In his seminal book Imperilled Frontiers: India’s North-Eastern Borderlands, the legendary administrator of India’s “forgotten outpost,” Nari Rustomji has written My years of frontier service were years of unbounded happiness. Regrettably, civil servants and statesmen of Rustomji’s calibre and comprehension no longer abound in the enchanted frontiers. Indeed, the majority of the officers from the central services who are posted in the region—the author is referring to the officials who are from outside the region—consider an assignment in the North East as harsh and one which has cast them to the nation’s fringe. Such a perception is unfortunate. North East India is not India’s periphery. It is central to not only the country’s security, but also to its identity as a nation that seeks to showcase unity in diversity. Indeed, few other geographical regions in South Asia possess a miscellany that merge so skilfully into such an entity, and with a geo-strategic imperative that is so vital. But, whether it is due to the relative isolation, which cartographical design has placed the North East, vis-à-vis New Delhi, or as a result of a mainstream detachment for the “perimeter,” the fact of the matter is that the region has not received the due that its essence deserves. It continues to be characterised—in some sense—as a frontier outpost of a forgotten empire. While this outlook is in some measure due to the colonial British policy of excluding the region from its primary administrative ambit, later day guiding principle, too, has not completely abandoned the standard that the alien rulers had adopted for administering the imperilled frontiers. The geo-location of the North East has not only accorded the region with the nuance of a defence zone, but has, as a result, led New Delhi to view it, for the most part, through the prism of security, circuiting the urgencies of development. Indeed, even after seventy-five years of independence, this rainbow region, home to a joie de vivre that few other regions in the sub-continent possess, has not quite attained the respect of an able partner in India’s nation-building enterprise. Correct integration and trust have eluded the region, compelling the North East to bemoan the insensitivity to which New Delhi continues to subject her.
While sound integration has not taken place for a number of reasons, one of the primary explanations for the continued disaffection is New Delhi’s lack of trust for the region. While there is no dispute in the fact that a frontier—especially one as strategically placed as the North East—would perforce have to be administered with some caution, especially when discourse pertains to security, an attempt to comprehend the underpinnings of even this crucial aspect has not adequately been gone into. Insensitivity continues to navigate the desks, files and policies in Raisina hill and thereabouts. Moreover, the intermittent centrist condescension that is exhibited, in order to display its “sincere intentions,” has only aggravated the situation, with images of disdain overpowering even the occasional genuine concern. Clearly, the North East yearns to be understood, and aspires for a place in the greater Indian dream. But hope turns into disappointment, frustration and pain, degenerating—on a number of occasions—into revolt when the rightful vision is denied.
Insensitivity also exhibits itself in the perception that the region is a mere appendage to a sub-continental giantism, and consequently neither the political realities nor the social undertakings in the constituency affect the rest of India. Among the dissenting refrains that are heard, the most important ones pertain to the durbar in New Delhi and the region’s representation in its conduct. “Would our paltry share of 25 MPs make a difference to the high politics of New Delhi?” Or, even, “would one of our representatives ever be vested with an important ministerial portfolio?” Also, certain unfortunate baggage of history continues to be carted and unwrapped when tales about New Delhi’s insensitivity are narrated. Therefore, Nehru’s statement of 1962, in the wake of the Chinese aggression, “my heart goes out to the people of Assam,” continues to hurt, adding to alien encouragement that the North East is dispensable to New Delhi. The unfortunate aspect in the matter is that even if the lament about the “loss” of Assam to the advancing Chinese forces—as would be expected from a personage of Nehru’s judiciousness—was made in appropriate dismay, observers continue to talk about the statement in a light that is not charitable to the first prime minister of the country. Indeed, there is derision for the manner in which Assam was sought to be included with East Pakistan at the time of partition as well, and indeed, were it not reportedly for the intervention of the Mahatma, the erstwhile East Pakistan’s present war for “lebensraum” in the North East would have been over seventy years ago. The problem is so overwhelming that New Delhi has neither made amends nor attempted to clear a misunderstanding. Or perhaps it does not know how to do so, and is content—as a senior army general once told the author—with the policy of “not having a policy” for the region, or even to be educated about it. The region, for instance, despite a modicum of homogeneity, is not a composite whole, and an Ao of Nagaland has as much as in common with a Khasi of Meghalaya, or a Karbi of Assam, as have a Kashmiri pundit of Jammu & Kashmir with a Namboodiri Brahmin of Kerala. All the three former communities owe allegiance to a tribal denomination in the same manner that the latter two are from the Brahmin fraternity. But the differences are apparent.
