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Updated: May 13, 2014 02:40 IST

The secret British plan that fell through

V. B. Ganesan
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ON THE EDGE OF EMPIRE — Four British Plans for North East India, 1941-1947: Edited by David R. Syiemlieh; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd. Rs. 795.
ON THE EDGE OF EMPIRE — Four British Plans for North East India, 1941-1947: Edited by David R. Syiemlieh; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd. Rs. 795.

Even after 66 years of Independence, India’s North East remains an enigma to many. A region predominantly tribal is still waiting for peace and tranquillity despite Naga, Mizo and other accords over the years. The continuing rule of AFSPA and underdevelopment of the region haunts their lives. After many an election and assurances by the powers that be, the tribals of the region are yet to be assimilated. Demands for separate land (state) from every identifiable tribal group are echoing over the hills all along. In a sense, the ‘Seven Sisters’, considered to be vital to the security of the Nation, are feeling peripheral.

In such a backdrop, David R. Syiemlieh’s “On the Edge of Empire - Four British Plans for North East India, 1941-1947” is indeed an eye-opener which provides an overview of the empirical thoughts of four British ICS officers serving in the region. They are Sir Robert N. Reid, Governor of Assam (1937-42); his successor Sir Andrew G. Glow (1942-47); James P. Mills, Advisor to the Government of Assam for Tribal Areas and States and his successor and fellow officer Philip F. Adams.

Prof. Syiemlieh, former Vice-Chancellor of Rajiv Gandhi University and presently Member, UPSC took active interest in the history of North East through out his career. His interest drew him to study the mystery surrounding the Crown Colony Plan/Protectorate. His painstaking efforts to bring out all the important documents from the concealed vaults and let them speak for themselves are really laudable. This secret plan was conceived during the closing years of the British rule and discussed at the highest levels of the colonial administration for setting up a Crown Colony comprising the hill areas of the North East India and the tribal areas of Burma. The Plan couldn’t be put into action for various reasons. By the middle of 1946, the Plan was wound up. The British came to realise it was ill-timed and conceived too late to shape up a protectorate of their own.

However, according to the documents presented in the volume, the British officials put their mind in studying the conditions of inhabitants of hill areas of the North East in a more organised manner. Every possible reaction from officialdom, political and social strata are answered in a coherent manner. The theme of all the four notes is to preserve the culture, language and traditions of the tribal and allow them to look after their needs by self-administration of their villages. Even the lingua franca was considered in a serious manner by these officials.

James P. Mills, who gave a detailed plan ( in 26 chapters) succinctly says, “The practical advantages of treating the union of States as a Colony till such time as they are sufficiently advanced to unite with India are so great that the ideas should not be rejected out of hand.”

He was also quoting a precedent of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland in Africa to protect the inhabitants against exploitation and in furthering their progress. Incidentally, with his interest in anthropology built up during his service in India, he was faculty in the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London from 1947 to 1954. These empirical thoughts were framed following two events. The hills that came under the direct control of the Raj were categorised by the Government of India Act, 1919, as Backward Tracts. While the majority of the tribes acquiesced with the term (may be because they were unaware of any development work in their areas), the most visible and modern Khasi-Jaintia were unhappy being put into this category. Consequently, the 1935 Government of India Act applied different nomenclature for the tribal areas.

The hills were categorised as either Excluded Areas or Partially Excluded Areas. Hence, Robert Reid, then Governor of Assam, in whose jurisdiction the issues of these Areas fell, wrote the first piece in November 1941. It was a confidential note titled A Note on the Future of the Present Excluded, Partially Excluded and Tribal Areas of Assam. This was followed by his advisor and Secretary to the Government of Assam on Tribal Affairs James P. Mills. Reid’s successor Andrew G. Glow as Governor in 1942 added his wisdom considering the political development at that time. His advisor and Secretary to Government of Assam Philip P. Adams followed suit with his own vision.

On the eve of partition, there was clamour to take in the hills areas of North East with East Pakistan, while a section led by Assam Premier Gopinath Bordoloi expressed concern over the Crown Colony Plan and also that the hill people had not “assimilated” with Assam. Hence, the responses of the hill people of North East India towards partition and independence were varied. Nagas took advantage of the emergence of East Pakistan to negotiate with India. Some of the Khasi states realised that they had much to lose in joining India but found it was the only solution open for them. To some extent, Mizos were brought nearer realities. However, the integration of the region into the Indian Union was not quite complete until Tripura, Manipur and the Khasi states signed instruments of Accession and merger agreements with the new Indian Government. While Tripura and Manipur were accorded Union Territory status in 1950, the Garo, Khasi, Jaintia, Mikir, North Cachar and Lushai Hills were provided with District Councils to safeguard their forest, land and tradition. And the process of integration is still on.

This volume edited by David R. Syiemlieh is indeed a great work for those who are interested in tribal development and more specifically the development of the northeast of India. Notably, Mr. Mills’ detailed presentation to empower the tribals in their own areas will be an eye-opener for activists. Preserving the language, culture and tradition of hill people amid development is a daunting task indeed. The notes contained in this volume show this can really be done with real love.

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