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Moving Circles of Struggles and Agitations in the North-East

Looking Back into the Future: Identity and Insurgency in Northeast India by M S Prabhakara (New Delhi: Routledge India), 2011; pp 312 (hardcover), Rs 795.

Moving Circles of Struggles and Agitations in the North-East

Bhaskar Barua

ifty years is a long time for any relationship. This is for how long M S Prabhakara (MSP to his many friends) has had a relationship with the north-east. He started to live in the north-east as a young teacher of English at the Gauhati University in 1962. He chose to spend two months in an Assam village to learn Assamese properly, providing early indication of his thoroughness and keen desire to go deep into what he wanted to grasp. He taught for 13 years in the Gauhati University. During this period, he got plenty of opportunities to know the culture and ethos of the north-east and to watch many political developments taking place in the region. He spent a few years away from the region when he was with the Economic & Political Weekly in Mumbai. But he was back in the north-east and spent a number of years there as a keen and informed observer and reporter of events in the area.

This relationship of the author with a land and peoples that have come to accept him as one of their own endures till today. In his writings he combines the detachment required of a journalist in the true sense of the word and the intellectual distance of an outsider tempered with an intimate understanding of and empathy for the people living in this beautiful, but troubled region. This unique blend of detached observation and familiarity with the hopes, aspirations, apprehensions of the north-easterners informs and permeates the 38 stories that had been filed mainly for EPW, The Hindu and Frontline. This book which is a compilation of these stories written in the period between 1974 and 2010 is extremely readable and is a useful collection for those students who study the issues of the north-east and for the general reader too.

book review

Looking Back into the Future: Identity and Insurgency in Northeast India by M S Prabhakara

(New Delhi: Routledge India), 2011; pp 312 (hardcover), Rs 795.

The headings of the sections into which the book has been divided and those of the chapters bring out the common thread of analysis of the situation, the historical background, the culture and ethos of the people. Prabhakara is dealing with this, as well as the interplay of various stakeholders. “The Word and the Idea”, “Ethnicity and Identity”, “Issues of Culture and Belief” – the fi rst three sections – give a clear indication of the nature and depth of the issues the author is addressing.

Under British Rule

Generally speaking, this region was brought under the sway of the British later than the occupation of what may be called “mainland India”. The British came to Assam to free the land of the marauding Burmese and then stayed on and brought the six centuries-old Ahom kingdom under the British rule in 1826. In the case of Manipur, it retained a degree of independence till 1891 when the Anglo-Manipur confl ict took place.

Highlighting aspects of Manipur history, the author points out why the people of that state feel short-changed by being a part of India. It is important to note that till 1891 the first written constitution of Manipur, promulgated in the 11th century during the reign of King Loyimba, was in force. In comparison, the Magna Carta, considered by no less an authority than Lord Denning as “the greatest constitutional document of all times”, was issued in 1215. Manipur had another written constitution in March 1947, before India became independent. Apart from Manipur, many confl icts and skirmishes took place in various other parts of the north-east as the British expanded and consolidated their rule.

The memories of armed resistance to the foreign power, although episodic in character and minor in terms of the damage caused to the armed forces and the administration of the British, perhaps remained embedded in the s ocial consciousness of the people. These episodes, sometimes embellished with details that might or might not have been recorded, helped to gild the imagined history of the various north-east peoples about their distinctiveness and independence. Many articles in this collection bring this out very ably and effectively.

Before the advent of the British, the tribes living in the hills surrounding the valley lands mainly in Assam, Manipur and Tripura, had regular interactions with the people in the plains. The British, in expanding their territories, mainly sought valley lands that could support the growth and expansion of agriculture for yielding revenues. After tea was discovered in Assam, many tea plantations were set up and the areas became more valuable. However, the hill areas mainly inhabited by the tribes were not expected to yield adequate agricultural production to generate revenue and the expenses of administering these areas were sought to be kept at the minimum. Thus was born the concept of areas less administered than most of the country.

The administrative structures in the hill areas were kept very lean. Following this philosophy, provisions were included in the Government of India Act of 1935, for designating some hill areas inhabited by tribes as “excluded” or “partially excluded” areas. The essential elements of these provisions were adopted in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution with necessary modifi cations. These tribes were notified as scheduled tribes (Hills). There were, however, also tribes living in the plains areas of Assam who came to be known as plains tribes. The definition of tribals thus got linked to

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the location, i e, whether they were living in the hill areas or in the plains.