New Delhi’s tactlessness also comes to the fore in other curious ways. A relatively undemanding instance—culled from an incident that took place a decade and a half ago—showcases this aspect of North Eastern grouse. In January 2007, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) which was united at the time, not having undergone the split of 2010, targeted Hindi-speaking people—primarily the labour class from Bihar—with forceful effect. It was one of the worst pogroms carried out by the ULFA and it showcased the hypocrisy of an organisation that had come into being as a militant manifestation of the student’s agitation against illegal migrants from Bangladesh. After all, there was clear irony in the observation that the ULFA has never targeted the Bangladeshis in Assam—quite clearly because of the geopolitical compulsions that it was faced with, primarily that it had safe havens, training grounds and even lucrative businesses in Bangladesh. But the ULFA had no problem eliminating people from Bihar. In fact, it suited its agenda of “attracting New Delhi” in the hope that the latter would become more amenable to its demands. This author used to term the acts of violence against the Hindi-speaking people in his presentation and lectures as “mails by bombings”—attempts by the ULFA to relay the news that it is a force to reckon with. In any event, the deaths of the Hindi-speaking people led to widespread remonstration, and Assamese intellectuals, students and womenfolk came out in their numbers to protest, expressing solidarity with the people from Bihar who were being targeted. In the immediate aftermath of the incidents, a slew of leaders from New Delhi descended on the state, to provide succour (as indeed it was required) to the affected people. Companies of para-military forces were hastened to Assam and ex-gratia payments for the deceased were announced with alacrity—a responsible dispensation acted in the correct manner. However, comments that began to be heard in the sitting rooms of Assam at the time was “where were these leaders when death stalked the North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong, or for the matter when children were killed in Dhemaji?”
A similar sense of alienation was felt in Manipur in June 2005, when the All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur forced an economic blockade in the four Manipur hill districts of Tamenglong, Chandel, Ukhrul and Senapati. The blockade cut off Manipur from the rest of the country, leading to immense economic hardship for the people of the state. An LPG cylinder, normally priced at Rupees 300, was selling at Rupees 600, and prices of essential commodities soared. But the blockade, which could have been resolved had New Delhi the interest to do so, was “allowed” to continue for 52 days, bringing life to a standstill in the state. The perception in Imphal and thereabouts at the time was that New Delhi could not care less were the blockade to continue for another 100 days. If such trends continue, even economic alienation from the rest of India would ascertain that the region begins to look elsewhere, and away from the mainland. Of course, the fact that news about such blockades or fratricidal killings in the region is almost never printed in the national media is yet another manifestation of the indifference, ramification of which can be dire.
But, an aspect that a mainlander has not quite comprehended is that although there is considerable grouse in the minds of the North Easterner, the fact of the matter is that despite the two percent that physically joins the North East to the rest of India, claiming thereby that the emotional bond is as slender, the truth is that a majority among North Easterners—in their heart of hearts—do not believe that “Hanoi is closer than New Delhi.” Despite the dissonance and the insensitivity, New Delhi continues to determine almost every aspect of life in the region. Therefore, be it aspiring managers and civil servants in the region, who seek an entry into Indian Institute of Bangalore or St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, aspirants for the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian army, people seeking medical aid, business entrepreneurship or even a place as a stewardess in Delhi’s Kitty Su, the refrain is that the Rajdhani Express from Guwahati or for the matter the airliner from Imphal leaves for Delhi. But, the flames that have engulfed the frontier are not mere outlying bush fire, but fire that has the ability—were heed not paid—to start a prairie fire that can set a nation’s existence ablaze. It is strange, therefore, that this critical expanse should continue to be viewed with an insensitivity that is incapacitating.
The writer is a celebrated conflict analyst and bestselling author