Living in times where you can ‘dial an expert’ for an opinion on any issue, you may find M.S. Prabhakara’s approach in analysing issues that have gripped the North East a little too meticulous and perhaps too studious. However, when the missing pieces of the puzzles that have baffled the north east over the years seem to disappear without a trace, you realise such a task could not have been undertaken by the special correspondents of today.
The book, a collection of Mr. Prabhakara’s essays/articles written in a span of almost 40 years, will take the reader through a brief account of some of historical, political and social changes as a result of which “Kamrupa” shrank in size; language and even script became a contentious political issue; the claims for the status of “scheduled tribe” multiplied, demands for sovereignty and/or “greater autonomy” overflowed in the region and amidst all this communities looked for ways to preserve their identities.
The British had adopted Bengali as the official language after annexation of Assam in 1826. Dr. Miles Bronson, a Baptist missionary who compiled the first Assamese-English Dictionary in 1867 is known for “taking a leading part in organizing the endeavours to secure for the language its legitimate place in the administration and judiciary in Assam”. Though with the efforts of Dr. Bronson and civil servants like Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, Assamese replaced Bengali as the official language in 1873, crises over identities constantly kept stirring the region.
In the 1970s, the Bodo Sahitya Sabha, raised a demand before the Assam Government for replacement of the Assamese script (which the Bodos used till then) by the Roman script. The Bodos, a “Mongoloid people who live in the whole of North-East India and speak one of the Tibeto-Burman languages” are “one of the largest homogenous peasant communities of Assam”. Though eventually the Bodos adopted the Devanagiri script, the agitation which resulted in the death of over a dozen people highlights the increasing fear amongst many communities in the region, the fear of losing its identity, “underlying which is the wariness about the alien and the outsider”.
The creation of Nagaland in 1963 “fed the craving of the other tribal people for separation” from Assam and ultimately led to the passing of North-Eastern Areas (Reorganization) Act, 1971 giving the status of Union Territory to Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram (before they eventually became states) and of State to Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya. However, as in the case of Government of India Act, 1935 and the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, this Act granted constitutional protection only to the hills tribes and not to the tribal people in the plains. Though “numerically the largest tribal community in the whole region” and “constitutionally classified as scheduled tribes”, the tribal people of the plains did not get the protection given to the hills tribes on the basis that there existed no distinction between them and the non-tribal communities. Greater autonomy and other demands in the areas inhabited by the plains tribes gained momentum as they witnessed the “progress” of the tribal communities of the Hills and their ability to retain their “identity”.
Prabhakara notes how violent clashes between Assamese and Biharis gets “national attention” as “two major national groups” with “national clout” are involved. However, when so often, abducted children of a particular tribe are beheaded and burnt alive, abducted women are raped and killed and villages are torched in remote parts of North East, there is a curious but not so surprising silence. Questions pertaining to the identity of these tribes and the geography of these places would “only provoke a yawn” in New Delhi for what happens to “such obscure people from obscure corners of an obscure land” does not really bother the country.
In an article aptly titled “Chasing a mirage” published in Frontline in 2003, Prabhakara writes about how the leaders of the Assam agitation threw away the opportunity to have an early and a final solution of the problem of illegal immigration of Bangladeshis to Assam.
He offers some interesting statistics which reveal that while over 3 lakh illegal migrants were deported from Assam between 1962 and 1984 under the Foreigners Act, 1946, 1501 were deported from 1985 to 2003 under Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 (IMDT Act) which was eventually declared to be “ultra vires the Constitution of India” by the Supreme Court.Interestingly, the Government of West Bengal deported about half a million illegal migrants under the Foreigners Act, 1946, without any agitation and without any IMDT Act.
The book offers a brief historical account of the political movements in Manipur and Nagaland in the context of demands for sovereignty by various outfits and organisations. Prabhakara also provides a well researched study of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, its legislative history, its “terrifying implications” and the political considerations in New Delhi that have always ensured that not even any political debate takes place to examine whether such a draconian law is really required.
Though some of the articles were written several years ago in the context of circumstances that do not exist now, and political scenarios which have completely changed over the years and may have little significance today, the sound analysis of many of the issues that gripped the region in the past may offer valuable lessons to those entrusted with powers to deal with the present.
Jawaharlal Nehru, in his foreword to the paper-back edition of his autobiography, wrote that sometimes it is worthwhile knowing the past in order to know better the present.
LOOKING BACK INTO THE FUTURE — Identity & Insurgency in Northeast India: M. S. Prabhakara; Routledge, 912 Tolstoy House, 15-17 Tolstoy Marg, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 795.