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Metanarrative of the North East

The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers by Pradip Phanjoubam; New Delhi: Routledge, 2016; pp vii + 219, 895.

India’s North East, for too long, has remained an area of darkness. Its multitude of diverse and distinct ethnic nationalities, who have felt no sense of kinship or identification with the “mainland,” has posed one of the strongest challenges to post-independent India in its task of nation-building. Apart from the valuable treatises of British officers during their forays into these “uncharted wild lands,” there has been an acute paucity of literature that would have enabled us to understand as to what has shaped the identity, psychology and aspirations of the communities here, steeped in turbulence and unrest since independence.

Recording the facts of their history, connecting the linkages of the past to the present, providing context to this sensitive relationship, and the understanding of the way forward has been a long-felt need. The emergence of scholars and writers, particularly from within this region, who can explain their crises with academic rigour, and first-hand insight, is vital to this quest.

Pieces of the Jigsaw

Pradip Phanjoubam’s book, The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers, makes an important contribution in helping us piece together the jigsaw of the North East, with its many complex strands. He is the editor of a prominent Manipuri daily newspaper, Imphal Free Press. His book is based on extensive research of official documents of the British Raj, and works of historians, researchers and academics from within the North East as well as nationally and internationally.

An understanding of the modern-day turmoil engulfing the North East requires unpacking of its past, especially its tryst with modernity introduced by British colonialism. Insurgency and tribal feuds is not the only lens to know this region. In fact, it could retard our understanding of unresolved nationalities and their cultures of protest. This book provides a metanarrative of geography and colonial history, underlining how present-day rebellions are caused by a fundamental sense of difference to the idea of Indian nationalism on the one hand, and a knee-jerk response to the insensitivity of the early, insecure, independent Indian state administration on the other.

Geopolitics of Conflict

Running through the book is Phanjoubam’s thesis of how geopolitics is a primary determinant of conflict everywhere, including in the North East. Hence, the region’s geography—the mountains, rivers and valleys—is closely intertwined with the world view of the societies it encompasses, predicating security perceptions and, consequently, conflicts. The catchment areas in the hills and mountains nurture the fertile valleys. Any attempt to disrupt this integral geography will be viewed as an existential or civilisational threat by those at the receiving end. He takes his cue from the British author and Yale professor James Scott’s understanding of conflict in the Zomian theatre—Zomia encompasses the mountainous massif of hills and valleys that runs across South East Asia and South West China, including North East India—and attempts to explain the frictions within the North East from the same outlook.

It was this peculiar friction between the hills and the valleys that featured in the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys of Assam province, which ultimately morphed into politics that led to the breaking away of the major hill districts and, ultimately, statehood for Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. In Manipur, the hill and valley people have been locked in serious conflict over the integrity of their land, following the demand for a “Greater Nagaland,” which seeks amalgamation of all-Naga inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Political unrest and deadly frictions have inevitably followed.

Just as Kashmir is vital to the Indus Valley, the book argues that Arunachal Pradesh, from which all the tributaries of the Brahmaputra originate, is vital to the North East and Bangladesh. The building of dams (157 are currently coming up in the North East, 96 of which are in Arunachal Pradesh) is a factor agitating the valley communities further downstream. Vociferous protests have also come from Bangladesh, which fear the impact of these dams on their survival needs. It also explains China’s aggressive claims over Arunachal Pradesh’s territory, going beyond coveting territory to controlling the rivers and mountain passes into the North East, the road to Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal, and access to the trade routes of the oil-rich Arab and African countries.

History of British Raj

The quest for answers as to how geopolitical conflict evolved draws Phanjoubam to the history of the British Raj, when it entered the North East in 1826, and before that to the Ahom, who ruled over the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam from 1228 to 1826. They too faced these contradictions of geopolitics and evolved ways of dealing with it, thereby shaping the idea of the North East and what has influenced its being.

Initially, the British Raj chose the path of least involvement and administrative cost by treating the North East as a buffer zone against the advancement of European powers. It sought to secure the defence of its colony by developing infrastructure that laid the foundations for the heavy militarisation of the North East. Phanjoubam traces the history of how the Cachar Levy and Jorhat Militia ultimately evolved into the Assam Rifles.

Meanwhile, confining their active administrative presence to the revenue-generating tea, timber and rubber plantation and coal mining areas in the plains and foothills, the British largely left the remote hill tracts to their own devices, while asserting a loose administrative presence to register their overlordship. They separated the revenue-earning administered areas in the plains from the non-revenue-yielding, unadministered areas in the hills, with the creation of the Inner Line permit, institutionalised by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873 (the first law they promulgated on entry into Assam).

This later evolved into the Government of India (GoI) Act, 1919, and then the GoI Act, 1935, which first clubbed these regions as “Backward Tracts” left unadministered. These were subsequently recategorised as Excluded Areas (which included present-day Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and the North Cachar Hills) and Partially Excluded Areas (which included Garo Hills, Mikir Hills and parts of Khasi and Jaintia Hills).

