The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 2, 2001

The forgotten region called Seven Sisters
Review by Ashu Pasricha

Frontier Travails North-East:The Politics of a Mess
by Subir Ghosh. Macmillan, Delhi. Pages 320. Rs 345.

OPINIONS always differ as do perceptions. And when the opinions and perceptions are related to the North-East, they are as many as there can be. Given the enormous diversity of the region itself and varied convictions and viewpoints about these frontier states (also referred to as the seven sisters), both of the people who live there and experts who have an interest in this turbulent region, the average Indian does not know where to begin or whom to believe.

This very thought permeates the raison d'etre of the book under review which has been complied and stitched together to assess the situation in the North-East -- be it political, social, economic or cultural -- for, the present militancy and chaos in the region is not something that has dropped from the sky. The current flux is an outcome of both the recent and the not-so-recent past. It is foolhardy to make sweeping statements without a contextual reference to the backdrop. Hence, these travails of the frontier dwell on issues from both the micro and macro standpoints in a bid to disentangle the threads that make the North-East an apparently incomprehensible conundrum.


The treatment of the North-East has been one of a self-defeating paradox. There is socio-economic exploitation of the region, on one hand, and socio-economic neglect of its hapless populace, on the other. It is an incongruity that never was in the first place. Exploitation and neglect go hand-in-hand -- they complement and supplement each other. You utilise the region's human and natural resources and then leave the people at the mercy of the Lord. It is the plunder and dereliction syndrome that not only has a cumulative alienation after-effect; it also comes bag and baggage with socio-political turbulence. Complex ethnic equations only make matters worse. Exploitation pays for the politicians and business interests; neglect warrants that the people do not have to be paid back. It pays off both ways. The process has carried on for primarily one reason -- the unimportance of the North-East. The region never mattered when it came to parliamentary elections (though things are a-changing vis--vis hung Parliaments, albeit circumstantially so) and, hence, the disdainful disposition. And how could the North-East as a bloc matter when seven states could send together only 24 members to the 535 member Lok Sabha? The central governments never paid a price, it has been the state governments which have tumbling as they have every now and then.

Politicians never get away with dismissive attitudes unless the national media and the non-North-East regional media too tag along. Barring the sensational stories, the North-East remains eclipsed from the vision of the mainland India. In the bargain, national level politicians have thus a chance and justification to get away with whatever games they play.

The all pervading naivete about the North-East persists among Indians. Explore still more and what it all boils down to is that of mentalities and attitudes. It is fashionable to find people talking about the North-East in such condescending a fashion -"oh, it is such an exotic, serene place; but look what politicians and terrorists have done to the region." Yes, the problem lies with the people who have created and in the days that supervened, made a mess of the system.

But the problem also lies with many other people who are part of the same system -- the media for letting politicians propagate their own school of thought and the citizenry for not demanding their right to know.

All aggressors right from the Aryans and the Huns to Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali had always intruded from the North-West frontier of India. The treat always came from one direction. After independence not much has changed . With Pakistan remaining the bete noire, any imperilment could only come from that direction. That was what was discerned and foreseen by India's leaders. That was, equally, one of the many explanations why the Chinese aggression of 1962 jolted India. After all, the peril lay on the north-western side. India did learn a lesson from the 1962 skirmish, but it has always been the Indo-Pak border which has had to be firmly guarded. And not without reason though.

In the Pokhran-II aftermath, with Union Minister for Defence George Fernandes going hammer and tongs at the Chinese, the focus did shift, albeit for a short while, from the northwest frontier to the North-East. Whatever might have been the Minister's compulsions in launching his harangue against China; the Northeast is one region whose international borders far exceed those with the rest of India. The North-East has international borders with as many as four countries -- Bhutan, China, Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh -- only two per cent of the total land border is with any Indian state namely, West Bengal. Nepal too is not far away.

Given the geopolitical strategic location of the region, it is no surprise that international relations should have much to do with the North-East. But the fact that it seldom does should come as a surprise. For the sake of convenience, look at it only from the point of view of insurgency and law and order. Cadres of almost all underground organisations operating in the North-East have hideouts and training camps in one or more of three of these countries -- Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. How much of covert or overt succour these insurgents receive from them is besides the point. What matters is that the degree of stability in the North-East depends on how much and how long the militants can make the best of India's inability to convince these neighbours into flushing out the rebels.

Why then has India been twiddling its thumb over the North-East, given its geopolitical, strategic location? The answer can be found in the General's assessment: those in New Delhi have always suffered from the Durand syndrome -- the North-East does not matter. The Pokhran blasts were assessed from the point of view of the proxy war between the Indian and Pakistani army in Jammu and Kashmir. Just because China no longer patronises North-East insurgent organisations, does not mean the region can be forgotten. But what does this essentially boil down to? One of perceptions and the resultant attitudes. What else?

Obscured by the ballyhoo and babble of accusations and counter-allegations is society's craving for peace. Lost in the din is the jeremiad of the people. The citizenry cannot extricate the North-East from this socio-economic-political morass -- those who can are nihilist demagogues, rapacious bureaucrats, recalcitrant insurgents and barbarous law-enforcers. The catch phrase for them all ought to be the same: take care of the frontier peoples, the travails will take care of themselves.

Given these parameters, this book by Subir Ghosh looks at the North-East -- the result of a political mess that it has been perforce made to be. Issues and subjects naturally overlap -- but have still been discussed threadbare under the fewest heads possible. If the secessionist movements and the autonomy outcries were to be just looked at, the region would be a politico cartographer's nightmare. The ethno-political equations are too intricate and sensitive to be left to the politicians alone. But it is these very Neroesque politicians, both far away at the Centre as well as back home, who have subverted genuine aspirations, fanned ludicrous demands, and raked in the lucre-all at the expense of the commoners who have little to say, far less to do, with the machinations that have decided and distorted their futures.

Frontier Travails is not an exercise in historiography book of history, nor does it advocate a panacea for the plethora of ills that scourage the Northeast. It is not a journalistic expose of he events either. It does and does not fall somewhere in between. The subject is academic, the way of looking at it is journalistic. This book is meant to be a primer for the uninitiated-those who know precious little about the Northeast, but would love to know where to start from.

The author desists from making predictions for the future, but if the present were to disregard the past, then history would not repeat itself as a tragedy, but a gory farce. Penned with a perspective as detached as could have possibly been, the treatment is essentially journalistic. But it does provide the average lay Indian with a starting point-the Northeast is not just a Common Noun denoting a direction, it is a Proper Noun that must be accorded the dignity and understanding that it deserves, but is rarely accorded.