But let’s leave aside historical treatises, myths and accounts and move to the present. Step by step, brick by brick, walls of difference, discrimination and division were meticulously built. Thus, over the past 150 years, the Northeast has been kept aside not by people from the region but by successive governments in New Delhi, and earlier Calcutta (the former capital), first by the East India Company which was the wealthiest and most powerful corporate house in the world that ran the political system and economic life of a subcontinent. Company Raj was followed by British Raj and then by the government of free India. In his compelling book about the Company, The Corporation that Changed the World , Nick Robbins dwells on the vast extent of not just its riches but how it intervened to shape political history in India, China and Africa by dealing in cotton, tea and opium apart from spices and other goods. It was a model (albeit ultimately a failed one) for the modern multinational.
Each successive government created more complex networks of legal control over its peripheral areas. In the process, the foundations of acute divergence between the region of Assam and the rest of the country was laid. As far back as 1874, the British recognized customary laws among different tribes and followed this up with the Assam General Clauses Act which endowed special status on tribal groups, ensuring that the laws of the plains would not apply to the hills. This was the first statement of difference, though it was wrapped in the mask of protection. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms Act, 1919, strengthened the differences. They were cemented by the Simon Commission’s recommendations, which were written by members who included Sir Clement Attlee, the future prime minister, agreeing to the protection of tribal rights.
This was followed by the Government of India Act, 1935, which divided the hills into excluded and partially excluded areas and declared that no central or provincial legislation would apply to them unless the governor decided, in pursuance of his discretionary powers, that they were appropriate and would help maintain peaceful conditions. The 1935 Act was the precursor of the Sixth Schedule developed by the Gopinath Bordoloi Sub-Committee during the drawing up of the Indian Constitution. According to Fernandes, Pereira and Khatso: ‘These provisions had originated in the colonial need for peaceful trading relations in the Hill areas that were allowed to govern themselves without a direct daily role for the foreigner. Despite such isolation colonial intervention did destabilise tribal lifestyle, so most tribes resisted it.’
Thus, the major effort of the colonial system was not to protect the tribes or upland people but to protect the extraction and plantation industries upon which the Raj depended. In the process, they kept the hill groups at a great distance from plains communities and the mainland, keeping normal intercourse to the barest minimum, making the hill districts feel they were separate and different, providing them with autonomous political powers and creating a system of administration that was not answerable to the provincial or state government but only to New Delhi through its representative, an all-powerful, all-seeing, supposedly wise but often arbitrary governor.
Thus when the Nagas and then the Mizos launched their respective insurgencies, separated by a full decade (1955–1966), the consequences were disastrous for the hill people who had had hardly any form of detailed contact with the Indians of the plains. The assault by the Indian Army on the rebels took the shape of a massive crackdown against ordinary villagers, their families and homes, their livestock and granaries. For the former and the latter, as noted earlier, it was their first historic encounter as people, face-to-face, and they met as bitter foes—barring the battles of Kohima and Imphal, where the Nagas and a large Indian contingent had fought on the side of the British against the advancing Japanese Army which was supported by elements of the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
It could not have been a worse meeting. The Indian Army—comprising thousands of soldiers from the north (Sikh, Jat), the west and south (Maratha and Madras Regiment), the Gurkhas, the Assam Regiment and Assam Rifles—swarmed into the jagged hills, narrow valleys, high villages and deep jungles. The bitter lore of those events lives on—of rape and massacres, of torture and extortion, of the burning of entire villages, strafing of towns, displacement of tens of thousands of rural folk. It is a wretched story for which amends have not been made though it is so deeply necessary.
The problems and alienation caused by the non-stop application of AFSPA and the Disturbed Areas Act along with other laws such as the Nagaland Security Regulations Act have created a huge gap of mistrust between individuals and communities in the states caught up in this trouble and the central government and its representatives. Way back in 1996, writing about the deficits faced by the Northeast, the Shukla Commission, which was set up by the then prime minister H. D. Deve Gowda to look at the challenges before the region, made some trenchant comments. Couched in the inimitable style of the veteran editor B. G. Verghese, it declared: ‘The Northeast tends to be seen as a distant outpost, some kind of land’s end. Yet it was until recently a crossroads and a bridge to Southeast and East Asia, with its great rivers ending in ocean terminals at Calcutta and Chittagong.’ The report’s introduction defined the core challenges: ‘There are four deficits that confront the Northeast, 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.’ It said that while the region’s exclusive dependency on the centre for development funding was hurting it, what was needed was ‘a more rapid pace of growth (which) would generate larger internal resources. This could perhaps be enlarged through the additionality of private investment, Indian and foreign, within a well-defined framework.’ Noting that the area was a latecomer to development, it underlined that ‘the Northeast must be enabled to grow at its own pace and in accordance with its own genius. It cannot be treated merely as a resource region, market dump and transit yard.’
…where does the ‘Northeast’ figure in the public imagination? Of course, it is there in PhD theses, lectures, seminars and workshops, in books, essays and formal papers, press statements and articles. But where is it in the public imagination? For in the region we call the Northeast, few people think of it as a whole, as a package. It remains an artificial construct, which is emphasized in official approaches and ideas of the region and its connect to the neighbourhood. But in the eyes and imagination of ordinary people, say in Assam, there is an Assamese or Bodo or Bangla or Mishing imagination, or a Chakhesang, Ao, Sumi, Angami or Tangkhul imagination among the Nagas, or a Manipuri imagination for the Meiteis. These are just examples of how people think—to think for the region is something left to some politicians, officials, intellectuals and media figures who when they go home return to their original identities.
