Book review: Making of India’s northeastern region

Print edition : November 06, 2020
At the present time this book comes as an important pointer to how the region could have been, and still can be, better envisioned, as one of shared prosperity and well-being.

You are standing in a forest covered in snow, your phone is out of network range, the nearest human habitation is an arduous hike away. You are cut off from society, so to say, and yet your proximity to the “state: was never greater. You are isolated, but not detached. For you are standing on the cusp of great rivalries amongst powerful nations. How to turn this adversity into strength? What is at play here? This is the question in essence that Dilip Gogoi’s book Making of India’s Northeast : Geopolitics of Borderland and Transnational Interactions grapples with as it builds up a detailed narrative of India’s Northeast as a “sub-region” or a “region-state’ ready to take off.

The conceptual entity “Northeast India” has assumed significance in recent decades as a discursive category of national policymaking as well as regional assertions of aspirations. The corpus of literature that has contributed to the conceptualisation of the region seems to be ever growing, to the extent that the perceptive scholar Andrew J. May said a few years ago in a research article: “Northeast India is in an apparent state of being marginalised, rediscovered and redefined.” Variously explained as a condition of “durable disorder”, “‘born anxieties” and so on, the region’s experience with the Indian political system has been seen, on the one hand, to have resulted in an erosion of democracy and institutionalisation of authoritarianism, and, on the other hand, in an opening up of new experiments of statecraft and new areas of possibilities, at times transcending national boundaries. Gogoi’s book seems to have taken stock of both these perceptions while trying to weave a connecting thread binding the two.

The question, as Gogoi puts it, is to recognise the fact that the “northeast continues to remain an imprisoned land, from both mainland India and its international borders” (page 6) and to figure out a way “to transform India’s north-east frontier from the present geopolitical imprisonment to a robust trans-border region building process” (page 2).

Making of a region

Comprising seven chapters in total, the book embarks on an ambitious journey to connect the rich literature on the making of the region from colonial times through to postcolonial into a zone of exception with that of the emerging perspectives on understanding the region as a liminal zone, as a borderland rife with instances (and further possibilities) of transnational interactions. While doing so, the book makes a constant reference to the overarching framework of geopolitics that in many critical ways informs the twin matrix of national security and regional aspirations. In other words, great games played between nations influence, overtly or in subversive ways, the ways in which the state gazes at the region and the ways in which the region returns the gaze.

The first three chapters, including, the “Introduction”, are devoted to building up the theoretical framework of the book. The book is conscious about the need for methodological clarity and makes it a point to clarify the connotations of the concepts and terminologies used. The author conceptualises the making of frontier and borderland with themes such as evolution of the sovereign state and international law.

The author brings out three distinct perspectives—relating to proximity, interaction and territoriality—to understand the phenomenon of border conflict among states which shares boundaries. The book uses three primary lens’ of international relations (IR) in explaining the region and its realties under deliberation—“realism” when discussing the role of geopolitics and national security in shaping up the region; “liberalism” while discussing the region’s international interactions under the rubrics of Look/Act East Policy; and “constructivism” to re-envision and launch the region in a new way into a dynamic region-state.

In a sense the second part of the book begins with the fourth chapter, “Making of India’s Northeast”, where the author rightly observes that the location of the region at the crossroads of history, geography and culture has endowed it with a complex reality and a volatile engagement with Indian political systems and administrative arrangements. The author talks about how “a shattered past and the colonial geopolitics has contributed a lot towards political instability in the present” (page 82) and points out that the major contradictions pertaining to the region—“feeling of otherness and political culture of violent separatism”—continue to persist. The author takes critical views on measures of asymmetrical federalism such as the Sixth Schedule and special constitutional provisions for the region like Article 371 (A, B, C, F, G and H) as unimaginative and as an extension of divisive politics with a colonial tinge that incentivises conflicts amongst ethnic groups by encouraging demands for ethnic homelands.

