Great Game East – India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier, Bertil Lintner, Harper Collins, Pp 442 (HB), Rs 699.00
The eight north eastern states of India not only make up one of the largest tribes of the country, the region is also blessed with immense reserve of rare minerals. Ever since the British came to power and realised this, they systematically distanced North East from the mainland India, making it a limited access place, which could not be entered without the permission of the government. The only people who had free access were the missionaries, from all denominations of Christianity. Over the decades, the live religion there of nature worship, flourishing Vaishnavism and other Hindu practices were driven out by the eager converts. English ruled there, still does, with the local languages suppressed or in disuse. Of late of course there has been a linguistic revival effort.
With Independence, the neo converts who looked upon the British as their natural guardians felt at a loss. In came another interloper, in the form of China. Our neighbour helped stoke the fire of separatism which had been lit by the British-Christian interests. With the result of that today, North East India is in turmoil, with the youth there confused, angry and misguided. Great Game East – India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier by Bertil Lintner is a book that looks at the history and the present situation in the North East. Not very sympathetically to India one must add, though not antagonistic either.
The region lies in the ancient Silk Route and it was very much part of the great Indian subcontinent. There are several historic studies and proofs for this. Hence, it debunks the claim of some that the North East region was always ‘separate.’ There are several tribes in India who have never been subdued. They have had an autonomous and independent existence within the greater kingdoms. The Nagas are believed to be one such. It is safe to say that the situation turned sour only after the Christianisation of the people of the region.
Lintner discusses how China and Pakistan aided and abetted extremism in the North Eastern States especially working with those groups which were inimical to India. “Since the late 1950s, the Naga rebel movement had been tacitly supported by India’s arch-enemy, Pakistan, and sanctuaries had been established in what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Many Naga leaders were flown to West Pakistan to meet high-ranking Pakistani military officials and intelligence operatives,” Lintner says.
Through the late sixties and the seventies, China got involved with funding, arming and helping in strategies of warfare of the Naga and Mizo rebels against India. Both these groups are Christian, completely supported by the Church. Says Lintner, “The arrival of Thinoselie, Muivh and their contingent of Naga rebels on the Yunnan frontier on January 27, 1967 marked the beginning of China’s involvement with ethnic rebel movement in India’s volatile north-eastern region. Over the next decade, nearly a thousand Naga rebels made it through northern Burma to China, where they received military training and were sent back to India, equipped with assault rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers and other modern Chinese weapons… Inspired by the Nagas, Mizo rebels also began trekking to China in 1972.”
Today, China is much more powerful and has established military relations with several South East countries. According to the author, from 2006 to 2009 China sold arms worth US $3.1 billion to such countries as Pakistan, Burma, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Today China may have stopped helping the North East rebel movements directly, but the clandestine weapons market, run by the PLA soldiers has not been controlled by it.
In between all this, Lintner says is Tibet, a country which is an irritant between India and China and China and the world. The sure way to needle China is to confer an award and extend an invite to the Dalai Lama. But India has had an ambivalent position, ceding Tibet to China and yet giving asylum to Dalai Lama as a Head of State. Americans have meddled in no small measure in the region. They have set up a consulate and increased the CIA activities to keep an eye on China in the ruse of human rights.
Lintner who has travelled extensively in the area, and understands the local dynamics, has built the story from about past six decades. His perspective remains Western. But he has not explored the evangelists’ angle much. But for any keen observer, religion is a major reason for the continued conflict. An outsider visiting any part of the region confronts the presence of the Church in an all-pervading manner on the lives of people. Lintner discusses the story state by state, including that of Assam,vis-a-vis Bangladesh.
Lintner’s is an interesting read as one encounters facts and features not previously seen. Most of the writings from the region have been biased in favour of the rebels, including the journalists. Hence Lintner’s account is refreshingly without that tilt. The region he says is a hotbed because China wants to control it for a free access to the Indian Ocean. Pakistan is interested because it sees North East as yet another soft underbelly for India, yet another stick to bleed India with. For India its significance cannot be overemphasised. Besides the region always having been part of Bharat, it is a buffer against China and its mineral wealth cannot be overlooked. All these portend not too good for the region, until the people there decide to settle the issue. Peace will only be when north east fully integrates with India, economically, emotionally and spiritually. Lintner has travelled extensively, earlier in guises, moving illegally, and later with proper documents. He has friends there and his ears are close to the ground. Indian strategists must read the book for a better understanding.
Swedish-born Lintner is a senior journalist and has been writing for several publications and is considered an expert on Burma. He has written six books on Burma. He has been living in Asia since 1975.
(Harper Collins, A-53, Sector 57, NOIDA Uttar Pradesh, 201301)