Colonialism by another name: 'Beyond counter-insurgency' by Sanjib Baruah October 2009
Breaking the impasse in
edited by Sanjib Baruah
Oxford University Press, 2009
States often use their power of definition as a tool of political control. For the legatees of the British Empire in New Delhi, the territory beyond the Siliguri corridor (or the Chicken’s Neck) is an area where a Military Assisted Civic Administration (MACA) is a necessary condition to keep the ‘unity and integrity of the union’ intact. In the Northeast – an extrusion of the mainland that may fall off if not kept connected with the force of arms – the military component has been an integral part of governance ever since British India and Tibet signed a border agreement on 3 July 1914, without the concurrence of the Chinese government.
The shadow of the northern empire began to appear even more menacing after skirmishes over the McMahon Line in the eastern Himalaya in 1962, resulting in the humiliation of the rulers in New Delhi. After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the issue of ‘cartographic hostility’ from the north was compounded by ‘demographic aggression’ from territory abutting the Bay of Bengal. Over fifty armed groups in the Northeast may have no agenda other than identity, self-advancement and self-respect. But for the establishment in New Delhi, they are all insurgents who must be either eliminated or kept under tight control. Ironically, such an approach confers legitimacy by default upon groups that seek to establish alternative – ‘ours, not theirs’ – authority. Insurgents and the establishment thus feed off each other in an area that has remained mired in political violence ever since Independence.
In the heyday of British and French colonialism, rebellions, revolts and mutinies were ruthlessly crushed. The British used what Rudyard Kipling called the ‘white man’s burden’ excuse to validate their control over the resources of distant lands. The French claimed that they were on a mission civilisatrice, or civilising message, of spreading their superior values of assimilation and egalitarianism. Ever since Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel submitted the report of the Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, Minorities and Tribal and Excluded Areas to the Constituent Assembly in 1947, the imperial authorities in New Delhi have believed that they were doing the people of the Northeast a favour by saving them from internecine conflicts. Development has been another ruse used to increase the coverage and intensity of imperial intervention. An overwhelming presence and the use of coercive force in the periphery has invariably backed all activities conducted there by the Centre. In this new work, Sanjib Baruah seeks to explore whether such a strategy works, though without seriously questioning the very premise of the civilising mission.
A different country
The edited volume opens with an introduction by Baruah, the longtime Northeast scholar. Questioning the efficacy of the development fix – bribe the barbarians with trinkets – he suggests that the security mindset is a hindrance rather than a supportive feature for sustainable peace in the Northeast. The backdrop thus sketched, the first chapter seeks to estimate the costs of stalemated conflict. Ananya Vajpeyi notes the emergence of new forms of resentment against the “permanent regime of exception” created by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Vajpeyi’s is an academic paper that hardly says anything new, but does succeed in putting issues of concern in perspective. Her bleak prognosis about the futility of resistance is backed by the experiences of the past; extrapolation, however, is fraught with risks in studying history and society. In another article, Bodhisattva Kar traces the history of policing in the provocatively titled “When Was the Postcolonial?” This is a question that developmentalists would do well to pay attention to.
The second chapter, on nation and its discontents, enters into the cultural domain of colonialism and resistance with an opening article by Dolly Kikon on loincloths, suits and battle greens. Rakhee Kalita explores roles of rebels in Assamese literature, while Nandana Dutta goes a little deeper and analyses narratives and paradigms of conflict. Together, these three papers succeed in mapping the different cultural dimensions of entrenched conflicts in the Northeast. The third part of the book is devoted to the discourse of inclusion and exclusion. In discussing the ‘Northeast problem’ through a subject-object angle, Pradip Phanjoubam notes that other than the two percent land-link with the Indian mainland through the Chicken’s Neck, the region shares 98 percent of its border with other countries. In this sense, if differences in culture and landmass were to be defining features, the peninsula beyond the Vindhyas would have been a different country.
‘Durable disorder’ – Baruah’s phrase from his earlier eponymous book – is certainly one explanation. But the constant state of multiple conflicts and the reign of confusion in the Indian Northeast does not really benefit either the state or the people. Insurgents appear to be the chief beneficiaries – a conclusion that makes Bhagat Oinam argue the case for a greater role for the state (meaning the New Delhi establishment) in preparing a cohesive Northeast discourse. But it fails to explain why the Northeast Council of the seven sister states never really took off, even though it had the backing of the Centre. Though in the same section, Makiko Kimura’s study of decision-making in the context of the Nellie Massacre on 18 February 1983, exploring the agency of rioters, deserves to be read separately. It offers a record of differing narratives that need further examination in the light of theories across disciplines and experiences elsewhere.
In Part four, M Sajjad Hassan examines the Mizo exception, a ‘success story’ of assimilative identity-building. He credits the ‘development fix’ administered by colonial administrators for the relative peace in the state. Of course, it remains to be seen whether this root-cause theory of eliminating causes of insurgency will stand when aspirations rise faster than the means of meeting them. Next, in analysing the role of democracy in peace-building, Samir Kumar Das reaches some bleak conclusions and has to resort to the edict of Edward Said – of peace being perched on hope rather than despair – to end his piece on an optimistic note. Finally, H Kham Khan Suan’s contribution on the hills-valley divide as a site of conflict in Manipur is a substantive work, which advocates for a more nuanced approach to peace dialogues.
Unfortunately, the final part of the book, dealing with the challenges inherent in breaking the impasse in the Northeast, appears to have been compiled in a hurry. Subir Bhaumik has a deep knowledge of Tripura, but experiences of that part are not likely to be of much use in Nagaland or Manipur; Mizoram perhaps offers more-pertinent lessons. Betsy Taylor has similarly done a wonderful piece on Arunachal Pradesh, but the impasse in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) is more over the McMahon Line than over ethnic, tribal or group identities. In examining Delhi’s Northeast Policy, Bethany Lacina reaches conclusions that are somewhat similar to those of Baruah’s ‘durable disorder’ hypothesis. Perhaps T S Eliot said it best when he noted, “We should not cease from exploring. And at the end of our exploration we will return to where we started and know the place for the first time.” Finally, while this volume is analytical rather than prescriptive, a chapter on substantive federalism as a method of building peace, democracy and identity would not have been out of place.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
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IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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