THE north-eastern region of India has been a source of problem since India attained Independence. It has also been South Asia’s most enduring theatre of separatist guerrilla war, a region where armed action has usually been the first, rather than the last, option of political protest. What is strange is that 60 years after the British left India, none of the separatist movements in the north-east appear anywhere near their proclaimed goal of liberation from the Indian Union, nor does the separatist violence in the region threaten to spin out of control.
The north-east is seen as India’s ‘Mongoloid fringe’ where the country begins to look less and less Indian and more like the highland societies of South-east Asia. The author says that since it was one of the last areas of the subcontinent to be conquered by the British, the north-east was never part of any trans-Indian empire in ancient or medieval times. Migration from the Indian mainland was limited to preachers and teachers, traders and soldiers of fortune. The mainland’s ‘Sanskritic’ cultural influence touched only Assam, Manipur and Tripura where the kings adopted variants of Hinduism as the state religion.
On this basis, the author, who is a journalist and academic researcher, maps out the evolution of this region into a constituent of the Indian republic and analyses the perpetual crisis since Independence. He highlights how land, language and leadership issues have been the seed of contention in the north-east and how factors like ethnicity, ideology and religion have shaped the conflicts. He admits that ethnicity has been the mainstay of the region’s separatist movements and often has formed the basis for creation of political-administrative units there, with its self-corrosive perspectives restricting the growth of local nationalism strong enough to confront Delhi.
For nearly four decades people in India’s north-east have lived in the shadow of the gun. But now is the time to wake up and take some concrete steps for development of the region. Basic structural changes in the polity to accommodate the aspirations of the battling ethnicities of the north-east will nicely fit in with the efforts to turn the region into a trans-national economic space linking India with the economies of South-east Asia. But this will work only if the neighbourhood is freed from the pernicious influences of military rule in Myanmar or fundamentalist control, as in Bangladesh. A democratic Myanmar and “a secular-democratic Bangladesh” is essential for a trouble-free north-east.
The book is provided with a large body of data, documentation and field interviews with major players as well as stakeholders. It is an informative read for decision-makers, bureaucrats dealing with the north-east and those involved in counter-insurgency operations in the area.
(Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110 044.)