The Great Game in the East

How geopolitics and geography shaped the idea of the Northeast.

Written by Sanjib Baruah | Updated: April 23, 2016 6:59:00 pm

Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers, Ratan Thiyam, blind age, mahabharat war, Pradip Phanjoubam, northeast geopolitics, manipur geography, book reviewBook: The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers
Author: Pradip Phanjoubam
Publisher: Routledge
Pages: 228
Price: Rs 875

Manipuri playwright Ratan Thiyam’s staging of Andha Yug (The Blind Age) is set against the backdrop of what most viewers would take to be the aftermath of the Mahabharata War. It is as if Arjuna’s doubts were expressed once again in the setting of a desolate and destroyed post-war landscape. Thiyam’s characters engage in intense introspection on right and wrong. Can religious commandments tell people what is right? Is what is legal always right? Or does ethical action presume “a filter fashioned from the realisation of the common human predicament”?

This discussion occurs in The Northeast Question, an engaging new book by Pradip Phanjoubam, the learned editor of Imphal Free Press. He refers to fellow Manipuri Thiyam’s play in a chapter on militarisation while discussing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The chapter’s subtitle — “search for a liberal response to radical civil unrest” — underlines Phanjoubam’s moral vision.

Discussions of AFSPA are rarely so nuanced and humane. Such conversations may be normal in Imphal. But in the nation’s capital these days, the Gita is more likely to be invoked as an icon of identity, not studied for guidance on policy.

Phanjoubam begins with a critique of oversimplifications about Northeast India in so many writings. We like easy explanations of conflicts and look for “tangible” parameters such as economic growth rates, income and educational levels, and road connectivity indices. While these factors are important, they are not “as fundamental as the intangibles that remain unnoticed, or else sidelined as secondary or insignificant.” Indeed what brought Phanjoubam to the study, we learn, are questions about the most intangible of phenomena — historical trauma: how it affects societies of the region and the challenges of working through them.

But the book is not about that. It is the first leg of his intellectual journey: a preface to a future exploration of the intangibles that go into the making of Northeast India’s history.

Its focus is on the influence of geopolitics and geography on the evolution of the idea of the Northeast. Phanjoubam looks beyond national geography to understand the region as part of “the larger environment within which it exists, which, by the very nature of its political geography, would transcend national boundaries.”

It is delightful to join him in this journey, tracing the worldview and spatial imaginings of imperial statesmen, diplomats and military men such as George Nathaniel Curzon, Olaf Caroe, Henry McMahon and Francis Younghusband. He finds the writings of frontier administrators such as Alexander Mackenzie, Edward Gait and Robert Reid to be “indispensable” because they “worked on maps bigger than the confines of national boundaries.”

How did Northeast India fit into the Great Game of imperial geopolitics?

A number of what-ifs of history fascinate Phanjoubam; and it drives parts of the narrative.

But was the imperial geopolitical vision really that different from the postcolonial one? Northeast India was a frontier in the British colonial state’s territorial imagination. That vision remains embedded in the institutional practices of the postcolonial state.

It is not surprising that despite the developmentalist thrust of recent policy, and supposedly historic peace agreements, a Northeast without AFSPA still eludes our policy elites’ capacity to aspire.

Phanjoubam’s book adds to a number of other powerful voices from Manipur — including Irom Sharmila’s — that articulate an aspiration for everyday normalcy: a world where state security does not override the ideals of democratic equality and accountability.

Listening to this important public intellectual voice could enable a more ambitious policy imagination in New Delhi.

Baruah is professor of political studies at Bard College, New York.

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