Manas Pal

Face the fact: Call it idiotic ignorance or deliberate apathy, fact remains- not many people, including national level leaders, or for that matter, top writers, intellectuals of the country remember North East region when they think of the India-that is Bharat. So when Congress leader and Prime Minister aspirant Rahul Gandhi forgot to include North East in his tweet of ‘Indian Union’, none should be so surprised.

On March 21, 2009 Khushwant Singh in an article in The Telegraph made a similar statement. On March 23, 2009 this writer penned an article titled “MEANT NO MALICE, SIR”, in response to that article of Khushwant Singh. The article was published in some websites and also magazines The points that were raised 13 years ago seemed still pertinent . Here it is being reproduced under the same title-MEANT NO MALICE, SIR.

Sorry, Mr Khushwant Singh. I cannot agree with you.
Well, this could sound really, really audacious, but let me explain that when you subscribe to the idea of ‘rediscovering India’ within a limit that conspicuously excludes Northeast region where I live, I cannot but express my serious disappointment.
I am well aware of the fact that the following article criticizes an opinion expressed by none other than one of the greatest writers of our age and country. But when I find Khushwant Singh, my most favourite writer of present India (the other, of course, being Ruskin Bond), certified a visit to the ‘length and breadth of the country’ without a vast geographical, historical, cultural, and emotional entity called- North East region I had reasons to be depressed.
In his write up yesterday (March 21, 2009) titled ‘March is the loveliest month’ in ‘The Telegraph’ Khushwant Singh observed that one of his favourite writers-a Canadian citizen of Indian origin- M G Vassanji, a man who ‘wields a gifted pen’ could rediscover India- apparently without visiting North East- in a way that could make his book ‘A Place within: Rediscovering India’ ‘more absorbing reading than Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery India because it is, in fact, a rediscovery’.
I used the word ‘apparently’ to say that Vassanji did not visit North East region while penning down his travelogue because Singh wrote –I quote- ‘He ( Vassanji) travelled length and breadth of the country from Shimla to Kerala, from Calcutta to Gulf of Cambay, visiting historical sites, temples, mosques…”.
So ? Where the breadth, of the country ends in the eastern side of India both for M G Vassanji and Khushwant Singh?
In Calcutta.
I have not read Vassanji’s book which must be great reading indeed, but at the same time I cannot agree with Khushwant Singh also that India could be rediscovered in its true sense and spirit without visiting North East- a polyglot region where 325 languages, out of which 175 belong to Tibeto-Burman and Mon Khmer families, are spoken everyday and where as many as 213 tribal communities (out of total 635 in the country) at varied stages of social development along with almost all Indian nationalities are found.

