Northeast India: Political History, the book, could not have come at a better time.
Predictably, the first chapter I dived into in Samrat Choudhury’s book, Northeast India: A Political History, was the one on Manipur, hoping to find in it answers to what is happening in the northeastern state today. I was sure that in the state’s political history, I would find reasons for Manipur’s present plight, signals that we may have missed. Was history repeating itself in Manipur? Had we failed to learn from history? Should we have anticipated May 3 and the violence that followed and thus been able to prevent it?
There was no eureka moment in the chapter titled “Manipur’s Princes and Rebels: Assimilating and Separating Through the Ages”. Nothing that made me go, “Aha! So that’s where it all began.” But what was there was an unfolding of the history of Manipur that made the Kukis, Nagas and the Meiteis of the state more tangible than they seemed in the last four violent months, people with pasts going back hundreds of years, pasts entwined and enmeshed inextricably, for better or for worse.
Choudhury, I believe, finished writing the book months before Manipur went up in flames. But the last lines of his Manipur chapter are ominous and foretell the tragedy of May 3. “Manipur,” he wrote, “remains suspended in an uneasy peace, prone to descending into fraternal conflict just as it was a thousand years ago, in the days when clan warred against clan and tribe warred against tribe.”
Northeast India: Political History, the book, could not have come at a better time. Manipur is on India’s conscience. There is concern about what happened there and why it happened. Choudhury’s book is a great place to begin the process of learning about the territory in the northeast that existed well before it was assimilated into the country by the British via the Treaty of Yandabo, 1826. It is an integral part of the country today but needs to be understood better.
The book looks at each of the eight sister states of the Northeast, including Sikkim, separately and together. Each state has its own dedicated chapter on its history set in the regional context. Assam sprawls across two chapters, tracing how the Northeast that was closer to China and Myanmar than to Delhi became a part of India. It is history I was not taught in school in my time, nor, I suspect, is it today, something that has caused the Northeast to be consigned to a state of “otherhood”.
For example, Partition, for me, happened to Punjab and Bengal. The latter split into West Bengal and East, which subsequently became East Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh. But what impact did Partition have east of Bangladesh? Choudhury turns the spotlight on that blank page in many history books to explain what Partition did to northeastern India, specifically Assam, and how the seeds of many of today’s most contentious issues like the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were sown back then.
Choudhury traces it back to 1874, when Sylhet, Goalpara and Cachar — parts of Bengal with a big Bengali Hindu population — were added to Assam. In 1905, the year the British first proposed the Partition of Bengal, Assam and East Bengal were joined together as one province, adding a large Bengali Muslim peasant population from the Mymensingh district to the mix and enlarging Assam’s Bengali population.
Why did the British juggle borders? Choudhury says administrative compulsions of the British Raj in India and to the need for labourers to work in Assam’s vast tea plantations and jute and rice fields. The migrant labour that entered Assam in the 19th century to meet that need is a major thorn in the flesh in the 21st.
In 1911, when Assam became a province with its own Legislative Council, the Census “wrestled with a question of great and enduring political significance: the definition of the people who could be called Assamese”, writes Choudhury. “The question of who is Assamese is still being debated in the politics of the state today.”
Choudhury took on a tough task when he started writing this book on a region of the country where diversity is mind-boggling. Where people speak in at least 220 different languages, practise all of the world’s major religions and indigenous ones, where relations between communities are often delicately balanced and ethnic, linguistic and religious tensions play an active part in their contemporary politics.
It is also a part of the country that saw some of the most violent insurgencies. Almost all the insurgencies — in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram — demanded a separate country at some time or the other. The book examines and explains the political and legal processes initiated to consolidate them all.
Choudhury meets challenge of keeping it coherent and engaging by sticking to his objective of writing “a readable narrative account guided by two eyes of history, geography and chronology”. He recognises that it may lead to some simplification of extremely complex histories. But the book is a great place to start exploring the Northeast.
Several books have been written on this part of India in the past. Choudhury’s is sure to find a permanent place on the bookshelves for speaking in the contemporary language.
Northeast India: A Political History
By Samrat Choudhury
pp. 432; Rs 699