people who are making a difference in our society, it can be big, it can be small, it doesn’t matter, what matters is their contribution. It can be anyone from any walk of life and from any country. Please, do send us suggestions of people whom you think we should interview for this series.

Jaideep Saikia is a terrorism and conflict analyst with over two dozen peer-reviewed and published papers on security and strategy. He is also the author of several books, including the best-selling “Terror Sans Frontiers: Islamist Militancy in North East India,” “Terrorism: Patterns of Internationalization” and “Mind over Matter”. He had his education in the  Rashtriya Indian Military College, Dehra Dun, St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA.

Following are his responses to our questions

Tell us something about yourself?

I consider my existence on earth an accident. Indeed, this is so—in my opinion—with every sentient being and I can prove it in a manner that it makes complete algorithmic sense. In any event, I would have—given the opportunity—been a teacher. Teacher, not because I possess any sound attributes that can be said to be characteristic of a first-rate teacher, but because I believe in the Guru-Shishya Parampara which I  consider to be the only manner in which unadulterated transmission of any form of energy is possible, from both sides, regardless of whether one is a tutor or a tutee. But, I turned out to be a watered down conflict analyst instead who has been able to question, at best, a few aspects in a conflict-driven world that is careening out of control. The books and papers that I have written are primarily manifestations of this aspect. Although I am not a poet I also pen poems when I, the self-proclaimed conflict analyst, come into conflict with the world and with myself.

Who are some of your favourite authors and why?

I am not the voracious reader that I wish I was. Indeed, a goodly part of my life has gone by collecting books that I have yet to read. But I think I am close to William Shakespeare, Saul Bellow and Pablo Neruda. The reasons are varied, but the most important aspects pertain to their style. Let me begin with Shakespeare. Despite the fact that I have never been formally schooled in the high grounds of Shakespearean thought, imagination and enunciation, I have always attempted to be a silent, distant apprentice about the manner in which the Bard sought to dialectically employ word, music and silence. The allusion to “silence” and “distance”—if one were to be so bold to compare—could just about approximate the genre of Ekalavya of Mahabharata lore when the cast out “disciple” of Dronacharya learnt the “art of war” from afar, and in surreptitious circumstances. In any event, the flourish with which William Shakespeare was able to accomplish his oeuvre—to my mind—approaches the divine. He took recourse to music when words eluded him, and thence to silence (the gilded essence of all expression) when music, too, failed to convey. It would—at this juncture—be both less than generous and inane were one to call to mind one of the last lines from my favourite Shakespearean tour de force Hamlet: when the Prince of Denmark shuffled off (t)his mortal coil by affirming that rest is silence. Indeed, if music be the food of love in Shakespeare’s repertoire than—as aforesaid—the progression of word, music and silence attained an altogether different celestial core in his comprehension about communication. So complete was his mastery over style that he could tune his metaphors and images to the needs of the dramas that he wrote.

As for Bellow, I have primarily found an ally in his ability to foster insanity. He was able to, as if by way of the might of nature, break all rules. But I have also found Bellow’s tone to be quiet and purposeful. The storyteller in him clarifies precisely how things situate themselves in the world. For example in the novel Herzog (which is also my favourite), there is almost a mystical realism through which Bellow introduces Herzog’s mind. He does so without being aggressive. The narrative is at once both definitive and sceptical. Bellow’s nuances waver so accurately in length and rhythm that it perplexes a reader to the point when one begins to identify oneself completely with the character. I mean just digest the opening lines of the novel Herzog, “If I am out of my mind, it’s alright with me, thought Moses Herzog”.

Neruda, I adore, because he has been able to put eyes and tongues into every dumb and inanimate object and even as he is a poet of the masses, he is also the poet of solitary space. Indeed, his life, too, has been one which appeals to me with enormous intensity and I have at times tried to even imitate him, of course, without any success.

What motivated you to pursue career in defence and strategic studies?

There was absolutely no motivation whatsoever. In fact (as aforesaid), I wanted to be a teacher and not a conflict analyst. But since I don’t quite believe in destiny, I wonder how I came to pursue a career in conflict resolution. I guess it was because of the realisation that I would be an out and out mediocre or even a complete failure were I to pursue Philosophy, Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience, the disciplines that attracted me most during my graduate and post-graduate years. I have had the good fortune of being tutored by some truly advanced minds and sitting at their feet in St. Stephen’s College and later in the University of Delhi brought forth the comprehension that I can never approximate their genius. Naturally, I had to run away, as if from intolerable brilliance. While in the United States and later years in government I sought the pedestrian calling of a conflict analyst. I have done this only in order to somehow survive the years of what I knew was going to be a rather worthless life.

