ANKUR TAMULI PHUKAN

Prof Sanjib Baruah’s recent book In the Name of the Nation could be called the final part of his trilogy on the troubled existence of an area called Northeast India. For over two decades, this prolific writer with a rare analytical mind thinks of a world, its troubled legacy and a possible way out without succumbing to the gloss that global academia could offer. The trilogy is a reflection of his deep political commitment to this region, and to the larger politics of justice so much so that in his latest book he did not take a thematic detour—-probably one of us would have—given the nature of the new political climate in this part of the world.

I think the political takeaway that the book has offered is simple and yet critical enough for many of us in this unpredictable time— the significance of not losing sight of what is at stake! It is true that the Hindutva in its new avatar wants to resolve the crisis of the Indian nation in the Northeast through a majoritarian outlook, electoral algorithms and appropriation of social and cultural movements.

For better or worse, it successfully tries to forge a rainbow coalition out of different antagonistic groups, identities and citizens in the region. At first, it seems like a well-intended, so-called nation-building project that the Indian nation has dreamt of for quite some time despite the fact that it inherits more aggressive rhetoric of majoritarian ideas of development and a process of de-politicization. Reading in this context, Baruah’s book is a necessary caution of what Marx once said in a very different context “the image of its own future.”

Famous, however with a legacy of ambiguity and misinterpretations, in that sentence Marx simply put that in the regime of capital, “the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” Baruah with a serious caveat flags out the fallacy of such economy of mirroring in the region and critically approaches his readers to be aware of the grimy images of our own future that such mirroring entails.

However, the fantasy of mirroring never dies. Whether in the strategies of so-called insurgency and counterinsurgency, identarian or federal resistances, imagination of tribes or communities as Baruah rightly says, “the generalization of the territorially circumscribed nation-form, and the sovereignty of the nation-state as an institutional complex” over-determined the politics of the future. The way Northeast is recognized by the Indian establishment or the effect of such recognition in the different political and social spheres in the region is quite astonishing. I am glad that Baruah did not try to recognize them through the apolitical monologue called the burden of history metaphor where existing “political forms seem inevitable” but as “a highly contingent artifact.”

The problem of such defeatist, evolutionary historical etiquette, as we have witnessed in many important studies on the Northeast, only reinforces the naturalization of the metanarrative of everything that seemed commonsensical. That is why Baruah’s basic object of inquiry—the Indian State’s “Northeastern Policy,” is critical to understand the story of the contemporary. To tell the truth, Baruah reconfirms again quite convincingly that nothing has changed so far even when the alluring seduction of Hindutva’s grand vision is at our doorstep. In the long painstakingly written last three chapters, Baruah discusses, the discourse of insurgency, the pedagogy of state violence, the ceasefire politics and finally the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act as examples of how the Indian state articulates its policy towards the region.

Today, when the so-called insurgency is declining and when many of us reflect on those grim days of state violence and resistances, Baruah emphasized quite clearly through these chapters the contemporaneous of these issues and more importantly the relevance of the pedagogy of the Indian state’s policy to the region.

Explaining the so-called insurgency situation in the Northeast, Baruah rightly argued that the “vast majority of armed political groups (hardly) pose any kind of a strategic threat to the Indian State.” Putting it quite frankly, he said that most of the insurgent groups “using the language of armed resistance as a form of claims-making do not draw their strength from the advantages traditionally associated with guerilla groups.” They simply, Baruah added, “take advantage of gaps in the rule of law, and they all maintain ties with mainstream actors in politics, administration, and business.” Yet a “military metaphysics” or a “military definition of reality took over, and it began to dominate the official narrative,” in the region.

The so-called “counterinsurgency became the policy of choice vis-à-vis ULFA only after the coming of the hard state to Assam in 1990, when state authorities began its coercive powers in earnest, quickly displacing other viable options” to deal with the problem(s).  But, “had Indian politics towards ULFA been grounded not in a military metaphysics but in the criminal justice system instead, how would this have changed the trajectory of the politics in Assam?” If one remembers the 1990s, particularly in Assam, Assam’s public sphere was teeming with debates and activities on the “limits and possibilities of Indian Federalism,” self-determination movements of small communities, including Sankardeva Sangha’s huge lower caste religious movement to say the least.

The vibrancy of such a political moment, however, Baruah noted, “came to a screeching halt with the coming of the hard state, which promptly mobilized the state’s coercive powers to suppress and silence those voices.” And, as Baruah put it very succinctly that a ‘banal and uncritical use of the term insurgency…the politics of ideas that form part of such profound political-cultural moments in the life of a society do not receive the attention they deserve.”

