Commonalities and Complexities of India`s Northeast or `Norwesesia`

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    By Rajkumar Bobichand
    The part of the world which is popularly known as the Northeast of India is surrounded by China to the North, Burma to the East, Bangladesh to the South-West, Bhutan to the North-West and Nepal to the West. The Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, with an average width of 21 km to 40 km, connects the region with the Indian mainland. With 98 percent of its borders with China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal, the region shares more than 4500 kilometres of international border.

    As introduced in this column on 26 June 2012, this part of the world can also be called as “Nowersesia” if we agree to derive from the North Western Region of South East Asia. Because this part of the world is ethnically distinct from the Indian mainland and has strong ethnic and cultural ties with Southeast Asia and East Asia.

    Manipur is part of this region and has a total population of 2,721,756 (2011 Census). Its total geographical area is 22,347 sq. kilometres, of which the valley area covers 2238 sq. kilometres only or about 10 p.c. of total area.  However, the small but fertile valley is inhabited by 60% of the total population. The hill areas covering 20,089 sq. kilometres are sparsely settled by different ethnic groups which are classified under the Constitution of India as “tribes” and they constitute about 40% of the population.

    Geographically and racially, Manipur and the rest of India’s Northeast or “Nowersesia” are thus situated between the two great traditions of the Indian/Sanskritised South Asia and the mongoloid Southeast Asia. This geographical-cultural condition of in-between-ness is an important factor in the assertion of ethnic identity and in fostering ethnic conflicts. It was only during the British colonial rule that this part of the world came to be associated with India politically.

    Culturally the region is distinct from the Indian mainland as the region could not be completely conquered by Indian Sanskritisation though there is little influence in some parts. Linguistically the region is distinguished by a preponderance of Tibeto-Burman languages. Physiographically also, the region is distinct from the Indian mainland and has a predominantly humid sub-tropical climate with hot, humid summers, severe monsoons and mild winters. There are over 220 ethnic groups and their dialects with a population of 45,587,982 (2011 Census). 

    To answer the question ‘Who are we?’ most Northeasterners or “Nowersesians” are caught between the racially and culturally defined identity and the politically defined identity. Whereas the people of the region are politically Indian, they have more affinity racially and culturally to peoples of Southeast Asia. The consciousness of the two identities weakens their political loyalty to India.

    Through constant interaction, cultures influence each other and develop commonalities. While the Sanskritised culture of India is a foreign culture to a large part of the region, there are also areas where it has been at home for centuries. The degree of assimilation of people into the Sanskritised Indian culture becomes a defining factor of who is a tribal and who is not a tribal in the region.

    However, the “tribes” of India’s Northeast or “Norwesesia” and the tribes in the rest of India have very few features in common. Therefore, the framers of the Indian Constitution grouped the “tribes” of the region under the Sixth Schedule and the rest under the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution.

    These complexities are reflected in the region particularly Manipur’s pluralistic society. Manipur is the ancestral home of the Manipuris consisting of the Meiteis, the Pangals (Manipuri Muslims), as many as 36 “tribes” and 7 “Scheduled Castes”. The Meiteis are mostly settled in the valley and constitute the largest segment of Manipur population. They are classified as non-tribes. The Pangals, the Scheduled Castes and the Mayangs (non-mongoloid immigrants from mainland India) are also settled in the valley. The surrounding hills are the traditional abode of the “tribes”.

    The other ethnic groups of Manipur other than the Meiteis are classified as “tribes” during British Rule into three groups, namely, the Naga “tribes”, the Chin-Kuki-Mizo “tribes”, and the Old Kuki “tribes” who are culturally and linguistically nearer to Chin-Kuki-Mizo but have other linkages with the Naga “tribes”. Among these “tribes”, only 33 “tribes” are picked up and designated as the “Scheduled Tribes” by the Government of India, just as certain sections among the Meiteis are recognized as the “Scheduled Castes”. Both the “Scheduled Tribes” and the “Scheduled Castes” enjoy special privileges. Therefore the unrecognized “tribes” have recently asserted their separate ethnic identities and demanded inclusion of their ethnic names in the list of “Scheduled Tribes”.

    The Meiteis do not enjoy any constitutional privileges like the Scheduled Tribes or the Scheduled Castes. They are not permitted under the Manipur Land Reform Act to settle in the hill areas.  However, any of the “tribes” are legally free to own landed property and settle in the valley. The discriminatory treatment by the government and the increasing imbalance in population density between the hills and the valley create tension and mistrust between the Meiteis and the hill “tribes”. In the absence of social homogeneity, the various ethnic groups may settle as neighbours but lead more or less segregated lives.

    At the political level, it is simply the flagrant denial of democratic space to the people of Manipur ever since the forced merger in 1949. Economically, the surplus agrarian economy of Manipur that India inherited is now characterized by structural distortions. With no productive industrial base whatsoever and the hill areas almost entirely left out of its share of the development pie, Manipur survives from hand to mouth on doles from the central government. More than half a million educated youths, in a population of 2.7 million, are unemployed. Despite outward manifestations of democratic government, all levers of political and economic power are concentrated in the hands of a coterie comprising corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and contractors (both armed and unarmed).

    On the other hand, with the coerced merger of Manipur to the Dominion India and the abolition of the Foreigner’s Permit System in 1950, the floodgate was open for the entry of Mayang immigrants from mainland India and foreign immigrants. Consequently, the decadal growth population, which was only 12.80 p.c. in 1941-1951, jumped up to 35.04 p.c. in 1951-1961. The trend continued in the following decades. The total immigrant population is considered outnumbering the indigenous “tribal” population.

    This structural change in Manipuri society, as reflected in its changed demographic composition, has alarmed the indigenous population. They naturally feel that their distinctive culture and identities are facing the grave threat of being submerged under or assimilated by the Indo-Aryan peoples.

    The Sino-Indian War (1962) was a watershed in Delhi’s attitude towards the Northeast region or “Norwesesia”. The rulers in Delhi woke up from benign neglect to active realisation of the strategic value of the region including its rich untapped natural and mineral resources. Then, since the early Nineties, came India’s “Look East Policy”, a multi-faceted strategic initiative primarily to counter China’s increasing influence in Southeast Asia. At the core of this policy is land connectivity to Southeast Asia. This has compelled Delhi to change its policies and attitude towards the region. Manipur’s territory in particular (if not the people) has become suddenly very important to Delhi because the proposed trans-Asian road and rail links have to pass through Manipur’s Moreh town on the India-Burma border and it will be a reality soon.

    Now, it is the time for the people of the region to better understand the commonalities and complexities of India’s Northeast or “Norwesesia” in the emerging geo-political situation amidst the rising powers of China and India while Burma tries to keep better relations with the two powers exploring the best way available, Bangladesh becomes more friendlier and the future of Nepal is still fluid and uncertain.

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