India’s North East region has offered many paradoxes for observers over the years, thus emerging as a major field of research. Professor Udayon Misra has been one of the early commentators on the region making some of the pioneering interventions on various contentious issues. His recent book India’s North East: Identity Movements, State and Civil Society is a voluminous compilation of some of these works around ‘India’s North-East Experience’, ‘an experience made up of grave challenges to the nation-state and compelling the latter not only to take note of happenings here but also to expand its own parameters of the nation-state and ideas of nationalism’ (p. 349). The book is divided into four thematic parts, each containing a series of articles around the given theme with an introduction that provides some contemporary perspective to the articles within each section. Most of the articles having been published at different points of time over the last three decades benefit from these updated accounts.
In ‘Northeast India: Roots of Alienation’ puts the discussion in the context of the fight for ‘the exercise of the Constitutional right of the northeastern indigenous communities to be accepted as Indians on equal grounds, without being “integrated”’ (p. 6) The student protests in recent times by ‘a new generation of tribal youths’ in many Indian metros is cited as resistance to stereotyping as well as demand for a rightful share in the nation-building process as Indian citizens. (pp. 4–5).
In ‘Who “Owns” India? The meaning of “My” in “My Country”’, a central question is asked: ‘Why is that many of us living in different parts of our country are not able to acknowledge, in their heart, that India is theirs unlike the rest of us?’ (p. 74). He places this emotional disconnect in the basic inconsistency between the conception of the modern nation-state and the pervasive reality of the polyethnic or multinational character of the country. Attempts at ‘national integration’ have led to an overriding of ethnic diversities and imposition of a homogenous set of values creating enough resentment in the region manifested in militant secessionist movements. ‘…It would be necessary to redefine the preset commonly held concepts of the Indian Nation and enlarge the parameters to include all those who are still on the periphery’. For Misra this ‘redefinition’ has to be forged at the level of grassroots social movements ‘aimed at restoring value based politics’ movements that will do away with the situation of ‘“two Indias”—one with access to resources, power and privileges, and the other totally left out’ ‘Course and Character of the Naga Struggle’ is a detailed account of the movement for Nagalim, ‘amongst the earliest challenges to the Indian nation-state but also the longest surviving ethnic armed struggle in the subcontinent.’ Spread over six sections, the chapter provides a rich account of the various phases as well as the emerging contradictions of the movement, where ‘behind the veneer of Naga nationalism there has emerged a deeply divided society where loyalty to one’s tribe quite often supersedes everything else.’
The essay ‘Immigration and Identity Transformation in Assam’ is a fascinating account of the historical narrative in the evolution of the category ‘Assamese’ and the demographic changes that the author considers as having the potential to alter ‘the overall composition and cultural content of the Assamese population’ as it will work towards an increasing inclusion of Muslim immigrants, the tea-tribes and the Nepalese while alienation of the plains tribes from the Assamese speaking caste Hindu population will be almost complete. However, Assam’s socio-political discourse has witnessed the emergence of a particular notion of ‘indigenousness’ which has brought together the ‘plain tirbals’ and ‘Assamese Hindus’ on a common plank built on a renewed emphasis on a sense of a shared past especially in the context of perceived threat of growing influx of the ‘Bangladeshi Muslims’. This new equation thereby seems to have downplayed, for the time being, the importance of shared linguistic identity as a marker of political commonality. Besides, even if one does agree that the issue of ‘continuing influx of Bangladeshis’ has become an ‘established’ part of Assamese national imagination, resulting in an identity politics based on a sense of loss and fear, one needs to remember that academic discourse too is a crucial source to the cultural production of imagination. A deeper engagement with the many contestations on the extent of the ‘Bangladeshi threat’ to Assamese identity would have added weight to the author’s otherwise cogent thesis.
Other sections in the book focus on the discourse of militant Assamese nationalism embodied in the doctrines of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), where it begins it’s descent in popular Assamese imagination with the killing of civilians and subsequent arrest of top leadership leading to negotiation between the Government of India and sections of the militant organization.
The section on the Bodo identity movement considers the many complex causes behind the ‘Bodo stir’ that had once raised the call to divide Assam fifty-fifty. Seen as a ‘burden of history’ the imbroglio of Bodoland is contextualized in the unfolding of history, ‘since the 1930s’, when ‘the issues of land, immigration, demographic change, and identity have been core ones in this region.’ ‘Adivasi Question’ in Assam brings into focus this otherwise underfocused element in the identity discourse in Assam, that has assumed its own problematics regarding its situation in this discourse.
The final chapter on ‘State and Civil Society in Northeast India’ places the issue of growing marginalization and ineffectiveness of civil society in conflict situations in its partisanship to populist agendas. There are commentaries that also point out the ‘impunity and indifference with which the security forces continue to violate human rights in areas under draconian laws like the Armed Forces Act.’ In the last section ‘Representative Democracy and Traditional Institutions’, a case is made for reassessment of India’s federal experience in the light of the North East experience, a possibility often curbed with overemphasis on the violence. He ends with a note of concern, ‘it remains to be seen how the modern democratic process will maintain balance between the contrasting pulls of representative democracy and traditional structures of power…’ (p. 356).
The essays in the collection focus only on the two major models of ethno-nationalist struggles in the North East—that of the Nagas and the Assamese, ‘because these two struggles present, in many senses, the two ends of the pole as far as the Indian nationstate is concerned.’ The more this ‘construct’ of North East India becomes a ‘brand’ with a niche market, the more the definitional contours of it will come under scrutiny. Misra himself has been cognizant of the term becoming ‘an umbrella connotation which tends to wipe off its immense diversity of history, culture and politics’ (pp. 7–8). Perhaps some ‘exclusion’ becomes unavoidable when one is trying to deal with a region as diverse and multilayered as India’s North East. Some explanation in the preface/introduction of the work would go a long way towards clearing much of the confusion or possible perception of oversimplification in this regard.
Many of these essays appeared first as a kind of running commentary to events of momentous importance in the region’s social history. As testimonies to the evolving narrative of social change in the region with an appeal that ‘the perception of India as a country must be broadened to include those nationalities which have been at the periphery, culturally, politically, and economically’ (p. 83). Often the author ends an essay with some musings and bit of exploratory social forecast. On a few counts subsequent unfolding of events have proved these otherwise. But Misra’s writings pioneer the brave practice of the act of falsifying the ‘accepted’ truths in a region of multiple truths, and specially where truth is often the first casualty of a bullet fired from different camps.
Kaustubh Deka is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi, Delhi.