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.