The next chapter, “Northeast India in the realm of geopolitics”, is central to the book, which explores “how geopolitics shape subregional identity and conflict in India’s Northeast by examining the external geopolitical factors emanating from the three neighbouring countries—China, Bangladesh and Myanmar—and assessing its implications for both the region and nation” (page 80). The deliberations of this chapter have critical significance in the present circumstances of heightened tensions along the China-India border as the chapter deals at length with the issue of “contested border as the source of militarised conflict” and examines in detail the implications of a highly volatile China-India border for the north-eastern region.

The study of the other two borders is equally significant: the India-Bangladesh border (“borders as facilitators of societal conflict”) and the India-Myanmar border (“borders as facilitators of low intensity conflict”). Topics of contemporary relevance like cross-border migration, societal conflicts and India’s national security are discussed under this section. The author also discusses the issue of “armed groups of radical national forces” destabilising the region in the name of a sovereign homeland by building a trans-border nexus across the India-Myanmar, India-Bangladesh and India-Bhutan borders and how it turns the region into a security challenge. Given the ongoing “peace negotiations” of the Government of India with some of the prominent armed national groups, this line of argument will be interesting if pushed further. To what extent are the geopolitical factors crucial in determining the fate of such negotiations?

The chapter ends with the question of whether India’s north-eastern region can be envisioned beyond geopolitics. The next chapter (“Act East through India’s Northeast”) attempts to look deeper into this query and takes up a critical study of the Act East policy initiatives.

Going Beyond “acting East”

There is a consolidating viewpoint that envisions India’s north-eastern region as a borderland with spatial realities pouring across the national boundaries, the region increasingly being placed in an expanding paradigm where there is talk about

a “greater Northeast”—

the Bangladesh-Burma-Bhutan-Tibet-Yunnan region (Aung-Thwin, 2008) and as a post-Partition academic and geographical territory (Van Schendel, 2018). The present book shares such perspectives but takes a critical view of the existing policy measures like Act East Policy (originally Look East Policy) that is supposed to be a policy initiative recognising the region’s unique positioning as a gateway to Southeast Asia.

Engaging at length with the status of north-eastern India in continental, transnational, bi-lateral connectivity projects as well as the current state of cross-border trade of north-eastern India, the book argues that policies such as Act East Policy and Look East Policy being construed around the principles of neoliberal trade facilitation fail to bring real transformation and empowerment of the region. Interestingly, apart from pointing out the abysmal level of local participation as one of the challenges the policy confronts, “fear of China factor” is listed as another challenge. China has indeed been the elephant in the room for the north-eastern region as far as the Act East Policy measures are concerned.

The final section of the book (“Epilogue : A possible region-state”) reflects on the urgent need to connect the “sub-state region of Northeast India” to the three dynamic “growth circles of the greater Asian region”, East, Southeast and South Asia, from which north-eastern India remains isolated because of geopolitical complexities (“India’s national security compulsions”), despite the geographical proximity and historical connectivities. In this context, the region continues to be “geo-politically trapped with a continuation of old colonial legacies of frontier and borderlands in postcolonial times” (page 157). The author emphasises the need for the Indian state to adopt three definite approaches—local national and international—to re-conceptualise the region-state framework towards integrating with Southeast Asia. However, given the extensive political debates and concepts that these suggested approaches contain, including debates on radical reconfiguration of federal power sharing and local-level autonomy, one wishes this section of the book was more extensive.

As a concluding position, the author takes the constructivist world view with a framework of “region-state”, which he believes would liberate the region from the geopolitical trap and integrate it with greater the Southeast Asian region as he argues that the “emerging geo economic order of sub-regionalism has immense potential to liberate the sub-state region of Northeast India from the present geopolitical trap as well as colonial and post-colonial clutches of power” ( page167).

Although the author alludes to the fact that north-eastern region represents heterogeneity in terms of nationality and related aspirations, more attention to the changing class dynamics within the region, following from decades of negotiation with inflow of national and transnational capital into the region would have added more value to the book. More references to the involvement of regional elites in schemas such as the Act East Policy would have enhanced the overall argument of the book.

