Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Till long after Indian independence Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh were part of Assam

The Problem is, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya Were “Carved out of Assam”

Every time I hear or read Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya or whichever Northeastern hill State was “carved out of Assam”, I cringe ~ because even the most cursory perusal of the history of the Northeastern region will inform that no hill State of the Northeast was “carved out of Assam”. In fact, the Assam of British India did not exist till the British created it by amalgamating territory ~ at different periods of history ~ that belonged to peoples who were not under the suzerainty of the Ahoms, for instance, Nagas, Mizos, Khasis, etc. Moreover, Manipur and Tripura were independent monarchies much before the British appeared in the scene and probably much before the Ahoms established their kingdom. It is also established that Nagas were already here before the Ahoms ~ in fact, the Ahoms traversed through Nagas’ land and our oral history and remnants of other evidence corroborate that. So, Northeastern hills States were not “carved out of Assam” but British Assam and till 1963, independent India’s Assam was constructed out of the amalgamation of all the other present States of the Northeast. We need to be clear about this so that the future is not built on erroneous premises.

This is important because these erroneous premises have caused border skirmishes resulting in the loss of precious human lives between Assam and Nagaland since 1963 and between Assam and its other neighbouring States after statehood was granted to them in subsequent years ~ till now. This is important because selective history is dangerous and creates animosity that will always prevail over neighbourly relations. It is not my intent to present a historical account of pre-British Northeast ~ there are enough material, on the subject, primarily the Buronjis, for anyone to read. It is also not my intent to define what consists “selective history” ~ all Northeastern States know them very well. This Column merely seeks to remind ourselves exactly where and when we Northeasterners see our beginnings and where we think we are heading.

No doubt, it is well-nigh impossible to deconstruct our colonial history that have seeped into and shaped our world view far and near. This is a problem that is still being confronted by all peoples in all parts of the globe that have been colonized ~ some of the wars in Africa have direct links to colonials’ expansionist empire-building constructs of territory. Our border skirmishes too have the same direct link and origins. Now, the choice is ours whether we still want to cling on to colonial constructs or move on with what we know to be right and true. So, yes, the resolution of our border issues also lays on the moral and the ethical. As long as we remain immured to the colonial narratives of our territorial claims, we will remain a very disturbed neighbourhood, which will impede our growth, development and progress as much as it will impede healthy relationships amongst us.

So, how do we get out of the shadow of the colonial constructs of our territorial claims and counter-claims? Probably, the first need is for us to understand and appreciate that we existed centuries before the British colonized us and tuned us into their way of thinking in all matters political, economic, social, cultural and territorial. As a corollary, it is time for all of us to get out of the “carved out of Assam” mindset and narrative. True, we had ups and downs in our martial, political, economic and social relations, as much as we also had cultural and marital inter-connectedness in some way or the other before the British darkened our path. But issues did get resolved one way or the other and we remained neighbourly for a very long time. This may be misconstrued as idealizing and romanticizing the past ~ after all, times are different now and things have changed, and much water have flown under the bridges of the Brahmaputra and along with it, we have also changed.

But that is precisely the point ~ we have changed into beings constructed by the colonial narrative and we have remained stuck being these beings. Ergo, we cannot seem to find solutions to our neighbourly issues. Alas, in this colonial narrative, to which we still abide by in our sub-conscious mind, we have abandoned our cultural selves and lost our “Northeastern” souls. And so we allowed and abided by independent India’s take-over of the colonial narrative and construct, imperfect as they were, and burdened ourselves with border issues, besides so many other issues. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that we now look for solutions to our border issues through the prism of the Indian nation-building project, which is based on the Western concept and construct of the “State” ~ and which has subsumed and erased our cultural and traditional territorial borders with “State” boundaries, creating antagonists out of centuries’ old neighbours.

How are we ever going to resolve this and the corollary border issues in this region? We cannot return to the past, we cannot undo the ravages of history and we cannot become our former un-colonized selves because we know only our colonized selves. Worse still, we cannot leave it to politicians, power-mongers and the powerful, capitalists and corporates, the political, cultural and social fundamentalists and the compromised amongst intellectuals and academia to resolve these issues. Clearly, besides the border issues, we have too many other issues to resolve. How do we do that? By de-colonizing ourselves, authoring our own new narratives and owning issues that must be resolved to enable us to own our lives and our future. This entails understanding, open-mindedness, sympathy, empathy and resistance to anything hurtful and harmful to each other because caring neighbours are more precious than acres of oil-fields.

Ultimately, we will need to look within us to find the moral and the ethical to find solutions to all our issues. We cannot even bank on our own politicians and Governments, who cannot even resolve their own domestic issues. In fact, they aggravate issues for reasons that are far distanced from the welfare and benefit of the people they claim to represent. Somehow, as peoples of this region, we will have to revisit what was and what is to be able to carve what will be in an environment of peace, goodwill and the generosity of spirit ~ which anyway define our ancient cultural selves, bits and parts of which still lives within us. It would also be a mistake to look at all our border and other contentious issues purely from the narrow perspectives of politics, ideologies, economics and territory. At the end of the day, all issues are intrinsically linked to the cultural and ethicality of human existence. But we must also be wary that we don’t allow our cultural and religious beliefs, biases and prejudices be turned into political ideologies and the politics of majoritanism/sectarianism, which is basically the politics of provocation ~ as so clearly seen in the recent passage of The Assam Cattle Preservation Bill, 2021, which seeks to regulate the slaughter, consumption and transportation of cattle ~ within Assam but with great adverse impact on Assam itself and all its neighbours.

Discord-resolution not only entails the firm foundations of the cultural and ethicality but also demands a very high degree of maturity ~ qualities rare in our politicians and Governments. From where the region stands today, the imperatives of shifting and re-focusing our direction and range of vision thereby changing our narratives cannot be over-emphasized. However, while we dream of an ideal world, we scoff at idealism ~ thereby we surrender the autonomy of our will and wisdom and become a herd of cattle. And, that is our biggest problem.

This article was first published in Assam Tribune

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