Reviewed by Gouri Athale
Title: Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast
Author: Sanjoy Hazarika
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (2018)
Pages: 472 (Hardcover)
The title says it all: they are no longer strangers. They are now part of the Indian mainstream despite hiccups in the form of discrimination against them in the rest of India merely because they look different. These are people of the North East, alienated from the rest of the country due to many reasons, not least that of geography (access was difficult), social set up and appearance – differences that were deliberately cultivated and exploited by the former imperial power, Britain.
The book gathers steam only after a very long (nearly 50 page-long) ‘Introduction’, which brings the region to the reader. This is an irritant. After this over-long Introduction, the author notes the many causes for the feelings of alienation among people of the Seven Sisters but omits (at least in this book) the role of the Church in creating this sense of alienation, or its continuing role in Nagaland and Mizoram (and that of the Mother’s Committee of Manipur) in insisting on prohibition. Liquor companies could provide a better insight regarding the sale of liquor (including beer) with alcoholism a serious problem in the region.
In the very first chapter, Hazarika comes to grips with the demand which reverberates across the North East as well as in the Kashmir valley: repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Or at least make it more humane and make armed forces personnel liable for their conduct under relevant sections of the civil and criminal law. Like many opponents of AFSPA, the author’s view does not take into account that an insurgency or an internal revolt is essentially a civil war fought in a limited area. It is, nevertheless, war and the rules of war, not civil law, apply. The armed forces cannot operate without the legal cover of AFSPA while the other side (freedom fighters or revolutionaries) is free to use tactics like patrolling, raids and ambushes.
Hazarika’s stance on the AFSPA issue in this book gives the impression that having been a member of the Justice Reddy Commission – set up by the Central Government to look into the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – he wants the reader to know his role in the now moth-balled report. The sense this reviewer got was this book was one way to reveal the Commission’s findings and how Hazarika single-handedly moved the members to his view point.
The book makes a powerful case for the hill people and their desire to keep the old ways intact to protect their separate identity. This is a familiar refrain to be heard across the country and not just in the North-East. Tribals across central and eastern India want to retain their ‘different-ness’, their culture and thus identity. But how valid is this demand when you look at say, the slash and burn (swidden) agricultural practices which are not good for them, their lands or the environment. Protecting something merely because it is the familiar old way is bad policy. Surely there is a via media between the extremes of retaining damaging old practices and indiscriminate adoption of ways of the plains-people or other outsiders?
The searing indictment of the state’s inability to deliver governance comes through in the book; that there is an urgent need for inclusiveness and implementation. `Without an inclusive approach, which includes dialogues with different sides, common approaches to major concerns may not happen, leading to confrontations…’ the author notes. No argument with this: it is the way to resolve differences, so that we are strangers no more. He adds, `Implementation is the key.’ Who can dispute that? The central government’s lofty and laudable goals are couched in grandiose terms but with poor or no implementation, they remain empty words and gestures. That sounds familiar.
Among the many committees set up by the central government to develop the north-eastern region was the Shukla Commission in 1996. The four basic deficits in the North-East that this committee noted were `a basic needs deficit; an infrastructural deficit; a resource deficit; and most important, a two-way deficit of understanding with the rest of the country which compounds the others’. This sums up the situation so that over two decades since the report was written, though there is now a sense of being Indian, the trust deficit remains. This lack of trust keeps alive a sense of uncertainty and unsettledness.
So, building bridges between people of the North East and the rest of India should be the way forward. It has begun, with people taking baby steps (note, governments have stayed out of this) by taking up employment in the rest of India. The rest of India, too, has a duty to integrate all Indians, including those from the North east. And being the bigger of the two, the rest of India needs to take the initiative.
There is much in the book that resonates with non-Hindi heartland readers. For instance, Hazarika points out how history textbooks in the north-east teach about Akbar and the Mughal rule; their own history is obliterated, causing yet more heartburn. This is the case across the country; regional histories are sought to be obliterated and only the one `national’, that is, Delhi-centric narrative, rules.
That we have a federal Constitution with a strong unitary bias is obvious and just as obvious is the fact that we need a more federal structure for the country to truly move ahead. Such a structure would allow regional aspirations to flower while keeping the nation united. How hard would it be to make this federal and more representative structure to be built? After all, all states want a bigger place in the sun. It will need political stature, maturity and long-sightedness (which no one has shown so far). We could regard it as a work-in-progress, maybe?
Hazarika has written several books and regards himself as something of an expert on the region because not only is he an Assamese but also grew up in Meghalaya. He can empathise with both sides, the locals and with the `outsider’ bias of the locals.
While Hazarika comes down on the Delhi bureaucracy, he reveals how he got a role in what is usually called Track II diplomacy. His route was through a great uncle, the former Congress party president, D.K. Barooah, of the unforgettable quote `India is Indira, Indira is India’. Then, too, he cites meetings with top bureaucrats to whom a common person had no access, but they briefed him routinely.
Part of the problem to resolving so many issues of the past seventy years has been that politics at both the centre and the states has become hereditary business, hence there is no change although lip service is routinely paid to the need for change.
More fundamentally, it has to be understood that the tribals of the north-east, due to the terrain, are only now coming out of the hunter-gatherer phase. The next logical step is settled agriculture and not the adoption of a post-industrial world of cyber-space and the digital revolution. Most of the problems of the north-east are a product of this huge civilisational gulf that has to be bridged. This requires time, patience and understanding on the part of the rest of India so that we don’t remain strangers and together work out a solution.
The book could have done with tighter editing to prevent repetition as well as better cross-checking of names and facts. These irritants crop up in the narrative, affecting its flow and diverting the reader’s attention.
Gouri Athale is a Pune based freelance journalist