India´s Northeast Resurgent
Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance and Development
by B.G. Verghese
Konark Publishers, Delhi, 1996
This book is a product of some sustained thinking, if not one of very original research. B.G. Verghese belongs to the old school of Indian newspaper editors, who, once they pick up a subject to write on, try to look at all possible angles of the matter. That is what he has done in this book which shows a serious attempt to understand the problems of northeastern India in the wider geo-political context.
Mr Verghese has a positive approach. He does not assume the Northeast to be a problem area for India, as most ´mainstream´ writers tend to. Instead, he sees great potential for this region, which borders China, Burma, Bangladesh and Bhutan. The author rightly points out that if the Indian government were to manage the region properly, it could become India´s gateway to the adjoining regions. As one goes through the book, Mr Verghese´s optimism tends to get infectious.
The value of this work lies as much in the details presented as in the person who has put them together. When someone of Mr Verghese´s stature takes to writing about a neglected region such as the Indian Northeast, and does a reasonably good job of it, the region benefits from the national attention it attracts. The work of an intellectual heavyweight like Mr Verghese is bound to be taken note of in the right quarters.
The author has avoided the ´quickie´ approach that Indian journalists often employ when dealing with the Northeast, a region that does have enough to offer those that want to adopt a semi-fictional, anecdotal style. He has also avoided the heavy, highfalutin jargon favoured by so many academics, who theorise endlessly with little grounding in reality.
Having said that, one has to point out that the time Mr Verghese took for the research (as stated in the book) should have enabled him to go in for more original sources than the ones he has used. It is evident that published media material formed a very important database for Mr Verghese when he should have known that news stories originating out of areas like the Northeast have to be taken with a big pinch of salt. A work based so much on such secondary sources becomes slightly suspect and the same can be said of Mr Verghese´s effort, particularly when he has drawn significant inferences from them.
For instance, his conclusion that most Naga rebel leaders have properties in Shillong, which he based on a newspaper report by a journalist known for his anti-Naga and pro-Kuki bias, is an example of the unreliability of Mr Verghese´s newspaper sources. Understandably, as the author is physically too far way from the Northeast, he is bound to have a problem assessing media material from the region, but one would have expected him to treat such material with more circumspection than he has.
The book also leaves out some important issues crucial to the relation between the Indian state and ethnic groups of the region—issues like militarisation, narcotics, and a parallel economy that is controlled by rebels and smugglers .soldiers and sleuths. For too long, the Northeast has been treated as a backyard for rebellions. A high level of military, para-military and security agency deployment, for which the various insurgent groups operating in the region are responsible, has come to be taken for granted. This has jeopardised the very process of democracy in the region. While India prides itself on the success and survival of its democratic system, the Northeast is certainly not an area where the system has taken an institutional form. Human rights has been a major casualty, and both the security forces and rebels are to blame for this.
Militarisation and human rights are crucial issues in the Northeast. Without addressing oneself to these problems, no study of the region, unless clearly focussed on a particular aspect, can be complete. An analysis of government and insurgency that does not take these factors into account is bound to be lopsided.
Having been critical on some counts, one cannot but concede that India´s Northeast Resurgent will be useful to students of the Northeast. Mr Verghese is at his best when raising policy issues—or suggesting remedies for problems. Good, commonsense solutions. More than anybody else, policymakers who decide Delhi´s programmes for the Northeast should read this book.