What are some of the biggest security challenges for India in the North East in your opinion and how they can be countered?

a) to be accepted by the rest of India as an integral part of the country. The North East is presently just a fragile garrisoned land, a defence zone for the enormity of India’s continuing nation building enterprise. The readers of this interview would probably wonder why this (even if it is true) should be characterised as a security challenge. My answer is that there is an important constituency in every single state of the North East which does not yet consider itself to be part of India. Reasons differ. But the fact remains that the rest of India is yet to come to terms with the notion that the expanse is an inalienable part of the greater Indian dream b) the strategic encirclement (I am referring to the five countries that encircle the region) the engendering of which will wax and wane like irregular lunar cycles forever and c) the fact that there is nothing such as the North East in reality but a concept that has been thrust upon a non-homogenous piece of territory. Indeed, it is this deceptive concept that is hurting all the states of the region the most. I mean just look at the peace process with the NSCN (IM). It’ll never be solved in my lifetime. Why? Because there is a Naga everywhere in what is considered the North East and the Naga group will not rest until all Naga inhabited areas are brought under a Greater Nagalim which under the circumstances is an impossibility.

What are some of the key developmental areas where North Eastern states should focus on, in your opinion?

a) Water b) Tourism and c) Conduit to the outside world by which I mean the economies of South East Asia including China.

Why do you think we are having issues with China now after all these years of relative peace? What should be our course of action in future?

There has, in my opinion, never been peace, relative or otherwise, with China. However, if you are referring to incidents such as Galwan etc then the reasons are two-fold. India has never come to terms with the humiliation of 1962 and the Modi government has been attempting to showcase to a non-comprehending electorate that it can match or outdo a power that is far ahead of even its own times. The second reason is China’s internal dynamics. Despite the fact that Xi Jinping has been able to hold onto power and mould himself in the image of Mao, the fact of the matter is he is conscious of the fact that the “breach in the fortress will come from within the fortress”. The fortress is, of course, the Communist Party of China of which he is currently the paramount leader of. Therefore, he needs distractions such as Galwan. But I don’t think there would be hostility by the Chinese in the Eastern Sector by way of a hot-war posture. I am a student of the India-China boundary and I have been to China in 2002 to hold talks with their think tanks and I was member of a Track II Dialogue with China in 2014. To that end, I have been advocating that a sub-sector in the Kameng Sector be converted into what I have called the “Line of Amity”. The “Line of Amity” should replace the belligerent sounding “Line of Actual Control.” We cannot choose our neighbours and, therefore, there has to be out-of-the-box thinking for a way out, to steer a course of action that would ensure lasting detente.

What implications are there for India from the ongoing situation in Myanmar? What should be India’s response?

The 1 February 2021 Tatmadaw takeover has upset India’s “Act East” policy and its dreams about reining in the insurgent groups billeted in Myanmar. India, I think, should adopt pragmatism and do business with whoever is in the seat of power in Naypyidaw. Its interests lie in such a course of action.

How we can better engage with our Eastern SAARC neighbours in your opinion?

I have been to all the countries including Pakistan, the last of which was as a State Guest of Zia-ul-Haq. None of our neighbours like our overbearing attitude. I think the most important way we can engage the neighbours is by being less of a big brother. To that end, the “Neighbouhood First” policy of India has to rethought, reworked and recalibrated.

What are your other hobbies and interests outside your work?

I like firing and I visit firing ranges and whenever I get an opportunity I go to either an army or a police firing range and engage lifeless targets to my heart’s content. I am lucky that the security forces of India permit me such a luxury. The other interest is to be able to go out on patrols with the army, walk through ravines, rapids and rivers and partake of adventure sports. In fact, I broke my right leg into pieces way back in 2009 while slithering in an army battle training area. I have metallic implants in my right leg which swells up like a balloon when I am sitting, say in an aircraft for too long or standing in order to deliver a lecture.

Your message for our readers?

Think twice before you leap. I, who wanted to be a teacher, ended up as a failed conflict analyst because I did not have the patience to enter into a cerebral exercise. Yes, I confess I would have been (as aforesaid) a mediocre teacher but at least I would have been a happier person. Also, I should have never jumped from the 30 metre platform in the army camp to perform what in military parlance is termed “slithering”. As a result, today, I cannot run or go on long treks and my leg is full of rusty, broken nails.

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