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Missed lessons

Print edition : Aug 10, 2012

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A sound analysis of the issues that have troubled north-east India.

The book Looking Back into the Future is a collection of essays/articles by M.S. Prabhakara on a range of issues historical, political and social concerning Assam and some of its neighbouring States in north-eastern India. Prabhakara taught English language and literature in Gauhati University from 1962 to 1975 before he began his career as a journalist, first with Economic & Political Weekly and later with The Hindu and Frontline. His vast knowledge about the issues that have troubled north-eastern India over the years appears to be the outcome of his curiosity and interest in the region and an affection for it.

Prabhakara writes about the contribution made by American missionaries in the recognition of Assamese as an official language in 1873 for judicial and administrative purposes. After the annexation of Assam in 1826, the British adopted Bengali as the official language. Sustained efforts by missionaries such as Dr Miles Bronson and civil servants such as Dr Anandaram Dhekial Phukan ensured that Assamese got official language status. Prabhakara points out that perhaps the failure of the missionaries to convert many Assamese people into Christianity owing to the relatively liberal social structure and the enormous hold of the modified form of Vaishnavite Hinduism popularised by Sri Sankaradeva resulted in their scholarly labour acquiring an aura of unselfish and disinterested love for the language of the people.

While dealing with reservation politics in the region, the book highlights a common yet interesting trend among many communities who renounce their caste-Hindu names through affidavits and revert to their supposedly original tribal surnames. Thereafter, these communities, who mostly belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), demand reclassification as Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts). Earlier, these communities were supposedly Hinduised on meeting certain conditions imposed by upper-caste Hindus. Though the caste system in the region was not a closed and rigid one unlike in other parts of the country, these communities were looked upon as belonging to lower classes. Politicians have been doing all they can to appease such communities in order to retain them as loyal vote banks, though often the bona fides of their demands for reclassification as S.Ts are never examined. However, at times, the government indefinitely defers its decision on even genuine demands such as those of Adivasis, a tea garden and ex-tea garden community, who have been classified as OBCs in Assam (on the alleged grounds that they are not an indigenous tribe) but as S.Ts elsewhere. They appear to have lost or rather left behind their tribal identity in places from where they were picked up by the British and forcibly sent to work as labourers in the tea gardens of Assam.

An article published in December 1974 in Economic & Political Weekly gives an account of the backdrop of the Bodo Sahitya Sabhas agitation demanding adoption of the Roman script instead of the Assamese script for the Bodo language. Much later, although the Devanagari script was accepted as a compromise formula, the agitation of the Bodos (one of the largest homogenous peasant communities of Assam) with various demands still continues. An identity crisis, which is at the root of most agitations such as the Bodo agitation, has often stirred the region. Over the years, such issues have only multiplied owing to the callous ways of the government and its inability or refusal to prevent the weakening and fragmentation of the region, an inevitable consequence of the dangerous policy of creating a few heavily subsidised little bureaucratic empires, with an army of officers and policemen and contractors bloated on the good things of life Referring to a couple of opinion pieces of two former Secretaries to the Union government in newspapers, Prabhakara shows how easy it is to see through the misplaced sympathies of many a bureaucrat whose lack of concern for facts and even for geography, at times, is quite depressing.

The book points out that the provisions pertaining to the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and before that the Government of India Act of 1935 and the Government of India (Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas) Order, 1926, are all based on the assumption that only the hill tribes required special protection as there were vast differences between them and the majority of the Assamese people in the plains.

The tribal people of the plains, though constitutionally classified as S.Ts, were not given such protection on the basis that there existed no distinction between them and the non-tribal communities. Greater autonomy and other demands in the areas inhabited by the plains tribes gained momentum as they witnessed the progress of the tribal communities of the hills and their ability to retain their identity.

In an article aptly titled Chasing a Mirage, published in Frontline in 2003, Prabhakara writes about how the leaders of the Assam agitation threw away the opportunity to have an early and final solution to the problem of illegal immigration of Bangladeshis to Assam. He offers some interesting statistics which reveal that while over three lakh illegal migrants were deported from Assam between 1962 and 1984 under the Foreigners Act, 1946, about 1,501 of them were deported between 1985 and 2003 under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT Act), 1983, which was eventually declared ultra vires the Constitution of India and struck down by a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in Sarbananda Sonowal vs Union of India & Another, (2005) 5 SCC 665. The court directed the cases pending before the IMDT tribunals to be transferred to the foreigners tribunal constituted under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964. Interestingly, the Government of West Bengal managed to deport about half a million illegal migrants under the Foreigners Act without any agitation and without any IMDT Act and without setting up any foreigners tribunal, the specialised quasi-judicial bodies entrusted with the task of identifying foreigners in Assam.

