Identity Kits

A travelogue through the Northeast acknowledges its dizzying ethno-political complexity.

Written by Adam Halliday | Updated: May 10, 2014 4:54:17 am
Across the Chicken Neck, book by Nandita Haksar. Across the Chicken Neck, book by Nandita Haksar.

Book: Across the Chicken Neck
Author: Nandita Haksar Rupa
Pages: 280 pages
Price: Rs 495
Those who solely rely on Nandita Haksar’s travelogue as a guide may never visit the Northeast with a serene mind, but that makes it an important book. Even before their Scorpio’s wheels touch land, Haksar and her Tangkhul Naga husband, Sebastian Hongray, are already dizzy from the many ethno-political complexities of Nepal, Sikkim and northern West Bengal.

The journey’s Northeast leg begins in Dhubri, at the place where a massive stone missile, legend goes, flew at the command of a sorcerer to aid Kamrup’s rulers against an invading Mughal army. But if such powerful magic could not stop the gradual takeover of these lands, neither could the Brahmaputra protect Majuli island from caste-based intolerance or Mishing tribals from being disallowed in its caste-based satras (monasteries): “Foolishly, perhaps, I imagine I am going to a magical island where religious tolerance still exists.”

In Assam’s Ahom areas and in Meitei Manipur, Haksar rediscovers Brahminical influences which led communities to consider themselves superior to their tribal neighbours, while they themselves were allotted backward community status in the Hindu fold. That would also lead Meitei king Pamheiba to “Hinduise” his people’s culture in the 18th century by imposing the Bengali script and burning all the ancient Meitei scriptures. In Meghalaya, she listens to disturbing parallels to the story of a Garo boy who embraced Christianity because “the sahibs do not observe caste”; today’s residents have been split, often violently, between Christian Garos and Hindu Rabhas. In Arunachal Pradesh, she finds the four-decade-old Donyi Polo – a religion created by a mainland bureaucrat – subsuming various tribes’ indigenous faiths and practices.

She also observes the domination of the region by India’s armed forces and argues that the  Look East policy seeks to do what the British did by taking over the meeting point of Tibet, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh. “The peoples of the North-East have not felt they would be emerging from their centuries-long isolation. All they have felt is that their cultures are being swallowed by yet another wave of colonialism.”

But in three-and-a-half months of driving around five of the seven sisters, Haksar finds the unbreakable spirit of the people. At Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival, Ao Naga men beat their log drums and are joined by other tribes, including Khasis, Kacharis and non-tribal Meiteis — “a shared resistance to incorporation into the Sanskrit-speaking, caste-based society of the Aryans”.

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