Driving through the Ukhrul district of Manipur in the summer of 2010, Bertil Lintner—veteran correspondent and expert on Burma—noticed ubiquitous posters carrying the photograph of Thuingaleng Muivah, leader of NSCN(IM) and a native of Ukhrul, and demanding the ‘integration’ of all Naga areas into a ‘Nagalim’. Rather curiously, he also saw photographs of Mahatma Gandhi. Lintner explains this incongruity by recounting a meeting between Gandhi and Naga leaders prior to independence. Although Gandhi’s message was somewhat philosophical, the Nagas came away with the strong impression that he had approved of their quest for an independent state.
To conceive of the father of their nation as the prophet of Naga independence may strain the imagination of most Indians. That is precisely why Litner’s latest book must be read.
Great Game East vividly recreates the mosaic of ethnic insurgencies in India’s northeastern frontier, unravels their skeins of complexity, and attempts to situate them in a wider geopolitical context of an incipient rivalry between India and China. Recent books by Thant Myint-U and Robert Kaplan have covered some of this ground. But few writers can match Lintner’s familiarity with the landscape and leadership of these insurgencies. Over nearly three decades, he has met everyone from the NSCN’s Muivah to the ULFA’s Paresh Barua. Lintner combines reportage with a sound grasp of history and considerable political common sense. The book also has some arresting photographs taken by Lintner and his wife during their travels. These alone are worth the price of admission.
The term ‘Great Game’ was coined in 1834 by a British intelligence officer to describe the geopolitical contest between Russia and Britain in Central Asia. Lintner claims that a similar contest is under way between China and India along the latter’s turbulent northeast frontiers. As in the original Great Game, writes Lintner, “spies and agents have been active in each other’s volatile frontier areas for decades”. Various rebel outfits have sought support across the borders: Tibetans and Chakmas in India; Nagas in Burma and China; Mizos in Burma and erstwhile East Pakistan; Manipuris in China and Burma; Assamese in Bangladesh and Burma.
By juxtaposing these conflicts and examining their inter-connections, Lintner helps us make sense of a complex and many-layered zone of conflict. How have these insurgencies managed to resist the coercive capacity of their states for so long? Partly because ethnic groups spill across national boundaries—many of which remain contested in any case—and partly because they have been overlaid by the larger strategic rivalries in the region. The ability of groups with rather disparate agendas to make common cause, or at least find modus vivendi, has enabled them to operate in areas outside the reach of their states and to draw financial sustenance from a range of shadowy activities. Yet Lintner underlines the fact that the competing irredentism of these groups also undermines prospects for collaboration. He asks, for instance, if it was “a good idea for a landlocked Nagaland, or Nagalim, to have territorial claims on all its neighbours, and thus turn them into enemies”.
The second contributing factor—strategic rivalries—in fact highlights the key problem with Lintner’s book. True, in the past China did support rebels in the Northeast and India did turn a blind eye to the activities of Tibetan emigres in places like Kalimpong. But this is no longer the case, and has not been for over three decades now. India has managed to secure the assistance of Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh in clearing insurgent safe havens in their territories and in apprehending rebel leaders. It is no coincidence that Nagas and other groups have agreed to talks. To be sure, these outfits continue to procure arms from the borderlands of Burma and China, but this is quite different from the official support that they received earlier.
In short, Lintner’s claim that these insurgencies are part of a ‘Great Game’ between India and China is overstated. Lintner himself does seem to buy into it entirely. In his last chapter, he claims that the Indian Ocean will be the key arena of strategic competition between the two Asian giants. This is a fashionable but dubious proposition. It underestimates the fact that China has always been a great continental power.
Ultimately, Lintner’s account succeeds not because of its high geopolitical setting but because of its earthy depiction of the bewildering array of insurrections along India’s borderlands.
Better the Chinese take the North-East than the Bangladeshis doing so as is happening today.
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