The book opens with an overview of the cultural mix and diversity of India's North-East region and discusses how colonial intervention triggered a dual process of bringing it under a common administrative unit and at the same time enacting measures for separating the hill communities from those of the plains. The author shows how, after Independence, there was little change in New Delhi's perceptions about the region, which accentuated the divide between the Centre and the periphery and gave rise to a spate of identity demands. This prompted New Delhi to resort to repressive methods and also create political space for the small ethnic nationalities by breaking up “greater Assam.”
Summing up, Bhaumik says that the “creation of new States and autonomous councils in the North-East have indeed opened up the Pandora's Box,” although towards the end of the book he himself suggests that the tribes be given “extensive autonomy.” The flux in identities; the unrestricted illegal immigration hampering broader assimilation; the politics of language and script; and the subtle link between land alienation and unrelenting exclusivist ethnic conflict (reflected in massacres like the ones at Mandai and Nellie, and the Naga-Kuki killings) — all these are discussed in detail. Drug trafficking, the presence of foreign hand, the role of pressure groups, the crisis of governance, and the issue of displacement and forced migration also figure.
On the demographic change brought about by illegal immigration in Assam, Bhoumick says: “The alarming scenario that generations of Assamese have been fed on is finally coming true. Groups that would prefer to merge Assam's Muslim-majority areas with contiguous Bangladesh have finally arrived.” However, some of his views appear far-fetched. Example: his contention that ULFA is seeking to restore the multi-ethnic and assimilative nature of Assamese nationality through the propagation of a multi-ethnic credo. Again, it will not be correct to suggest that the “heavy military presence and amicable civil-military relations” in Arunachal Pradesh have led to the wide acceptance of Hindi. The fact is that Hindi was introduced as part of a wider and well-thought out strategy of the Centre to project the State as an integral part of the Indian civilisational milieu.
National labour policy
Bhaumik has come up with his own suggestions on tackling the situation in the North-East. As a measure to curb the “rampant migration from other Indian States into the region,” he wants a national labour policy that safeguards the interests of the indigenous people. The idea is highly contentious and reflective of the position of outfits like ULFA that target migrant labour from the north Indian States, particularly from Bihar, labelling them as agents of “Indian colonialism,” but play down the massive illegal migration from Bangladesh. Bhoumick of course wants a check on illegal migration from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Burma also. Among his other— sound, even if not new — suggestions are: protection of land rights of the indigenous peoples; “extensive autonomy” for the tribal regions; and “humanisation” of operations by the security forces.
Bhaumik's journalistic career in the North-East may have given him a “first-hand experience” of the situation in the region. But his claims that his approach differed substantially from that of the “armchair academics” commenting on the region and that he had drawn “primarily on [his] own experience and primary documentation gained during nearly three decades of journalism in the region”, appear exaggerated. Many of his cardinal arguments could be traced to earlier writings by other scholars and media men. The publication would have gained much from some serious editing which could have weeded out the glaring errors and repetition of both facts and arguments. All these notwithstanding, it must be said that the book has attempted to present an overall picture of a really complex and complicated crisis situation in the region, which continues to pose some of the gravest challenges to the Indian nation-state. This in itself is quite a stupendous task.
TROUBLED PERIPHERY - Crisis of India's North East: Subir Bhaumik; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs.595.
Keywords: North-East in ferment