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Dialectics of Nationhood

Beyond Counter-Insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India edited by Sanjeeb Baruah

Dialectics of Nationhood

Udayon Mishra

his is a collection of essays which is purportedly knit together by a shared dissatisfaction about the ground realities of the situation in the north-eastern states of India and an attempt to rethink “new ways of approaching (these) conflicts and on ways to resolve them”. The editor of the volume, Sanjeeb Baruah, states in his introduction that it is not intended to be “inclusive” and that the contributors to the volume “share neither a common theoretical perspective nor a single political position”. This, one would agree, could be both an advantage as well as a disadvantage for the volume in question. While its avoidance of “authentic”(?) voices could open up newer approaches to the complex scenario of the north-eastern region, yet the attempt to yoke together multiple, possibly contradictory voices, could very well create a sense of confusion in the minds of the readers and defeat somewhat the very purpose of going beyond counter-insurgency and break the impasse on north-east India. I am afraid Baruah’s edited volume has both these strengths and weaknesses.

In his elaborate and perceptive introduction, Sanjeeb Baruah refers to the north-eastern region’s “strange” multiplicity of ethnically based low intensity conflicts and tries to relate these to four major factors. One, the region’s particular ecology and history of state formation, two, certain legacies of colonial knowledge, three, the frontier quality of the region and massive demographic transformation that has been going on in modern times, and four, the peculiarities of the constitutional political order of post-colonial India. After discussing the first three factors in brief, Baruah argues that post-colonial India’s constitutional order has been largely responsible for fuelling the proliferation of ethnic demands. Drawing a dividing line between the legitimacy of many an ethnic demand and the political forms dictated by the particular constitutional-legal context,

Economic & Political Weekly

september 5, 2009

book review

Beyond Counter-Insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India edited by Sanjeeb Baruah (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2009; pp viii+383, Rs 825.

Baruah says that provisions like the Sixth Schedule have helped certain tribes of the north-eastern region to make successful demands for full-fledged states while at the same time creating a sense of insecurity amongst other ethnic groups who are faced with the possibility of their territories being bargained away in secret talks between the government and rebel leaders.

India and Its Contestations

In this context, Baruah makes a valid point when he refers to the Indian State’s almost unfettered power to alter the boundaries of any existing state of the Indian Union.1 This puts the smaller states at a disadvantage in relation to the bigger ones who are better placed to resist division. This provision can be, and has been, put to use by the centre to break up existing states and create new ones as part of its strategy to contain militant ethnic demands, thereby giving rise to fragmentary politics. There seems to be a lot of weight behind the argument that constitutional-legal provisions have been a factor in the mobilisation of ethnic demands for separate geo-political space within the Indian Union and in some cases these demands have also been backed up by different degrees of violence. Yet it would perhaps be stretching the argument a bit too far if one holds the country’s constitutional-legal provisions of bearing primary responsibility for “the persistence of ethnic militancy in north-eastern India”. For instance, the type of ethnic militancy spawned by organisations like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland[I-M] (NSCN(I-M)), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), not to speak of the different

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militant groups operating in Manipur, have little to do with the protective provisions of the Constitution. On the contrary, the Naga struggle under the Phizo-led Naga National Council began by rejecting the

Sixth Schedule status for the then Naga Hills district of Assam.

While trying to explain the armed conflicts of the north-eastern region, Baruah stresses factors like the nature and politics of weak states and of agency above structural conditions which alone, he feels, do not necessarily lead to armed civil conflicts. He maintains that

it is not merely societal actors that may be involved in the construction of the discourse of violence, the national security anxiety of state managers can, for instance, shape the discourse that emphasises military solutions to armed conflicts. When such a discourse trumps over one that emphasises political solutions, it can itself become a factor in the resilience of armed conflicts.

Baruah concludes by saying that as long as governmental policy is determined by “a crudely developmentalist and national security mindset”, there is little chance of ensuring a durable peace in the northeastern region.

It is possible to agree with much of this, and share Baruah’s contention that the intersection of democratic politics and insurgency has created a complex scenario in the north-east where the legitimacy of elected governments and the very base of democratic politics have been seriously undermined, thereby giving rise to a frightening human rights situation. However, one would still like to maintain that, notwithstanding all its shortcomings, the Indian nation state is passing through a sort of learning experience in the north-east

– an experience that has involved the widening of the parameters of nation and nation state to include small nationalities who were outside the ambit of the anti-colonial freedom struggle and who have been refusing to see themselves as Indians. It is a separate matter though that this experience of the Indian nation state has not been a voluntary one but has been brought about at great human cost, both by the resilience of some of the major militant ethnic struggles of the region as well as the accommodative power of the Indian Constitution.


