Expanding Economy Beckons

Subir Bhaumik *

The write up reproduce here is an excerpt from the lecture delivered by renowned Journalist Subir Bhaumik under the title "Northeast: A Thousand Assertive Ethnicities" on the Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture on June 10, 2012.

The anti-foreigner agitation unleashed both anti-Centre and anti-migrant forces The ULFA grew out of the anti-foreigner movement against the "Bangladeshi infiltrators", people of East Bengali origin who have been settling in Assam since the late nineteen century. Slowly, the ULFA's anti-migrant stance gave way to determined separatism and it started blaming "economic exploitation by Delhi" for being responsible for Assam's woes. But in the face of a fierce counter-insurgency offensive by the Indian army, it started targeting migrants again this time not people of East Bengali origin but Hindi-speaking settlers from India's heartland "cow belt" states.

In the first quarter century after independence, while the rest of the country remained oblivious to the tumult in the Northeast, the region and its people saw only one face of India. The young Naga, Mizo or Manipuri knew little about Mahatma Gandhi or Subhas Chandra Bose and failed to see how Indian independence mattered for him or her.

What these young men and women saw, year after year, was the Indian soldier, the man in the uniform, gun in hand, out to punish the enemies of India. He saw the jackboots and grew suspicious when the occasional olive branch followed. When rats destroyed the crops in the Mizo hills, leaving the tribesmen to starve, the Mizo youth took the Naga's path of armed rebellion. Far-off Delhi seemed to have no real interest in the region - or so it was felt by the distant peoples in India's far-eastern frontier.

In our generation, the situation began to change slowly, though the conflicts did not end. More and more students from the Northeast started joining colleges and universities in 'mainland' India, many joining all-India services or corporate bodies after that. Many complained of unfair treatment or even hostile attention but they remained behind to seek education and employment of a gainful kind. During my recent visit to Bangalore, I went to have a beer at a restaurant called Twenty Feet High. Of the ten waiters and waitresses, six were Nagas and four were Kukis, all ten from Manipur.

Back home they may fight but out in Bangalore, they were all Northeasterners, with much more in common between themselves than with the locals. Though my good friend Sanjib Baruah usually thinks a Northeast identity does not work, it has come to stay - at least outside the Northeast. But that's true for all. A Bihari becomes a Bihari when he leaves Bihar. In the state, he is a Thakur, a Kurmi, a Yadav or a Brahmin.

The media and the government have started paying more attention to the Northeast and even a separate federal ministry, Doner, has been created for developing the region. Now federal government employees even get liberal leave travel allowances, including two-way airfare for visiting the Northeast - an effort to promote tourism in the picturesque region. As market economy struck deep roots across India, Tata salt and Maruti cars reached far-off Lunglei, Moreh and even Noklak. For a generation in the Northeast who grew up to hate India, it was now proving its worth as a common market and a land of opportunity.

Boys and girls from the Northeast won medals for India, many fought India's wars in places like Kargil, a very large number picked up Indian degrees and made a career in the heartland states or even abroad. The success of northeastern girls in the country's hospitality industry provoked a Times of India columnist to warn spa-connoisseurs to go for "a professional doctor rather than a Linda from the Northeast."

But a Shahrukh Khan was quick to critique the "mainland bias" against the Northeastern Lindas in his great film "Chak de India." And recently Aamir Khan in an interview with the Seven Sisters Post, has agreed to explore a plot for a film based on Northeast - and, if possible, with the beautiful girls and boys of this region in major roles.

Human Rights - A Game Changer?

More significantly, the civil society of heartland India began to take much more interest in the Northeast, closely interacting with like-minded groups in the region, to promote peace and human rights. Suddenly, a Nandita Haksar was donning the lawyer's robe to drag the Indian army to court for excesses against Naga villagers around Oinam, mobilising hundreds of villagers to testify against errant troops. A Gobinda Mukhoty was helping the nascent Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) file a habeas corpus petition seeking redressal for the military atrocities at Namthilok.

Scores of human rights activists in Calcutta, Delhi or Chandigarh were fasting to protest the controversial death of a Thangjam Manorama or in support of the eternally fasting Irom Sharmila, the Meitei girl who says she will refuse food until the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act is revoked. Jaiprakash Narain and some other Gandhians had only worked as part of the Naga Peace Mission for a solution between the nation-state and the rebels. But the fledgling Indian human rights movement, a product of the Emergency, kept reminding the guardians of the state of their obligations to a region they said was theirs.

How could the government deny the people of Northeast the democracy and the economic progress other Indians were enjoying? What moral right has Delhi to impose draconian laws in the region and govern the Northeast through retired generals, police and intelligence officials? How could political problems be solved only by military means? Was India perpetrating internal colonization and promoting "development of under-development"?

These were questions that a whole new generation of Indian intellectuals, human rights activists, journalists and simple do-gooders continued to raise in courtroom battles, in the media space, even on the streets of Delhi, Calcutta or other Indian cities. Whereas their fathers had seen and judged India only by its soldiers, a Luithui Luingam or a Sebastian Hongray would soon meet the footsoldiers of Indian democracy, men and women their own age with a vision of India quite different from the generation that had experienced Partition and had come to see all movements for self-determination as one great conspiracy to break up India.

