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The road not taken to an idyll

Finance minister P. Chidambaram, on his last visit to Assam as Union home minister last week, interacts with riot-hit people at a relief camp in Kokrajhar district. (PTI)

It is somewhat of a pity that P. Chidambaram was shifted from the Union home ministry to finance just after he had paid a visit to the conflict-ridden Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) area. Chidambaram had been one of the few individuals in Delhi, at present or in the past, to have a correct perspective of the reasons underlying happenings in the Northeast.

While ignorance or indifference had been the hallmark of successive home ministers since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, their excessive reliance on representatives of the Assamese middle class in grasping matters related to this region as a whole had also tended to obfuscate their judgement in the post-Independence period.

Speaking during his BTC visit, Chidambaram had stated that Assam was one of the most complex states in the country to govern because of the number of tribes, people from other states and illegal migrants. Such a statement might not sound as one born in the womb of profound insight, yet it puts in a nutshell the core problem besetting not only Assam but the entire Northeast.

This region, without doubt, is unique in the world for sheer ethnic diversity. Ironically, it is this uniqueness which lies at the core of the multifarious problems the Northeast confronts today. While the rest of the nation forges ahead, the Northeast remains a prisoner to its past and an easy victim of the divide-and-rule policy initiated by the British and assiduously pursued after freedom by Delhi.

Since prehistoric times, successive waves of Austric and Mongoloid tribes had periodically migrated to the region. Known as kiratas in mainland India, these tribes were responsible for forming numerous tribal communities thereby rendering this region into an ethnic melting pot and what anthropologists term “virgin soil for the Verrier Elwins”.

As Suniti Kumar Chatterjee states: “Assam (undivided) had thus to meet all the tribal movements from the East, involving the advent into India of Tibeto-Chinese speaking Mongoloids; and it was in Assam primarily that this great element in the formation of the Indian people became largely Indianised, particularly in the Brahmaputra Valley.”

This can be looked upon as Assam’s great contribution to the synthesis of cultures and fusion of races that took place in India — a synthesis which had started in prehistoric times when two distinct races found that they were to reside together in the same country — the Austric and the Mongoloid, the Dravidian and the Austric, and the Dravidian and the Mongoloid. Different branches of the great Sino-Tibetan speaking people who had their nidus near the headwaters of the Yangtze Kiang and the Hwang Ho rivers, to the West of China, pushed south and west, probably from 2000 BC onwards, and tribes of these infiltrated into India mostly along the western course of the Brahmaputra.

The great Bodo tribe would appear to have been established over the valley fairly early, and to have extended into north and east Bengal into north Bihar. The north Assam tribes of Abors (Adis) and Akas, Daflas and Miris (Misings) and Mishmis appear to have come later.

This Mongoloid influx continuing through millennia which saw settlers colonise the entire region in the form of small kingdoms or principalities, is responsible for the mind-boggling ethnic diversity of the Northeast. For instance, in Nagaland we have no less than 17 Naga tribes, the Lushai hills (Mizoram) are peopled by Lushais and Kukis, Meghalaya by Garos and Khasis.

Most variegated is the ethnic composition of the erstwhile NEFA (now Arunachal) which has tribes such as Monpas, Mijis, Sulungs, Nishis, Akas, Tagins, Gallongs, Apatanis, Sherdukpens, Khowas, Adis, Daflas, Padams, Minyongs, Bokars, Boris, Digarus, Mishmis, Khamptis, Singphos, Tangsas, Noctes and Wanchoos, to name only a few! Add to these the dozens of tribes inhabiting Manipur, Tripura and Assam, the ethnologic mosaic is indeed unparalleled.

It would be fatuous to imagine that the small communities coexisted side by side in total harmony. All evidence suggests a continual state of conflict, not only between new migrants and old settlers, but also between communities already settled for generations with practices such as head-hunting being very much prevalent. While in the hills, due to the difficulties of communications, tribal communities not living very far from each other continued to evolve into separate entities with separate identity, some amount of assimilation did take place in the Brahmaputra Valley in different points of time.

For example, the Tai-speaking Shan tribe from Upper Burma called the Ahoms who entered this region in 1228 united most of the disparate plains tribes and provided political stability for quite a few centuries.

However, their chronicles mention an almost continuous campaign throughout their 600-year-long history to subjugate unruly tribes, and compel allegiance through force. A move towards homogeneity was also made by the fact that the people of their realm had to time and again repulse external aggression and retain their sovereign status.

It needs to be noted that the broader homogeneity manifested itself only during periods of crisis, when the indigenous communities felt threatened by external forces and banded together to stand against them. The freedom movement, which saw the obliteration of ethnic identities as the population rose up as one to oust the British, was one such period. Much later, it was the threat posed by the foreign influx, which had resulted in the Assam Movement, when the people without recourse to the constraints of ethnicity, had thrown themselves unreservedly in the cause.

However, there have always been deep-rooted undercurrents of animosity between the smaller communities, and the post-Independence democratisation of polity, far from being progressive, became regressive as far as identity is concerned, with the tiniest of ethnic entities asserting their differences by slipping into the past and digging up historical and cultural issues.

The causes of regress are many and the seeds of the process seem to have been laid in the pre-Independence phase itself. In Assam, the British era, for instance, witnessed the growth of an elitist middle-class which benefited from the progressive measures initiated by the colonialists in the administrative, educational, economic and civic spheres. But the vast majority, especially the tribal communities which were the biggest component of the Assamese race, were not touched by ameliorative social changes. The British encouraged fissiparous tendencies through their divide-and-rule policy, and used the middle class in the initial stages to act as a buffer between themselves and the predominantly tribal masses.

The latent disaffection manifested itself when social democratisation was effected and the amorphous nature of Assamese society became all too visible. Had those at the helm of this region’s affairs been touched by the consciousness of the historical legacy of this region, they would have adopted a different strategy to ensure that the heterogeneous elements in the Northeast are represented equitably in the democratic system that India had adopted, and have equal access to the fruits of progress.

In other words, the unique nature of the Northeast’s demographic composition entailed creation of a democratic mechanism different from the one created for the rest of India. But the basically middle class- dominated political leadership did not have the imagination to conceive so revolutionary a step, and resorted to the easy way out. Separate states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya were carved out of Assam while NEFA was renamed Arunachal. Simultaneously, the allowing of mass influx from neighbouring East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) added yet another insidious ingredient to what would prove to be a volatile mixture.

The road upon which this leadership sought to travel has led the region into unpredictable morass, with the future of a state like Manipur hanging in the balance. Assam is weighed down with its own problems, the current violence in BTC being symptomatic, while the shadow of violence has lately been falling on the inhabitants of Arunachal. One cannot say for sure where the road not taken might have led to, but surely it would have been a more idyllic one than the Northeast is currently headed towards!