Segregation of Areas

These laws were also meant to curb land-grabs in the hills by the tea planters, which had become a cause of friction between the tribes and the administration. Such segregation, of areas under state intervention and administration and those that were not, was, however, to have far-reaching consequences on conflict over land entitlement, encouragement of migrant labour from outside the region, and tensions over control of resources. According to Phanjoubam, it resulted in massive bursts of social strife and genocidal conflict that continues to remain the subtext in the political instability of this area even today.

The tribes living in the non-revenue-generating, loosely administered tribal hill tracts are part of a Zomia belt that runs across South East Asia and South West China, containing 100 million people of diverse ethnic and linguistic variety. They constitute the largest remaining region of the world whose people have long been kept outside the purview of nation states. While some attribute their rebellions to backwardness and statelessness, Phanjoubam quotes Scott, who believed they repelled state interventions and sought to remain backward by choice. Presumably this was related to their respect for a different value system and way of life from that of the “mainstream.”

In dealing with the unruly hill tribes (the Zomians tended to raid the plantations in the plains, mainly out of their need for agricultural sustenance from land that they traditionally considered to be their own), the British took a leaf from the earlier Ahom administrators. The Ahom had managed to separate hill and valley spaces by devising a mechanism of conflict resolution through shared sovereignty and overall suzerainty.

The Ahom had initially taken out punitive expeditions to recalcitrant hill villages and had extracted reparations, but soon became wary of the effort, time and expense involved in this. They bought peace by allowing the hill chiefs to levy an annual tribute, a percentage of the crop yield from nearby villages in the adjoining plains, through a system known as posa. While remaining the masters of the hills and plains, the Ahom rulers allowed the hill chiefs a degree of local sovereignty, while extracting from them a promise that they would refrain from violent raids, looting and slave-taking.

With the British effort mainly geared towards militarisation of the North East and the need to protect its revenue interest in Assam, their administrative and development efforts were not geared to the aspirations of local communities for their own advancement. In an effort to buy peace, avoid the extra expense and administrative burden of extending their laws into the wild hills, they allowed the tribal chiefs to continue with the Ahom system of posa and, later, cynically sought to arm-twist the hill communities into submission with the encouragement of indolence and ease, thereby retarding their growth. As Phanjoubam notes:

It was the singular mechanism through which the population outside the limits of British law could be held by the state in ransom ... The modern state has dealt similarly with North east communities ... but purchased peace comes with a dear price. (p 84)

Much of the North East problem, he says, is essentially an outcome of non-state peoples waking up to the new reality of the state, and acquiring their own nationalist aspirations.

As Phanjoubam surmises,

The answer lies in peace that is won, as demonstrated by the Ahom. Their solution was not in drawing rigid segregating lines between the hills and the plains, the law and non-law, revenue and no revenue areas but by acknowledging and understanding the issues, not in any legalist and administrative terms alone, but as an existential predicament in which all players have to face and live together, in the spirit of mutual accommodation, adjustment and respect of each other’s compulsions, limitations and conveniences. (p 85)

Phanjoubam’s fascination with discovering how the histories of Tibet, China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh intersect with the North East and shaped events there provides a wide-angle lens to view Indian history, which, as he puts it, has traditionally been dominated by the vision of “nationalist historiography.” That 98% of the North East’s borders touch Tibet/China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, is a powerful justification for such exploration that has long been overlooked.

A Deep Dive

His research provides insights into how, for instance, the Sylhet and Chittagong Hill Tracts, which were part of Assam (then a province of Bengal) were lost to India at the time of partition and were included in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Such history explains the present explosive equation between the dominant languages (Assamese and Bengali) and religious (Hindu and Muslim) groups in Assam.

For instance, the British brought different linguistic nationalities into the same colonial administrative units. Their rivalry came to the fore when educated Bengali-speaking populations, encouraged by the British to immigrate to Assam, came to dominate the largely agrarian Assamese-speaking populations in the contest for political power. At the time of Indian independence, the situation got volatile and dangerous, for while in the rest of India the rivalry effectively transitioned to a clash of religious nationalisms, here, the old linguistic rivalries lingered.

Phanjoubam’s book dives deep into the complex history of how India’s disputed borders came to be made, to explain how that legacy of friction still lives on. The makings of the disputed northern border with China was a consequence of disconnect in vision and divergent interests between the Raj authorities in India and the India office in London on what constituted the interest of the British colony. It touches on how the Cold War between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, often referred to as the Great Game, profoundly influenced the shape and psychology of the North East. The British creation of the Inner and Outer Lines in the North East also sowed the seeds of confusion, with the Inner Line being mistakenly taken as the international boundary. India’s 1962 war with China is a part of that legacy.

Despite paying a dear price for its blindness to influences from the East in the making of India, Phanjoubam says, the overall Indian character is westward looking. This is particularly evident in its search for historical roots. He says,

This reluctance to look East, inherent in the overall Indian character, should explain to a good extent why the North East has remained India’s area of darkness for so long. (p 142)


Rupa Chinai ( is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. She writes on health and development issues and has a special interest in North East India.


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