In an article titled Massacres Unbound: Outrage Selective, published in December 2003 in Frontline, the author notes how violent clashes between Assamese and Biharis get national attention as two major national groups with national clout are involved. However, when abducted children of a particular tribe are beheaded and burnt alive, abducted women are raped and killed, and villages are torched in remote parts of north-eastern India, there is a curious but not-so-surprising silence. Questions pertaining to the identity of these tribes and the geography of these places would only provoke a yawn in New Delhi for what happens to such obscure people from obscure corners of an obscure land does not really bother the country.

Be it the government or political leaders or insurgents, the most preferred route while seeking a solution, whether to a real or an imaginary problem, is to go around in circles. In his article titled To divide is to multiply, Prabhakara points out that the banning of a rebel outfit is always followed by the emergence of clones, often carrying the same name, calling themselves dissident or pro-talks factions. With a slight change in its commitment from securing sovereignty and independence to achieving a greater autonomy, such pro- or anti-talks factions march on towards the same core revolutionary objectives. Much of these objectives, he writes, are dictated by a sense of insecurity and anxiety about the so-called identity, underlying which is the wariness about the alien and the outsider.

In the article Serviceable Memory and Persistence of the Past, one gets an idea of how blissfully the media tend to ignore human rights violations. Prabhakara extracts a few reports from the local English-language newspapers based on verbatim reproductions of Defence Ministry handouts of Army encounters in 2002. As per the reports, the Army or paramilitary forces killed suspected militants, whose identities were yet to be ascertained. However, the media, in particular the English-language media, did not find anything amiss in these incidents, perhaps because the encounters happened in rural areas where admittedly the civilians who were killed were of unknown identity, and yet they were suspected to be militants. There may be something in the way militants look or move that is known only to the Indian Army and the Assam Police, which does not warrant any other verification.

Prabhakara writes that the dream of attaining uncontaminated homelands drives those fighting for sovereignty and independence and the constitution of a separate district or a Union Territory or a State. A good look at the horizon would reveal no signs of resolution of the issues that are sought to be resolved through these struggles primarily because the historical processes that have in some ways contributed to the existence of these issues have defied all formulas. Insofar as the never-ending struggles for sovereignty are concerned, he observes, Sovereignty is hardly ever demanded, let alone granted by any existing sovereign state to a part of its territory. Sovereignty is won only by fighting for it. No nation state, even the weakest, ever concedes demands for sovereignty yet the ULFA [United Liberation Front of Asom] has always conceptualised Swadhin Asom as something that can be demanded and secured. Naturally, as the demand for sovereignty began to lose its steam, many ULFA cadres based in Bangladesh and elsewhere, as well as many among them who had surrendered (SULFA), proved themselves to be successful businessmen. The book provides a brief account of the demands of organisations that seek support from history in their claim for an independent and sovereign Manipur. It is another matter that history itself appears to be in constant conflict with imagination in this region. Though the British annexed Assam in 1826 after getting involved in the Burmese invasion, they chose not to annex Manipur but posted a British Resident there and administered the outlying hill areas inhabited by the tribal people. After a brief war in 1891, the British took over Manipur and installed the infant prince Churachand as the future king. Although many claim that Manipur was always an independent kingdom, the adoption of a written Constitution in July 1947, the signing of the merger agreement with the dominion government on September 21, 1949, the transfer of administration of Manipur to the Central government, the virtual militarisation of its administration through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and the gifting away of the Kabaw valley (viewed as an integral part of Manipur) to Burma (now Myanmar) by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1953 simply made sure that the missing pieces of the puzzle were lost forever.

Similarly, it has become more or less clear that the Indian government will not concede anything more than an unspecified assurance of greater autonomy in response to the demands of the Naga nationalist groups for Naga sovereignty and the integration of Naga-inhabited areas at present outside Nagaland into one territorial unit. Nevertheless, groups such as the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isaac-Muviah (NSCN-IM), which run a parallel government in the State, collecting taxes and dispensing justice, seem happy in endlessly having talks with the Centre, knowing well that walking away would only mean walking away into oblivion.

The book also offers a well-researched study of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, its legislative history, its terrifying implications and the political considerations in New Delhi that have always ensured that no political debate takes place to examine whether such a draconian law is really required. Although some of the articles were written several years ago in the context of circumstances that do not exist now and political situations that have completely changed over the years and may have little significance today, the sound analysis of many of the issues that gripped the region in the past may help it to learn its lessons well and fast. Nehru, in his foreword to the paperback edition of his autobiography, wrote that sometimes it was worthwhile knowing the past in order to know the present better. However, the experience even in the recent past would not permit the mind to be very optimistic.

Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon/Though down this road weve been so many times.

Abir Phukan is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India.

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