Eye-opener on north-east India

Print edition : January 18, 2019

A Garo tribal woman in Kinangaon in Kamrup district of Assam, a 2013 picture. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The book looks at north-eastern India’s diversity and touches upon the region’s challenges and potential through the eyes of a journalist associated with the region for three decades.

This is an enormously empathetic book about a region and people that have been neglected severely. It tells stories of isolation, unrest, cultural diversity, dangerous politics, ethnic strife, the violation of rights and, significantly, hope.

The author, Rupa Chinai, has an impeccable journalistic pedigree and combines her reporting skills with views that reflect her empathy for the people of the region. Her first job was with Himmat magazine, after which she worked with The Times of India, The Indian Express and The Sunday Observer. She is currently an independent journalist reporting “ground reality from several Indian States”.

It was during her time at Himmat that she developed an interest in the north-eastern region of India. In 1980, she made her first trip to the region, which was “aflame with turmoil and agitations”. Despite this, “no national newspaper had a correspondent in the region. Coverage of events—usually distorted—came from journalists sitting in Kolkata, who seldom stirred further east, mainly because newspaper managements were unwilling to invest in coverage of the area.”

Rupa Chinai’s journalistic training comes through in the thoroughness with which she describes situations and policy. However, she is firm about her point of view, of being clearly on the side of the north-eastern region’s peoples, and vigorously advocates the need to understand the situation with a historical perspective rather than respond with brutal action. While writing about the disillusioned youth in the region who have either affiliated themselves with underground groups or have surrendered and joined local politicians or the mafia, she says: “[T]hese youth continued to represent the face of terror within their societies and are a major hurdle to the peace process. In today’s parlance these gun-wielding youth would be termed as ‘terrorists’ who deserve the harshest punishment. But as a witness to their social experience over decades, I understood where they are coming from and what had brought them to this pass, though I do not condone the use of violence and the politics of hate.”

The book is an education on the fierce tribal politics that rise to the surface once underground groups lose their focus and deteriorate into becoming insurgent groups. She writes, “All these organisations started with a lot of idealism and had the support of the common people but the past decade has seen them deteriorate into terrorist groups, thugs and extortionists…. An intensified struggle for power between the insurgent groups and factions has led to murderous attacks and purges on those they consider traitors or dissidents.”

Alienation among people

The deep sense of injustice and alienation that the people of the region feel is a recurring theme in the book. For instance, Rupa Chinai recalls how a Naga friend told her: “I have many friends who are Indian. Yet in my heart I cannot accept them as my countrymen. There is still a sense of disturbance in my mind. An Indian is always the outsider, the person with whom I come in conflict.”

This sense of alienation to what they refer to as the mainland is exacerbated by poor media coverage of the region. “Denying them an opportunity to be heard and understood, depriving them access to a receptive media and sensitive judiciary, while unleashing the full force of military might and inhuman laws, we are guilty of ruthlessly pushing a peaceful and gentle people against the wall,” Rupa Chinai writes.

The author touches on the well-publicised stories of Irom Sharmila; the Meitei women who stripped to protest against the rape of a Manipuri woman by Assam Rifles personnel; and the cold-blooded murder of Chungkham Sanjit, a young man who was shot dead apparently by the police despite being unarmed. And she talks of the thousands of other cases, many of whom are not even a statistic. The information in the book demonstrates Rupa Chinai’s knowledge and experiences of more than three decades of visiting and staying in the region.

Stories of hope

After pages that describe violence, isolation and a situation that seems to have spun out of control, she calms the reader with some success stories. “There is, however, much that is happening in the lives of ordinary people,” she writes. “After decades of pain and suffering, many are thinking deeply and finding new liberation and creativity that shows us all the way forward. One of the most inspiring demonstrations of this approach is seen in Nagaland. For instance, in Phek district of Nagaland, villages like Chizami are working out a model of development that is rooted in their traditional wisdom and is vitally relevant to the region too. The 2018 Assembly election is a remarkable demonstration of society taking a stand against electoral corruption and commitment to democratic values.”

Yet another story Rupa Chinai narrates is that of Tyka village in Karbi Anglong district in Assam inhabited by a 350-strong tribal community called the Ingtyi. The village produces a variety of turmeric that is rated among the best in the world as proved by the laboratory of the Spices Board of India. But the villagers’ lack of access to capital and to markets meant that the crops were grown largely for home consumption. Help came in the form of influential Ingtyi who were in government service and in banking. Instead of selling land to generate capital (“land is life” for people here), Tyka’s residents involved five neighbouring villages in order to pool in their land resources to make 1,000 hectares.

The result was the formation of something akin to a cooperative for a period of 15 years, and two companies were set up, the Karbi Farmer Producers Company and the Coinonya (Greek for fellowship). The shareholders were 80 families from the five villages who would grow the specific variety of turmeric and ginger and sell it to the Spices Board based in Kochi (one of the Ingtyi was posted in Kochi in a senior position in government). The plan was a long-term one but it held the promise of being sustainable. And more than anything else, it spelt hope.

This is a one-of-a-kind book on the north-eastern region that combines scholarship and anecdotal accounts. It can serve as a good reference for lay readers and researchers and an index would have greatly facilitated this. Photographs would have been welcome but perhaps production costs had something to do with the lack of them. Like many of her trips to the region for which Rupa Chinai relied on her own financial resources, she has chosen to self-publish the book.

Arunachal Pradesh is conspicuous by its absence from the book, and the author has expressed her regret at this saying that she had written only on the States where her interactions had been extensive. But despite these limitations, the book is a must- read. It is not merely an eye-opener but an education and a shaming realisation that most Indians know pathetically little about the north-eastern corner of their own country.

In his foreword to the book, Rajmohan Gandhi writes: “Even those who are aware of the northeast’s critical significance do not know the region’s diversity or the separate potential and challenges of Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Very few have studied the region, its intricacies and its evolution as closely or as steadily as Rupa. Finishing this book, the reader will emerge with new knowledge and insights.”

That pretty well sums up the book.