Subir Bhaumik's “Troubled Periphery” makes lucid reading on the predicament of the North East

The recent arrest of United Liberation Front of Assam's bigwigs Arabinda Rajkhowa and Raju Baruah is page one news for the national newspapers. When the iron is hot, let's suppose you would be interested in the North East. But the hard truss of hills and valleys has been burning for long.

However, depending on which side of the Chicken's Neck you come from, your understanding of it is likely to vary. And so will your opinion about it. And it would not be utterly wrong to say that —though hackneyed — expressions like mainstream India, problem child, alienation, demand for sovereignty, conflict zone, even after decades, elicit differing meanings from a north-easterner or otherwise. And yet, the North East riddle is not such a straight-jacketed, cut and dry, ‘them' and ‘us' situation.

Delving into the wider horizon of whys and hows of trouble fomenting in the strategic region is seasoned journalist Subir Bhaumik. The BBC East India correspondent has decanted over 30 years of his understanding and experience of covering the region for various national and international news organisations into “Troubled Periphery — Crisis of India's North East”, a Sage publication of 281 pages from cover to cover, casing North East's present through the complex maze of its past.

“I have used the word ‘periphery' in the title of my book because mainland India looks at itself as the core and the region as its periphery. The trouble begins there itself,” begins Bhaumik. Though many books have been written on NE insurgency, he is quick to add that “mine doesn't fall into the stereotype.”

“I have taken the black of war and the white of peace and focussed on the grey area of low intensity warfare in the region,” declares the veteran North East hand.

A change in attitude

Bhaumik, in New Delhi to launch his book — his second — drums heavily on “the Centre's wrong approach to the region.” “The Indian state has been using Kautilya's four principles of statecraft — sham (reconciliation), dam (monetary inducement), danda (force) and bhed (split) in varying mix to control and contain the violent movements in the North East…throughout the last six decades, the same drama has been repeated, State after State. If it wants real peace, there has to be an attitudinal change. If it continues to treat NE as a conflict zone, it will necessarily have enemies,” he states.

Sending money is not the answer. “How has that money been used is hardly given any thought.” Bhaumik adds, “The Centre should not try to create collaborators in the NE, but stakeholders.”

He agrees that “the nation's experience with the region started with conflict.” But he asks a pertinent question: “The Nagas didn't want to be a part of greater Assam at the time of nation formation. Why did the Centre ignore it? It could have created a Naga autonomous council or something similar to address the Naga fear. It ignored it then but gave it State status after Nagas took up arms. It set a bad example.” The Nagas, he underlines, “waited for a long time before taking up arms, Mizoram waited for 25 years before rising against the Centre, and so did the people of other States. It is wrong to say that they feel alienated without seeing why they feel so.”

Slicing up greater Assam “was a huge mistake,” he thinks. “The Centre opened a Hornet's nest and now there is no end to demand for separate States.”

For a permanent solution, the author feels, “The region should be seen as a land of opportunities.” He says, “The Look East policy should look good in reality too. The construction on the Stillwell road has stopped. Many in the Centre fear that China will use the open trade route in the NE to dump their produce on us but developed China is far away from the NE. Instead, the route can be used to reach the needs of people in China's underdeveloped border areas. It is a ready market waiting to be tapped, and the NE can be a production hub for it.”

That India now has a friendly neighbour in Bangladesh would help in curbing NE insurgency. But that is not quite enough. “How can you stop the militants from taking shelter in Myanmar? India will have to support democracy in Myanmar.”

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