Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

If the Northeast is to come to terms with itself as a grouping of individual communities and with the larger Indian heartland as a geo-strategic entity, the study and reconstruction of its history is vital.

India’s Eastern Gateway

The Northeast remains a “stranger” to much of India because its history is not taught. It is time to bring it into the fold as a unique and preserved entity.

By B G Verghese

May 2013

The President’s visit to Nagaland must be welcomed as a timely sign of interest in and concern about the future of the State. It has impelled The Chief Minister, Neiphiu Rio, to plead for an early and honourable settlement of the Naga issue. Peace talks have been conducted primarily with the NSCN(IM) since 1997. Much ground has been covered and a solution is in sight. The remaining gap, the demand for Nagalim, is more emotional than substantive.

The claim to sovereign independence has been virtually abandoned and the integration of all Naga areas appears possible within a non-territorial framework across administrative boundaries. For the rest, an autonomous Naga constitution within the Indian Constitution - somewhat on the J&K model – could work without establishing a precedent. The futility, corrupting influence of and intra-Naga fratricidal potential in further delay is understood. Having won the recent state elections, the CM is willing to surrender office if an alternative can pave the way to a settlement, as happened in Mizoram.

This is now the time for the Government to consult the Opposition, National Integration Council and other Naga groups and push for an agreement before the 2014 polls. The stabilising influence of this on the entire region cannot be doubted even as Maoist and nefarious foreign elements attempt to exploit the situation.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are signalling their desire for a boundary settlement. There is no question of ceding Tawang to China – or any other populated area as clearly agreed – or of accepting Chinese stapled visas for Arunachalese as suggested by a BJP MP from that state. Some tenuously claimed territories in Ladakh will probably have to be conceded and certified as part of a final demarcation of the national boundary rather than as a cession of territory, on the same basis as settlement of the Indo-Bangla boundary and enclaves issue. The Chinese Premier has just been here and boundary, trade and investment talks are expected to move forward.

If the Northeast is to come to terms with itself as a grouping of individual communities and with the larger Indian heartland as a geo-strategic entity, the study and reconstruction of its history is vital. Perchance Reuters recently reported that the National Army Museum in London had voted the heroic actions in Kohima and Imphal in 1944 as Britain’s greatest battles ever, not excluding even Waterloo and the Normandy landing. Alas, the saga of these battles that held the gates of India against Japanese invasion is a fading memory here as is Netaji’s Azad Hind Fauj, whose memorabilia are displayed at museum at Moirang just short of the Burma Road.

The Northeast, alas, stands on the edge of the country’s history. It lies east of Siliguri, where South Asia shades into Southeast Asia. Its Mongoloid allure adds to the overall texture and colour of the country’s unique racial, cultural and bio-geographic diversity.

Colonial history and then Partition sequestered the Northeast and it still remains for many Indians a distant and mysterious land behind a curtain. No better way to introduce this region of extraordinary beauty, brilliant colour, enormous contrasts, vigorous and talented people and enormous natural resources to the uninitiated than pictorially. This has been captivatingly accomplished by Kunal Verma, photo-journalist and filmmaker, and his wife, Dipti Bhalla, in a three-volume illustrated and annotated “Northeast Trilogy”, - East of Kanchendzonga”, “Children of the Dawn” and “Brahma’s Creation” - with assistance from the Indian Army to reach forbidding and once forbidden territory. (KaleidoIndia, Gurgaon).

The authors very properly define the Northeast as commencing from the Siliguri Neck, including North Bengal, Darjeeling and Sikkim, as this constitutes a unique geopolitical, geo-strategic, bio-geographic and ethno-cultural entity that can best be understood, developed and defended as a whole. The history of the region is lost in the mists of time. But three ancient chronicles, the Rajmala of Tripura, the Cheriothol Kumbaba of Manipur and the Burunjis of Assam’s Ahom rulers constitute a rare record. Ruins are still being unearthed and sacred groves, megaliths and charming myths and legends, a proto-history of the region and its people who migrated there from Inner, Southeast Asia and Middle India over the centuries, remain to be documented as history.

The intermingling of peoples created in Arunachal a Buddhist outer rim, a Sanskritising inner fringe and an animist/tantric middle where local faiths such as Donyi Polo, prevail. Islam and, increasingly, Christianity have registered a presence, the latter as a result not only of proselytization but of modernisation through adoption of English, the Roman script and western manners and music. The Meiteis of the Imphal Valley in turn converted to Vaishnavism from Sanamahi while in Tripura Bengali supplanted Kok Barok. A revival is now under way as communities grope for their roots.

Few know that the Brahmaputra is perhaps India’s only “male” river on which decisive naval battles were fought to wrest or maintain supremacy. Smaller tribes are coalescing into larger kinship groups. Most communities have democratic grassroots institutions and the region is home to native varieties of rice, citrus, silk, tea, rubber and orchids, and rare species of birds, animals, butterflies, carnivorous pitcher plants and root bridges. Digboi is the world’s oldest oil refinery. Polo, football and archery are indigenous to the region which today boasts some of India’s finest athletes, choirs, dance ensembles, weaves and exotica such as the women’s market in Imphal.

Mountains, mighty rivers, and lush forests define the region. In 1836, Cherrapunji recorded 336 inches of rain. It is no more the country’s wettest spot and was abandoned as the first British capital in Assam for lack of water. Guru Tegh Bahadur camped at Dhubri in 1669.

The Tawang-Bomdila-Se La axis and Walong sector in the Luhit Valley saw the brunt of action during the India-China conflict in 1962. Memorials recall the battles fought at Bum La, Se La and Walong.

The Second World War saw a great churning in the Northeast and this was followed by Independence and a still on-going process of national integration, interspersed with efforts at differentiation as small, long-isolated local communities struggled to assert their identities in a huge, churning Indian ocean of humanity. Processes of state and community formation, insurgency and reconciliation have followed but none of this, alas, forms part of a NE history or of the larger ethno-cultural setting in which they must be placed as India Looks East.

Indeed, the lack of an integrated Northeast history or even of the new states or formative communities there constitutes a major lacuna. If strangers are merely friends you have not met before, the Northeast remains a “stranger” to much of India because its history is not taught. Sadly, “Indian” history is mostly a history of Aryavarta and the forays its rulers made to subdue or conquer “peripheral” kingdoms. This is a tragedy and major gap in nation-building and was the subject of a recent conference of Northeastern and metropolitan scholars in Delhi. This is something the Indian Council of Historical Research should take up urgently and prepare NE histories at several levels – a recommendation made in 1997 by the Shukla Commission on “Transforming the Northeast”.

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