The first section of the volume, “Stalemated Conflicts: What Costs?” opens with an essay by Ananya Vajpeyi which focuses on the particular form of protest on 15 July 2004 by a group of Manipuri women in front of the Kangla Fort headquarters of the Assam Rifles following the abduction, rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by the security forces. Vajpeyi’s piece entitled “Resenting the Indian State” makes interesting reading as the author plays with the different nuances of the terms “resentment” and “satyagraha”. Vajpeyi discusses the brutal force of the Indian state and shows how the naked protest of the women of Manipur highlighted the totally vulnerable condition of the citizens in a region ruled by a whole set of oppressive laws, including the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958. Vajpeyi is struck by the “brilliance” of the protest and says that in the banners that the women held

there is no demand for justice... they are not slogans but only statements… I don’t think the women meant to either resist or retaliate, nor were they seeking to avenge Manorama’s killing. What was happening in Kangla, Imphal, on 15 July 2004, was not passive resistance but active resentment.

However, the author’s engagement with the form of the protest which she refers to as a “semiotic masterstroke” and her useful theoretical and philosophical deductions about it could actually deflect attention from the fact that this was essentially a collective political statement in the overall tradition of such protests in Manipur. The finer nuances of whether the protest was an expression of “passive resistance” or “active resentment” or “political emotion” tend to become muddled in a situation where the common citizens of Manipur are fighting almost every day in some form or other against the continuous violation of human rights both by the state and by militant groups. To many, therefore, it is the intensity of the protest rather than its “originality” that would continue to hold relevance in the context of all such situations where democracy and the rule of law remain virtually suspended and citizen’s rights made a mockery under a plethora of repressive laws.

The second essay in this section by Bodhisattva Kar entitled “When Was the Post-Colonial?” stands out for its clarity of thought, persuasiveness and thorough use of archival material. Saying that the “Inner Line was not only a territorial exterior of the theatre of capital – it was also a temporal outside of the historical pace of development and progress”, Kar proceeds to show the Line was repeatedly redrawn well into the second decade of the 20th century to accommodate “the expansive compulsions of plantation capital, the recognition of imperfection of survey maps, the security anxiety of the state, and the adaptive practices of internally differentiated local communities”. Arguing that nothing much is to be gained by prioritising the “region” over the “nation”, Kar says “if the security anxiety and hardening of borders is a legacy of the colonial state, so is the urge to open the borders to capital and labour flows”. He concludes by saying that terms like “connectivity”, “integration into the world economy” and of the north-eastern region acting as an “important land bridge” actually are not new ideas at all. They are just “the newest relics of the oldest capitalist speculations in the north-eastern frontier”. All this appears quite convincing, especially when one takes into consideration the apprehensions and fears of the small border communities about opening up without proper safeguards.

Negotiating Nationalism

The second part of the collection, “Nation and Its Discontents”, contains three pieces by Dolly Kikon, Rakhee Kalita and Nandana Dutta. Kikon tries to show “how the colonial representation of the Naga people tries to find its way into modern national imaginations in post-colonial India”. The author argues that the stereotyping of ethnic communities like the Nagas is the result of their unstable political relationship with the post-colonial nation. The author refers to the stereotypical display of models of tribes from the north-eastern region in the National Museum of Kolkata and tries to relate this to the Naga’s actual experience while trying to seek admission to the museum when she is taken for a foreigner and has to prove her identity as an Indian citizen. The display within the museum and the reality outside coalesce in an eerie manner and Kikon says that this only shows how insecure the small nationalities are in the Indian nation state.

september 5, 2009

Rakhee Kalita tries to chart the difficultto-define relationship of Assamese society with the militants belonging to ULFA. She does this through a study of three contemporary Assamese creative texts which deal with different aspects of ULFA’s presence and activities in Assam, its initial idealism nourished by strong socio-historical roots and its gradual degeneration into an outfit without any ideological moorings. Agreeing that the organisation’s influence has dwindled over time, the author maintains that “few in Assam believe that the Ulfa’s present predicament is entirely of its own making”. It is this involvement with the ULFA’s cause, Rakhee says, that has resulted in a large body of writing centred on this organisation. Through her pithy analysis of the texts, Rakhee tries to construct a “situated knowledge of terrorism in Assam” and shows how, notwithstanding all its aberrations, the ULFA has, in several ways, always been a part the Assamese national imagination. Therefore, she asks the question: Whose terrorists are these anyway?

