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Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast

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A painstakingly detailed narrative on India's northeast and its people

Shastri Ramachandran

This book is an engrossing compendium of ‘stories’ in the journalistic sense of the word. “Stories,” narrated by Sanjoy Hazarika, “of legend, imagination, future challenges and perspectives as well as personal experiences... as a frank introspection of where things have gone wrong or right and where they can be nudged to change”. Activist, author, journalist, filmmaker, academic and peacemaker, Hazarika is one of the most authoritative voices on India’s Northeast.

He reviews how the region has grown and unravelled in the 24 years since he published Strangers of the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast. That book cleared a lot of the mist in which the region was shrouded. In this sequel, picking up the threads from where he had left them in 1994, Hazarika maps what he regards as the core issues of the eight states—politics, policy, law and disorder, violent uprisings and painful reconciliations, offence and defence, conservation and oppression, history and contemporary reality, stereotyping and breaking out of the mould, hope and despair—in all their complexity and painstaking detail. The book covers a wide range of topics from the racism suffered by the“marginalised” Northeasterners in mainland India and discriminatory violence to border disputes, differences, divided peoples and the repressive Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

The narrative is dense, and meandering like an enchanting river, where one embarks on a journey of discovery—of the familiar and the unchanged, of the violated and the alienated, the suppressed and the altered, as well as the roots and shoots of hope and transformation that appear when the strangers in our midst begin to become familiar. He sets out the issues that require not just our momentary attention, but thorough reflection and engagement.

From the time of Independence, the Northeast has been under the heavy hand of the central government. For all the force and firepower of the state, it has remained largely indifferent to the region. This has heightened the alienation of the Northeast, which remains bound to the mainland by the armoury of the state apparatus and a carrot-and-stick policy. There are strong undercurrents of hostility which erupt periodically in violence; and, even when they don’t, the militant movements in the region serve as a reminder of the deep resentments simmering beneath the surface calm. It is a sort of perpetual, uneasy truce between the underground forces and the Indian state, including its armed forces which are often in the news for their excesses. Hazarika asks, “So where do we go with the litany of abuse and injustice that we have uncovered?”

The people are now in coming-out mode. They refuse to be held back and want to find their place in ‘mainland India’. Hazarika shows that there is “a deeper determination... to affirm their rights and dignity as Indians”. This is a sign of transformation, of a readiness to assert themselves as the ‘new Indians’.

As Hazarika sums it up: The core conditions of the region have changed—a generation of young Indians from this area, exhausted by conflict and bloodshed, by ill-will and stress, now seek to carve a new way for themselves based on the laws and systems of mainland India. This is a remarkable change from an earlier time when their forebears, perhaps even their parents, were involved in political and armed fights for autonomy against India. Hazarika’s is an ambitious effort on the ambitious direction of these ‘new Indians’.

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