The question of ethnic identity has been a preoccupation of the Northeast for quite some time now. The issue is sensitive and it does need to be addressed but those of us in the Northeast, and others who have been close watchers of the region know very well how very dangerous it can become should it come to be articulated in political terms. The danger is compounded in ethnically diverse milieu such as in Manipur where the numerous new identities begin reducing the entire identity question to one of setting each’s terms for power. The reality has also been, ethnic identity is articulated by an assertion of differences and uniqueness, making the evolution of a common framework for governance next to impossible. It is for these reasons that there is a need to treat ethnicity, like religion, a private affair and politics restricted to the realm of a pure science and art of governing to the extent possible. Only such an approach can make discourses on governance in the Northeast meaningful, for then there will be room for exploring the applicability and benefits of established and tested political systems of government: Democracy being the most relevant. This is to say, in the ethic situation, the definition of secularism must not mean just separation of Church and State, but also ethnicity and State. It is not by coincidence that the scourge of communal violence, so much a feature of other regions of India, is virtually absent in the Northeast, but in its place it sees an ever increasing tendency of deadly ethnic conflicts. The recent gruesome killing of Adivasi settlers by Bodo militants in Assam is only the latest reminder of this.
The proposition then is to prepare the democratic governance mechanism as a common denominator on which the foundation for peaceful resolution of problems can rest. This common denominator has indeed been what is missing, say for instance in Manipur, so that the various politically awakened ethnic groups have been pulling the politics of the land in all conceivable directions, paralysing governance and throwing up dangerous situations with extreme violence potential at every turn. In an ideal situation, the Naga ceasefire extension question, the Sixth Schedule tussle, the Sadar Hills district creation, etc, should have been sought to be settled purely as ethnicity neutral, administrative mechanisms, and equally important projected as such publicly. If such an approach was successful, the outcomes would have been much more in the nature of a win-win situation for all, and not one in which for every win by any ethnic group there is also necessarily a losing group. This cannot be a recipe for peace.
There is no justification in always shifting the blame for the ethnic turmoil in the Northeast to extraneous factors either, for the potential for the conflicts was always there and it only needed to be awakened. Sparks can light up only dry cinders. And if it is to be assumed that this turmoil is an inevitable part of formerly closed worlds of ethnic communities opening up to the world outside, there should be no need to lament the lost innocence. The approach then should instead be to face the challenges of this opening up, and seek to resolve the issues causing the turmoil. To ignore this would amount to advocating that ethnic communities should never grow up and remain trapped in their time warps. True, experience will throw up many previously unforeseen problems. True the new world order will require major overhauls of worldviews and this can be painful, but this must be treated as the challenges of the brave new world before the ethnic communities. English eccentric poet William Blake wrote of this thin line that divides innocence and experience, didn’t he? Such pains were also witnessed during other epochal changes, such as at the onset of the industrial age in Europe, which Charles Dickens described famously as the best of times and the worst of times. Who knows the Northeast may be also passing through such a period, and if we are prepared for it, our worst times may yet prove to be the threshold of our best times?