Northeast: India's Other?

India Against Itself published in 1999 and Durable Disaster published in 2005 are both written by Sanjib Baruah. I have selected these two books for the review essay as both of them revolve around a similar theme. Both books try to understand the nature of subnational politics in Northeast. While India Against Itself gives us a more historical account i.e., revisiting the colonial status of Assam and the kind of policies taken by the British govt, the other book Durable Disaster takes up the contemporary condition of the region and the problems that are there. However the books are closely interlinked as Baruah tries to show that most of the current issues can be traced to the colonial policies and also the policies of the independent India in the first few decades. In my essay I will take up the broad problems that Northeast is facing today and try to trace their origins. So I will constantly move back and forth from one book to the other.

The books revolve around narratives of "othering" and "alienation" of Northeast which is culturally very different from Indian mainland. To give a brief background-Northeast was never a part of the Mughal Empire. It was brought under British Empire only in 1826 under the Treaty of Yandaboo that ended the Anglo-Burmese war. And after independence it became part of India. Manipur, Tripura were princely states which acceded to the Indian Union. The stories enumerated in the books are the stories of this region's continuous struggle for the recognition of its difference. A sad irony that his book underlines is that most of the states that joined Indian Union on the condition of continued enjoyment of autonomy are the states where authoritarian rule is almost institutionalised in the name of national security threat elimination and autonomy is not even present in the minimalist understanding. Classic example is how in 1949 the King of Manipur was coaxed to agree to merger of Manipur rather than the loose accession.

Since independence a constant quest has been nationalising space in northeast and using this land frontier as a tool of nation building. Apparent is Sanskritized names of Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. This has also been done by taking northeast in the fold of mainstream developmentalism whereby development and underdevelopment gets constituted discursively and objective material conditions took a back seat.

It is this continued perception of Northeast through the prism of national security, aggravated post Indo-China War in 1962, along with the persistent underdevelopment of the region that has given space to subnational movements. Two major issues of grievances that fuel such movements are:

a) Immigration
b) Underdevelopment

In India Against Itself the author traces the pattern of immigration. After Assam became a part of British India, it became a land frontier and with its vast expanses of uninhabitated space attracted large scale immigration. A dense population, settled agriculture and industry were seen as markers of civilization by the Britishers. Tea, rubber, oil fields were developed and labour migration took place. Huge tracts of land were siphoned for British tea planters under extremely liberal conditions of the Waste Land Grant Law of 1838. By 1901 it was one-fourth of the total settled land. Historian Amalendu Guha will call it a Planter Raj. Even post independence Assam has been having an unnaturally high growth rate of population, much higher than the national average, owing also to the continued migration. This has in fact shaped the insider-outsider dichotomy. In the face of heavy demographic shift, the quest was to understand who is an indigenous resident and who is an outsider. Assam's culture was as if threatened by this demographic shift. Foreigners would not have been a threat had the Assamese controlled the trade and commerce. Rather it was the immigrants who controlled it. This fear of minoritization can be traced back to the colonial days when Assam was treated as an extension of Bengal especially during partition of Bengal and moreover owing to the presence of a large no. of Bengali speakers the medium of instruction was also Bengali. Making Sylhet, a Bengali district, a part of Assam just added to the problem as its educated inhabitants took away the jobs. It was only in 1873 Assamese became the medium of instruction owing to the demands of people like Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan. Modernity brought with it the idea that a developed language is a marker of a developed civilization. This made language an active arena of politics. This led to language riots in 1960 and 1972. Such assertion threatened Bengali speakers who comprised of about 22% of the population especially in district like Cachar.

Another issue have been the persistent underdevelopment of the region. As the agitators of Assam Movement point out that the royalty that Assam gets for tea, oil is a little more than rent. Trade and commerce was dominated by business communities from outside the state, e.g. the Marwars of Rajasthan. The Assamese felt disadvantaged. Even the kind of developmental policies that the Central Govt made in New Delhi failed to address the specific needs of the region. Development in Northeast has to be sustainable development and the policies should be made at the regional level by people who know the region and by taking cognisance of the ground reality of Northeast. At present some policies regarding building roads is meant to connect areas with a population of 1000 or more. But such a policy leaves out a huge no of villages of Arunachal Pradesh which is sparsely populated. This is just one example.