In a matter of a few years, Indian military commanders were furiously complaining that their troops were being forced to fight in the Northeast with one hand tied behind their back. Indeed, this was not a war against a foreign enemy. When fighting one's own 'misguided brothers and sisters', the rules of combat were expected to be different. Human rights violations continued to occur but resistance to them began to build up in the Northeast with support from elsewhere in the country, so much so that an Indian army chief, Shankar Roychoudhury, drafted human rights guidelines for his troops and declared that a 'brutalized army [is] no good as a fighting machine'.

Human rights and the media space became a new battle ground as both the troops and the rebels sought to win the hearts and minds of the population. It would, however, be wrong to over-emphasize the success of the human rights movement in the Northeast. Like the insurgents, the human rights movement has been torn by factional feuds at the national and the regional levels. But thanks to their efforts, more and more people in the Indian heartland came to hear of the brutalities at Namthilok and Oinam, Heirangoithong and Mokokchung.

Many young journalists of my generation also shook off the 'pro-establishment' bias of our predecessors and headed for remote locations to report without fear and favour. We crossed borders to meet rebel leaders, because if they were 'our misguided brothers, (as politicians and military leaders would often say) they had a right to be heard by our people. One could argue that this only helped internalize the rebellions and paved the way for co-option. But it also created the ambience for a rights regime in a far frontier region where there was none for the first three decades after 1947. Facing pressure from below, the authorities began to relent and the truth about the Northeast began to emerge.

The yearning for peace and opportunity began to spread to the grassroots. Peace-making in the region still remains a largely bureaucratic exercise involving shady spymasters and political wheeler-dealers, marked by a total lack of transparency. Insurgent leaders, when they finally decide to make peace with India, are often as secretive as the spymasters because the final settlements invariably amount to such a huge climb-down from their initial positions that the rebel chieftains do not want to be seen as party to sellouts and surrenders. Nevertheless, the consensus for peace is beginning to spread. Peace without honour may not hold, but both the nation-state and the rebels are beginning to feel the pressure from below to make peace.

The Elephant and Blind Men

In the last few years, the Northeast and the heartland have come to know each other better. Many myths and misconceptions continue to persist, but as India's democracy, regardless of its many aberrations, matures and the space for diversity and dissent increases, the unfortunate stereotypes associated with the Northeast are beginning to peter off slowly. The concept of one national mainstream is seen as an anathema even by the likes of Shahrukh Khan - hence the banter on the Manipur girls' "failure" to learn Punjabi in "Chak De India".

The existence of one big stream, presumably the "Ganga Maiya' (Mother Ganges), is perhaps not good enough for India to grow around it. We need the Brahmaputras as much as we need the Godavaris and the Cauveris to evolve into a civilization state that is our destiny. The country cannot evolve on the misplaced notion of a national mainstream conceived around 'Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan'.

The saffrons may win elections because the seculars are a disorganized, squabbling, discredited and leaderless lot, but even the Hindutva forces must stretch both ways to accommodate a new vision of India - or else they will fail to tackle the crisis of the Northeast.

India remains a cauldron of many nationalities, races, religions, languages and sub-cultures. The multiplicity of identity was a fact of our pre-colonial existence and will be a fact of our post-colonial lives. In the Northeast, language, ethnicity and religion will provide the roots of identity, but a larger national identity should have more to do with civilization and multi-culturalism, tolerance and diversity, than with the base and the primordial.

For the Northeast, the real threat is the growing criminalization of the movements for self-determination and the conflicting perceptions of ethnicity-driven homelands that pit tribes and races against each other. "Freedom fighters" are being replaced by "warlords". They in turn may become drug lords because the region's uncomfortable proximity to Burma, where even former communists have turned to peddling drugs and weapons.

Money from organized extortion may have given the insurgents in Northeast India a secure financial base to pursue their separatist agenda, but it has also corrupted the movements. And groups who have violently pursued the agenda of ethnic homelands and attempted ethnic cleansing have threatened to turn the region into a Bosnia or a Lebanon, increasing the levels of militarization and adding to the democracy deficit that Northeast has always suffered from.

A New Contradiction?

Despite these gloomy forebodings, some like the visionary B. G. Verghese, see great opportunities for the region in the changing geo-politics of Asia. India's "Look East" thrust in foreign policy may help the northeast by way of better transport linkages with the neighborhood and greater market access for products made in the region. But the government Vision 2020 document, recently unfolded by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, admits that the region needs huge improvement in infrastructure to become sufficiently attractive for big-time investors, domestic or foreign.

Petroleum products made in the Numaligarh Refinery in Assam are now being exported to Bangladesh by less expensive river transport, but Assam's crude output has sharply dwindled in recent years and at least a part of Numaligarh's future requirement may have to be imported via Haldia Port in West Bengal.

