India’s lost chance

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Border Security Force (BSF) personnel keeping vigil at the Masalabari border outpost along the Indo-Bangladesh international border in Dhubri district of Assam, a file photograph. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) supporters at a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Guwahati on January 11. Photo: PTI

NSCN (I-M) cadres pay tribute to their chairman Isak Chisi Swu at the outfit’s headquarters in Dimapur, Nagaland, on July 1, 2016. Isak Chisi Swu died in New Delhi on June 8 that year after a prolonged illness. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

This contemplative work explores the history of the north-eastern region, its relationship with the Centre and India’s missed opportunity to set up an exemplary democratic state that accommodates its foundational diversity.

Sanjib Baruah’s books are among the few that have succeeded in convincingly portraying the semiotics of ‘nation’. The latest addition to his books is In the Name of the Nation, which was published in February 2020, at the time when the Indian state was providing a new imagination to nationhood by overhauling its citizenship norms.

The timing of the book’s release also becomes crucial from the point of view of the reaction of the north-eastern region to the new citizenship norms and how the region was once again placed in a dilemma by the Centre on the issue by initiating the upgradation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) simultaneously. This book is unique because it successfully brings out the continuous duplicity in the policies of the Centre to maintain its hegemony over the region.

This book is the third in a trilogy that is the result of continuous rendezvous with the region, with the other two equally impressive works being India Against Itself and The Durable Disorder. Continuing the trend of his earlier works, this book is also an exertion on the politics of cartography, treated with historical evidence. Here the author claims to depart from his Weberian training to take positions in order to put things before. However, in the process Baruah has reinvented himself as a utopian thinker ready to be free from the fallacy of realism that engulfs official and academic thinking on such emotive matters.

Taking the history of the troubled relationship between this region and the Centre as the vantage point, the book is a reflection of the territorially circumscribed nation form, strongly putting forward the thought whether democracy, under such circumstances, can sustain or deepen. In doing so, the book is a saga of ‘twilight zone between history and memory’, a method the author says is inspired by Eric Hobsbawm. This is a contemplative work, based on several decades of engagement with the place, narrating upon the past mistakes and repression ‘in the name of nation’. Apart from the introduction and the conclusion, the book is divided into six intriguing chapters. They are weaved through a story of continuities and ruptures between colonial and post-colonial institutions.

‘Strange region’

Baruah begins by quoting B.K. Gandhi in the introductory chapter where he called it a strange region, and the same sentiment is echoed in the book Woh bhi koi desh hain Maharaj, the name inspired by the exclamation of an Indian Army jawan posted in the north-eastern region to the author. This chapter argues how this directional name has transformed into a deliberate policy name and is sufficiently used by everyone to signify a visual regime of racial profiling and an unequal power relation. In trying to turn an imperial frontier space into the national space of a normal sovereign state, there have been attempts to give several makeovers, starting from a Hindu-accented cultural one to the approved concept of a shadow state of a hybrid political regime; these have all reinforced the continuity of the ‘othering’ technique in the narrative of national belonging and un-belonging.

The interesting (non)relation between popular participation in elections and democratic deficit (indicated by the persistent stretching of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFPSA) is an allegory used by the author to signify a blurred relation between state and society and public and private in the region and begin a thought-provoking introduction to the region. Such conflicting coexistence has been narrated by the author in the other chapters, too, explaining that such a confusing concomitance has been the deliberate manoeuvre of the Centre.

Beginning the first chapter, ‘Invention of North east India’, the author quotes a speech at the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1944 by Sir Robert Reid, who served as Governor of Assam between 1937 and 1942. He said that a thing that was common for this region was that neither racially, historically, culturally nor linguistically did it have any affinity with the people of India proper. If they were in India they were so by historical accident. With this basic understanding, the British administrators cautiously oversaw the affairs in this region; they created excluded, partially excluded and tribal areas of Assam; beyond these were the advanced strategic frontiers. They also conceptualised a system of indirect rule whereby they allowed the functioning of a set of customary laws through some pseudo-traditional elites, as Baruah categorises them. With the policy of excluded area and indirect rule, the British were able to maintain control over the region whereas in other parts of the country it was shaking. The author observes that this colonial politics of indirect rule has remained as a response tool to control the region even after decolonisation.

