States of the nation

Published : Apr 08, 2005 00:00 IST

Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India by Sanjib Baruah; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005; pages xi + 265, Rs.495.

THIS is the author's second book in five years dealing with the problem of the nation-state in northeastern India and vice versa - the nation that India since Independence is trying to build itself to be and the corresponding and countervailing attempts at another kind of nation-building in the `States of the nation', in this instance Assam and the other States in the northeastern region.

Like his earlier work (India against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, Pennsylvania University Press, 1999), the present book too is a dense and closely argued polemical narrative, argumentative and combative and even confrontationist in both tone and substance. Categorical in its opinions, eschewing the all-too-usual "on the one hand... on the other hand" kind of waffling, and with many of the essays bristling with fresh and provocative insights, it is a very model of polemical writing. "Constructing Confrontationism", the inversed title of one of the chapters, could well have been a more suitable title to the volume as a whole. Unlike his earlier work, which had an internal coherence, the present one is a collection of 10 published articles and essays grouped under six sections, eight of them elaborating further on the themes of his previous book. To that extent, the arguments of the present book are both more varied, and consequently, more diffuse.

THE first section, with one rather grandly titled essay "Towards a Political Sociology of Durable Disorder", sets out the political and ideological approach of the narrative. The `durable disorder' (reminiscent of an earlier rather more realistic and accurate description of India as a "functioning anarchy") has now become part of the permanent order in this region because only under such a condition can the twin objectives of the Indian state - the spread and consolidation of the Indian nation-state into the remotest peripheries of this peripheral region and, concomitantly, the integration, indeed incorporation, of the region, its people, its material and cultural resources, indeed its very history and memories, ignoring in the process the unique specificities of that history, into a pan Indian network controlled and dominated by the `Indians' - be achieved.

The very first sentence of the Preface sets out the approach: "Northeast India's troubled post-colonial history does not fit easily into a standard narrative of democracy in India." The fact, however, is that the history of the country as a whole, and not merely the history of the northeastren region, "does not fit easily into a standard narrative of democracy" - assuming that there is anything like a "standard narrative of democracy". Indeed this is so of the history of any modern nation-state. But then, such northeastern exceptionalism related not so much to its acknowledged exceptional characteristics derived from its geography and history but to the very fact of being what these are now, delinked from the past, is explicitly or implicitly present throughout the narrative.

The book is peppered with several other such expressions and phrases (or, to sound more learned, formulations) derived from what is described in the literature as `post-colonial discourse', of which the phrase, `narrative of democracy', like `post-colonial discourse' itself, is but one example. These beg more questions than they answer. Indeed, the very expression `post-colonial' as well as the ideological assumptions underlying that usage cries out to be challenged because these are posited on a reading of the present correlation of forces worldwide where colonialism is supposed to be well and truly dead and buried in this `post-colonial' world, perhaps meriting study for the insights it may offer to understand in part the present realities, but no more. However, far from being dead, colonialism is very much alive, not merely in the form of neo-colonialism but is re-vivifying itself in its classic form, with agendas of recolonisation active and even triumphant in many so-called `post-colonial' states. India is very much on this agenda; northeastern India is even more so.

Section Two, comprising two essays, "Nationalising Space: Cosmetic Federalism and the Politics of Development", and "Generals as Governors", constitutes the ideological core of the book, especially the first essay, spelt out by the author as "a post-structuralist critique of the theory and practice of development in Northeast India". The Indian experiment, such as it is and has been, is preoccupied with `nationalising the space' on the frontier, extending the authority and the reach of the Indian state to the very limits of its boundaries, driven by the twin objectives of `nation building' and `national security' (the derisive inverted commas, as always, are in the original) - the two seemingly laudable objectives covering and providing the rationale for a multitude of violations of human rights in northeastern India, the universe of this book. Indeed, the author appears to imply and even argue at some points that such violation of human rights is, or at least has now become, a necessary condition for the consolidation of the Indian state in the region.

Chapter 3, "Generals as Governors", seeks to provide the meat to support the theoretical argument of the preceding essay by enumerating and analysing several instances of former senior officers of the military, police and intelligence establishments who have become Governors of the seven States of the region. This has led to a situation where the Governors of these States have become "crucial nodes in the counter-insurgency network" with a role far exceeding what is envisaged in the Constitution, leading to "counter-insurgent constitutionalism", a "de-facto parallel political system somewhat autonomous of the formal democratically elected governmental structure".

That, at best, is a reductionist argument. Anti-democratic conduct of governance has no one-to-one relation with the Governor of a State having a militarist-security background. Some of the most anti-democratic initiatives have been perpetrated by Governors, and others occupying elected office, with civilian backgrounds, some indeed with impeccable credentials as participants in the freedom struggle.