Similar grievances accumulated over a period of time gave rise to conflicts in the region. Only Arunachal and Mizoram is comparatively peaceful. It has been an interesting and to some extent disturbing fact that low intensity armed conflicts has infested the area for such a long time that a militarised life has become a part of normalcy in the region. The fight for a greater Nagalim is one of the oldest armed conflicts in the world. The construction of the Naga identity which is neither a linguistic community nor an ethnic community is interesting. It can be traced back to the Inner Line system that the British govt introduced. It was a system that completely segregated the Hill Tribes people from the Valley people supposedly to protect their ways of life. But what such a system did was not take into account the close connections that existed between the Nagas and the Ahoms. Cultural ties in the form of Nagamese being a creolised form of Assamese is a proof. The segregation however led to a decline of the patronage of Vaishnavite Xotros in the Hills and made space for British missionaries. Seeds of differentiation were thus sown. And the attitude that differentiation and segregation is the only way of protecting indigenous ways of life came into being.

Naga is a conglomeration of multiple dialects and a large no of villages which shared anything but a cordial relationship, usually that of headhunting. It was only in 1950s that Naga nationhood related movement gained momentum. However it seriously threatened the state of Manipur as almost 20 Naga tribes reside there. Hurried fragmentation of Northeast has put in place a popular belief that cultures and interests can only be safeguarded in homeland. It encouraged politics of differentiation and discouraged politics of accommodation.

The linguistic re-organisation that took place did not solve the problems of Northeast as Assam was a multilingual state. It became a theatre of "cultural wars". When the Assamese were busy fighting the Bengali speakers, the hill tribes which initially supported the Assamese felt that such subnationalist aspirations will end up imposing Assamese culture and language on their tribes. Sensing this threat demands for separation came from Mizo hills, Naga Hills. To sort it out what the central govt did is a hasty division of Northeast over a period of time. It created 7 states but never looked at possible alternative solutions. What came out was cosmetic federalism. The fact that this did not solve the problem of ensuring cultural harmony is vindicated by the persistent and violent upsurges in the Northeast.

One of the famous manifestations of subnationalism was the Assam Movement that started in 1979 and was mainly concerned with the immigration issue. It was led by All Assam Students' Union which was a non political body. It wanted to portray itself as if it embodied higher and nobler goals than merely usurping political power. The movement resonated the aspirations of the Assamese civil society. Associations like Axom Xahitya Xabha came up that aimed at the development of Assamese language. However another product of the movement is the United Liberations Front of Assam. It was born in the radical fringes of the movement in 1980s. It believed that only through armed struggle it could regain the freedom that Assam lost in 1826. However ULFA parted ways with the movement on the issue of immigration, rather it appealed to all who resided in Assam i.e., Axombaxi. Initially it enjoyed tacit support of the ethnic Assamese community irrespective of its violent ways. Baruah gives a very interesting example. He traces talks about what the Assamese expects from ULFA by pointing popular Assamese songs of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika. For the Assamese the ULFA members were "our boys". Because of sympathetic officials, which the State called Subverted Bureaucrats the state could not even crack down on the militants. During the six years of Assam Movement, subnationalism was at its peak, and it finally resulted in the Assam Accord of 1985 which agreed to devise ways to deal with the immigration issue and also to come with resolutions to safeguard the culture of Assam. And with fresh elections, the student leaders formed a party called the Asom Gana Parishad and Prafulla Mahanta became the Chief Minister. But with this nothing changed. There was a regime crisis as the new govt could not deliver what was expected. Added charges of corruption against the young leaders made things worse. This strengthened ULFA's conviction that they were on the right path. As citizenship is a federal subject, Centre came up with such a law as Illegal Migration (determined by tribunals) Act, 1983 which made it almost impossible to detect immigrants. It is next to impossible to decipher who came to India before 1971 and who came after as culturally they are same. So only around a 1000 immigrants were to be deported. Another by-product of the Accord was that it fuelled the fear of the Plains Tribes like Bodos, Missing, Tiwas etc., that safeguarding Assamese culture will be done at the cost of their culture. Moreover they did not enjoy any safeguards like the Hill tribes. Bodos in fact accused Assamese of being outsiders and claimed that they themselves were the original inhabitants or the adivasis of the place. Their assertion took a violent turn with the formation of groups like Bodo Liberation Tigers, NDFB etc. They demanded autonomous districts if not separate state. But the problem was that the areas where the Bodos were in a large no did not form a geographically contiguous area. However this problem was sorted for the time being by the formation of Bodo Territorially Autonomous District.