Nandana Dutta’s piece suggests the need to move out of the “narrative of neglect” into newer narratives that are emerging in the north-east. She discerns this shift in “two large policy changes” which deal with the “look East” policy of the Indian government and its new emphasis on tourism. Dutta says that “transnationalism and multiple identities may provide an understructure that a new discourse of the northeast might build on”. This, she maintains, would involve a new conception of borders as well as a certain degree of comfort with multiple identities. However, many might have reservations about Dutta’s espousal of the new narrative components such as the look East policy and the national tourism policy which she views as signifying a change in the approach to the northeast by the Indian state and a possible shift in the self-construction of the region.

Shifting Lines of the Nation

The third part of the volume deals with “Discourses of Inclusion and Exclusion”. Easily one of the more perceptive essays in this section is the one by Pradip Phanjoubam. He makes his position clear in the first line itself when he says:

Much of the problem in the north-east has been, among others, the inability to strike

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a balance between the subjective and the objective visions of the changing world and the inadequacy of the responses to the ever merging and renewing reality.

Saying that the contexts of struggle in the north-east are ever changing, Pradip stresses the need for the scriptwriters of ideologies and ideological wars to reassess their own thought processes. He makes an important point when he says that the “colonising” nation against which struggles of freedom are launched, may not, in the present context, be the same nation any longer and, in that case, there is the danger of the militant struggles being caught in the time warp.

Need for North-East Perspective

Blaming the intelligentsia of the region for having failed to work out an active discourse on what really defines development, Phanjoubam discusses how the Radcliffe line altered the face and psychology of the entire north-eastern region by making it a landlocked area. Arguing that the look east policy cannot be imposed by New Delhi but, rather, must have its own north-east perspective, Phanjoubam says; “It is not just about trade and commerce and economic gain. It is about ventilating a psychology of claustrophobia by opening up the north-east to what is its natural surrounding.” Critiquing New Delhi’s position of trying to manage the conflict situation in the north-east and not to solve it, Pradip Phanjoubam says that such a “strategy of managing conflicts is ultimately transformed into a trap”, with the conflicts swiftly turning into an end in themselves.

Bhagat Oinam in his quest for a “Cohesive Northeast” deals with the very relevant issue of diverse discourses within the different militant groups of the region. These discourses are “inherently antagonistic and hostile and above all, refuse to be selfcritical and self-reflective”. Nothing could perhaps be more pertinent to the present situation in the north-east where almost every ethnic community has been claiming nationhood and a geographical space of their own, thereby triggering an almost unending chain of violent conflicts. Arguing for a cohesive and comprehensive narrative of the north-east, Oinam believes that in making this happen the Indian state has a positive role to play.

Economic & Political Weekly

september 5, 2009

Makiko Kimura’s essay on the infamous Nellie massacre of February 1983 lays bare the different factors which fuelled the incident. Basing her findings on extensive fieldwork, Kimura shows how factors like immigration and the alienation of land combined with rumours about the possibility of an attack eventually pushed the Tiwas to a state of confrontation with their immigrant Muslim neighbours, even though the latter were not recent settlers. She traces the history of the gradual occupation by the immigrants of the Tribal Belts and Blocks and the loss of the traditional land of the tribal people. The author shows how the Assam Movement highlighted the issue of occupation of tribal land by the immigrants and the threat to their identity and, as the controversial elections of February 1983 approached, Tiwa village elders fed by stories of kidnapping and assault of tribal people by the Muslims, decided to attack Nellie. Kimura stresses the need “to listen to the complicated and competing narratives and the fragmented accounts of the villagers” in trying to understand an event like the one at Nellie which had farreaching consequences on the entire process of Assamese nationality formation.

