Questions of North East India . . .

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By Ananya S Guha

The recent clashes in Assam once again reveal the gory and tragic history of India’s North East. Political and Social commentators have tried to explain away the North East problems in a very facile manner without looking into the complex nature of the problems, be they ethnic, political or militant issues. They have taken a singular view of the question of identity or administration in the North East by considering it as a single unit. The single unit misnomer perhaps makes solutions elusive.

There is no doubt a kind of unity among the peoples of the region but this should not be mistaken as a unified problem which besets the region. The concept of singularity is for administrative and bureaucratic reasons.

For example, Sikkim is included administratively in the North East as it falls under the purview of the North East Council. What is overlooked is the complexity and strands of problems which each state in its unique way faces, whether we call them social or political.

The recent unrest in the Kokrajhar District of Assam between two communities is, as a citizen journalists pointed out is due to the contentious issue of land. This is a very pertinent point, as for the economically weak sections of the society it is land which is the source of all value and cannot even be monetized. That is why the Nandigram and Singur conflagrations took place. Land could not even be substituted with money, and it cannot be as land epitomizes not only economic wealth but also an entire culture and history. Land is something which is handed down through generations just as people inherit property in the form of a house.

Similarly, in North East because of immigration land has become the bone of contention as the migrant from a neighbouring country takes possession of the land and makes it cultivable. Land therefore is the major source of conflict in states such as Assam and people fear that the same problem may arise in neighbouring states such as Nagaland and Meghalaya.

In Meghalaya for example the uranium mining question has become a symbol of unrest because the local people feel threatened if they are dispossessed from their land. After all, where will they go to if space is taken up for mining? These are issues which must be considered in a country like India which is characterized by sharp class divisions and bad governance.

Secondly, the militant issues must be seen separately and not identifiable as one.

For example, certain groups want secession from the Indian Union while some advocate a separate state such as that in the Bodo areas of Assam etc. Similarly, in Assam there are further fractious units such as the Karbis and the people in the North Cachar Hills. These issues must be seen separately. Even in Meghalaya there is demand for separatism which is again raising its head, something which the Union Home Minister when he visited Shillong recently seemed oblivious about.

In Manipur there is a similar separatist tendency which is faction ridden and the Manipur question is also entangled with the Naga problem which right now has an uneasy quiet about it in the form of cease fire which has lasted for over a decade. But mind you, ceasefire is not peace and ironically such cease fire is between the government and its own people.

Again, the role of the Army comes in. Using the Army to tackle insurgency alienates the local people from the so called mainstream, a point which has been lucidly mentioned with examples by the journalist, Sudeep Chakravarti in his much talked about book: “Highway 39 Journeys Through A Fractured Land”. Each state has its own individuated problems which must be tackled separately taking into consideration the geo and socio politics of the region and the bogey of singularity if raised will only make the answers elusive. What is needed is empathy and a cohesive action plan which is not only empathetic but also imaginative.

I write this article not as an expert commentator, which I am obviously not but as someone who has lived all his life in this part of the country, and love it. Geographical contiguity between the states has led to the belief that the problems which beset the region are all similar, if not the same and these commonalities are highlighted in a singular manner. Nothing could be further from the truth because each state has its unique problems and unique undercurrent of tensions, whether it be economic, social or political. The diversity of ethnic groups in the region taken as a whole is amazing and bespeaks of a rich cultural diversity. The umbrella of unity comes only when there is insecurity which in many instances is valid. But, the treatment of the region as a singular entity is based on a falsification of thinking and is specious. Hence, the problems cannot be compressed in one box and nor can an understanding of the region be based on any kind of adhocism.

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