Humphrey Hawksley on a fascinating book that examines India’s politically pivotal and wildly beautiful Northeast region
India’s mountainous Northeast region, a triangular shape of land wedged between Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Tibet, can conjure up images of the exotic and remote, of far-away hill stations run by colonial tea planters, and bravery of Second World War Allied airman who flew across the mountains, against winds strong enough to tear wings off their planes, to supply Chinese partisans fighting the Japanese.
Earlier, the Northeast became South Asia’s first experiment in globalisation, with tea from the plantations transported down a network of waterways to Indian ports and then to the teashops and dining tables of Europe.
But today, the descendants of those tea workers are among the most impoverished and disadvantaged people in India. The eight states of the Northeast are home to a myriad of separatist groups mirroring the disquiet within communities which see successive Indian authorities as at best as corrupt and ineffective, and at worst as cruel and exploitative.
It is certainly distant. People travelling from the Northeast talk of going to the mainland, as if they live on an island.
Sanjoy Hazarika is a frustrated and restless native of the tea-growing state of Assam, and a highly respected human rights activist who wrestled for years over how he should write a book about his homeland.
The result is a captivating analysis of a critically important area, not only of India, but also of Asia and the wider world. Strangers No More: New Narratives From India’s Northeastis about bad colonial borders, sovereignty, remote and disinterested government, language, identity, festering rebellions and unchecked corruption which impacts every home.
The eight states comprise Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim, which was added in 1975. Forty-six million people live in the Northeast, less than four per cent of India’s population, and the region accounts for only 2.7 per cent of its economy.
The Northeast is connected to the rest of India only by the Siliguri Corridor, colloquially known as the Chicken’s Neck, because of the shape of the narrow strip of land, just ten miles wide at its narrowest point, that runs for about 120 miles flanked by Bhutan and Nepal.
Almost all the Northeast’s borders – more than three thousand miles –are shared not with India but with Bangladesh, China and Myanmar. More than two hundred different languages are spoken. One of them, Koro, a dialect of Tibetan-Burman, is used by less than 1,000 peopleand shares nothing in common with any tongue spoken in mainstream Indian. Another, Khasi, resembles Cambodia’s Khmer language, raising questions over the decades as to whether this part of India above the Chicken’s Neck should even belong to India at all.
‘Its physical links with India, not to speak of other connections, are limited and its proximity to other countries is far greater,’ writes Hazarika. ‘The British government made not one but three efforts in rapid succession to hive the Northeast away from the rest of India.’
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his colleagues were irritated by problems in the Northeast, feeling that they would slow down progress towardsachieving the vision of India’s supposed tryst with destiny.
‘They appeared too busy throwing out the British, battling the Muslim League, building a new nation and securing their own positions within the party and the system to be concerned about such matters,’ argues Hazarika.‘Thus, a region that turned history on its very pivot because of its role in World War II was completely ignored as far as precise territoriality, mapping and hence inclusion in the larger nationalist narrative were concerned.’
The author reflects the frustration of his regional communities by challenging Delhi to keep focus on the Northeast over a sustained length of time in order to lift its economy and address grievances in a way that will end the insurgencies. In short, the Indian government must persuade a critical mass of the people there that their future lies as part of India and that they can trust their government.
The task may be impossible, but the stakes go far beyond party politics of the ruling BJP and opposition Congress, whose long tenures in government have failed to deliver.
Hazarika adroitly spotlights how the geography and unrest of the Northeast now dovetails with the rise of China and its expansionist ambitions.
‘The tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China is like a Chinese dagger held at India’s throat,’ he writes, pointing out that the Northeast was both the scene of India’s military humiliation in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and of the recent standoff between the two governments on the Doklam plateau between Bhutan, Tibet and Sikkim.
A wider point that lies outside the arc of Strangers No More is that India is already losing influence to China outside its borders. Governments like Nepal and Bhutan, which were once firmly within its control, are now straddling between Delhi and Beijing, with Beijing constantly gaining an upper hand. This Chinese advance will inevitably creep further into the Northeast and might act as a catalyst for Delhi to up its game.
Within this global canvas, however, we are taken through vignettes of story-telling, sometimes chilling, sometimes uplifting and sometimes intriguing, with the whiff of a John Le Carré spy novel. We learn in bloody detail about state-sponsored secret-killings between 1998 and 2001, of attempts at reconciliation between communities in conflict and the bizarre, personal intervention into the murky world of insurgency by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan.
At times, we can feel the author pulling himself back from making Strangers No More too personal, but his subjectivity adds an aura of involvement. By the last page, the Northeast of India, despite all its apparent wretchedness, retains the glamour of the untamed and exotic. Politically, it is pivotal, but it is also a place of mountains, forests, history and a jumble of tribes, languages and borders. We end up wanting to go there.