Book Review
India’s identity politics storm centre

Title: Troubled Periphery – Crisis of India’s North East

Author: Subir Bhaumik

A publication of SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd



The grim statistics tell the story. ‘In just one day, in February 1983, more than 2,000 Muslims of Bengali origin were massacred by Lalung tribesmen in Nellie in central Assam. Naga militiamen beheaded 87 Kuki villagers in one night at Zopui on February 1993’.

Wherever they may occur in South Asia, identity-based conflicts exact spiraling human costs and chronically imperil the political stability of states. India’s North-East region has been riddled with bloody and prolonged conflicts of this kind for decades, but comment-inspiring developments in this region have, perhaps, not been seen as very ‘newsy’ and we, in Sri Lanka in particular, are consequently not sufficiently aware of the relevance of these conflicts to the contentious issues confronting us.

This informative work by well known Indian journalist and researcher, Subir Bhaumik, gives us a detailed ‘close-up’ of the identity politics of India’s North-East and probes in-depth the plethora of political and socio-economic issues riddling the region. Of the states discussed in this timely book, Assam is perhaps the best known to the world outside, on account of the prolonged and horrific violence triggered over the years in the state by what has come to be known as its bloody ‘anti-settler pogroms’. But what the reader comes to realize on perusing these pages is that from the viewpoint of identity politics and their destabilizing effects, most other states of the North-East, such as, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Manipur, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, are as vital as Assam. And the relevance of ‘Troubled Periphery..’ derives from the deep-ranging studies the author provides on the complex and multitudinous aspects of these states’ politics and related structural features.

The migrant settler-native conflict is the most striking aspect of the region’s politics but this work’s worth resides in the researcher’s ability to go well beyond the surface in analyzing decades long developments in the relevant states’ polities. The migrant workers from neighbouring Bangladesh who have outnumbered the native populations in most of these states and have been a factor in triggering conflicts over land ownership, have given the region’s bloody politics an ethnic dimension but to stop at the ethnicization of the region’s politics would amount to watering-down their complex and dense texture.

Bhaumik does more than justice to these complex layers of the states’ politics. The ethnic cleansing of the early eighties in Assam, for instance, and the ‘peace deals’ the militant groups espousing the cause of Assam’s native populations/tribes struck with India’s centre have not seen an end to the state’s and the region’s problems. The steady infiltration of the region by the BJP has given Assam’s politics as well those of the region in general, a religious dimension and further polarized the region’s populations on religious lines. There are sizeable Christian communities that are native to these states, and in Assam, as well as in Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura, for instance, Christian militant organizations have sprung into being over the years in defense of Christian interests and these groups see Hindu and Muslim sections as the proverbial ’Other’ who need to be opposed and if need be evicted from the states.

In this connection, the author says in chapter two: ’With the subcontinent in the throes of a fervent religious mobilization, however, Marxism-Leninism could become less attractive than the forces of Hindutva, militant Islam or born-again Christianity’. Among other things, this sheds light on the declining appeal of Leftism in the region and the insights thrown-up by the author could be applicable, perhaps, to the general decline of the Left in other parts of South Asia as well. Discussing the declining political fortunes of the Left in Assam, the author says: ‘This replicates the Tripura scenario, in which pro-Left organizations sought to build up influence, but finally lost out to groups that directly articulate ethnic concerns’. In other words, ethno-populism and Marxism do not easily mix and it is usually the latter which suffers debilitation in such coalition-building efforts.

Although interlaced with ethnicity, language and religion, the conflicts of the North-East have their primary origins in disputes over land and the author broaches this issue with the forthrightness it deserves. Once again, the analysis of the North-East land issue is of general applicability to the rest of the restive sections of South Asia on account of the centrality of land in most intra-state conflicts. The author observes that: ‘Land in pre-industrial societies like the "North-East" is not merely an economic resource but is often seen as a symbol of the collective and loss of land is generally seen as the beginning of loss of social and political power. Armed Bodos, Assamese, Lalungs Mishings, Tripuris, Karbis, Dimasas, Nagas and Kukis have all attacked communities that they considered encroachers or outsiders – the hated enemy who, having deprived them of their lands, could then upset their vision of a compact ethnic homeland’.

Confronted with multiplying autonomy demands from ethnic/tribal groups that see their interests being undermined by ‘Others’, the response of the Indian centre has been to permit the establishment of Autonomy Councils in very many cases or even facilitate the setting-up of new states, but a troubling political irony attends all such efforts. For, the perception that one group is favoured over others, quite often leads to a sense of grievance among those who feel that they have been unfairly treated, thus, sparking a‘re-tribilization’ of society. Once again, this is a fresh challenge for the whole of South Asia, for, peace could be said to be bringing its own perils, which call for insightful handling.

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