Learning more about North-East
Himmat Singh Gill

Frontier in Flames
Ed. Jaideep Saikia. Viking/Penguin. Pages 205. Rs 450.

It can’t be said that the whole of the Indian north-east frontier is up in flames. However, there is no gainsaying the fact that at some time or the other this part of our land, which was amalgamated rather late into the Dominion of India when the British were around, has been a worrisome adjunct in governance and national integration ever since we gained Independence. Due to its far-flung location and the indifferent state of communications, the issue of merging with the others is often compounded by a feeling of isolation and "not being part" of the rest of the country. A good example of the mental distance and exclusiveness is that of Assam, with its distinct culture and historical ethos, having had the Ahom kings who came in to rule over it from Upper Burma and Thailand for almost 600 years from 1228 to 1826.

The comprehensive state-wise analysis edited by Jaideep Saikia and the contributors who have written about a different slice of the history and the ways of those who dwell in the north-east rings true for many of us who have spent a big part of their field tenures in these regions while in the Army. This is a very deliberate and serious analysis of the situation in most of our states bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and needs to be read as such.

In a chapter, Beyond the McMahon Line, Jabin Thomas Jacob writes: "At the time of Independence, the British bequeathed to India a border in the north-east that relied largely on agreements with the Tibetans that the Chinese had, of course, never recognized." In fact, this statement is the whole essence of our present-day border disputes with China in this region. The Chinese have never recognised the McMahon Line or the 1914 Tibet-British accord wherein the Assam-Tibet boundary was firmed up and if one day Tawang district was to be given up, then India would have lost the entire north-east for good.

The Indian policy of appeasement towards the Chinese and the lack of experienced officers in the Foreign Services coupled with a week-kneed political order have resulted in India’s failure to settle the boundary disputes.

In a chapter, discussing the illegal migration from Bangladesh, Edavelth Rammohan points to the foot-in-mouth policy of our government. "The India-Bangladesh border continues to be porous, with New Delhi continuing to drag its feet about sealing the border because of the Muslim vote factor. India’s national security interests are being sacrificed at the altar of shortsighted electoral gains of a few political parties."

Discussing the Nagaland issue, Namrata Goswami points out that all that has happened in these six decades is the periodic extension of the ceasefire. She opines: "The idea of Nagalim—seeking unification of all-Naga inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh into a common politico-administrative unit—has exacerbated the situation." Thus, the Naga problem has manifested itself in two other border states because of a policy of double standards being adopted by the Centre.

Saikia highlights a little of the disturbing scenario as elucidated by the contributors in their presentations on the north-east. In Manipur, around 27 armed groups have been waging a civil war in the Khengjoy region and the hill-valley divide has grown over the years. Very little of the funds that the Centre allocates to these regions reaches the effected. The infrastructure is virtually non-existent. But the most perplexing matter is that of seeing the entire north-east as more of a security related issue and which has to be dealt with in a military-like fashion than an area of challenge and opportunity that has long been neglected by all the rulers at the Centre. Till the truth of the problem dawns on those who control the purse strings and till it becomes clear to our leaders that winning elections in not everything, I suppose the north-east will continue to be restive and turbulent for a long time.

This is a straight-from-the-shoulder account that our leaders and administrators should read with care. What is often lost sight of is the fact that a rule of misgovernence displayed in the north-east is bound to adversely affect some of our border states in North India.