The people of the Northeast have been paying the price of geopolitical remoteness in numerous ways. As historians have established, the region had not always worn the look of a far-flung outpost. Prior to its annexation by the British, the Northeast in general and the Brahmaputra Valley in particular enjoyed a cultural and economic centricity, being a kind of highway linking the ancient Indian civilisation to regions of East Asia, including the equally ancient Chinese civilisation.
Transference, both of Hinduism and Buddhism, from mainland India to Southeast Asia, occurred through the Northeast. There were various well-established and well-used trade routes between India and China passing through this region which facilitated commercial exchange. Because the communities which grew up here more or less retained their independence from political entities belonging to mainland India, the region was the meeting ground for great and ancient cultures, and strategically placed for economic prosperity. It is a historical truth that prior to the advent of the British the Northeast was self-sufficient as well as self-sustaining.
The annexation by the British, first of the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys and gradually the hills, spelt the end of the Northeast’s centricity, it being reduced to the easternmost outpost of Britain’s vast Indian empire. Trade and cultural exchanges with neighbouring countries almost ceased, the imperialists placing the Northeast at the periphery of mainstream affairs and merely using the virgin land to build up an alternative tea industry even as it exploited the mineral and other resources of the hills and valleys. Decades after Independence the colonial form of exploitation continued even though the imperial yoke had been removed; only after the alienation of the region began to be reflected in mass movements and insurgency did the rest of India sit up and take notice.
This alienation, of course, was the most insidious outcome of geopolitical remoteness, though not the only one. For instance, much of the ignorance of rest of India about the people and cultures of the Northeast is due to the peripheral nature of its role in mainstream polity both in the past as well as the post-Independence phase. The man of the street in many other parts of India even today does not know that the Mongoloid element constitutes an important component of the ethnic diversity of the nation. Associating, as they do, Mongoloid features with people from China, Japan and other East Asian countries, little wonder that often individuals from the Northeast are mistaken as foreigners within India!
The outcome was that people from this part of the country who had chosen to go out were often treated as aliens in their own land. For decades after Independence most indigenous folks of this region had tended to stay within a familiar milieu rather than go outside in search of economic sustenance. But, as economic challenges and pressures mounted due to rise in population as well as lack of employment opportunities, the people in these valleys and hills were coerced into venturing out.
This was also the result of a generation change as young people left the region first for education and then for employment, inculcating within them a pan-Indian perspective. Such a shift was marked not only among the elitist section of the middle class in each community but other social segments as well. Thus now we have the presence of citizens from the Northeast in almost every nook and corner of the nation.
Unfortunately, in many parts of mainland India, the local people were unable to come to terms with the ethnic and cultural differences embodied by migrants from the Northeast, and they increasingly became the target of hate crimes. Ignorance not only breeds indifference but also bigotry; the free, fun-loving nature of the people of the Northeast and the easy mixing of the sexes not prevalent, say in north India, seemed to be an ethos unacceptable to a certain section of Indian society. This resulted in the targeting of individuals from this region by hoodlums and predators. Things reached such a pass that in places like Delhi the administration had to set up helplines in order to aid persons under assault.
The immense consequence of such bigotry born of ignorance dawned upon us just last year in a dramatic fashion when there were largescale attacks on people from this area forcing thousands to leave their jobs and return home. Fed by rumour-mongering and propaganda through instrument of so-called social networking, victims were identified and targeted, almost undoing the slowly enhancing empathy of the Northeast with mainland India.
If the Northeast suffered from neglect leading to a hiatus in development in the post-Independence period, which in turn resulted in the rise of secessionist tendencies, one primary cause had been its remoteness, a case of out of sight being out of mind. Also, one of the biggest handicaps of being at a distance is that things which go on here do not immediately catch the attention of the people in the rest of India, especially that of the media. So the Establishment can embark on repressive measures it would not have dared to in other parts of the country.
The most glaring example is, of course, the implementation of draconian laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) in so-called “disturbed areas” of the Northeast. This infamous act gives armed personnel immense power over the civil population even as it protects them from legal prosecution, thereby violating democratic norms and civil rights. If tomorrow civil disturbance takes place in any other part of India apart from a contentious border state like Kashmir, it is doubtful whether the Centre would dare impose the AFSPA on them. Some areas in other parts of India have been afflicted by the Maoist threat, a phenomenon perhaps even more insidious than insurgency, but the Union government has not taken the drastic step of imposing AFSPA in them. But, shielded by the fact of its remoteness, the Centre can impose a draconian act in a state like Manipur, invariably accompanied by instances of human rights abuses.
The case of Irom Sharmila exemplifies the disadvantage of trying to battle injustice away from the general eye. When, over 12 years ago, she had first embarked on a fast-unto-death to oppose the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Sharmila had been almost alone, backed solely by a section of people of Manipur. Yet, individuals with lesser determination and occasionally bogus credentials were hogging the national limelight as champions of the fight for civil liberties just because they belonged to the mainland, while Sharmila had remained a comparatively unknown figure for a long while since she began her epic protest movement. She has been at the receiving end of continued State persecution for several years, yet not many had heard of her in places that matter.
It has been relatively recently that Sharmila has been able to catch the national eye. Not unexpectedly the news of her indefatigable fight has fired the imagination of the rest of India. Today she has the backing of both national and international human rights groups. Books have been written about her, she had had Save Sharmila Week launched on her behalf and there were protests in Delhi when a court there framed charges against her under Section 309 of attempt to commit suicide. Deafened by the roar of support one tends to forget that she had been on her fast-unto-death protest for over 12 long and arduous years!
The consequences of being at a remote corner of the nation indeed are too many to be comprehensively listed, but there can be no two opinion of their deleterious nature. The stark reality that people living in the Northeast have to pay the biggest amount in terms of train or plane fares, or that high transport costs jacks up the inflation rate in this region are but a few of these. One can only hope that the latest initiative to establish greater connectivity to Southeast Asia re-imparts centricity to this region and at least partially offsets the adverse outcomes of remoteness.