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How ideologies of national parties are domesticated by Northeast India’s grassroots politics

Sanjib Baruah writes: Election victories under these conditions don’t guarantee political peace and stability as seen recently in Meghalaya and Assam-Mizoram border clash

Written by Sanjib Baruah |
Updated: August 27, 2021 7:56:39 am
Police personnel stand guard outside Mizoram House in Guwahati (File/PTI)

A remarkable aspect of last month’s serious Mizoram-Assam border clash was that it happened despite the congruence between the parties in power at all relevant levels. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is in power in New Delhi and in Dispur; and the Mizo National Front (MNF), the party in power in Aizawl, is part of the NDA. The MNF is also a constituent of the BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance of which the Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma is the convenor.

During an earlier phase of one-party dominance in Indian politics, which Rajni Kothari had memorably called the “Congress system”, inter-state conflicts were managed or resolved within the system. Is it possible that this phase of one-party dominance around the BJP is less equipped to manage conflicts?

To be sure, the Northeast experience cannot tell us very much about the fate of India’s quasi-federal governance structure. The region is politically sui generis mainly because of its history as a colonial frontier province: The source of its multiple inter-state border conflicts, and the many single- or two-MP states that translates into poor representation at the Centre compared to, say, UP’s 80 MPs in the Lok Sabha. Moreover, the BJP’s ascendancy is not always the result of assiduous party-building efforts. It has been achieved by leveraging its dominance at the national level, and superior resource endowment to engineer defections from other parties and to strategically align with regional political forces.

It has been quite apparent that some of the ruling party’s policies rooted in its Hindu majoritarian impulses do not sit well with significant sections of people in Northeast India. The opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act and to the ban of sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets was quite loud and vehement. But the unease was successfully managed mainly through the insertion of exceptions to the relevant law and notification. The key instrument for managing dissent against the CAA in Assam was the promise of constitutional safeguards under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. The promise, however, remains unfulfilled, but the BJP has incurred no political cost for this failure.

Since all politics is local, says anthropologist David Holmberg, when it comes to voting decisions, party ideology is “more often than not trumped by social relations”. Northeast politicians have successfully insulated their social relations-focused election strategies from the negative impact of party ideology. Election campaigns at the grassroots level have a post-ideological feel to them.

But election victories won under these conditions cannot guarantee political peace and stability. Incidents of state violence, for instance, can suddenly acquire unexpected political symbolic meaning, enough to destabilise duly elected governments. That was the case with the recent unrest in Meghalaya.

The chain of events began with two low-intensity IED blasts for which the proscribed armed group the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) claimed responsibility. The predominantly Khasi HNLC claims to speak for the people of the Hynniewtrep (the people of the seven huts), that is, the indigenous peoples of eastern Meghalaya. After being dormant for a while, the HNLC has been making its presence felt in the last couple of years.

On August 13 HNLC leader Cherishterfield Thangkhiew was killed during a police raid of his home in Shillong. Thangkhiew is locally described as either a former militant who “retired” for health reasons, or as one who had “surrendered”. The police claimed that evidence implicating Thangkhiew in the blasts and a tip-off on an imminent blast took them to his home. Apparently, an attempt to arrest him led to a violent clash and he died of a single gunshot. His supporters, however, called the killing a “cold-blooded murder” and a “fake encounter”. Anger at his killing led to mayhem in certain areas of Shillong. Hundreds joined the funeral procession for Thangkhiew on Independence Day; and the city was curfewed by the time evening fell.

In a remarkable political fallout, Home Minister Lakhmen Rymbui announced his intention to step down. He said that the state police, which his ministry controls, exceeded “the lawful tenets of the law” and he called for a judicial probe.

Chief Minister Conrad Sangma has not accepted Rymbui’s resignation. The decision, he says, will be taken “collectively by the cabinet at an appropriate time.” Perhaps, Rymbui has already made his political point by making the contents of his resignation letter public.

The BJP’s spectacular successes in the Northeast, especially in the Christian-majority states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram, have surprised many people. But that is partly because most observers have given little attention to the long history of domestication of national ideologies in the hands of Northeast India’s political class.

Anthropologist Jelle JP Wouters has meticulously studied the vernacularisation of democratic ideas and practices in the electoral politics of Nagaland. The relatively large governmental patronage resources available to the state’s ministers — especially those who get “plump” portfolios — and the minuscule size of assembly constituencies allow for an especially intimate form of patronage politics in Nagaland. So-called vote-buying does not take the crude materialistic form that the term implies. Wouters observes that during pre-election house-visits to a Chakhesang Naga village, candidates acknowledge social bonds, listen carefully to the circumstances facing each household, and make customised cash and non-cash contributions, both “pre-paid and post-paid”. In the local understanding of representative democracy, party ideologies and electoral manifestos appear as “the near-obligatory humdrum behind which . . . actual politics operated”. Defection from one party to another is not seen as morally problematic, but as politically and morally necessary.

Evidently, the moral economy associated with the Naga feast of merit of a bygone era — the generosity expected from the meritorious well-to-do — has been successfully coopted in the service of retail patronage politics. But ironically, if community feasting had once served to culturally enforce redistribution, its appropriation in the practice of electoral democracy has only served to stimulate accumulation, fueling the growing chasm between the governors and the governed.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 26, 2021 under the title ‘Northeast edge’. The writer is Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York

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