The chanting still resonates in my ears. As, indeed, it should, for what could be more exotic than an Assamese Muslim reciting from a medieval Sanskrit poem to the glory of a king of now distant but once familiar “Cambuj-desa”, Cambodia, while refusing to join me for tea because of “Holy Eid”' That was Guwahati State Museum's director, Saharuddin Ahmed.
Pranab Mukherjee and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, giving a new twist to P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Look East policy only a few kilometres away in the Ashok Brahmaputra hotel, should have witnessed the phenomenon. It would have told them that building bridges with eastern Asia is primarily a question of reviving ancient ties of people and culture, not of playing footsie with repressive army generals. They should also have been at Guwahati’s Assam Administrative Staff College the previous day when, gazing at the assembled officers, I could have sworn I was back in southeast Asia.
The same pale complexions, high cheekbones, flattened noses and narrowed eyes. Here and there, a darker skin or sharper features spoke of other itinerant strains — Bengali, Rajput or Mughal. Shankar Nandy, who runs the college, is of Bengali descent. The light eyes of another member of his service, K.J. Hilaly, betrays his west or central Asian roots. Subrata Rajkumar is ethnically Manipuri and a Vaishnav. According to Jishnu Barua, a commissioner in the state government, 10 or 12 ethnic groups were represented in that room. Barua’s great-grandfather, Chandrakant Singh, in his time head of the Ahom royal family, was presented to George V and Queen Mary at the 1912 Delhi Durbar.
One of the officers at the Administrative Staff College had a question. Apparently, Mukerjee had urged his audience at the three-day seminar on “India’s Look East Policy: Challenges for Sub-Regional Cooperation” to travel to southeast Asia by road, air and sea. One version had it that he had called on locals to walk, fly and swim. However he may have phrased the advice, the official wanted to know how people of landlocked Assam could go anywhere by water. Someone else asked if the Moreh gateway between Manipur and Myanmar did not encourage the entry of AIDS. Or of political unrest. A more serious concern was that even if the new Look East policy develops trade and tourism between India and southeast Asia, the northeast may not benefit. The advantages would overfly the region, bringing no advantage to the people of the Seven Sisters, eight including Sikkim.
The questions reflected the isolation in which the region has been sealed. Verrier Elwin’s philosophy for the former North-East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh) influenced Jawaharlal Nehru’s thinking on the entire northeast. Believing it to be lost in 1962 made things worse. But I am not sure if retaining the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873 in the form of the Inner Line Permit travel restrictions even for Indian citizens for Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram has saved indigenous lifestyles from corruption or protected indigenous people from exploitation.
True, other states are clamouring for protection. Manipur feels it was hard done by in 1950, when a chief commissioner abolished the Inner Line Permit system introduced in 1931. The Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad fears that Assam will be overrun by outsiders, including, most notoriously, those from the continuing illegal influx from Bangladesh, without such protection. When the Marxists were in power in Agartala, they demanded similar safeguards for the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council regions.
These demands are inspired partly by the illusion of legal protection and partly by the attractive opportunities offered by any preventive law. A ban on passports means brisk trade in “jungle passports”. Benami transactions make a mockery of legal stipulations. Matrimony is an infallible loophole. It’s more important to prevent well laid-out towns from degenerating into urban slums, as is happening in places like Guwahati, Shillong and Imphal. As for people, Tibeto-Burman tribes that have made the journey over time and space can find their own ways of absorbing demographic challenges. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) group decided recently that Gurkhas, ex-soldiers whom the British resettled in the region as a first line of defence, are a part of the Naga community. Assamese Muslims, Saharuddin Ahmed’s community, are seeking constitutional recognition as an ethnic, not religious, minority. Marwari businessmen are a formidable presence in Assam.
And so it goes on. Mixing and separating, forming new entities, then fragmenting into many units in the melting pot of races. There must be 30 or 40 groups in Assam alone, newly arrived communities still locked in the impregnable bastion of their alien tongue. But the overall trend is towards assimilation. If the old Hyderabad state boasted a “composite” culture, Assam gave India the legend of unity in diversity.
In the early Nineties, Harendranath Das, then Assam’s chief secretary, neatly summed up the state’s relations with southeast Asia with a classical European parallel. Rome conquered Greece, he quoted, Greece conquered Rome. So, too, did these Mongoloid peoples, some originally from the Chinese province of Yunnan, succumb over the years to the ethos of the land they had occupied — conquered is probably too strong a word — and made their own. It’s only to the outsider that the variety seems surprising. Those who belong don’t bat an eyelid. If anything, they grieve for the even greater diversity of a time when Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram were in Assam. Burma was also once a presence, raiding and ravaging.
As has been said before by many, including Narasimha Rao, India has absorbed all outsiders except European colonists. Wave upon wave of Mongoloid tribes fall into that category. Most may have lost their language but many customs remain. Barua says his wedding was celebrated not with slokas and Brahmins but with the 106 earthen lamps of Ahom usage. Custom can be linked with other societies, especially in Thailand and Laos. Language can be revived. There was a plan in Das’s time to import a language teacher from Laos. I don’t know what came of it. Ahmed mentions a proposal now to add a southeast Asia wing to the Guwahati Museum, which boasts a rich and surprisingly well-organized collection of Assam’s artefacts. I hope it will soon be realized in order to highlight the greater unity of the Tai-Kadai language family of which Thai, Lao and Ahom are members.
That’s what makes Ahmed’s erudition so valuable. Of course, it’s great for national integration that an observant Muslim in modest circumstances should as a child have learnt Persian and Arabic in the mornings and mastered Sanskrit and Pali at an old-fashioned tol in the evenings. What is even more remarkable in the present context is that he should recite verses to the greater glory of a southeast Asian kingdom. The software of connectivity is at least as important as the weapons India sells Myanmar.
Barua has hilarious tales of travelling with his wife, also Ahom, in eastern Asia. The Japanese took her for one of themselves. A Bangkok hotel demanded the identification card that local women must produce before they can check in. Myanmar’s airport authorities demurred when she followed her husband on the VIP route.
The past that lives on, sublimally perhaps, deserves to be nurtured, not in India alone but throughout southeast Asia with museums, language instruction, research centres and educational tours and exchanges. An Association of Southeast Asian Nations project perhaps, financed by the Asian Development Bank, to trace, establish and strengthen cultural links between the Asean and Asean’s most important dialogue partner. Why has the Asean car rally not been followed up' Bangkok’s recent Investment Week was another missed opportunity. The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation Project can also embrace the Irrawady and the Brahmaputra.
China’s soft power is making huge inroads in Cambodia while India neglects a golden opportunity. Is Pranab Mukherjee listening'