“Had criminal justice –and not the military metaphysics-been core of the Indian state’s response to ULFA…one can imagine the debates shifting to open court rooms and citizens accused of political crimes defending their position in full view of the public. The exchanges could have produced positive learning effects for the Indian political system,” Baruah concludes. I believe Baruah’s romanticism in the sentence is a representation of the celebration of the passion that one witnessed in the Assam’s public sphere at that point in time.

Of course, many other non-democratic tendencies cannot be denied but the romance of emancipation, the innocence of commitment was in such height that many from different contradictory ideological streams had believed that an emancipatory democracy was just around the corner. That is why I never believed and I am sure many would confirm that ULFA cannot have a claim on the 1990s alone! But instead, the pedagogy of the AFSFA regime continued and “culture of impunity has become so entrenched that many in the region now believe that even repealing AFSPA will no longer (be) a Panacea,” even in a so-called post insurgency environment.

Let me give you a small history of the Assam police’s operative trajectory. During the heydays of insurgency in Assam, the Indian security establishment would not trust Assam Police due to its intricate relationship with the Assamese society. There were instances even when Assam Police’s local level officers had stood by and rescued innocent people from the rage of so-called anti-insurgency operatives. But over the years, the character of the Assam police has changed completely. In the last couple of years, the situation has become such that whenever there is a protest there is police firing. There is a decade-long tradition of community fishing inside Kaziranga National Park during Magh Bihu. However, it was banned in 2013 as it “pause a threat to the park’s safety, security and biodiversity.” But, this year a group of villagers violating the ban went on to a roadside water body for fishing. Police came to disperse the crowd and without much provocation, an Assam police commando fired three or four rounds probably just to prove a point.

A detailed report in 2018 recounting Assam police’s trigger-happy character asked, “Does Assam Police have a crowd control policy?” The pedagogy of violence has become so intrinsic that the police deal with protesters as they would with hardened insurgents, by shooting to kill.

But in Northeast, the culture of impunity is not simply expressed through the handling of law and order situations: A dominant politics of de-politicization increasingly overshadowing the democratic politics of our time and Baruah’s first two chapters are partly a reflection of how that politics of de-politicization is increasingly getting embedded in the real democratic politics of the region. Baruah in these chapters talks about partition (of British India), its effect on the national and citizenship imagination in Assam, the idea of development and how the Northeast has become a postcolonial resource frontier.

For Baruah, the historical legacies of colonial imagination and of course, the crude imagination of the nation and its frontier are contingent towards a de-politicized effect on the politics and policies of India’s so-called postcolonial northeastern region. The way enumeration of National Register of Citizens (NRC) was staged, or the way coal mining in Northeast has produced “an ecological disaster zone marked by high rates of deforestation, species loss, land degradation and air and water pollution,” one is persuaded about the depoliticized politics in the region. What I mean by the politics of de-politicization is something of a status-quo: A status-quo that simply rejects any possibility of alternative imaginations or even a democratic form of resistance that sees things beyond the parliamentary form of democracy.

Today, the parliamentary form of democracy, the ethics or arithmetic of electioneering has overshadowed every aspect of politics in the region. When legal etiquette, policy imaginations provide clues to how a society should resolve its crisis is, for me, the effect of the depoliticized politics overshadowing the politics of the time.   The legal, the normative, the parliament, the nation, abstract entity of universal citizenry of that nation were, if our reader would remember, some of the discourses that the Indian state reminded its subject in the region in the height of their so-called anti-insurgency operations. By now, I think it has become almost common knowledge that the Indian state has traded its militarist mask for a developmental one. The state has tried to replace the politics for dignity with the politics of so-called peace and development. Indian state’s pedagogy of violence is deeply embedded in the depoliticized developmental politics of our time. The idea of emancipation finally, I would say very successfully, engrossed itself into the sallow idea of development in today’s political climate of the Northeast.

However, by the 1990s, a critique of the Indian state’s developmental model in the Northeast had already been circulating in the vernacular public domain. It emphasized the continuation of the imperial exploitation in the region by both English and Indians. A serious critique of the Indian state, even the Indian nation’s anti-colonial struggle was also developed. Many alternative models of development were imagined, one particularly interesting — somewhat a socialist one — which emphasized the self-sufficiency of its subjects.

Instead of a market, commodity and capital –the idea was to gain a kind of peasant self-sufficiency for its subject. The subject, this radical discourse believed, would produce necessary ingredients for their consumption and in the process, it could dislodge the Indian state, their imperial trading communities from this region. Whether it really developed as a serious movement is a different matter but its discursive contingency was seriously exploited by both the state and the non-state actors. “Development” instead of as a process of change destined to transform society, Baruah rightly argued that one should recognize it as “a powerful idea and a practice engaged in by developmental states and development agencies.”