India in its eastern flank- you all have to agree with me –does not definetly end in Calcutta or Kolkata.
“He tells us about the people of India, their history, customs and their peculiarities”, so said Khushwant Singh about M G Vassanji’s book.
Can you agree with Khushwant Singh that while talking about India’s ‘history, customs and their peculiarities’ you can really leave aside the unique tribal and non-tribal societies of the North east region and their extraordinary customs, their extraordinary way of life, religious faiths- animistic, Hindu and Christian-social systems as well as their unique history ?
While writing about India you cannot forget those great hornbill feathered warriors of Naga tribes, or one of the richest cultures of India that finds it root in the Vaishnabite way of Manipuri life, or the unique matriarchal as well as matrilineal societies that still exist among Khasi, Jaintia and Garo people, or the exquisite landscape, one horn Rihno of Assam or the picturesque Loktak lake of Imphal ?
You may not like to write about oft spoken North East brand of insurgencies – Nagaland being the oldest of its kind in the entire South East Asia. But when you want to rediscover India and its history you cannot certainly forget that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose hoisted ‘Indian Flag’ in North East humiliating the British Empire, it was also in Mizoram- the land of hill people where Indian Air Force conducted air raids on its own citizens- first of its kind perhaps in the modern world history in those days during MNF’s ‘Operation Jericho’ in 1966.
It is also in this place where for eight days non state actors had kept the capital Aizwal liberated where Indian authority did not exist at all?
It is also Mizoram from where several thousand people went to Israel claiming themselves Jews -one of the Lost Tribes and took Israeli citizenship discarding their Indian identity.
Or, how come one can forget to rediscover Indian history without any reference to Arunachal Pradesh –a large part of which had fallen to the Chinese in 1962 and that the state is still a bone of contention for the Sino-Indian relations.
Vassanji talked about temples, so said Singh. Since Vassanji’s journey did not include North East he certainly did not see Kamakhya and Tripureswari temples- two of the 51 Peethastans that dot the Indian subcontinent. Or, the Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh.
None can rediscover India, forgetting that the Manikya Kings of Tripura happen to be the second oldest dynasty in the entire world after Japan Royality. Not even the mighty British Monarchs could match the Tripura kings bloodline in this regard. The Manikya rulers also happen to be the first to recognize Rabindra Nath Tagore in his teens and helped his Shantiniketan as well as many other great Indian personalities like scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose financially.
When Vassanji wrote his book Sourabhee was not there. But Singh certainly knows that ancient music masters like Jadu Bhatta used to perform in Tripura king’s court.
Well, one can be excused for being ignorant about ancient history of this region but how can one forget that it is also in this region –in Assam- that for the first time in the modern history of the country, or perhaps in the world, students were entrusted with power to rule the state –democratically.
I understand, for many Singh’s observation may sound very innocuous. After all we are used to such comments. It is always in the parlance of writers, intellectuals, Journalists and even politicians that the country’s geographical identity tends to get limited –at least in eastern side- in Calcutta or Kolkata. Not beyond that- not even up to Guwahati. But beneath the innocuous statement of a writer and intellectual of Khushwant Singh’s stature lies a deep rooted mindset of the heartland that isolated the North East region from being emotionally integrated with them. So when I visit New Delhi or Chennai- many an otherwise enlightened people ask me ‘what is the distance between Agartala and Tripura’ or ‘Is Agartala still a part of Assam’. They knew Tripura’s name as one of the Indian states to be ruled by the Marxists, secondly for militants who for many of them ‘roam in the city corners with AK47s and kill people at will’ and, of late, for Sourabhee, if not for Somdev. Not many of them, of course, are aware that Sachin Karta actually belonged to Tripura’s Royal family. But they certainly heard the name of Bijoy Hrangkhawl- who according to many is an ‘extremist leader’.
Well, you cannot expect common men to know his geography or important people of a particular Indian state in details, but when Khushwant Singh gets satisfied with a writer’s ‘rediscovery’ of India within the limit that did not include 262,230 km² land mass of the North East that shelter about four crore population (more precisely 38,857,769) I find it extremely disappointing.
Now let us try to explain the mindset in historical perspective.
The North East is, perhaps, the most colorful –in all sense-and historically is one of the most important regions in the entire country where too many developments after independence overlapped each other in quick succession.
The problem is mainland India’s mindset to often look at this ‘Mongoloid fringe’ of the country differently. This huge land mass with eight states always was, and unfortunately still tends to remain, outside the reference of people of the heartland India.
Even the British did not take much interest in making the region as the constituent of the Empire but preferred to man this frontier mostly by ‘strategic alliances and token but alert presence’. The British turned its eye to the North East only after it subjugated all parts of the subcontinent in the first quarters of nineteenth century. It was, actually, the threat of Russian expansion and perceived unpredictability of the Burmese Empire that forced the British to look East.
However, the British also left the tribal dominated hills to their local chiefs but integrated only Assam for its vast agricultural land –the main source for revenue, tea potential and oil fields. Royal Tripura and Manipur were turned into ‘dependencies’ without regular or direct administrative rein from the Viceroy.
The Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873 that enforced the Inner Line Regulation left the tribal dominated hills of the region un-administered ‘Excluded’ zone. For all intents and purposes it was a deliberate attempt on the part of the British to keep the areas out of mainland India’s influence.
The British policy to leave the tribal of the North East to their own traditional life and customary administration continued more or less in a similar fashion even after India got its Independence on 15th August 1947 and country’s ‘tryst with destiny’ under the leadership of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru began. Added to the British introduced Inner Liner Regulations that prohibited the ‘outsiders’ from free movement in the tribal land was post independent India’s policies that further deepened the isolation with Nehruvian consensus. The Indian authorities with the advice of the first Chief Minister of Assam GN Bordoloi introduced Constitutional provisions that would ensure ‘autonomy’ for safeguarding the tribal rights.
The government policies right from the British Raj to even present day had certainly played a key role in creating a difference, alienating the tribals and isolating the region from the direct influence of mainland India and blocking the emotional merger of the North East with North, West, South India.
The history of insurrections of this region with too many facets is a different story. But, in fine, these violent activities of the non-state actors, though essentially local with immediate responses to area specific political considerations in a given time, were aimed at creating ‘pure ethnic homeland’ in this region. This is simply a result of ageold emotional isolation among many other contributing factors to the schism.
And these are some of the facts of the North East – a huge part of India with four crore hearty, sporty, spirited, cultured, educated and often dangerously assertive people in their own ways – that cannot certainly be ignored while ‘rediscovering India’.
It is also high time that people outside the region stopprd thinking India stops at Kolkata. And it is our duty–duty of the people of the region- to make them aware of it. It is the time that we assert that North East with all its Westernized life style, education, literacy rate, rich cultures, individuals like Bhupen Hazarika, Ratan Thyiam, Kunjarani, Jubin Garg, Sourabhee and Somdev, unique social structures and customs and even insurgency we are the power house of the India and India cannot be rediscovered if you do not come beyond your ‘Calcutta’. And for that--- the onus rests on us.