Book Review: India`s Statehood Politics in the Northeast Debated

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

(This review was first published in Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, in the March 5, 2005 issue)

“Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India,” by Sanjib Baruah (Oxford University Press 2005, Rs 495). This book is a departure from available literature on the problems of India’s Northeast. This is not surprising considering most of the earlier books are either written by former administrators or other professionals who by training and loyalty look at the Northeast as an aberration from the mainstream of life and politics. Baruah’s is an attempt to present the problems raw, honestly. The book is refreshingly spared of the patronizing sympathy that has become so familiar with writings on the subject. The narrative is a curious mix of an overview by a detached observer and a sensitive introspection of one who has a stake in the issues involved. Baruah’s career background perhaps is the explanation. He is an Assamese, who teaches political studies at the Bard College, New York, on lien as a senior fellow at the Omeo Kumar Das (OKD) Institute of Social Change, Guwahati. (Baruah has since left the OKD to join the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

The book is argumentative, and although the prescriptions are debatable though thought provoking, the diagnosis are convincing. Baruah achieves this by his ability to seamlessly sew together information, personal experience, impressions, available theories and journalistic reportage to illustrate his own incisive insights. Unmistakable is also the influence of some immensely well endowed libraries available to him as well as the disciplined reading and scholarship that has gone into the writing of the book. The book is for this reason, also very much a digest of current and past theories and thoughts on the subjects of identity, ethnicity, conflict, development etc, and their related problems. Baruah negotiates these ideas and builds the pitch of the debates until he is able to establish his points powerfully and with unexpected clarity. He is thus able to articulate certain deeply embedded but often nebulous anxieties of the communities in the Northeast, which would help immensely in correcting past perspectives and misrepresentations. “Durable Disorder” attempts, rather successfully, to establish why the usual attribution of the problems of the northeast to “vested interests”, “corruption”, “underdevelopment” etc alone, are pathetically inadequate, for the causes of the problems are much more fundamental in nature. The wrong diagnoses have also led to disastrously wrong responses.

The book has ten chapters. Each looks at a different aspect of the Northeast and adds to the central argument – that of the inadequacy of interpreting the problems from the perspective of national security alone. This standpoint, Baruah implies is what has led to the unenviable trap of what he calls “Durable Disorder” in which hopes of a lasting solution is allowed to recede too far, leaving only the prospect of not allowing these troubles to blow up into unmanageable crises the sole administrative objective.

The first chapter sketches the subject and the author’s strategy to tackle it. The unveiling of the Northeast agenda begins from the next section titled: “Governance Structure, Formal and Informal.” By far this section is the hardest hitting against the Indian establishment and its Northeast policy priorities. While it is meant to hurt, missing is the usual bitterness and annoying self pity. This is achieved by well rounded intellectual arguments supported appropriately by data. The section has two chapters, one called “Nationalizing Space: Cosmetic Federalism and the Politics of Development” and the other “Generals as Governors.”

In one, Baruah tackles the messy and controversial issue of immigration. While most writers and analysts have concentrated on the “pull factors” that attract large scale immigrants from neighbouring countries as well as from other parts of India into the sparsely populated, modern skills poor region, threatening to radically overturn the demographic balance, Baruah also points out the more systematic “push factors” prompted by the Indian nation’s need to “nationalize space”. This involves tuning local population to the national outlook as well as physically filling the poorly charted spaces with “nation-bearing” populations. While this agenda has not been pursued as aggressively as China has done, partly because in the case of India there is no single nation-bearing population, he argues the distinction between ethnic groups that are marked as indigenous to the region and those that are marked as immigrants from the rest of the sub-continent has remained quite significant in the politics of Northeast India. “
Extending state institutions with a developmental agenda therefore has had political functions…” Baruah underscores. It is significant that the developmental trajectory in the region is controlled solely by New Delhi, as most development projects in the region are financed, planned and designed in New Delhi, or in central organizations located in the region, he argues. The philosophy behind the North East Council, NEC, comes up for some harsh lashing.

The war with China in 1962 as well as rebellions by the Nagas followed by many others, made the agenda of nationalizing space all the more urgent. As a direct result, the state of Nagaland was created in 1963, “hoping to end the Naga war by creating stakeholders in the pan-Indian disposition.” With it Baruah writes, state creation in India became de-linked from the question of either fiscal viability or of compatibility with the constitutional architecture of the pan-Indian polity.” He calls this the first step in the cosmetic federal regional order. Yet, Baruah argues, the creation of mini states, completely dependent on New Delhi for their finances, and thus vulnerable to New Delhi’s direct involvement in their affairs on a daily basis, fitted very well with India’s national security goals in the region.

In the next chapter, “Generals as Governors” Baruah pushes the argument of a security concerns driven agenda in the Northeast even farther. He talks of a parallel government, but does not refer to the clandestine administrations run by militant organizations alone, but the one run by the central government in the states through its agents, the Governors. It is hardly a coincidence, he says, that the men appointed as Governors of these states have mostly been retired Army generals and intelligence officers. The result is a de facto parallel political system, somewhat autonomous of the formal democratically elected government structure. Since in India’s weak federal structure, the Centre through the Governors can easily dismiss the states’ elected governments, the apparatus becomes an important tool to facilitate the direct control by New Delhi of the theatre of action in the Northeast. A mistrust of the state governments for their possible nexus with militants – which in a way becomes somewhat inevitable as the politicians here share a good deal of their constituencies as well as concerns with the militants – makes New Delhi put a premium on the need for the autonomy of the parallel governance structure.