Somewhat historicizing the idea itself, Baruah said, “the concept has faced a crisis of confidence from time to time. But each time it has managed to reinvent itself as “new and improved,” insisting on being judged by a yet distant future, rather than a past that has been lived and experienced.” And when development “recovers from one of its recurrent crisis of confidence, a new forward-looking, inclusive and optimistic vocabulary appears to take over, lending “the legitimacy that development actors needed in order to justify their interventions.”  I think that is what happened in contemporary Northeast India–the crisis of a certain regime of development, reinvents itself as “new and improved” model of human emancipation. However, because of many historical or otherwise different contingencies, it has encompassed everything that is alternative or opposite of it.

The performative nature of capital is something not new to this part of the world. As historian Bodhisattva Kar said the “least-garrisoned, least-mapped and formally least administered ‘tribal frontier’ in the Northeast was also the most capitalized one in the British Indian empire.” Through the process of posa–a system through which “almost every major company struck numerous contracts and ‘arrangements’ with the chiefs of the upland communities, often actively generating chieftainships within the allegedly chiefless communities for these purposes.” However, “the process of ethnicization of posa was closely entwined with its monetization,” therefore generating, standardizing ethnic identity through these contracts, Kar argued.

This historical entanglement between joint-stock companies and so-called hill tribes, has simply misread, as Baruah argued, the “mechanism of dispossession and overestimate bonds of community.” In post-colonial time, with Indian state’s recognition of these indirect rules and particularly in these de-politicized time, has produced a new set of essay binaries of “indigenous/settler, insider/outsider, or tribal/nontribal on the tangled thicked of tenure relations.” Baruah rightly argued, “Politics entrapped in these binaries risk legitimizing new pattern of exploitation, dispossession, subordination and sub citizenship.”  In this new “de-politicized’ time this system of indirect rule is appropriated in order to turn the natural resources into corporate raw materials, nature itself has been disengaged from local ecological and livelihoods for profiting from it. To put it simply, in these particular historical circumstances nature gets turned into a commodity.

Baruah informed, “The partnership between tribal landholders of indigenous ethnic ancestry and contractors of nontribal ethnic descent produced a highly profitable business model that adapted creatively to the institutional legacies of indirect rule in the excluded area.” As any informed reader would  know how  this partnership  has produced a new regime of the destruction of nature, exclusionary hold over  the resources by an elite ethnic tribal elites whose “ access to land is insufficient or non-existent” their “access to land is increasing day by day.”

Not surprisingly, therefore, “ the perceived advantages of the excluded area legacy have captured the imagination of ethnic activities” so much so that “the states of northeast India that were once excluded areas now define the aspiration window for others; that is, their achievements are seen as attainable by others situated similarly in the region.” And this triggers a spat of reservation movements in different parts of the Northeast. It is surprisingly a classical case that we are witnessing in Northeast India where the “people who have land do not have the labor or capital to extend to settled cultivation, and those with labor do not have access to land for permanent cultivation.” And thus and Baruah very succinctly concluded, “since its very beginning colonial modernity in this frontier province has relied on elites shifting the burden of primitiveness onto non-elites…postcolonial modernity continues to reproduce this “improvement templates” pushing the burden of primitiveness and backwardness to newer groups of people.” And therefore, whether “indigenous” or not, “the plight of these “unimagined communities,” is growing day by day in the region. The reservation movements or the armed resistance which once presumed as serious ideological resistance towards the state and the capital, now weigh its task to provide “ a more reliable security for informal coal mining and other illegal economic activities.” “The economic transactions of the so-called informal economy require protection by its own kind of “armed forces,” –more for “an illicit world of violence and impunity” than the state monopoly of the legitimate means of violence,” Baruah argued.

Some reviewers of the book talked about Baruah’s deeply pessimistic observation “about the possibility of sustaining democracy and the near term future of the Northeast.” I think in these particular historical circumstances, when the subjects mirror their own future through the image of the pedagogy of violence, instead of resisting it-an erudite reader such as Baruah probably would step, as he is fond of saying, with a Gramscian caution: the “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” But I think the book actually mirrors in a very familiar political language of a situation where usual templates of South Asian modernity—sovereignty, rights, representation, democracy—have either failed or produced untenable historical contingencies.

I wonder, does Prof Baruah in a very familiar language push us to think beyond the language of South Asian templates of modernity and to think about what is political again or like Marx, Prof Baruah tries to reveal to the entire democratic spectrum of the region that, “Perseus wore a magic cap so that the monster he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over our own eyes and ears so as to deny that there are any monsters.”?

Ankur Tamuli Phukan is with Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata. He can be reached at: ankurtamuli@gmail.com

NE NOW NEWS

Northeast Now is a multi-app based hyper-regional bilingual news portal. Mail us at: nenow24x7@gmail.com