This is echoed in the behaviour of the Indian state immediately after Independence in dealing with the north-eastern region that seemed to be shaky and non-confident, and a sense of national insecurity over this region prevailed. The Nehruvian policy of firmness and friendliness, not a departure from the colonial approach, was the wobbly response to the Naga unrest and the Mizo rebellion, or the Chinese aggression that happened in the 1960s.

These incidents changed the colonial concept of frontier provinces and all came under India as States and the parallel government structure was introduced. The inception of the Sixth Schedule gave a new lease to the concept of autonomous units in the region. The north-eastern region was reinvented as a peculiar governance structure.

Experience of Partition

The second chapter of the book is all about situating the Partition history of India in the present context and how that event has persisted as a long shadow on contemporary events in the eastern part of the country, particularly Assam. The experience of Partition was completely different for the east and the west of India. Hindu refugees, who moved to this side of the border after Partition, became part of the national mainstream; however, in the case of the north-eastern region, there emerged a minoritised space for Partitioned refugees.

Assam was used by the British as a settlement frontier, the author argues in the chapter, and this created an indigenous-migrant rift in the collective conscience. Here Baruah also brings in the referendum of Sylhet as a reference point. Immigration remained a dominant issue, even for the State leadership, to the extent of asking for prerogative in matters like citizenship. Those leaders were branded narrow-minded or parochial. Any migrant (refugee or other) is not accepted to become a part of the region. However, an unspoken coalition happened between ‘Assamese’ and Bengali Muslims against Bengali Hindus; but the inherent tendency of ‘othering’ resulted in branding all of them as Bangladeshis.

The author further argues that with the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a significant power in the region, infusing religious fervour into regional patriotism got institutionalised. Until then India was following the Nehruvian ideal in the Indian citizenship model that assured minority communities security and discouraged them from migrating (in accordance with the Nehru-Liaquat Pact).

With the introduction of the CAA, the present government has not only endangered that principle, with the simultaneous appraisal of the NRC it has created yet another peril of duality in the region. Observers and activists at the national level are confused regarding the state of affairs in the region with regard to these two issues. Here the author tries to explain that such sociopolitical reactions on these issues in the region are due to the differential historical experiences of Partition that are alien to other parts of India.

Development and identity

The third chapter deals with the idea of development in the region, and the author tries to link this with the discourse on identity. He argues that the idea of development as identity has cost the region heavily, as it has evolved not only as a settlement frontier but also as a resource frontier. The contradictory coexistence of development on the one hand as a creator of wealth at the cost of ecology, community land, public health, and the lives of common people and on the other in the quest for development out of the desire for equal membership in the social construct which has created ‘new tribal elites’. This is at the cost of a vast indigenous population whose members are forced to leave their land and occupy stigmatised social spaces and remain as unimagined commons.

Forwarding the argument that the north-eastern region is the last resource frontier left of India, Baruah explores an interesting revelation in that regard. He argues that there is a corporate identity of the term tribe, meaning that indigenous communities also own the resources beneath when they own the land, as suggested by the provisions of the Sixth Schedule. The author extensively deals with the case of the coal boom in Meghalaya and Nagaland and timber and hydropower extraction in Arunachal Pradesh to show that these resource frontiers are not exploited by ‘profit-driven outsiders’ but are used by ‘locals and members of community’. This has been largely facilitated by the method of ‘indirect rule’ that the book deals with in the first chapter.

