The Divide Within

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The decision of the Uttar Pradesh cabinet, to split up the largest state in the country voluntarily into four smaller states in order that its administration would be more efficient seems unreal viewed from the Northeast region. Here, as we are all witnessing, it is not administration or administrative convenience, but primordial notions of territory and ethnicity which rule. Not to talk about states agreeing to alteration of their political boundaries, here even the proposal for creation of new districts is seen as an affront on the rights of different sections of the people. Come to think of it, the division of interest is not even between different ethnic groups, but also within the same groups as well. The manner in which the proposal for Phungyar subdivision of the Ukhrul district to be made a full-fledged district was vehemently objected to, is just one example. There are other demands for new districts, including that of Tengnoupal in the Chandel district and Tongjei Maril in the Tamenglong district to name just two. Needless to repeat that these demands too would meet stiff oppositions should they begin to appear likely to be conceded by the government.

The problem, as we see it, is one of a lack of a shared sense of identity in ethnically riven societies such as those in the Northeast. On the larger canvas, the notion of Indian citizenship has not been able to sublimate or moderate the notion of ethnic identity and affiliation. This is as much a failure of the ethnic groups to grow out of their shells as it is that of the projection of the Indian identity into which these smaller identities cannot fit. While the primordial notion of identity cannot or should not be abandoned altogether, the identity attached to citizenship, which is much more about conscious and democratic choice, should be given its rightful place. This is exactly what is not happening in the ethnic situation in the Northeast. The multiple identities that Amartya Sen said is what constitutes the composite identity of a modern democratic man, is what is lacking to a great extent in these situations. Although as in Sen’s theory, each individual is a father, a son, a mother, a daughter, belonging to a profession, a meat eater or a vegetarian, each attribute giving him or her a different identity, what always subsumes and even obliterates all these identities when it comes to the crux, is the notion of ethnic identity. Regardless of all the other identities, the “otherness” of somebody always is “manufactured” from the fact that he or she does not have the same ethnic affiliation.

If this were not so, and if everybody were to agree to a larger citizenship as a primary factor in presuming identity, the problem of ethnic friction would have been much reduced. Reorganising state boundaries, not to talk of reorganising district boundaries, would not have been much of an issue too. It is time to change this attitude to some degree at least. Otherwise, the region will continue to be stuck hopelessly in the dreadful state of immobility as it is now with different ethnic groups pulling in different and sometimes directly opposition directions. The Sadar Hills district issue is just the latest and loudest example of this. A blockade that began with predominantly Kuki agitators demanding a new district is now continuing because the Nagas are objecting to any concession to the demand. It is in this sense an agitation which cannot end and therefore can take nobody anywhere. What is most needed at this juncture is a return to senses by all concerned. Coming back to the larger canvas, if India were able to instil the confidence that big or small, the wellbeing and the freedom of expression of creative genius of all communities would be guaranteed, there ought not to be any serious objections to reorganisation of state boundaries purely on administrative considerations. As for instance, if the Imphal valley and the hills were to be separated, the valley’s administrative and security needs would entail its control over its highways. If this can be guaranteed, we see no reason why there should be objections. As it is, the hills and valley are under two different land revenue systems, therefore already separate in many ways. Officials demarcating the two regions as different states should make little difference. On the contrary, it should benefit both.

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