Insurgents belonging to the NDFB(National Democratic Front of Bodoland)(Shobonjit faction) kill a 16 year old girl Priya Basumatary over charges of being a police informer. It is an offshoot the anti talk faction of NDFB which has since laid down its arms and is now in talks with the government of India. Local media accuses certain sections of politicians of cultivating young boys and girls as informers at the cost of their lives. This is the quagmire of politics that North Eastern India fondly called “NE” sees everyday. A vital asset if not the crowning glory of India’s nationalist project NE has often been a disjoint function with the rest of mainland India. It is towards understanding these fundamental questions of homeland nation and role of NE in the Indian project that Sanjib Baruah’s acclaimed book Durable Disorder comes highly handy.
It is a collection of essays which tries to put NE in the correct perspective while clearing a lot of myths on the way. It is not a revisionist project aimed at stimulating the secessionist tendencies and arming armchair activists with votaries of secession. Rather it is a rationale look at why after six decades North East continues to be a troubled cauldron. India has seen long spells of violence and activities against the state in two regions the Kashmir and the North East. In the case of Kashmir there is recorded evidence of outside powers influencing and fermenting trouble against the state but in the case of NE such evidences are hard to find. Indeed a lot of the misgivings against the state are often localized issues.
While a few common threads run through the multicultural terrain of North East yet each state particularly those where insurgency has run amok for decades now presents its own peculiar nature of trouble and its relation with the state. And in each of the different essays of Baruah tries to highlight these peculiarities one at a time .The introduction of this book begins with the usual question of democracy, nation and development. Social scientists have often argued that the modern concept of a nation is perhaps a construct where communities have a common imagination. In this context of nation Baruah tries to introduce us to a new term “subnationalism” .Subnationalism has been defined as the power to assemble, politicize and mobilize people while at the same time lacking the clear cut goal or idea of a separate statehood. Baruah tries to find a place for subnationalism in the multicultural project of India while still framing it strongly within the constitutional and geographical borders of the country. Baruah in a sense also tried to forecast the “development” debate that rages within the country today. Is number of roads a parameter for inclusion and development? What if the area in question is a reserve forest would the parameters stand even then Baruah counters? He quotes William Sachs while claiming that development is perhaps sometimes a mirage that communities chase and in fact a majoritarian narrative.
In the first formal essay about nationalizing space Baruah counters this particular argument of nation and nation building while taking up the peculiar case of Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most pristine regions of the country endowed with natural resources in form of flora and fauna as well as rivers with a very little population density. Yet Arunachal Pradesh has regularly been earmarked as underdeveloped for the lack of major industries etc. The author illustrates the point of a FICCI report where Arunachal is declared backward on the basis of less number of industries available in the state. The author argues if another parameter for development cannot be developed one which is based on a higher standard of living with good basic health education while an industry developed around agro products and sustainable tourism. Instead of a mad race for roads and infrastructure can there be an alternate view of development which does not involve a replica of development in other parts of the country. Nationalizing the mental space is a different arena from nationalizing the physical space of any frontier area and the author believes that nationlising the mental space in a cohesive and inclusive manner towards national integration is a better way rather than nationalizing the physical space.
In the essay generals as governors the author tries to link up the question of appointing generals as governors of frontier areas and how far it helps towards integrating the nation. A governor is often seen as a Centre’s lynchpin in state domain and the general democratic experience with regard to the position of Governor in free India has been rather mixed. In a federal polity with a unitary bias like India the position of Governor assumes great significance and in the troubled polity of NE it assumes an even larger role. How far would the policy go towards integrating the nation is something that the author questions. A case in point is Lt Gen SK Sinha who was Assam’s governor during the troubled “ULFA”(United Liberation Front of Asom) era. SK Sinha is credited with bringing mainstream Assamese society into the cultural discourse of Indian narrative while instituting a bust of Assamese hero Lachit Barphukan in NDA(National Defence Academy) and ensuring that Gopinath Bordoloi the first Chief Minister of Assam received the Bharat Ratna.It was part of the Governors three pronged strategy which aimed at ending insurgency in Assam.The jury is still out as to how much success this the Governor achieve nevertheless it is indeed an example of how vital Generals are as Governors in the fractured polity of NE India.