Naga nation

Terming the Naga peace process as elusive, the fourth chapter extensively deals with the history of the Naga national movement. This points to the fact that the declaration of Naga independence a day before India’s Independence holds a special case of this corner in the pedagogy of nationhood. In fact, the Nagas were the first to associate themselves with the concept of nation in this part and the author explains that they did that in order to escape from the subordinate identity of ‘tribe’ (as was the case during colonial times); that is still the situation.

Here the author also brings out the interesting history of the usage of the term Naga. The pan Naga nationhood was strengthened by the missionary network, he points out and makes many interesting disclosures whilst raising the issue of factionalism within tribes. He makes the fascinating argument that the politics of ceasefire and counter-insurgency measures by the Indian state led to the intensification of Christian identity formation against the dominant ‘Hindu Muslim identity’.

This chapter brings into discussion the politics of ceasefire in general and with reference to Naga rebels in particular. The live description of designated camps and the functioning of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah) in the style of a ‘state in waiting’ have actually given a higher status to the organisation, and such arrangements have made the peace settlement elusive. This also has a forbearing impact on the inner-line politics of the region that has led to continuous troubled borders amongst the States in the region.

With all these undercurrents of events related with Naga nationhood sentiment, the Centre has settled to a state of ‘no war no peace’ to ‘manage’ the situation, and Baruah argues that this is an extension of the colonial policy of a false sense of shared sovereignty.

Continuing with this theme of insurgency and the aspect of state violence as a counter-insurgency measure, though on a different setting, the fifth chapter is about the rise of insurgency (sub-national movements) in the region and how the state responded. It begins with a secret killing episode in Assam (1996-2001) as a tool to counter insurgency. The author has been successful in theorising that such measures and the proclamation of AFSPA have to lead to the victory of military metaphysics over and above a political solution to the issue.

Baruah suggests this is a failure of the Indian state, as such overpowering military psychology of the state has never yielded a positive outcome.

In the chapter, the author brings an interesting concept of the idea of ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom) and how it is so hard to put an end to it through the structural violence that has been unleased over and over again. In Assam, elected governments rise and fall on the question of migration; the question of nation and citizenship remains unresolved. There is a continuous manoeuvring of the violence pedagogy to bring about a pedagogy of culture by the Indian state, the author argues.

At the present juncture, owing to the change in political dynamics, there is a redefinition of national citizenship to suit the Hindu majoritarian narrative, and this, according to Baruah, will threaten the fragile political balance in the State (he pitches in the factor of Miya Muslim or Muslims of eastern Bengal origin in making Assamese the cultural face of the State). This has resulted in the reaction on the streets against the CAA that shows the unending spirit of the idea of ULFA as mentioned by him earlier.

The sixth chapter is a continuation of the previous two chapters on perpetuation of colonial policing through military power in the region, with particular attention to the AFSPA regime. However, the point that is of interest in this chapter is the author’s perspective on citizenship. He says citizenship is on the one hand about conforming to set rules and on the other about adding new perspective to democracy and the nation. So, citizenship can sometimes mean breaking it, occasionally even with arms. Hence the argument that political interventions by rebel groups are to be seen as serious acts of citizenship, and if this is recognised then it overpowers the military metaphysics.

Lost chance

The book is a cautionary tale on India’s lost chance of setting up an exemplary democratic civilisational state that accommodates its foundational diversity. The curious case of north-eastern India, the author mentions, as one of the most troubled parts of the country that also has the highest voter turnout in periodic elections.

Different geographical imaginations, historical memories, and political sensibilities have led to a situation in this part that has challenged the hegemonic nature of the national unity discourse in the country.

An admonitory put here is about the need for change in the politics of citizenship in the region that should be based on a vision of a common future rather than a search for memories of real and imaginary pasts.

For this to happen a decentralisation of the democratic process is required that again calls for a more confident vision of India going beyond protection, patronage and tutelage, as summarised by the author. Until then it is another waiting for Godot; it has already been long enough.

Dr Pallavi Deka is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Handique Girls’ College, Guwahati.