Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a traditional Khasi dress in Shillong, December 18, 2022
A NEW YEAR OFTEN harbours old truths. It’s no different with India’s far-east. Some truths are disconcerting. Several are ugly. And all need acknowledgement and mitigation.
First, softball. There is a conceit about far-eastern India that begins at dawn each day. It’s about the sun rising here earlier than elsewhere in India and setting earlier than elsewhere in India. Usually, light by 4:30AM, dark by 4:30PM.
This distorted perception of the day is a matter of Indian Standard Time (IST). Add to it Indian Standard Attitude and you would begin to draw a portrait of exotica—and mayhem—that has attended this landmass which accounts for one-seventh of India’s area and nearly 50 million of its citizens. You would begin, perhaps, to understand the difference between what India wants for its far-east, and what this far-east wishes for itself.
Consider the time warp. Far-eastern India—Northeast India by bureaucratic default—sits atop and to the east of Bangladesh, which clocks itself half-an-hour ahead of India. To the east of this region lies Myanmar, which clocks itself one hour ahead of IST. Longitudinal necessity, a yen for productivity and massive cost-saving would accord this region its own time zone, as has been demanded for years by several stalwart minds, including the Assamese filmmaker—and former scientist—Jahnu Barua, but political and administrative obstinacy prevent it. An alternative could be to shift the IST meridian from the present 82.5 East longitude further east to 90 E and add a half-hour to make it GMT+6, as a couple of Bengaluru-based scientists suggested, but the centrality of ‘India’ reigns.
The attitude shows in names. Arunachal Pradesh, the land lit by the sun, was the Sanskritised coinage of technocrats and bureaucrats in 1972, eschewing several Tibeto-Burman options available locally. Meghalaya, abode of clouds, is another such, the name created by a well-regarded government cartographer and not the Khasi, Garo, Jaintia and War people and their expressive languages. Mercifully, Tripura, Manipur and Assam had pre-existing names, as did Sikkim before its annexation by India in 1975; and, mercifully, Mizoram and Nagaland escaped too. But none escaped political or cultural appropriation in varying degrees.
It persists in attitudes that independent India has assiduously perpetuated, for several decades opting for the hammer over the handshake. Every rebellion born here, Naga, Mizo, Meitei, Tripuri, Assamese, Boro, Khasi, Garo, Dimasa and a dozen more, is a direct consequence of a denial of dignity, identity and aspiration by administrative mandarins and political Chanakyas who claim to design India and then deign to acknowledge Indians. People here have repeatedly been brought to breakdown through years of political conceit and deceit, immense ethnic tensions, outright conflict, human-rights horrors perpetrated largely by security forces and police, all resulting in a cumulative and wrenching insecurity. Pakistan in its pre-Bangladesh avatar, occasionally hardline Bangladesh, and ever-willing China have helped to harvest the crop of dissent sowed by the misgovernance and arrogance of what in this region is often called Mainland India.
And, yet, Northeast India has come through it all with inspirational resilience and now looks to the future as a reclamation project of honour and hope twinned with peace and prosperity. Millennial India is finally beginning to understand this, trying to mend its approach, recalibrating its mission from India’s dream for everyone to everyone’s India dream. This is of course still hugely patronising, but it’s an improvement of degree.
Here equity must trump enmity—fingers crossed, not wires. Because this geopolitical G-spot, as it were, rivals the Afghanistan-Pakistan G-spot to India’s west. It stretches from eastern Nepal to Bhutan and the uneasy Tibetan Administrative Region of China, to Myanmar and Bangladesh—countries with which this region of India shares borders just shy of 5,200 km. Indeed, the very meaning of ‘neighbourhood’ is different here. The region can most easily reach the ports through what I call the Eastern Gate, to the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh and Myanmar. The easiest trade and land communication routes linking far-eastern India and eastern India—in simpler terms, say, Agartala in Tripura to Kolkata in West Bengal—are right across Bangladesh, as was the case before the cartography of Partition divided the subcontinent. As aircraft fly, the distance from Guwahati—Northeast India’s largest city and the commercial hub of Assam, the region’s largest and most populous state—to Kunming, the commercial and strategic hub of south-western China, is just over 1,100 kilometres, about an hour-and-a-half in a passenger jet, perhaps 30 minutes in a modern fighter.
