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The North-East: A Rather Troubled And A Much Forgotten Part Of India [Part 2]

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By Karmanye Thadani:

Economics is unfortunately not my cup of tea (indeed a severe handicap for someone who writes on socio-political developments!) and therefore, I shall not engage in an in-depth economic analysis of the north-eastern secessionist question. On the economic front, I would, however, like to say in this article that India has had a rather skewed economic development story in terms of balancing out legitimate regional aspirations, owing to vote-bank politics, aside from redundant forest laws that isolated tribals from their life-base, by not allowing tribal communities to extract forest produce in the name of environmental conservation (though their traditional knowledge would come in the way of destroying the forests, on which they depend for their sustenance, the shifting cultivation practiced by some nomadic tribes being an aberration), in spite of the government engaging in extensive deforestation for ‘development’ projects across the country.

However, even more strangely, the Indian Forest Act classifies bamboo, botanically considered a grass, as a tree, and prevents its felling, though it is extremely renewable and new bamboo plants grow again in a very short span of time, and so, the felling of bamboo is not really a cause of environmental degradation so long as the forest land is not encroached upon. Bamboo is extensively found across the north-east and with many tribal economies being heavily dependent on bamboo products, this legislation has indeed had a very adverse effect on their economy (in Mizoram, this had a direct relation with the separatist insurgency), and though now the introduction of the Forest Rights Act has changed for the better, its implementation seems problematic and deserves attention (for more on this from a pan-India perspective with a focus on bamboo, you can read the following short article by me:  A Bamboo Controversy Yet Again

However, when many well-intentioned people project the north-eastern issue as a purely or primarily economic one, my objection to this line of thinking is that it would be worth pondering over why economic backwardness in tribal belts in Odisha, Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh manifests itself in the form of a militant movement that claims to be Marxist by character but with a pan-India appeal (Naxalism), rather than one with separatist convictions, though this is not to say that everyone even in the regions with the strongest secessionist aspirations has the most extreme mentality viz-a-viz the issue.

To quote the renowned female Naga novelist Easterine Kire Iralu — “I don’t believe people from my generation or my children’s generation will ever feel that they’re Indian. We will always feel we’re Nagas. There’s a huge cultural difference. But we are able to embrace India, understand Indian culture…only if you’re a Naga, you will understand. You have a sense of belonging to a smaller degree to India. Your identity is always as a Naga…you can have a sense of belonging to India. But you know that because of the history and culture, you’ll never really be Indian. You’ll always be fully Naga in your mentality…we should actually build up on that – the levels of belonging, the levels of Indian-ness.”

This concern necessitates the need to understand that while holistic economic development can solve a major part of this problem (and much of the sense of identification people from these regions do have for India is owing to their perception that they would be economically much worse off as independent entities, as a friend of mine from Meghalaya told me once very candidly), it by itself cannot make for a complete solution (the racism they are subjected to can be seen from the fact that someone has posted a rather insensitive online comment on that interview of the Naga novelist that big Indian publishing houses know that it’s pointless selling stories of the north-east, implying they are of little value).

To explore this in a little more depth, we might examine the underlying basis of the unity in diversity in India that we boast of, to a fair degree legitimately. After a series of events that exposed intolerance in the West, I wrote a short piece on Facebook in March this year on how we, Indians, are much more pluralistic (united in our diversity) than the inhabitants of European nation-states are. And in the debate that took place in the comments, I underlined the reasons for the same, also acknowledging the very same factors that bind most of India together for being the reasons for the exclusion of the north-east, a classic case of exceptions only proving the rule.

Fundamentally, I argued that different religions have been absorbed and assimilated by this grand Vedic culture (with diverse languages emanating from or being strongly influenced by Sanskrit), which is exemplified by saints like Kabir, Nanak and Shirdi Sai Baba rejecting any religious label or Malayali Muslims and Christians too preparing the traditional feast on the harvest festival of Onam, in spite of it also carrying a significant Hindu religious connotation, and the modern constitutional setup suits this arrangement of tolerance with secularism and a form of federalism giving recognition to different linguistic clusters, but the Christian-majority areas in the north-east, which historically followed their own animist faiths, didn’t fall within the cultural zone of Bharatvarsh or Hindustan in ancient or mediaeval times and hence, the cultural gap still persists.

