Understanding the Politics of
by Sanjib Baruah
Oxford University Press, New
Pp 265; INR 495;
ISBN 019 566981 9
In this collection of essays written over the last ten years, Sanjib Baruah offers one of the few closely argued critiques of what is popularly known as ‘India’s Northeast policy’. His first book, India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality (1999) had raised expectations from Baruah, and he does not disappoint here. Durable Disorder marks a distinct shift in the scholar’s research pursuits. In his first book, Baruah calls for an effort towards “recreating conditions of civil politics”, something that in turn would make reforms necessary in the state’s institutional arrangements. Here, he addresses governmental policy and pays particular attention to New Delhi’s ‘look east’ policy. He does this, though, without discounting the need to reorganise and reform the institutions of the state.
The task of weaving these essays that were written at different points in time into the framework of a coherently argued book would not have been easy. The long introduction provides the key to understanding the central argument that runs through the chapters. India’s Northeast policy, through the recognition of exclusive ethnic homelands, creates “a regime of differentiated citizenship”. According to Baruah, this policy provided the rationale for the creation of economically unviable state units, starting with Nagaland in 1963. The policy has never worked and is antithetical to the political economy of the region. The states of the Indian Northeast thrive largely on central grants-in-aid and fall under the ‘Special Category’ status which requires them to repay only 10 percent of the assistance received.
Baruah argues that the homelands regime marks a continuation of the early colonial policy of protecting the region’s pre-capitalist social formations from the onslaught of global capitalism. Although the objective of this colonial policy was to keep the ‘primitives’ of the hills separate from the ‘civilised’ of the plains, it was also instrumental in obscuring the implicit transfer of land from the indigenous people to the immigrants. The book provides many examples of this, such as how the establishment of tea gardens encroached on tribal habitats and became the basis for many present-day disputes between the northeastern states. The transition from shifting cultivation to settled agriculture during colonial times and thereafter was accompanied by the commodification of land, something that not only created opportunities for the immigrants but gradually strengthened their hold on the political economy of the region.
The existence of powerful immigrant communities in states created as ethnic homelands is characterised by Baruah as a “dissonance”. The incongruity was accentuated through numerous “informal arrangements” that were eventually devised to enable the denizens – who, unlike citizens, are denied many rights and entitlements by the exclusionary homeland policies – to exercise control on such crucial matters as ownership of agricultural land and businesses. Indeed, the region’s political economy has now reached a stage where the denizens are seeking a “formal change” in their status and formalisation of land titles. Baruah believes that the homeland regime is the problem underlying many of the region’s inter-community struggles. And there cannot be homeland solutions to homeland problems.
The alternative imagination
Baruah draws our attention to the plurality of political structures that operate in the region. While these structures function parallel to each other, they also feed on each other. On the one hand, there is the existence of “a state within a state” that is directly controlled by New Delhi and, more importantly, is autonomous from “the formal, democratically-elected governmental structure” in place. The abrogation of democracy through persistent violation of human rights and such principles as rule of law, accountability and transparency is seen as the necessary cost for keeping the Indian state safe and secure from its enemies in the Northeast, both internal and external.
The norms of democracy are thus forced to give way to the imperatives of security. On the other hand, insurgent organisations run parallel fiscal administrations by collecting ‘taxes’ and protection money, and often project themselves as the custodians of their ethnicity’s culture and values. Baruah superbly unravels the complex and intricate nature of the relationships between these regimes and shows how the complementarities that exist between the parallel and mutually hostile political structures help make the Northeast’s disorder so durable.
How do we break away from such long-lasting disorder – that is to say, disorder that does not automatically trigger off any immediate catastrophe and that therefore may be sustained over long periods of time? Baruah’s book makes the case for “an alternative institutional imagination”. He proposes salvaging identity from the notion of a territorially rooted collectivity and encourages constant experimentation with diverse institutional arrangements until the Northeast’s disentanglement from the homeland regime is complete. The objective of this imagination is to confer, albeit in a phased manner, “full citizenship” on the region’s denizens. The granting of citizenship status will cause a “decisive break” with the current homeland regime.
Baruah seems to be seeking to bring about a change in the policy regime through interventions that break away from the extant homeland regime and to develop the Northeast’s relationship with its eastern neighbours. The argument sounds circular. While durability of the disorder in place, by definition, is supposed to work against any such change, the Indian state or for that matter the governments are least likely to break away from this circularity.
Baruah does not see “actually existing” civil society as capable of bringing about such a change. According to him, it essentially circulates within the confines of a “sub-nationality” and dissent, whether from without or within, is hardly tolerated. Being deeply powered by ‘homelandist’ imagination, civil society cannot be regarded as the site from which a flexible re-thinking of the homeland regime will emerge. In addition to the central and state governments, therefore, civil society, too, requires an alternative imagination so that it can provide the normative ground for the initiation of such a change in the policy regime.
The book ends with a plea for “connecting the region with its transnational neighbours” and for appreciation of the opportunities that such connection offers in “our era of globalism”. Through the prism of this argument, the homelands regime looks like a “market imperfection”. Available evidence, however, suggests that market exchange and transactions follow, rather than do away with, existing lines of ethnic preference. It will therefore be difficult to extend market forces across ethnically separate territorial spaces.
We know that in times of heightened inter-ethnic conflict in the region, members of rival communities refuse to be involved in any kind of commerce. Besides, it is likely that trans-border communication will provide opportunities of comparison between the ethnic cousins (particularly amongst different groups of Naga and Kuki Chin descent) and might contribute to a certain hardening of ethnic positions. Unless these problems are addressed, any advocacy for connecting the Northeast with the transborder neighbourhood as per the model of the European Union is unlikely to bear fruit.
Durable Disorder represents a valuable contribution to the public discourse on India’s Northeast policy. Baruah’s writing style is polemical and often provocative, but this does not distract him from the substance of his argument. One may disagree with the author’s contentions and recommendations, but one cannot ignore him.