The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 11, 2002

North-East: saga of political ambition and thwarted aspirations
Vinita Gardner

Contesting Marginality: Ethnicity, Insurgency and Subnationalism in North-East India
by Sajal Nag. Manohar. New Delhi. Pages 382. Rs 795.

THE "abrupt" withdrawal of the British from India catapulted the plethora of protohistoric and more advanced tribes inhabiting northeast India into the midst of a bourgeois political system, which they were scarcely equipped to deal with. Faced with a huge epistemological crisis in a new and independent India, which itself was engaged in the arduous task of defining important matters of policy and governance, these tribes sought desperately to establish themselves as independent entities.

Juxtaposed precariously as they were on the swiftly metamorphosing political map of India, buffeted by the winds of change, Machiavellian Muslim machinations for an independent State and complicated procedures between the departing imperial power and the new Indian masters, their very existence seemed to be at stake.

Thus, Contesting Marginality, packaged attractively in an eye-catching and colourful jacket, forms a compelling read. Authored by the erudite Sajal Nag, who has sought rather painstakingly to chronicle not only the saga of political ambition and thwarted aspirations of such important tribes as the Nagas, Mizos and Meitheis but also traced their ideological and socio-economical life patterns at length, the book sheds valuable light on a rather complicated scenario. Two factors are abundantly clear from the perusal of this exhaustively researched text: one, that the author is totally committed to presenting a detailed and broad-based picture of the problem and, two, his non-judgemental handling of the subject makes it entirely incumbent upon the reader to form his own value judgements.


The author proceeds upon the premise that every potential reader of Contesting Marginality is as acutely seized on acquainting himself with even the minutest intricacies of the North-East problem as he is himself, perhaps a more tautly worded prose would have contributed to greater stylistic literary finesse. What oft times mars the smooth perusal of the text is the literal reproduction of passages like the following: "…The necessity of the existence of a legislature is a keenly long-felt want and people have so long been enthusiastically demanding it..."

The above passage forms a part of the resolution put forward by the Manipur State Praja Sammelan in May 1946, reiterating the need for a Legislative Assembly in Manipur. Another related literary ‘imperfection’ refers to the post World War II period, which saw the rise of one Irabat Singh of Manipur as a confirmed revolutionary with a definite Marxian ideology. He, along with his Manipur Krishak Sabha, intensified its socio-political reform movements. Irabat’s slogan, ‘Land to the Tiller,’ caught the fancy of peasants: "The demand for ‘full responsible governments’ through ‘adult franchise’ way again adopted and passed at the second conference of the Manipur Krishak Sabha held in Nambol on 16 May 1946"—while the quote succeeds in conveying the significance of the event, the sentence construction is incomplete and definitely an irritant to the discerning reader.

Referring to an important development yet again, the author later mentions that by 1945 the principle of self-determination had become a potent weapon for struggling nationalities as was evident from the situation in Indo-China, the Philippines, India, Burma and Palestine. At least the developments in Burma directly influenced the developments in northeast India. Under the constitution of 1947, the Union of Burma, with the exception of the Kachins and Karens, was empowered with the right to secede after a period of 10 years from the time of implementation of the constitution. This encouraged the Nagas of India to demand similar rights. In fact, the Nagas of Burma had already organised themselves under the Naga National Council of Burma. "At last, they filled with patriotic enthusiasm, voiced out from a moderate demand for some sort of regional autonomy in Assam to outright sovereign independent Nagaland without giving due consideration to the concept of Crown Colony or a Trust Territory under the United Nations charter, as they were feeling a shiver of apprehension of losing their identity with the disappearance of British rule in the midst of Hindu rule"—somewhat nullifies the importance of the information through the sheer convolution of its language!

A word of caution here to the author: while one is enriched by the wealth of knowledge incorporated into the book and the recording of an extensive bibliography at the end of each chapter as well as the exhaustive list of abbreviations at the beginning greatly facilitate the process of reading and further reference, future publications should be assiduously checked to exclude imperfect literary formations so that what now forms a compelling read, will be transformed into a totally fascinating literary experience.