This broadly sums up why the north-east isn’t as ‘integral’ to what we frequently call the “idea of India” (or our national imagination) and though since 2008, and more so since 2010, the question of Kashmir frequently figures in our nationalist discourse from the most leftist to the most rightist perspectives, the north-east gets pretty much pushed to the margin and hardly stirs up much of a debate, except on very sporadic occasions. Prominent personalities, Indian and foreign, who have written what are meant to be fairly holistic books on India (and those who became prominent precisely because of such books, like Edward Luce) have hardly given any premium on the issue of the north-east, which is rather unfortunate.

So, coming back to our analysis of why the north-east is so very neglected, I have cited the Christian-majority areas in the north-east as regards the issue of secession, though this has been a major issue even in Hindu-majority Assam (Kamrup in the Vedic literature, and today, that’s the name of one district in Assam), but it isn’t so much of that anymore, except with respect to the Bodos, all of whom also obviously don’t desire secession, and the Hindu-majority population of Arunachal Pradesh has never demanded secession and always stood up to assert its loyalty to India, as opposed to China which claims the territory they belong to as their own and even makes military incursions into the state. No, this is not to say that I am here to reinforce the rather lunatic Hindu right-wing notion that secessionist movements in Muslim-majority Kashmir or Christian-majority north-eastern regions tend to suggest that Muslims and Christians in general are not loyal citizens of India, but rather how our intelligentsia has failed to integrate these non-Vedic/non-Indo-Islamic/culturally non-Indo-Christian peoples in our national imagination, in spite of these regions also producing remarkable freedom fighters for liberating a united India from British colonial rule, like Rani Gaidinliu from Nagaland.

The alienation occurs because our NCERT history textbooks, even if authored by the most prominent of historians like Romila Thapar or the late Ram Sharan Sharma, nearly blank out their rich history. It’s because our language textbooks, more often than not, don’t tell us about their folk tales. It’s because we don’t celebrate their contributions to our Indian national mainstream, except occasionally of someone like Mary Kom. It’s because we have developed an absurd conception that mongoloid features are not quintessentially Indian and we have a fixed notion of characterizing mongoloids only with supposedly funny names or martial arts, to the extent of subconsciously ostracizing them or even openly ridiculing them which we are not willing to address (though a harsh law against racist slurs like ‘chink’ has been introduced for the better). As the prominent RSS and BJP intellectual Tarun Vijay captures beautifully in his article ‘Why should Manipur remain in India?’

How many Indians would be caring for Manipur or Arunachal or Nagaland, in spite of all those patriotic songs? How many of us would be able to tell what kind of name a Naga, a Mizo or a Manipuri love to wear? Or distinguish their faces and not to call them all as ‘chinkies’?”

The alienation occurs because our national media doesn’t think it expedient from the profitability point of view to highlight their stories and so, any amount of rallying against discrimination by them even in the national capital falls on deaf ears, and being outspoken in international human rights forums invites charges of sedition, which leads them to believe that an effort in the direction of integration isn’t worthwhile and secession is the only way ahead. All this would have to change rapidly and with a conscious focus, failing which economic development can only take us so far. If north-easterners can be made to feel like Indians, them attacking our security personnel or different secessionist forces in the north-east attacking each other owing to the variation in their respective territorial claims of countries-to-be based on ethnic differences (such as between the Nagas and Kukis in Manipur) can be put to rest and so can our security personnel retaliating by misusing special statutory immunities to kill and torture innocents or engage in rapes and forced disappearances, since the region would be demilitarized (though till then, the AFSPA must be repealed or at least amended). The task is difficult, and indeed needs sensitive handling and firm determination.
[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely’ Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’. He is currently working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a reputed Delhi-based public policy think-tank. The views expressed are personal.To read his other posts, click here.[/box]


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