In his seminal book Imperilled Frontiers: India’s North-Eastern Borderlands, the legendary administrator of India’s “forgotten outpost,” Nari Rustomji had written My years of frontier service were years of unbounded happiness. Regrettably, civil servants and statesmen of Rustomji’s calibre and comprehension no longer abound in the enchanted frontiers. Indeed, the majority of the officers from the central services who are posted in the region consider an assignment in the North East as harsh and one which has cast them to the nation’s fringe. Such a perception is unfortunate. North East India is not India’s periphery. It is central to not only the country’s security, but also to its identity as a nation that seeks to showcase unity in diversity. But, whether it is due to the relative isolation, which cartographical design has placed the North East, vis-à-vis New Delhi, or as a result of a mainstream detachment for the “perimeter,” the fact of the matter is that the region has not received the due that its essence deserves. It continues to be characterised—in some sense—as a frontier outpost of a forgotten empire.
Among the dissenting refrains that are heard, the most important ones pertain to the durbar in New Delhi and the region’s representation in its conduct. “Would our paltry share of 25 MPs make a difference to the high politics of New Delhi?” Also, certain unfortunate baggage of history continues to be carted and unwrapped when tales about New Delhi’s insensitivity are narrated. Therefore, Nehru’s statement of 1962, in the wake of the Chinese aggression, “my heart goes out to the people of Assam,” continues to hurt, adding to alien encouragement that the North East is dispensable to New Delhi. The problems are so overwhelming that New Delhi has neither made amends nor attempted to clear a misunderstanding. Or perhaps it does not know how to do so, and is content—as a senior army general recently told the author—with the policy of “not having a policy” for the region, or even to be educated about it. The region, for instance, despite a modicum of homogeneity, is not a composite whole, and an Ao of Nagaland has as much as in common with a Garo of Meghalaya, or a Karbi of Assam, as have a Kashmiri pundit of Jammu & Kashmir with a Namboodiri Brahmin of Kerala. All the three former communities owe allegiance to a tribal denomination in the same manner that the latter two are from the Brahmin fraternity. But the differences are apparent.
New Delhi’s tactlessness also comes to the fore in other curious ways. In January 2007, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) that was united at the time, not having undergone the split of 2010, targeted Hindi-speaking people—primarily the labour class from Bihar—with forceful effect. It was one of the worst pogroms carried out by ULFA. There were widespread remonstration, and the Assamese came out in their numbers to protest, expressing solidarity with the people from Bihar who were being targeted. In the immediate aftermath of the incidents, a slew of leaders from New Delhi descended on the state, to provide succour to the affected people. Companies of para-military forces were hastened to Assam and ex-gratia payments for the deceased were announced with alacrity. However, comments that began to be heard at the time was “where were these leaders when death stalked the North Cachar Hills and Karbi Anglong, or for the matter when children were killed in Dhemaji?”
A similar sense of alienation was felt in Manipur in June 2005, when the All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur forced an economic blockade in the four Manipur hill districts of Tamenglong, Chandel, Ukhrul and Senapati. The blockade cut off Manipur from the rest of the country, leading to immense economic hardship for the people of the state. An LPG cylinder, normally priced at Rupees 300, was selling at Rupees 600, and prices of essential commodities soared. But the blockade, which could have been resolved had New Delhi the interest to do so, was “allowed” to continue for 52 days, bringing life to a standstill in the state. The perception in Imphal and thereabouts at the time was that New Delhi could not care less were the blockade to continue for another 100 days.
But, an aspect that a mainlander has not quite comprehended is that although there is considerable grouse in the minds of the North Easterner, the fact of the matter is that despite the two percent that physically joins the North East to the rest of India, claiming thereby that the emotional bond is as slender, the truth is that a majority among North Easterners—in their heart of hearts—do not believe that “Hanoi is closer than New Delhi.” Despite the dissonance and the insensitivity, New Delhi continues to determine almost every aspect of life in the region. Therefore, be it aspiring managers and civil servants in the region, who seek an entry into Indian Institute of Bangalore or St. Stephen’s College, aspirants for the Indian Administrative Service, people seeking medical aid, business entrepreneurship or even a place as a stewardess in Delhi’s Kitty Su, the refrain is that the Rajdhani Express from Guwahati leaves for Delhi. But, the flames that have engulfed the frontier are not mere outlying bush fire, but fire that has the ability to start a prairie fire that can set a nation’s existence ablaze. It is strange, therefore, that this critical expanse should continue to be viewed with an insensitivity that is incapacitating.
(Jaideep Saikia is an internationally renowned conflict analyst and celebrated author of several bestselling books. He is also a Fellow, Irregular Warfare Initiative, USA)