The Tibetan Plateau is even closer. Lhasa is 389 km away as the eagle flies. Sylhet, an important hub in northeastern Bangladesh, lies less than 150 km south of Guwahati, and is much closer to Shillong and Silchar. Dhaka, with which Guwahati had rich riverine commerce before Partition—as did much of eastern India—is at a little over 300 km; and, border controls permitting, a day’s drive south. In comparison, New Delhi is about 1,500 km away by plane (and Beijing, 2,700 km).
A COMBINATION OF WISHFUL strategic thinking visualises that, in the near-future, within a day we may be able to drive down straight to the south of Guwahati, and be deep inside Myanmar’s mineral and energy-rich regions, or access a port on the Bay of Bengal to reach Kolkata and beyond. With current border controls and awful infrastructure on the Indian side, the overland aspect would take three days or more. (Naturally, the combination of occasional pandemic and a perennially heavy-handed military in Myanmar must first permit such movement.)
From here beckon points further west in South or West Asia, or east: overland or by sea to Thailand, Vietnam, Lao, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore, and the nations of Southeast Asia, adding significant layers to existing routes, boosting hinterlands, investment, markets and interdependent and interlocking alliances. It would also be a part of India’s delayed and sometimes knee-jerk overture with its ‘golden necklace’, if you will, to China’s strategy of the ‘string of pearls’ along the Indian Ocean that is Indian only in name and its so-called Belt and Road overland initiative which marks that superpower’s presence across Asia and elsewhere.
But here in far-eastern India, if there is Mainland India, there is also Mainland China. This is a geographical, geopolitical and psychological truth.
This strategic gateway region to India’s myriad ambitions and security gambits has ever more become the mirror to India’s eastern policies. There was the ‘Look East’ policy announced by the government in 1994. At the time, PV Narasimha Rao was prime minister. A subsequent ‘Act East’ policy was announced in November 2014 at an India-ASEAN meeting in Myanmar, the first significant eastern flourish of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the process it bridged this common outlook of two vastly different administrations. And, on December 18, Modi added slogans as is this government’s wont: “Act Fast for Northeast” and “Act First for Northeast”.
Whatever the political constructs and policies for integral nation with the overhang of fevered nationalism married to optics, for well over a decade I have repeatedly written that there cannot be a Look or Act East Policy by overlooking Northeast India. India’s relations with this region will decide the quality of India’s engagement with China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan. Equally, India’s relations with these neighbours will have a direct bearing on how this region thrives, or falls by the wayside.
Northeast India wants in. And Northeast India must be heard and understood. The success or failure of India’s policies—and it will ultimately fail if a peaceful, productive and equitable Northeast India is not an intimate part of it—depends on it.
And yet, for all its importance and policy initiatives since 2014, primarily with road construction and connectivity driven by an overarching fear of China, Northeast India continues to suffer from the effects of several decades of mandated ignorance and apathy. One of India’s two Central school boards introduced the history of Northeast India to the curriculum as late as 2014-15, as an afterthought, in the history syllabus. There were literally decades of terrible baggage to be rid of, but it was a beginning of sorts. It deconstructed a post-Independence policy that dismissed most calls for dialogue around identity and dignity (Nagaland, Manipur, and, later, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam), administrative delivery (Mizoram), and instead sent in the troops.
There were other significant non-combatant enforcers—and, sometimes, inveiglers. Whatever his anthropological and inclusive brilliance in central and eastern India, Verrier Elwin was more propagandist than anthropologist in India’s far-east.