More than thirty years after the North Eastern Council was founded and a quarter century after the launch of the Look East and Act East Policies, the national government still hasn’t understood this basic precept. How people see themselves lies at the heart of their worldview. Statistics driven definitions and dialogue remain impositions.
This region is Asia in miniature, a region where different races mingle and merge, where India ends and Southeast Asia begins—and also the converse, where India begins and Southeast Asia ends. It remains uniquely disadvantaged by Partition and the legacy of colonial rule but with new policies of economic opportunity and regional cooperation opening up, this could change dramatically in the next decades.
The region has been one of the most globalized parts of the subcontinent for well over a century. It was where the prosperous tea gardens and companies in the Assam and Barak valleys were set up, connecting to the international markets especially in London. Steamers and ferries took goods and people from as far as Dhaka and Kolkata to Dibrugarh in upper Assam and back. Large reserves of oil and gas were discovered here in the nineteenth century and still supply a substantial part of India’s energy needs. Partition and the India-Pakistan wars shut down the river route and it is only in recent years that Bangladesh and India are negotiating legal instruments of reopening trade, commerce and navigation on what remain the lifelines of both Bangladesh and its neighbour, the Northeast. A sense of political, economic and historic alienation has added to the fault lines of geography and ethnicity; this in turn has ensured that distances have grown in every sense of the word between the Northeast and the rest of India. In a number of cases, this alienation has taken the shape of violent movements against the state seeking independence or much greater autonomy, although these appear currently to be winding down, as much because of public fatigue and exasperation with frequent shutdowns and economic deceleration as the security heavy-handedness that has come to characterize life in one of Asia’s most ecologically diverse and rich areas.
Economic development is failing to keep up with rising expectations. The large majority of the population of the region is rural-based (in Assam, this figure is as high as 90 per cent) although there has been a sharp degree of urbanization in pockets such as Mizoram, on the border with Myanmar, where one-third of the entire state lives in and around the capital of Aizawl. There has been a growth in the incidence of rural poverty although incomes in urban areas have improved substantially, leading to a sharp and visible spatial inequity. New malls, houses and construction are on an aggressive upward spiral in a handful of cities, indicating the growth of disposable incomes. In addition, local governments have become major sources of employment—such as for teachers and police recruits. The land-person ratio is falling and barring some areas, there has been a drop in farm productivity.
The primary sector has not grown for a number of reasons, not least linked to the lack of governance and the problems of conflict. Nearly seventy years after Independence, infrastructure remains creaky at best although there has been an improvement in railway services and road transport connections. States like Assam suffer as much as 13 per cent or more damage to their net sown area from floods and most states are importers of food. Oil and gas are major economic drivers although the tea economy has suffered setbacks in the past years.
As they look at this region and the challenges for growth here, Indian planners take encouragement from the experience of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and hope that regional integration and closer cooperation with neighbouring countries can inspire growth and change in its Northeast.
There is much to be done, many challenges and opportunities that beckon. The question is whether we have the time, the energy, the vision and determination to make sure these changes happen on the ground and not in offices and files far from the scene of action…
As we have seen in place after place, example after example, that framework begins to shift with distance, time and the need and recognition of the need for collaboration, mutual respect and coexistence…
As we face the contradictions between traditions and political institutions, between what is promised and what is delivered, the creation of entrenched elites, arms and drug syndicates as well as the larger social upheavals under way—economic change, ingress and the processes of globalization and opening up to Southeast Asia—we find that migratory flows are redefining the political and economic structures of regions as are climate change and the devastating environmental pressures of greed combined with business-politics.
About the book:
Over twenty years ago, Sanjoy Hazarika’s first book on the Northeast, Strangers of the Mist, was published to immediate acclaim. Hailed as an exciting, path-breaking narrative on the region, it has been cited extensively in studies of Northeast India, used as a resource for scholars and journalists and adopted as course material in colleges.
Two decades later, in his new book, armed with more stories, interviews and research, and after extensive travels through the region, Hazarika explains how and where things stand in the Northeast today. He examines old and new struggles, contemporary trends and the sweeping changes that have taken place and asks whether the region and its people are still ‘different’ to the rest of India, to each other and whether they are destined to remain so. While it may not be possible to overcome lingering hatred, divisions and differences by brute force, economic might or efforts at cultural or political assimilation, there are other ways forward. These include the process of engagement—of accepting, if not embracing, the ‘Idea of India’ and working on forging connections between disparate cultures to overcome the mutual suspicions that have existed for decades. Hazarika tells little-known stories, drawn from personal experience and knowledge, of the way in which insurgents operate, of the reality of border towns in the region, the pain of victims, and the courage of fighters on either side of the ideological and physical conflict, in the jungles and in lands awash with rain and swamped by mist. He travels across borders and mountains, listening to tales of the people of the region and those who live in neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. He challenges the stereotype of the ‘Northeasterner’, critiques the categorization of the ‘Bangladeshi’, deals with issues of ‘race and discrimination’, and suggests best practices that could be used to deal with intractable issues and combatants. Critically, he tries to portray the way in which new generations are grappling with old and current issues with an eye to the future. Extensively researched and brilliantly narrated, Strangers No More is arguably the most comprehensive book yet available about India’s Northeast.