Book Review on
Troubled Diversity: The Political process in Northeast India
(Edited by Sandhya Goswami)
Bertrand Russel is not much in fashion these days. But the observation he made perhaps for his own life decades back that things happening ‘out of doors’ have made deeper impression than things those have happened ‘indoors’ could be somehow relevant for northeast India. The region is certainly trapped in myriads of conflicts. One diagnosis has been well articulated in the foreword of this book, ‘Troubled Diversity: The Political process in Northeast India’.
Late D P Barooah, the former Vice Chancellor of Gauhati University eloquently wrote in the foreword, “it is a patent reality that the political leadership committed grave errors over the years in confounding political problems and then sought to deal with them militarily”.
The compendium edited by educationist Sandhya Goswami has tried to take both holistic and issue-based approach in understanding the problems of the region and unraveling the multiple layered in most of them. Here comes the relevance of Russel’s observation on happenings ‘out of doors’. Those who follow northeast India also know that there exists a skewed perception of development and that’s the obvious fact that development has been prone to politicization and something delivered ‘externally’ from New Delhi.
Here comes the relevance of this book as it seeks to highlight different facets of the region and the people. Some candid speaking in the volume are based on the ear-on-ground studies as essays by researchers, scholars and northeast watchers are compartmentalized in three sections – first, Historical Legacies, followed by Diversity, Development, Conflict and Management and thirdly, a crucial Comparative Perspective between the northeast and another trouble-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The tendency of policy makers and even academicians so far used to be to try to understand the northeast India – seven sister states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura along with a new member Sikkim – as a vast land often ungovernable in more ways than one. This is true. However, there’s another salient feature that while some pockets in the region have suffered violence and killings over the years as cursed hamlets, seldom any study has tried to focus on various segments of people – especially the often neglected ones like tea garden labour force.
Therefore the second section of the book dealing with smaller tribes like Karbis, Dimasas, Tea-tribes and the bigger issues of autonomy and local governance paradox is certainly a prized take away from the compendium.
Jayanta Krishna Sarmah from the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University, does well to pin point that the complex challenge of demography should be the key to understanding the dynamics of various tribal and ethnic movements. “Different ethnic communities with distinct languages, histories and traditions have demanded recognition and support for their cultural identity,” Sarmah says aptly.
In the process, northeast India today notwithstanding the media-hyped ‘freedom’ movement of Nagas, Mizos and various outfits in Assam and Manipur, have as many as 10 autonomous councils under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.
But as we look back, problems still persist and public grievances punctuated with anti-India and anti-administration sentiments still make tough for the governments both at the respective state level and for the centre in New Delhi.
Do all these only expose the limitations of constitutional mechanism to resolve some of the problems of the northeast India? One has often heard constitutional experts and babus describing the Sixth Schedule as a ‘constitution within the Constitution of India’. This provides for special political arrangements for ethnic minorities as a means for devolution of power.
But there are issues and thus, it can be safely stated that there can be no better example of the phrase – wheels-within-wheels! That makes understanding northest of India a fairly tough challenge.
This is precisely the story of the long-neglected and over-exploited ‘Adivasis’ of Assam. The roots of Adivasi identity in Assam is submerged in the history of the growth of the tea industry, a sector that has made both Assam and northeastern region proud.
But it would be also pertinent to point out that the conferring of constitutional benefits in terms of inclusion of a group in the list of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Other Backward Class (OBC) over the years – especially in the context of northeast - has depended largely on the level of socio-economic backwardness and also on the strength of demand articulation.
Have we heard, ‘New Delhi fears violence’ – more as a refrain?
One feels the book should have dealt a bit more on these questions as the contributors to the volume are academicians per se and thus are less guided by the safety perimeters of bureaucrats (or former bureaucrats) or prejudices of journalists and politicians.
The third section – the comparison between northeast India and Jammu and Kashmir - is again a debatable paradox.
One is raising the absurdity bogey largely because for a study like this considering northeast as a whole unit vis-à-vis the problems in Kashmir are erroneous even theoretically.
The problems in each of northeastern states are distinctly different and peculiar and thus a more worthwhile comparative study between Jammu and Kashmir would have been to take one or two states from the region. The attempt made by Noor Ahmed Baba in his paper ‘Northeast and Kashmir’ to draw a parallelism that the Indian federalism and constitutional mechanism has had problems with “peripheral regions” (i.e Jammu and Kashmir and Northeast) is actually a too far-fetched argument.
One cannot discard the issue of corruption and leakage but the internal political and administrative forces in these suppose ‘peripheral regions’ cannot be given clean chits so easily either.
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From a primordial economy, the northeast India is today a telling picture of different world of modernity. Jammu and Kashmir has also progressed.
The reviewer was born and brought up in the northeastern states spread over the states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya and has also traveled in J&K – both in Ladakh-Jammu region and the state capital Srinagar. People’s take about developments in these states and the cause of ‘Indian nation building’ has been to take ‘development’ as distribution of benefits, externally delivered economic packages that can be translated through backdoor means.
Finally, one would be waiting for a compendium on studies on these lines. But nevertheless, this volume edited by Sandhya Goswami is worth appreciating.
(edited version appeared in The Statesman)