ULFA faced a coercive face of the Hobbesian state in the form of counter insurgency operations like Operation Bajrang, Operation Rhino and most recently Operation All-Clear. ULFA which enjoyed popular support at one point of time lost that base owing to their violence which at times victimised the poor, women and children alike. The Surrendered ULFA (SULFA) enjoyed a no. of benefits from the govt and at times misused it to make easy money. ULFA has been time and again pushed to the negotiating table.

Now lets take a look at how the Central Govt has attempted to solve these problems. The solutions for the Central Govt have been twofold:
a) Militaristic for insurgency
b) Financial packages for underdevelopment

Northeast continues to be a land frontier which needs tight security. To curb insurgency the solution has been stringent militaristic rules in the form of AFSPA which has been in place for a few decades in the region which gives virtually unlimited power to the Army to kill without holding them accountable. Also it has put in place a Military Command structure called the Unified Command which puts he Army under the control of the Centre. Prafulla Mahanta supported such a structure and it was only Tarun Gogoi who talked of a greater role of Assam Police in such operations. However there is still a huge presence of paramilitary forces. This attitude is further vindicated by the fact that retired Army Generals are often appointed as Governors of these states. Their gubernatorial interventions often insulate counter-insurgency operations from democratic practices and scrutiny. Counter insurgency put in place a diminished form of democracy in terms of basic freedom, rule of law and principles of accountability and transparency. Mere timely elections can only fulfil an extremely minimalist and reductionist understanding of democracy. The attitude of the Centre has been paternalistic and patronising, treating Northeast as a spoiled child who needs to be disciplined, normalised. This same attitude transcended in other spheres as well.

A reason why low intensity conflicts could persist is owing to underdevelopment and unemployment it was always very easy for the militant groups to recruit new members. And counter insurgency operations can only eliminate a few militants, it does not change the ground conditions of living. Financial packages were made available but this fact was not taken into cognisance that it did not even percolate to the policies that it was meant for.

Baruah towards the end of both the books give very creative solutions which I endorse to a great extent and which I believe is worth pursuing as prospective solutions. First of all what needs to be acknowledged is that Northeast is not only the northeastern part of South Asia but also the northwestern part of Southeast Asia. It is the point where both these regions converge. Studies have shown that the people of Northeast are culturally closer to South east Asian countries. Nagas, Manpuris being in Myanmar, same tribes being inhabitants of Tibet and Arunachal, Tai Ahom of Assam being a part of the larger Tai community are all indicators of the deeper interconnections. The languages spoken also mostly belong to Tibeto-Burman family of languages. Any solution should respect these ties. The govt needs to give up being emotive about the Indian nation and its territorial boundaries. Rather the fact that these regions entered an agreement and joined Indian mainland on certain conditions should be respected. Ambikagiri Rochoudhary, a known poet of Assam, made a case for a loose federation and provisions for dual citizenship not unknown in federations in the Constituent Assembly debates. Immediately after partition such propositions might have sounded divisive but at present it can help as it can be used as an instrument to even incorporate the later generations of immigrants. Rather than exclusive that would be an inclusive idea. More power should be vested in the democratically elected state govts. AFSPA has to be modified immediately. Any further immigration on the scale of disturbing the demographic balance should be avoided but some mechanism of inclusion of those who already are here has to be put into place.

Going back to the history, Northeast India was on the southern trails of Silk Road which connected western region of China through Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Just like Nations regions can also be imagined. As Keniche Ohmae points out nation states are dysfunctional for human activities and it has made way for transnational regions like Catalonia in Spain, Hong Kong in China etc. India's Look East policy calls for a greater direct role for the Northeastern states. The natural outlets of Northeast needs to be opened to trade with the Southeast Asia. India if it overcomes her fears can actually do to Northeast what China has done to its Yunnan, making it an international city. If this can be revived like the Nathu La Pass rather than funding development from mainland India which is ill connected to the region, the development deficit of the region can be addressed to a great extent. However these issues can be addressed only after the internal situation is improved in terms of law and order.

On the conceptual level, rather than enforcing ideas of nation building in Northeast to make it feel more Indian, the state through its policies should put into place an alternative paradigm, that is, Northeast can be a part of India, despite of being different. Cultural alienation should come to an end. Effective policies should inculcate a confidence in the people and ensure that their interests can be safeguarded irrespective of if they have their own homelands or not. The ways of life of this region does not need to be normalized or standardised. The largest democracy of the world should not continue to put up an undemocratic, authoritarian, punitive face in the Northeast. Its high time that India should move beyond othering Northeast and do something to show its true commitment to the improvement of the region.