Chapter 4, the first of the two essays in Section III, is both interesting and puzzling, rather like the `puzzle' it seeks to unravel. The `puzzle' is the apparent reluctance of the Assamese peasantry in the initial period of British colonisation to switch from the annual leases to renewable 10 years lease on land they cultivated and engage in "exclusively settled agriculture" instead of abandoning claims on land they had cultivated after a single harvest. The author rejects the explanations provided by the Land Revenue Manual and periodical land administration reports, based on firsthand experience of peasant choice and behaviour, like the practice of land fallowing when they moved to riverine land, and instead suggests, following the suggestion in a "dissenting colonial memo", that the answer lay in the availability of land in abundance in those times - not a novel finding in that context even if providing one more instance of Assamese exceptionalism of those times. This mindset, however, changed under the impact of two developments that radically affected the agrarian situation: one, the grant of vast tract of lands under unimaginably generous terms to tea planters within decades of the conquest and annexation of Assam; and two, the beginning of the systematic migration of peasantry of East Bengal origin into Assam from the second quarter of the last century. The ultimate meaning of the colonial policy of land settlement in Assam, according to the author, was "to shift large amounts of Assam's land and forest resources from the control of the peasantry, both settled and shifting cultivators, and the hunter gatherers to the colonial state. The state then reallocated the land, and the tea planters were the most significant beneficiaries of this largess". The result was the pauperisation of the peasantry, which is not much of an enigma at all.

As always, even this has to be related to the challenge that the author poses to the `colonial discourse' of civilisation and primitivism and, even more importantly, given the author's principal ideological enemy, to the "latter day discourse of economic development", the `nation building' exercise and all that.

One can as well ask the question at this juncture: The scorning and dismissive approach to anything approximating `nation building' which animates almost every page of the book, in particular towards the Indian exercise which is admittedly flawed and is also in many ways besmirched, and by extension towards all such exercises in the `post-colonial' societies, is never extended, even by inference, to such exercises, going on relentlessly and ruthlessly over several centuries in the developed West - the United States, Europe and their allies. The consolidation of the nation-state in Western Europe beginning with the unification of Germany under Otto von Bismarck is even now progressing apace, parallel to and in some vital matters in contradiction to the consolidation of Europe as an economic and eventually as a political unit. Colonisation and genocide were, and in other forms continue to be, the necessary conditions for the consolidation of the U.S. as a nation-state, more so after the experience of a single act of monstrous terrorism against itself. These exercises, even allowing for the fact that the book is concerned with the `nation building' exercise in northeastern India, do not merit even a tangential mention. The rage is all against the admittedly flawed, and still muddled, Indian experiment.

CHAPTER 5, "Confronting Constructionism", discusses the ongoing Naga peace process. Here, too, the impediment to any peace in Nagaland is the intrusion of the Indian state into the region as part of its detested `nation building' project. However, there are other `nation building' projects in the region which are as much constructs of the historical imagination of the people concerned as India's `nation building' project. The author suggests that the contradictions between the "Naga construction of collective selfhood" and the Manipuri nationalist assertion, which even now has a significant independentist component, can somehow be resolved if there were to be "an alternative institutional imagination" as a source of fresh ideas. This is spelt out in the following terms: "The Government of India in the past has resisted pressures to accept the international discourse of the rights of indigenous peoples. While there is a lot to be said for a distinction between the predicament of the indigenous peoples in settler societies and in India, debates within this global discourse can also bring to the table new ideas for addressing the Naga conflict. The principle of the right to self-determination of indigenous people under international law, for instance, has led to concepts like separate polities within shared territories, which have been tried in societies where relations between settlers and indigenous peoples are based on treaties between a government and particular indigenous nations" (page 118).

The devil, as always, is in the detail. Questions left unasked are about the nature and content of this `global discourse', whose master's it is and who articulates it, their linkages with the agenda of recolonisation of which most of them, in the opinion and reading of this writer, are active auxiliaries.

Section IV, comprising three essays, collectively deal with "the life and times of the United Liberation Front of Assam". The first two are reprints of articles that have been incorporated into the author's 1999 volume (Frontline, October 22, 1999). The third essay, "Twenty Five Years Later", discusses the phenomenon of the surrendered ULFA militants (SULFA) and castigates the failure of the Indian state to enforce accountability on SULFA as yet another pointer to India as a `diminished democracy'. Many surrendered militants had indeed committed heinous crimes; and through the mediation of surrenders many of them literally got away with murder. However, the indignation seems to be over the fact that they got away with murder after, indeed consequent upon, breaking ranks with ULFA, not with the crime itself. This is a curious contradiction that is common to much of the analysis of the ULFA/SULFA phenomenon, even of analyses that are seemingly hostile to the separatist/extortionist ideologies from a normatively liberal perspective.

