Review of Ashish Kundra’s A Resurgent Northeast — Narratives of Change: A region set for take-off

A serving bureaucrat’s impressions about the region may be personal, but not the policy prescriptions

May 19, 2023 09:02 am | Updated 09:02 am IST

The bridge in Zokhawthar, the border town of Mizoram, which connects with Myanmar.

The bridge in Zokhawthar, the border town of Mizoram, which connects with Myanmar. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Career bureaucrat Ashish Kundra, an IAS officer of the AGMUT cadre, has had three stints in the Northeast — two in Mizoram and one in between in Arunachal Pradesh. In A Resurgent Northeast: Narratives of Change, he maps the transition of the eight States over the course of his two-decade engagement with the region. Kundra’s belief (and hope) about the inexorable mainstreaming of the north-eastern frontier is premised on the rapid strides in communication and people-to-people movement across the Chicken’s Neck connecting the region with ‘mainland’ India. He bets on the peace dividend the waning of insurgency and separatist sentiments is expected to yield. There’s evidence already on view — the author details the sporting achievements of athletes on the national and international stage and profiles several entrepreneurial successes moored in the region’s unique topography, biodiversity and handicrafts. Kundra also puts immense faith in the government’s ‘Act East’ policy, reading into the changed terminology the momentum missing in its ’90s avatar of ‘Look East’.

Ashish Kundra

Ashish Kundra | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The optimism, however, is belied by geopolitics and the overarching presence of China in the region. While the military imperative of moving men and material quickly to the borders is bound to accelerate infrastructure development, the frosty neighbourly ties in recent years — only last month, Beijing sought to rename 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh — precludes any soft borders in the foreseeable future.

Exploring options

Informal trade via the Karnaphully river on the Mizoram-Bangladesh border.

Informal trade via the Karnaphully river on the Mizoram-Bangladesh border. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Policy prescriptions that look within and around rather than eastward are perhaps more in the realm of the possible. For one, exploring transit options overland through Bangladesh and via waterways that could unlock the region’s economic potential. Reviving the erstwhile Indian Frontier Administrative Service, a dedicated civil service cadre for the Northeast, could bring officers with an enduring stake in the region as opposed to itinerants jockeying for their next central deputation. Reinventing the North Eastern Council, the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region in Delhi being “too distant to take the lead”, is much needed. Forging the Northeast into an integrated market with hubs in Guwahati, Agartala and Imphal would even out the development spread.

Bum La, the border post with China, from the Arunachal Pradesh side.

Bum La, the border post with China, from the Arunachal Pradesh side. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The author shows deep empathy, be it while dwelling on the hurt felt by an older generation of Mizos over state excesses during the Rambuai (insurgency) period or while advocating the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act since the Indian Army often becomes “the symbol of the nation and the target of ire of an anguished people”. He calls out ground-level local corruption sans bureaucratese or equivocation. Sample this candour: “Educated elites wove a narrative of economic exploitation by ‘outsiders’, while being equally complicit in perpetuating it.” Or “District councils merely served as a safety valve for thwarted political assumptions... Autonomy became a proxy for profligacy.”

A konyak morung at Kisama village, Nagaland.

A konyak morung at Kisama village, Nagaland. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The administrator’s keen eye is also revealed when he punctures long-held assumptions about women being more empowered in the Northeast or talks of civil society overreach citing the example of the influential Young Mizo Association. Which is why it’s odd that he googled “terra incognita” Arunachal Pradesh out of curiosity upon receiving transfer orders from Daman in 2016. One would presumably be better placed with one stint in the region already on the CV.

A Resurgent Northeast envisions a region set for take-off. The Seven Sisters and One Brother are certainly more visible today, thanks to over 50 prime ministerial visits since 2014. That’s Look Northeast. The rest of the flight path is still up in the air.

A Resurgent Northeast: Narratives of Change; Ashish Kundra, HarperCollins, ₹399.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.