The fourth section contains three essays by M Sajjad Hussain, Samir Kumar Das and H Kham Khan Suan. While Hussain reflects on the Mizo Peace Accord and ascribes its success to factors which stretch back to the colonial times, Samir Das writes about the changing nature of the peace policy pursued by the Indian state towards the insurgent groups of the northeast. Focusing primarily on the government’s peace negotiations with the Nagas, the author shows how, over the years, the idea of “indivisible sovereignty” has undergone a change. Similarly, the position on sovereignty of organisations like the NSCN also seemed to have changed. Das attributes this change not to the accommodative power of the Indian Constitution but to the “strength of the negotiating parties”. But what is important is that there is a clear move away from military to political solutions as far as the Naga issue is concerned and the change in the Indian government’s position is revealed in the very agenda of the talks. Moreover, Das himself mentions the difficulties of the dialogic process because of the faultlines

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within the insurgent groups and the factional struggles that have been going on in Nagaland where even if an agreement were to be reached between the government and the NSCN(I-M) it may not be acceptable to the other factions of the Naga movement.

Kham Khan Suan’s piece on the divide between the hills and the valley in Manipur stresses that “all socio-economic, cultural and political development and nondevelopmental trajectories are seen through the prism of this divide”. Arguing against a common cultural policy that would result in homogenising the diverse and heterogeneous ethnic communities, the author stresses the need for a “look beyond the Westminster model of democracy and a willingness to craft institutions outside the existing constitutional framework which will envision expansive sharing of powers”. This, to say the least, is a highly debatable issue since it would deal with the increasing role of traditional institutions in a representative democracy. Betsy Taylor too, in her essay in the concluding part of the volume, suggests in relation to Arunachal Pradesh that, instead of being tied to “deeply Western biased” understandings of civic life, one should try to look for “openings for civic space within existing local publics as they actually are”.

Centrality of Land

The concluding part of the volume is taken up by the writings of Subir Bhowmick, Betsy Taylor and Bethany Lacia. Subir Bhowmick traces the roots of tribal conflict in Tripura to the continuous alienation of tribal land through transfers to Bengali settlers as also because of the construction of large dams like the Gumti hydel project. Bhowmick suggests that in order to send the right message to the state’s indigenes who have been heavily outnumbered by the settlers, one way would be to decommission the Gumti project and also initiate measures to return lost land to the indigenous tribal people. He also suggests that 50% reservation in the legislature should be made available for the tribal population so that they do not completely lose out on political control of their homeland. In the concluding essay of the volume Bethany Lucia rightly argues that the challenges in the north-east cannot be met by counter-insur gency measures or


by trying to win hearts and minds by pumping in money. This would depend on “promoting a system of governance and security that is based on the rule of law and that, therefore, would provide a lasting protection against violence from any source”. But the question is how can this be brought about in a situation where the State has long abdicated its responsibility of ensuring distributive justice and the rule of law for its citizens and has, instead, tried to keep its hold on the region through the blanket use of draconian laws.

In conclusion, one might say that the volume edited by Sanjeeb Baruah has successfully highlighted several of the core issues thrown up by the insurgent movements of the north-eastern region. It bears evidence of the editor’s involvement in the north-east and his commitment to finding a way out of the present scenario dominated by a counter-insurgency-developmentalist syndrome. It is significant that, while most of the essays have dealt with the failure of government policy and approaches in


– tackling insurgency, there are only two pieces which have attempted to highlight the connection between insurgent politics, immigration and the land factor. It needs no reiteration that issues of land and territoriality have assumed frightening dimensions of late and have triggered a human tragedy of large proportions in several areas of the north-east. The continuing violence in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, where ethnic communities who have lived in peace and amity for centuries are now pitted against one another, is evidence of the explosive nature of the land question. Land has turned out to be a highly contentious issue in the entire north-east, with ethnic violence of recent times being inextricably linked with it. Therefore, the volume would have gained much had there been an attempt to seriously address the issue of land and territoriality. Also, except for one essay, the volume is largely silent on the growing faultlines within the militant organisations and the rising incidence of factional killings, all of which have certainly made


the road to a negotiated peace even more difficult. Finally, though the volume as a whole has expressed itself unambiguously against draconian laws like the AFSPA and a military solution of the insurgency issue in the north-east, one would have been happy to see the inclusion of a serious discussion on the human rights scenario in the volume, especially with state-sponsored killings and militant attacks on civilians taking on menacing proportions in states like Assam and Manipur. For, can one really envisage a move beyond counter-insurgency without seriously addressing these issues?



1 Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of India give the union government unfettered right to alter the boundaries of any state, create new ones and even do away with existing ones. While in the case of the other states, the resolution of the state assembly regarding reorganisation is not binding on the centre, in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, this is not the case. Any move to alter the boundaries of J&K would have to be approved by the J&K assembly by a two-thirds majority.







september 5, 2009 vol xliv no 36

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