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 ar 教育 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.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.