Northeast India now looks to the future as a reclamation project of honour and hope twinned with peace and prosperity. Millennial India is finally beginning to understand this, trying to mend its approach, recalibrating its mission from India’s dream for everyone to everyone’s India dream
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“After Independence the new concept of a welfare state came to the Nagas,” wrote Elwin in his book, Nagaland, published in 1961, a year after India’s first weak peace with a group of Naga rebels and two years before the birth of the state of Nagaland in 1963, “and the free Indian people took their tribal brethren everywhere to their hearts.”
Elwin continued this fairy tale—part fair, part tale. “The years went by; wonderful roads began to urge their way through the hills; the jungle was tamed and conquered; the masses of people experienced the essential sorrows and delights of all mankind; they tilled the forest clearings, they fished and hunted, they learnt new ways of doing things. Their sons and daughters went to school and the cleverest of them studied in India’s universities and even abroad.”
The government’s primary purpose was to underscore India’s justification and legitimacy of claim over the Naga regions and the alleged illegitimacy of the claims of Naga rebels. And whitewash the adverse publicity of government-led butchery in the Naga areas throughout the 1950s; basically, governance through intimidation and sleight of information.
The immunity and impunity-driven Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a brutal legislation aimed at citizens whom India claimed as its own, was enacted in 1958 to supplant a set of brutal, utterly undemocratic laws. An MP from Manipur had famously described AFSPA in Parliament during the debate over its legislation. He called it a “lawless law”.
AFSPA tragically exists, including in the entirety of Nagaland and Naga homelands in Manipur—at a time in which the government is in peace talks with Naga rebels. Even those so-called peace talks remain mired in optics and obduracy after a flashy announcement in the presence of the prime minister in August 2015.
Equally disturbingly, there remain elements of a centrality of purpose that seeks to homogenise diversity. The Nehruvian era and the Indira-era sought to impose a political and policy homogeneity but largely left alone the ethnic heterogeneity of Northeast India. Present-day powers have added Hindutva as a layer close on the heels of a blueprint to politically dominate the region through electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and, sometimes, mass post-electoral transfers to that party; Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur offer unlovely examples. Assam is today as active a laboratory of extreme Hindutva as Karnataka. That institution’s ambassadors are frequent flyers to all northeastern state capitals. Sangh-oriented think-tanks have supplied advisors to BJP-led governments in Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. Even Christian-majority Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram—this last a shining light of peacemaking since rebellion was formally ended by treaty in 1986—are frequent-flyer destinations for such folk.
These errors have the power to infect future generations with instability and insecurity. In the best case, India will be tolerated. In the worst case, ideas that Mainland India repeatedly seeks to impose will be rejected—and with it, whatever hard won trust has accrued in this millennium.
I saw an indication of it some years ago in Imphal. It was articulated at a gathering to highlight human rights and criticise AFSPA. It came from a respected elder, Mangol Devi.
Ima, or ‘mother’ Mangol as she was commonly referred to, spoke to the full house in Meiteilon. She underscored the need for “integrity in protest and resistance”. If things didn’t change positively in the relationship between Manipur and India, she said a set of doors might open, and another set would close.
She had invoked a saying in Meitei lore to send India a message:
Nonpok thong haangba spoke to “opening the eastern gate.” Nongchup thong thingba meant “closing the western gate.”
For many, the eastern gate in this far-eastern region of India, geographically as well as intellectually ‘Mainland India’ lies to the west, beyond the western gates that can so easily be shut. Unless India’s entire far-east enables it—and India in turn enables and empowers its far-east for that privilege—India’s expectations of journeying through the eastern gate will remain a chaos of bad faith, bad policy and fractured dreams. Mainland China will not have done it, not entirely at any rate. Its main competitor in the region, Mainland India, will have.
Sudeep Chakravarti is director of the Center for South Asian Studies, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He is the author of, most recently, The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East