Environmentalists and indigenous leaders have also opposed the huge Indian investments in the region's hydel power resources, saying that may prove to be dangerous in a sensitive geo-seismic region. As India tries to open out the Northeast to possible big-time investments, particularly in hydel power, a new kind of conflict, emanating from contradicting perceptions of resources-sharing, may replace the old style insurgencies.

It all depends on how the leaders of the locality, province and nation shape up to the challenges of the future and make the most of the opportunities. We have to remember that the Northeast did not exactly erupt in revolt immediately after Partition and Independence. Even the Nagas who challenged the Indian state's desire to extend control to their hills gave the Phizo-Hydari accord a chance. Fighting erupted only in 1956 when India started to push in para-military troops in large numbers.

The other states all gave India a chance before some of their idealistic young men joined the revolt, setting up armed groups to challenge the Indian state. They were fed up with poor governance, with neglect and economic deprivation, with insensitive handling of their distinct problems caused by both physical, psychological and historical distances. They all had a ready narrative because no part of India's Northeast had been incorporated in a pre-British empire - so the argument that the British should free India and leave these people to decide on their own carry some weight.

Alleged manipulation of the ruling Maharajas have provided rebels in Manipur and Tripura with a cause to fight for. Somorendra was one such young soul who was provoked to revolt because he saw no future for his state and his people in the way the Indian Republic was shaping up.

Changing Patterns of Ethnic Alignments

The Northeast is sometimes referred to as India's 'Mongoloid fringe', where India looks less like India and more like the highland societies of Southeast Asia. Many argue that this racial element makes India's Northeast very different from the rest of the country. The Northeast was also one of the last parts of the subcontinent to be conquered by the British. Before the British, no empire based in India controlled any part of what makes up the Northeast today. Migration from the Indian heartland was limited to preachers and teachers, traders and soldiers of fortune.

The heartland's cultural influence touched only Assam, Manipur and Tripura, where the kings adopted variants of Hinduism as the state religion. On the other hand, before the advent of the British, successive waves of Tibeto-Mongoloid tribes and nationalities from north-western China, northern Burma and even Thailand and Laos came to occupy various parts of what is now the Northeast.

They fought amongst each other, built small local empires at each other's expense, traded with each other, but never allowed the area to be taken over by anyone from the Indian heartland. This uninterrupted freedom for a great length of time and the region's racial distinctiveness gave its people a sense of being different from the rest of India.

All of India's major religions are practised here. Christianity dominates the hills, Hinduism and Islam are the major religions in the plains. Animistic faiths and Lamaist sects also abound. Assamese and Bengali speakers are the most numerous, but a host of other languages and dialects are spoken. Although ethnicity has dominated the social and political processes in the Northeast, the region has also been subjected to the complex interplay of ideology and religion before and after India became free. In the tangled web of India's Northeast, the pattern of ethnic alignments has continuously evolved and changed.

In parts of the Northeast, including Assam, Manipur and Tripura, language has served as a basis for ethnic identity. But in the hill regions, the tribes and the generic identities evolving around them have provided the platform for identity formation. Political expediency and the constant realignment of ethnic groups helped create new identities. The Paites were part of the great Kuki-Chin family of tribes not so long ago, for example.

But in their quest for self-assertion, the Paites - surely the more militant among them - came to project themselves as Zomis since the late 1980s. They insisted they were not Kukis and when the Kuki-Naga feud erupted in full fury in the mid-1990s, the Paite militants sided with the Naga rebels against the Kukis. The Kukis and the Paites, however, speak variants of the same language. They have much in common amongst themselves but share little with the Nagas.

In India's Northeast, where the stress on ethnicity has often produced splintered identities, the Paites are a classic case of a breakaway identity, of a smaller tribe challenging the larger tribe within a generic formation, fragmenting the process of nationality formation. The reverse process has happened as well. Smaller tribes have identified with a bigger tribal or generic identity, if only for self-preservation during conflict between battling ethnicities.

As in Manipur, smaller tribes like the Anals have identified with the broader Naga identity, reporting themselves as Nagas in successive censuses. The major impetus for re-tribalisation has been the material advantages that follow recognition as a scheduled tribe in India. Reservations - like those for scheduled castes - in education and employment, legislatures and parliaments, have often prompted racial groups in Northeast India to seek recognition as scheduled tribes.

The Deshi Tripuras or the Lashkars in Tripura were happy to be recognised as 'local Bengalis' during princely rule but have subsequently tried to seek recognition as a scheduled tribe. The Meiteis in Tripura have done the same. The Bodos have long been denied the benefit of autonomy because as 'plains tribals' they were not covered by the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which assures autonomy to tribal areas.

Now that the Indian government has finally signed an agreement with the Bodoland Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF), the Sixth Schedule will have to be amended to cover the proposed Bodoland Territorial Council in western Assam.

* Subir Bhaumik gave this speech at Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture on June 10, 2012 which was later published at Imphal Times
This article was posted on June 24, 2018.

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