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Friday, September 17, 2021

Blueprint for a new Northeast

At 75, India needs to reimagine its relations with its north-east; the region must look beyond identities to pursue development, presence in national discourse


Updated: August 8, 2021 5:52:18 pm
assam Mizoram border clash, northeast states violence, northeast assam mizoram, indian expressPolice personnel during a clash at Assam-Mizoram border at Lailapur in Cachar district on July 26, 2021. 6 police personnel died and many were injured. (PTI Photo)

Written by Subhrangshu Pratim Sarmah

The recent violence on the Assam-Mizoram border has triggered several debates about the polity, people and history of India’s Northeast. While many discovered for the first time that NorthEast is not a monolith and that there is a long history of violent border clashes in the region animated by colonial cartography, some others analysed it strictly in political terms of X party’s governance vs Y. One of the reasons why the conflict received so much attention this time was because the chief ministers of both the states live-tweeted the sequence of events from their own standpoint with aggressive actions or words akin to what two warring nations do. Beyond the immediate question of resolving inter-state border disputes, which require empathy, political will and negotiation, this whole episode brings attention to a larger question of Indian public life: What exactly does the Northeast question mean as India completes 75 years of independence?

Firstly, the region is a microcosm of India. The sensitivity and identity of the different indigenous ethnicities in the region must be respected without aberrations. Projects aimed towards homogeneity — cultural, political and religious — often hamper the delicate balance that exists in these areas among different tribal groups and with non-tribals. As Sanjib Baruah writes, the Northeast for the longest time has remained a resource frontier and a settlement frontier where identity has emerged as a form of political claim-making with the valorisation of territorial and exclusionary forms of autonomy, thanks to the legacy of institutions such as the Sixth Schedule and the Inner Line that can be traced back to the way the region was governed as a frontier province of British colonial India. Hence, efforts aimed towards forced social re-engineering are risky.

Second, development processes in the region have witnessed an uptick over the last two decades following the decline in insurgency-related violence. However, bottlenecks of development along with inter and intraregional disparity loom large: There are numerous areas in the region where electricity is non-existent, roads are not worthy of walking let alone driving, food has to be airdropped, internet bandwidth is dicey and access to basic healthcare and education are negligible. That the region lacks adequate leadership both at home and in New Delhi is at the crux of it. No Act East policy could correct all ailments in the region unless these fundamental drawbacks are addressed and creative policy interventions aimed towards last-mile delivery are commenced.

Third, exposure is key to bring the Northeast from the frontier to the forefront. As more and more Mirabai Chanu, Mary Kom, Hima Das, Riyan Parag, Lovlina Borgohain, Sanjukta Parashar, Adil Hussain and Papon emerge from the region, issues related to the tyranny of distance will become less important. The day politicians from the region are able to capture people’s imagination nationally and play an important part in the power play of national politics, the Northeast’s importance too will go up. Rapid movement of people to and from the region is vital in this regard, which is tied to tourism and commercial cooperation with not just the Indian states but neighbouring nations such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar as well.

Hence, improving the economy of the region deserves special attention which should be based on the idea of sustainable development and it makes absolute sense from the perspective of strategic calculations too. Sikkim is a leading light in this regard and it is noteworthy that states like Manipur and Meghalaya too have improved their human development indices over the years. Today, with the advent of social media, mainstream Indian media’s supposed apathy towards the region has slowly ceased to matter much. However, for creating a level-playing field, the inclusion of socio-political history from the region in CBSE/ICSE textbooks is a must. A future generation of India that knows about Lachit Borphukan and Rani Gaidinlu along with Razia Sultan and Chhatrapati Shivaji from childhood will not see people from the Northeast as “foreigners”. Mass media’s role is significant in this context. Tough laws to curb racial violence against NE people are equally required.

Last but not the least, a united Northeast despite internal differences is always the best way forward. Be it the North Eastern Council (NEC) or political forums like North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), efforts to bring the region together in the lines of the European Union is always appreciable. Unity doesn’t mean glossing over differences but it certainly means a stronger voice to be heard and taking the best advantage of common economic interests. NE states have not yet utilised the scope of collaboration on hydro-power and special economic zones. The north-eastern states must in themselves seek to understand each other’s peculiar history and culture better just as it is expected from the rest of India. Mutual respect will pave the way towards it.

India, in her 75th year of independence, must provide a healing touch to her North-Eastern sisters. The seven sisters (and one brother Sikkim) too must focus on reviving age-old ties among themselves to not let differences become violent disputes.

The writer is an MPhil scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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