Continuing with the focus on Assam in the next essay the author illustrated how present clash of resources among communities of Assam can be viewed from a colonial historical perspective. When the Britishers took over Assam after the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 as opposed to Bengal Assam had vast stretches of pristine land. And the Britishers viewed this in many ways as land gold mine. When tea was first grown in Assam it set cash registers of London stock exchange ringing and there was a mad scamper of land for tea gardens and other commercial agricultural enterprises typical of colonial projects. Yet such commercial enterprises didn’t bring any benefit for the local population of the state. And when India became a free nation Assam continued to be a colonial experiment with large vast swathes of land continuing to be under tea cultivation while now there was actue land crisis. In understanding land one must also understand the movement of the hill people and the plains and that the farmers of the plains didn’t always lead a sedentary life .The farmer of the plains in Assam for example the Bodo population regularly shifted its cultivation from one place to another. Successive government in Centre and state failed to understand such dynamics and when the Assam government issued the policy of not allowing any “encroachments” in forest lands the Bodo peasents rose in revolt. It went a long way in fermenting the Bodo self righteous movement. The author in the end argued that imagining North East as a homogenous group of people applying perceived notions of sociological and anthropological reasoning may not always yield the best results.
Subsequently the author devotes three more essays on Assam where he talks about the rise and fall of ULFA .In doing so the author tries to decipher the role of Assam movement in shaping ULFA since it was the radical strand of the Movement which eventually took up arms against the state. Yet the author argued that subnational aspirations though not blatantly anti national have existed in the mainstream Assamese society where the idea of a proud nation sometimes find relection in the songs of Late Dr. Bhupen Hazarika as well. Yet the author beleives that rather than discarding such elements there should be efforts to understand and accept such strands as diversity of the Indian nation.After more than six decades of free independence India must now be confident enough to be able to handle its mainstream voices of dissent and rather than convincing them through power and might rationalize them through discussions and debate.
There was an era in the 90s when ULFA superimposed itself on the Assamese society. It was not merely an insurgent organization with a secessionist goal it saw itself as a custodian of the Assamese way of life and culture. But because of the vexed nature of polity in the NE it also gave rise to another phenomenon the Surrendered ULFA or SULFA which was when Assamese society nosedived into new lows. The lure of surrender was so great that “boys” surrendered enmasse to avail benefits of “rehabilitation”. The author laments what model the government seeks to display when former murderers are seen moving with private security and living lavish life to the new generation. Perhaps the policy of handling surrendered militants warrants a new look;. While it must be the target of the government to wean away as many misguided youths as possible from the clutches of misguided campaigns yet it must not be seen as a way of “easy life” by the next generation.
In the case of Nagaland the author tires to place the debate on the Naga identity question alongwith the concerns of Manipur another frontier state which has forever been a source of trouble. The NSCN-IM with whom the Indian government has a almost a two decade long ceasefire now looms large over political and social life of the Nagas living not only in Nagaland but also the states of Manipur Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The project of “Greater Nagalim” sets it with a collisionary course with the other powers of NE including Manipur and Assam. In the end the author tries to devise solutions which would give a cultural integrity and unity to Nagas while keeping the territorial boundaries of the other North Eastern states intact.
In the end the author tries to bridge the gap between mainland understanding of NE which is often clouded by a military vision and security perception and trying to build an image for a inclusive NE within the colorful imagination of the Indian project. Eventually the NE has to play a “transnational” and a major role in India’s Look East policy and it is towards this objective and framework that NE must be placed in policy discourses. A region that is unique can be integrated seamlessly into the national polity rather than being viewed with trouble and suspicion. The author offers us an understanding of looking at NE not as spolit troublemakers but rather as a historical gap with the rest of the nation that can be bridged with a proper understanding of the region.