The Northeast exception


The Northeast exception

DURABLE DISORDER — Understanding the Politics of Northeast India: Sanjib Baruah; Oxford University Press, YMCA library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 495.

In Meghalaya police shoot dead 12 students protesting the shifting of the secondary school board from their town. In Bangkok Indian officials claim progress in their negotiations with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) (NSCN) even as anger erupts among Nagas over the alleged extra-judicial killing of an NSCN member by the Indian security forces.

In Assam the army is called out and shoot-at-sight orders given as ethnic rioting leaves dozens dead and thousands displaced. These stories of alienation and violence, which would be considered major crises in any normal area of the world, are all in a week's trickle of events reported from India's Northeast, illustrating what Sanjib Baruah calls "nearly four decades of failed policy." The best reason to start reading this book is the same as the author's motivation to write it, "a sense of puzzlement about how democratic India tolerates the Northeast Indian exception." The reason to keep reading it is the wide-ranging knowledge of the Northeast, combined with a skilled presentation of the perspective of the people of that region that Baruah offers to `mainland' readers, the vast majority of whom are profoundly ignorant about the history, culture and the politics of the Northeast.

The only perspective on the Northeast that `mainland' Indians have got — that too sporadically — is New Delhi's project of `India', which the Northeast seems endlessly, inexplicably and violently to resist. Baruah's earlier book, India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality (OUP, 2001) offered something new to scholars and policy-makers alike — a Northeastern vision of itself where the region was the focal point rather than a distant borderland to somebody else's idea of `India'.

Baruah's approach is well-grounded in colonial histories and refreshingly free from the vice-like grip of the concepts of `nation-state', `insurgency' and `national security'. Durable Disorder is rather more disorderly in structure, which is both a weakness and a potential attraction of the book. This is a collection of essays previously published in various journals, and suffers from the inevitable `disjointed' feel of disparate topics struggling to emerge as a single book.

Yet, the `mainland' reader's need to get to know the Northeast outside the `national security' paradigm is so great, that the broader territorial coverage and `standalone' quality of the essays may actually be an advantage for many Indian readers.

Baruah spells out the `democracy deficit' in the Northeast, in which the institutionalisation of authoritarian practices and suspension of the rule of law in the name of counterinsurgency coexists with the periodic ritual of elections.

The failed political engineering, in his view, via redrawing maps, counterinsurgency, co-optation or `developmentalist' interventions has led to a proliferation of ethnic militia (some of them state-fomented) and deformity in democratic institutions that appear capable of enduring for a lengthy period in a poisonous clinch.

The recounting of the `developmentalist' approach in `Arunachal Pradesh' — the Sanskritic renaming itself a part of `nationalising space' in the process of creating a `cosmetic federalism' — is a welcome antidote to the usual patronising narrative of the Northeast as a backward, wayward child to be brought into the fold through `development'. The chapter `Generals as Governors' is a mere level removed from generals as presidents.

A chapter on the Naga war and an entire section on the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) follow. The reason to read the book to the finish is that Baruah does not stop with historical analysis or policy critique. He dares to take the next logical leap — recommending bold changes in policy for the region. His imaginings of a different future for the Northeast may seem hopelessly idealistic given the `nation-state' mindset of New Delhi, but are based on fundamental shifts in the concept of `sovereignty' in recent years and comparative practice in other regions of the world.

Two of his policy ideas are worth noting here. One is to give the Northeast a `transnational' role in a reformulated `Look East' policy to allow it to flourish by reviving its historical, cultural and commercial ties with Southeast Asia. Baruah points to other nationalities like the Basque, Catalonia, Ireland or Tyrol to whom the European Union allows a `transnational politics of recognition' that compensates for their marginalisation within nation-states.

The other policy idea is to extend `dual citizenship' to both India and a state — which would anchor citizenship to a `civic principle' and get away from the politics of `ethnic homelands', which leads to an endless spiral of exclusion and displacement. Given New Delhi's insecurities even with dual citizenship with other countries, this idea will be hard to sell, but is worth exploring to give meaning to the multinational state that is India.

There are two reasons why Baruah might win a hearing in the policy-making corridors of India. He is terribly polite, while pulling no punches. And he is generous. Unlike the votaries of the great Indian nationalistic project, he leaves some space for `India' in his transnational, non-territorial imaginings.