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Samrat Choudhury’s ‘Northeast India: A Political History’: Persistent faultlines

Samrat Choudhury’s ‘Northeast India: A Political History’: Persistent faultlines

Northeast India: A Political History by Samrat Choudhury. HarperCollins. Pages 319. Rs 699

Parbina Rashid

AS Manipur continues to burn due to ethnic violence and India on this side of the Chicken’s Neck grapples with the dynamics between Kukis and Meiteis, Samrat Choudhury’s latest book brings out the troubled past of this most diverse region of the country. It contextualises the current faultlines to explain not just the Manipur situation, but also problems plaguing the eight states.

Each state gets equal prominence as Samrat painstakingly chronicles their journey, how they entered modern India and acquired their present shapes. We get to know about the events which led to the Anglo-Burmese War in 1824-26 and Assam becoming a part of the British Indian Empire; the complicated chain of events that led Manipur and Tripura to come under indirect British rule; and the bloody battles that Nagaland fought in the late 1800s and early 1900s to stay independent. It faithfully traces the trade wars that the Khasi and Jaintia kingdoms fought before entering British India. Mizoram’s inclusion in the 1800s, Arunachal Pradesh’s in the 1900s and Sikkim’s in 1975 rounds it up.

For anyone interested in the Northeast, it makes for a fascinating read. I picked this volume to reconnect with the author whom I knew from his previous book, ‘The Braided River: A Journey along the Brahmaputra’. I was hooked to the author’s almost lyrical account of the mighty river; the book was replete with folklore and anecdotes. However, I couldn’t find that old Samrat in this one. He consciously restrains himself from giving his interpretation of the events he documents. He offers just history, geography and chronology. Lots and lots of it.

It’s only in the concluding chapter when Sikkim becomes part of the Northeast in 2002, rounding up the region-making process, that Samrat changes his stance. He gives a glimpse of himself as he describes his growing-up years in Shillong in the 1980s amid slogans like ‘Khasi by Blood, Indian by Accident’, and points out how those declarations of separateness are now being replaced by cries for inclusion.

Samrat touches upon the topic of Hindu nationalism’s goals to make India that is Bharat, a Hindu rashtra, and eventually create Akhand Bharat, seeking to restore the country to an ‘imagined past’ when the entire landmass between the Himalayas in the North, the Indian Ocean in the South, Iran in the West and Indonesia in the East was Bharat. His argument as to why this imagination, in case of Northeast India, cannot be supported with facts is insightful.

I buy most of his arguments, including the one about the Northeasterners’ sentiment about the National Anthem. He writes, “The fact that Jana Gana Mana, which mention territories such as Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bengal and Dravida lands of the South, does not have the name of any place in Northeast India, is often brought up with a sense of grievance at the exclusion. However, when it was written in 1911, Assam and East Bengal were still one province, most of the present states of the region didn’t exist in anything like their present shapes on the political map, and the hills of Arunachal Pradesh and eastern Nagaland lay outside British India.”

What I fail to understand is his yardstick for segregating good Indians from bad Indians. “Arunachal Pradesh is the only state in Northeast India where Hindi is the link language among the many tribes… Fear of Chinese incursions has helped make good Indians of them,” he tells us. It’s unbelievable that the author thinks the language one speaks determines one’s degree of patriotism. What’s next? Millet eaters scoring over rice eaters?


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