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Cauldron of Pretensions, Confusions and Opportunisms for, By the North East and Of the North East

By Amar Yumnam

This is the moment necessitating extreme introspection, sublime efforts for contextual understanding, and freeing from the routine approaches for appreciating the social issues and addressing the transformation problems by the people of the North East for the land and people of the North East India by the people from anywhere. The North East is now in a renewed focus, and the new government at the Centre shows signs of endeavouring to appreciate the region with the specific characteristics of each unit within national and international frameworks of existence. This being so, we cannot afford to allow this new effort to get derailed by a few opportunists from within and without the region. The two decades of the so-called Look East Policy without any body and soul put into the policy have already caused social havoc, unhealthy economic tussles and dangerous political turmoil; these should not be allowed to get accentuated further.

I have just read a cartoon in the Manipuri edition of The Sangai Express. I was shocked by the shallowness, absence of ethics and poverty of knowledge of the cartoonist. One may know how to draw cartoons, but that does not necessarily qualify one to be a cartoonist in a newspaper; sarcasms have a place but should not be a reflection of personal unfulfilled wishes. I happen to experience the poverty of quality of this cartoonist on a day just back home after attending a workshop on the economic corridor linking Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar with a feeling of enhanced responsibility for the people from this region; the cartoon has been so depressingly and degradingly captioned. While the theme of the workshop on the economic corridor was good, we have reasons to be extremely cautious of the ways things have happened in India so far. In the workshop there were ample display of narcissism of routine and conventional understanding of the issues of the region by people from within as well as from outside the region. The people from outside the region have been trying to look at the region from the framework they are familiar with and not from a framework alive to the realities of the region. In other words, the individuals from outside the region have been trying to impose themselves and carve a place for themselves in the renewed focus on North East India. The Indian pretensions come in full display here. While behaving like experts, the Indian style has been purely on mechanical understanding of the issues and regions, the developed and civilised way being practised in the US, Europe, and Japan, and recently in Thailand and China is founded on intense efforts to move beyond routinized understanding through contextualised efforts. What is even more painful is that quite many bureaucrats and technocrats, who have crossed their prime, are also trying hard to place themselves in the centre of articulation of issues and framing policy interventions for the region; the relevance of these people today are at best close to zero as they were never exposed to contextualised understanding of the milieu of issues and interventions.

This is exactly where the people in the region have an important onus on themselves today. We have to be doubly careful such that these two kinds of people do not snatch the agenda of the North East and establish themselves as pivots of policy making for the region of the region. We cannot allow “the German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin’s famous vision of history as a vast heap of wreckage of incidents and events that keeps piling higher and higher into infinity, with progress signifying merely more wreckage waiting to happen” to prevail anymore in the region. What we want in the region is a kind of development fully alive to the social, cultural, demographic, political, economic and environmental realities of the region. One of the top 100 global thinkers of the world, Robert D. Kaplan has written of his feelings in his just published book Asia’s Cauldron: South China Sea and The End of a Stable Pacific thus: “A boom town of oil and gas revenue erupts out of the compressed greenery; coloured glass and roaring steel curves define buildings that are like rocket launch pads located near lakes the hue of algae and mud. I sip a pink cocktail beside a brightly lit rooftop swimming pool at night – glowing balloons float at the surface – and look out at the cityscape. The comic book futurism of Batman and Gotham City comes to mind. Palm trees crowd in on overpasses. Despite the unceasing stacks of high-rises, there is a naked, waiting-to-be-filled-in quality to the landscape of spiky blue-green mountains and coiling rivers: where a hundred years ago tin and rubber were beginning to be extracted in large amounts. This was a time when the capital of Kuala Lumpur was little more than the “muddy confluence” for which it is named. An archipelago of trading posts and river outlets, Malaysia and the Malay world are supposed to conjure up the short stories of W. Somerset Maugham. They don’t anymore. Maugham’s vast sprawl of uninterrupted, sweaty jungle, with its intimate and heartrending family dramas played out in colonial plantations, is long gone. And there is an oppressive fecundity in everything I see.” This definitely is not the kind of development which we should be visualising for the North East in the decades following today.

There are some things which should be core of our understanding of the region. Right from Bangladesh to China through the North East was a continuum geographically, socially, culturally, and economically though these were disrupted by the partition, independence and mergers after the Second World War. Any talk of linkages and collaboration among these should be seen as rather re-establishing the continuum rather than establishing contacts in an otherwise absolutely strange entities. Here the borders are not the militaristic understanding as boundaries. Borders here are geographical, cultural, demographical and economic continuums. The landscape, the seascape and the mountain scape in these areas should be appropriately appreciated and evolve policies accordingly in a holistic way and not in stand-alone approaches any more. Viva la difference and let this be the fountain and beauty of the new development connections



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