It’s a double reality. For most people across India, the Northeast conjures up images of faintly xenoid people dressed in exotic costumes or armed militants in fatigues; a mysterious place with picture-postcard locales and never-ending jungles; eight states lumped as one geographical unit; people of different ethnicity, culture and language grouped as one homogeneous entity. Such broad-brush generalisations seem prima facie kosher, for the eight states with a population of 46 million send only 26 MPs to Parliament.
Granted, these states are small. But judge by internal complexity: they comprise an assortment of 328 tribal groups at last count. This diversity is reflected in their weaves, their dances, cuisine and their understanding (or lack of it) of the problematic term “nation”. Every ethnic group here has its own concept of nation which, in their mind’s eye, does not even remotely resemble the map of India. Recently, a lawmaker from Punjab, flying smack in the face of online outragism, said he felt closer to Pakistan in terms of culture and food habits than he does to southern India. He was just being candid. Northeasterners have had plenty occasion, over the decades, to be candid.
For all that, the battle-lines of defiance against ‘imposed’ Indian nationalism, which traced the post-1947 epoch in lines of barbed wire, are now blurring. Easier communication and regular interface with the rest of India has made people understand what being an Indian entails—and that it can coexist with ethnic loyalties. For decades, though, the Northeast was a hotspot of multiple rebellions, and the embers still glow in the dark sometimes.
The fiercely independent Naga people fired the first salvo, led by the valiant A.Z. Phizo, soon after India’s independence. His secessionist Naga National Council later metamorphosed into the more bloody National Socialist Council of Nagalim. This eventually split into the NSCN (I-M) and NSCN (K) factions, leading to such a bitter phase that more Naga people lost their lives in fratricidal battles than at the hands of the Indian army. Anyway, the NSCN became the role-model for all other ethnic groups demanding greater autonomy and/or sovereignty. It was a whole archipelago of acronyms and abbreviations—ULFA, the Bodo NDFB, the Khasi-Jaintia HNLC or Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council in Meghalaya (which fights not just outsiders but also Garos) and sundry other copycat movements. In Manipur too, the insurgency is an ethnic kaleidoscope…Kuki versus Naga versus Meitei, all that. Along with insurgency came another acronym—the draconian AFSPA. Its first laboratory was the Naga Hills, before the benefits of the science flowed to other insurgency-affected states of the region, and then Kashmir.
The sylvan fields of the Apatanis live, but their tattoos are dying
In this context, Mizoram shines like a beacon of hope. In 1959, it was hit by a 48-year cyclical event—the ‘mautam’, when the bamboo trees flower, drawing in hordes of rats that feast on the seeds and leaves, and multiply by the thousands. Once they exhaust the windfall, the rats move onto standing crops. By 1966, the entire Lushai Hills—part of Assam then—was ravaged by famine, triggering off the Mizo insurgency. It lasted 20 years before the Mizo Accord was signed. Mizoram became a full-fledged state in 1987, and has since been an oasis of peace.
Mundane administrative card reshuffles carried on apace. In 2002, Sikkim came into the conglomerate, purely for convenience. Another happy acronym, DoNER, was born. But economic illogic still stalks the region. Consider this: the Northeast shares 96 per cent of its border with Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Only a slim chicken’s neck—just 4 per cent of its landmass—joins it to the ‘nation’. Manipur rubs shoulders with Myanmar; the Moreh border sees regular trade in some 62 products. So too, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura vis-a-vis Bangladesh—coal and limestone are hot exports. All this produce, and so much more, could have been buzzing around world sea-routes if free or concessional trade through Chittagong was made possible. But this hangs on India’s (un)willingness to share Teesta river waters with Bangladesh.
The Look East Policy, launched in 1991, has merely rejoined coastal India to its old ports of call in South East Asia. The Northeast wistfully awaits even the unflattering destiny it was promised—of being India’s overbridge to ASEAN. After May 2014, the Modi regime changed the nomenclature, as is its wont. Look East Policy became Act East Policy. But between ‘looking’ and ‘acting’ is a huge chasm that needs to be bridged, not with seminars but by actual engagement with the people, the prime stakeholders. There are unique skills and strengths that must be harvested: the weaves, the bamboo products, the virgin travel destinations, the urbane English-speaking youth.
If you do a SWOT analysis of the Northeast, perhaps the greatest destabilising factor is the issue of illegal migration: fear and ethnic hatred have in the past fuelled revolutions. In Tripura, the indigenous tribal population finds itself reduced to a minority 31 per cent of the population. That spectre stalks the region’s peoples and politics. In Assam, the ongoing updation of the National Register of Citizens has left out about 4 million people. No one knows what fate awaits those that fall between the cracks. But already, citizen’s groups of Tripura led by the royal scion, Pradyot Manikya Debbarma, have petitioned the Supreme Court for a similar exercise. The demand also resonates with states like Meghalaya, which saw ethnic violence this summer.
Still, compared to a mid-point in the 1990s, the ebbing of violence is remarkable—as is the degree of relative ease with the ‘mainland’. Fighting squads seem to have realised the futility of living in the bush. Not that the xenophobic eye has vanished. Jainsem-clad Khasi women are still getting thrown out of Delhi clubs. But then, negotiations between real people are always more complex...and enduring.
(The author is the Editor of Shillong Times)