Section V, comprising the lone essay "Citizens and Denizens: Ethnicity, Homelands and the Crisis of Displacement", resumes the attack on `nation building', returning to the theme of "nationalising frontier space" of Chapter 2 - the extension of the institutions of the state all the way to the international border, as if this is a unique Indian lapse from democratic rectitude.

The chapter also touches upon the tribal issues of the region, in particular in Assam where a seemingly endless process of atomisation of Assamese society into ever smaller and smaller `ethnic' identities is going on. With identities being constructed with narrower and narrower self-definitions, how does one deal with the rights of other people inhabiting the same physical space and sharing the same resources? The issue is not academic, given the problems that the `other' is facing and will face in every attained and putative `homeland'.

Taking the cue from his earlier formulation that "the legitimising of the principle of ethnic homelands has meant a de facto regime of two-tiered citizenship" (page 10), the author rejects the "universal model of uniform citizenship" and instead argues for "differentiated citizenship rights" (page 187). The passage is worth quoting in full: "The regime of citizens and denizens that has evolved in Northeast India has to be understood in a historical context. It began as an attempt by the colonial state to insulate some of the peoples organised in pre-capitalist social formations from the devastation that the initial onslaught of global capitalism had brought. Given this history one can argue that a model of formally equal citizenship would only reinforce discriminatory outcomes and that the only way to protect such vulnerable groups is a regime of differentiated citizenship."

This reviewer refuses to accept the `given' about the colonial state - that it ever had in mind beyond a point the welfare of the people it had colonised. Indeed, the concept of differentiated citizenship and the underlying `debate' is reminiscent of the distinction between `non-racialism' and `multi-racialism' in the South African debate following the end of formal apartheid, with the liberation uncompromisingly standing for a non-racial democracy and correctly dismissing all talk of `multi-racialism' as merely another fancy name for a reinvented apartheid. Where does one go after legitimising differentiated citizenship rights? Back to feudalism and helotry?

The concluding article, again rather grandly named "Beyond Durable Disorder", is the weakest part of the book. This `epilogue', designed to provide some answers to the questions raised in the introductory chapter, turns out to be more a nostrum really, for taking the region into the promising future beckoning across from the East. There is little original about the call; this has been the official foreign policy cutting across other political divides over the past decade.

The idea is foreshadowed in the introductory chapter: "[T]he policy holds promises of historic proportions: There are opportunities for the region to acquire access to global markets and technology and to overcome the handicaps of its landlocked condition. At the same time it could also create a transnational space for a less territorialised version of the politics of recognition that animate the ethno-national conflicts of Northeast India" (page 27)1. This becomes a very flood of optimistic expectations in the epilogue where, in the context of what the author describes as the "changing spatialities of our age", there is an exhortation "to go beyond the national order of things", "to project possibilities beyond today's reality and imagine transnational regions of the future", seek "transnational solutions" to escape from the present situation where the people are "trapped in the geopolitics of the colonial and post-colonial order".

WHAT is, however, novel about the author's prescription is the grand vision (shared by the Indian political and business establishments) he weaves about a future where, over a period of time, the northeastern region will be the hub of a "new transnational paradigm of growth", and the linkage of this vision to a past (and by inference, to a future) when Assam and the region as a whole was never really, and will not be, a part of `India'. The author cites, in support of this perspective, a "major two-volume work entitled Southeast Asian Tribes: Minorities and Nations (Princeton University Press, 1967) which had a chapter on Assam that then included much of Northeast India". He approvingly notes the justification provided by the editor of the volume, Peter Kunstadter, for the inclusion of Assam in a volume dealing with the tribal people of Southeast Asia. "Assam, he [the editor of the volume] wrote, has a large population of tribal and minority people whose languages are more closely related to the languages of Southeast Asia than to those of the Indian subcontinent. Their cultures too resemble the cultures of their neighbours in Southeast Asia. Like the southern boundary of China that does not mark a cultural or linguistic division, India's eastern border ... also does not mark of a cultural or linguistic area" (page 215).

In other words, the people of Assam and its environs in the northeastern region need to recognise that their destiny lies in not being entrapped in the `nation building' exercise of the Indian state but in Southeast Asia. The vision, for the present, is dovetailed into the visions of the Indian bourgeoisie, the political and business establishments cutting across other superficial divides, seeking political influence and the markets of this new space for expansion. But the autonomous, region-driven and region-specific perspectives of such a vision are unmistakable.

Finally, many thanks to the writer for this stimulating and provocative narrative that will induce fresh thinking on the issues raised. That, after all, is the object of every kind of polemical writing.

Economic and Political Weekly, October 16, 2004

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