Studies show that neoliberal economic reforms in the country failed to curb state dependency and create new forms of prosperities in the region. Rather, they only consolidated the status of the region as a “resource frontier”, where the “neoliberal context of jobless growth, increasingly unregulated and precarious forms of employment” (Gayatri A. Menon and Aparna Sundar, 2018, in “Uncovering a politics of livelihoods: analysing displacement and contention in contemporary India”) gets added to the lens of “national security” through which the region continues to be largely construed.

Besides, the theoretically rich work would have benefited from some ethnographic accounts from the lived experiences of people from these borderlands. Example can be given here of recent scholarship that talks about the importance of looking “beyond the focus on the ‘here and now’ and ‘probe ‘histories of friendship’ and ‘expansive personhood’ beyond the present lacuna of postcolonial mentality’ (Northeast India: A Place of Relations edited by Yasmin Saikia and Amit R. Baishya, 2018).

Charting new domains

The book thus discusses the significance of India’s north-eastern region, the challenges it faces and the possibilities it contains through its theoretical lenses of international relations studies. This also comes out as the innovativeness of the book. The literature coming out addressing the eclectic category called “Northeast India” has been almost entirely from the disciplines of history, social anthropology, literature and political science with a focus on state power, although it has adopted, more often than not, interdisciplinary approaches. In that sense, discussing the region through theoretical constructs such as realism, liberalism and constructivism, all related to international relations, provides for a fresh approach to engage with the region. While doing so, as Prof. Gunnel Cederlof comments in her blurb review, “the book opens up the disciplinary boundaries of studying the region not merely as a margin to powerful nation states but as part of a dynamic geography spanning across nations, as a frontier at the centre of international key events with global impact”.

Gogoi has to tread a difficult path here, trying to follow what he calls an interdisciplinary approach, combining international relations perspectives with the region’s political geography and history. The result is original and rewarding, although in places one wishes the balance between the various perspectives were more proportionate. For example, the book would have benefited from historicising the debate more by exploring how a history of subnationalism that is characteristic of the region is fundamental in understanding the many regional para diplomatic moves. However, if one talks of history, geography becomes imperative; discussions of international relations make references to the national politics seem inevitable and so forth. Such is the difficulty in writing about a region that seems to have charted a thousand years in the span of one’s lifetime. Hence, one can understand the author’s dedicated focus on one approach while engaging with the region, while hinting at the interconnections. The book draws from a wide range of references and consults an impressive corpus of documents, some of which are attached as a rather voluminous appendix. The book, therefore, should be of interest to readers from diverse backgrounds— academics, policymakers, or anyone else with a common interest in India’s north-eastern region. At a time when people get to hear of news like five young people from Arunachal Pradesh “straying off” into China and getting captured by the Chinese military, this book comes as an important pointer to how the region could have been, and still can be, better envisioned, as one of shared prosperity and well-being.

References:

Andrew J. May, “To Lay Down the Frontier of an Empire: Circumscribing Identity in Northeast India” (2016), Studies in History, Volume 32, Issue 1

Gayatri Menon and Aparna Sundar (2018): “Uncovering a politics of livelihoods: analysing displacement and contention in contemporary India, Globalisations.”

Walter Fernandes Walter. (2020). “Land Issues and Liberalisation in Northeast India” in Mishra Deepak K & Pradeep Nayak (ed). “Land and Livelihoods in Neoliberal India.” Palgrave MacMilan.

Willem Van Schendel,( 2018) “Afterword – Contested, Vertical, Fragmenting: De-Partitioning ‘Northeast India’ Studies”, in: Mélanie Vandenhelsken, Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh and Bengt G. Larsson (eds.), Geographies of Difference: Explorations in Northeast Indian Studies, 2018, London and New York: Routledge.

Yasmin Saikia and Rahul Amit Baishya (Eds.)(2017) “Northeast India: A Place of Relations”, Cambridge.

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