Baruah laments the compromise on democratic responses to the problems in the Northeast. Not so much in the belief that it will bring Indian democracy crashing down, but because in the long run it would have “systematically activated and enlarged the worst in people”. The truth in this prediction is there for all to witness in the disappearance of the rule of law, not just in the hands of the insurgents, but equally legitimate institutions of the democratic establishment. He calls this phenomenon “diminished democracy” the title of another chapter. The questionable and brutal counter insurgency strategy that created the SULFA (surrendered ULFA) in Assam, or the pardon accorded outside the provisions of the law to surrendered insurgents including those accused of serious felonies during their underground days, are also cited as example of this compromise in a later chapter.

Baruah’s economy of words makes it unnecessary for him to give too much space to repetitive narration of the now familiar histories of insurgencies. He rushes through them but without seriously missing out on their salient features, leaving him ample time and energy for discourses on the driving forces behind them.

However, on the question of ethnic identity and the ethnic homeland question, Baruah seems to be on unsure ground. His explanation of the problematic nature of non-state communities coming out of isolation and beginning to aspire to be states, as in the case of the Nagas, is less than adequate. On the question of the expanding identity of the Nagas which has embraced communities with closer linguistic and anthropological ties with other ethnic groups, his sympathy are clearly with the former saying “in matters of identity the only thing that should matter is how a group wishes to be known..” The problem arises, when this expanding identity is tied to territory. The newly born state consciousness can come into direct collision with existing historical states. Baruah does acknowledge this but with no effort or intent to elaborate: “the goal of creating a single political unit out of all Naga-inhabited areas puts the Naga project of nationhood in collision course with a parallel Manipur project.” For some reasons, in dealing with this issue, he is also rather silent about the Kukis, who share virtually the same homeland with the Nagas. This seems a big lacuna considering notions of exclusive ethnic homelands was the primary cause of the bloody Kuki-Naga conflict in the mid 1990s.

He does bring up the issue again in a later chapter, “Citizens and Denizens”, but the discussion becomes more abstract and devoid of the urgency demanded. Here he is talking of the provisions of the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution drawn up for the administration of minority tribal areas in the Northeast which creates the closest thing to exclusive ethnic homelands. Within these tribal enclaves where tribal customary laws prevail, non tribal domiciles, and even tribals of other stocks, end up deprived of many democratic rights, including franchise. Baruah suggests experimenting with a regime of dual citizenship aimed at shifting what has come to be an ethnic issue to a civic one.

The book has three chapters on Assam and the genesis of sub-nationalism in the state. This event does not coincide with the birth of the ULFA. He traces the roots of the Assamese sub-nationalism to British colonial land reform policies, and then to the cosmetic federalism of independent India. One of the chief anxiety of the Assamese, (his qualifies this term on account of the fundamentally heterogeneous Assamese society and of the Bodos and other tribal groups’ unwillingness to be referred as such) has been immigration of outsiders into Assam.

At the time of partition, leaders of the Assam Congress had expressed their wish that fewer refugees be resettled in Assam and asserted that the prerogatives in matters of citizenship and immigration should rest with the state. Jawaharlal Nehru had sarcastically remarked in a letter to the then chief minister of Assam, Gopi Nath Bordoloi, “I suppose one of these days we might be asked for the independence of Assam.” For the same reason, the then home minister Sadar Vallabbhai Patel called Bordoloi’s successor Bisnuram Medhi, “parochial”. The idea of Assam’s independence did not remain a joke for long, Baruah notes. In the Constituent Assembly, Assam’s proposal for a federation with strong autonomous states did not succeed. But this locally felt need was again the driving force behind the Assam Agitation of the 1970s and 80s, and so too the ULFA. ULFA’s ideas are located in a political discourse that has occupied centre-stage of Assamese civil society for more than half a century, Barua notes, concluding that it is not surprising despite military defeats ULFA still lives on.

The concluding chapter, “Beyond Durable Disorder” is the most prescriptive. But the solution sought is unconventional and distinguishes itself from the security driven approach that pivots around success in counter insurgency strategies. He recommends a little deconstruction of the hardened notion of the Nation State so that national boundaries are softened, if not opened, and natural economic and geographic zones are given a fresh leash of life. Taking the cue from Keniche Ohame who proposed that the idea of “Region State” should replace “Nation State”, which has become dysfunctional in the modern era, Baruah writes: “when the natural economic region is allowed to emerge without the constraints of national boundaries, the locational advantages and disadvantages are necessarily very different from those in a situation when border effects are in full force.” India’s New Look East Policy, as well as the effort for a rapprochement with China, are steps in the right direction, the book concludes.

If not for the recommendations, then for the richness of ideas it throws up, “Durable Disorder” definitely will be an invaluable companion for serious scholars of the Northeast as well as for policy makers.

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