Politics of Scripts

One fallout of the search for identity is the politics of scripts. Bodo is the language of the largest number of tribal people living in the plains of Assam according to the report of the Census of 1971. In the absence of a script for the language, writers in that language had used the Assamese script. However, the assertion of more strident Bodo tribalism required that Bodos should not use the Assamese script, to show their distinct identity. There was a demand for adoption of the Roman script for the Bodo language. This was opposed mainly by Assamese society and resulted in agitations amongst the Bodos. Ultimately, after much bloodshed, a compromise solution was reached and the Devanagari script was adopted for writing in Bodo.

In Manipur too the demand for restoration of the ancient Meitei script ignited the sense of grievance of the Meitei people, which had been there on other issues also. Thus, in the north-east, issues of script and language have generally provided a trigger for large-scale disturbances. The question of the mother tongue and that of ethnicity, linked toge ther, have been used for demanding separate political structures and dispensations. As against the trend of Sanskritisation described by sociologists as a characteristic feature of development of Indian societies, the feature of retribalisation has been observed to gain strength in the last few decades, particularly in Assam. Communities which for a long time considered themselves and have been so considered by others as parts of the larger society now want to be identifi ed as tribes. Adding complexity to this are the issues of the tea garden workers and ex-tea workers who were brought from many parts of then Bengal, Bihar and Orissa by the British to work in the tea plantations in Assam. Many of these communities are recognised as tribes in the places of their origin, but are not accorded that status in Assam.

Identity Crisis and Ethnic Diversity

The factor of ethnic diversity of the region and the need felt by many groups to establish their identities, along with the desire for carving out a homeland for themselves has been focused in many of the articles to illustrate the problems arising out of the issues of identity, and in resolving these. A difficulty arises even in conceptualising the possible measures that may help in resolving the issue of having territory coterminous with habitations, or claimed habitations of specifi c ethnic groups. Taking any concrete steps may create problems larger than the existing ones.

For instance, the complexity involved in dealing with the ethnic aspirations of the Nagas is a case in point. The Naga National Council of the Phizo era and the more recent National Socialist Council of Nagalim (note the use of Nagalim), split into two factions NSCN(IM) and NSCN(K), are considered the spearhead of Naga tribalism. The letters in parenthesis indicate the names of their leaders, the former having two. As the author wryly observes, this is not much different from the fragmented political formulations found in the rest of India which the Naga leadership professes to despise.

While the NSCN(IM) declares that there is no question of compromise in respect of the core demand for sovereignty, the demand, raised at the same time, for Nagalim, might appear to be a softening of the rigidity involved in the question of sovereignty, allowing for a two-step process in resolving the issues. Nagalim is a territory comprising Nagaland and areas contiguous to it claimed to be inhabited by Naga people. However, even discussing this demand, not to speak of agreeing to it, would require considering diminution of the neighbouring states of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, something which the governments and the people of these states have categorically rejected. Even Myanmar would be affected, if Nagalim were to be considered.

‘Us’ and the ‘Others’

It is relevant to mention that one of the sparks which led to the agitation in Manipur was the extension of the ceasefire declared in the armed action against Naga insurgents to some areas in Manipur. The author provides elucidation of this difficult issue in chapters such as

april 21, 2012

“Territory First, Sovereignty Later”. The recurring theme of “us” and the “others”, in many of the articles illustrates the author’s grasp of the reality obtaining in these hills and dales.

As the author states, the struggles of the various ethnic groups are based on a view of a past, whether grounded in reality or belonging to the realm of imagination, when these groups of people and the areas they lay claim to were sovereign and independent. It is claimed that these people and their lands were not a part of the India that came into being as a result of colonial conquest and thus were outside any construct of present-day India as well. To that extent, the claim is that they are only seeking restoration of the lost sovereignty.

These beliefs and cherished memories and the sense of denial of what is viewed as their rightful claims to live in territories which would be peopled only by “us” and not by “others” has brewed discontent, leading to communities seeking ways to realise their demands. Armed struggle has been seen as the preferred way to achieve their aims by sections of these societies and has led to the phenomenon of revolt. Searching for permanent solutions has characterised many movements, regardless of the fact that, much water has flowed down the Brahmaputra since such demands were initially raised.

That the local versus outsiders issue crops up in different parts of the country, such as the assertion of “Amchi Mumbai” degenerating into assaults on north Indians, is obviously no excuse for these excesses anywhere in the country, which belongs to all Indians. The arguments often put forward about lack of avenues for employment, exploitation of natural resources affecting the local environment and sources of livelihood of indigenous people, as factors, explaining away these uncalled for assaults, fail to convince.

Chapters such as those entitled “Talking about Talks” and “Going around the Mulberry Bush” expose the limitation of talks in resolution of seemingly intractable issues. However, the author brings out the positives of such a process, the major gain being that, while there has been no successful conclusion of the talks, along the way, the more extreme demands of

vol xlvii no 16

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