Subir Bhaumik, BBC’s Eastern India correspondent, has covered the troubled North-East region’s affairs for about three decades with an incisiveness seen rarely. Bhaumik, who had earlier written the well-received Insurgent Crossfire, has just come out with Troubled Periphery – Crisis of India’s North East. The book is a historical and socio-political analysis about the genesis of the various problems of the region, including the numerous insurgencies. Bhaumik discusses the book’s subject with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari:
As a long-time observer of the North-East, especially as someone who hails from there, what do you think are the biggest issues facing the region today?
The region faces three crucial issues – problem of identity, resources and distance from the Indian heartland. All these have contributed to the crisis of India’s North-East. Communities in the region are worried they may lose out their distinctive identity to India’s post-colonial “nation-building” that has often generated a leveller effect. Increasingly, these communities want control over their own resources, or a say in how that is used. The failure of India’s efforts to mine Uranium in Meghalaya’s Domiasiat area is a case in point. For the country’s nuclear progranmme, this resource is important, but communities will not allow mining until they are satisfied it will not have adverse fallout on the local environment. The distance from the heartland has created a psychological and physical distance that translates into alienation when the nation-state tries to impose its “mainstreaming agenda”.
Do you feel these problems would vanish region if faster development takes place along with solution to the insurgencies, as the government says?
I don’t think faster economic development alone will solve the problems of the region. Because the development outlook of the region and the nation-state often stand out in sharp contradiction to each other. Development for some may be disaster for someone else and those at the receiving end will hit back. I have illustrated the case of the Tripura tribals and how they lost out their prime lands to a hydel project which got power for the Bengali settlers in the towns. Such development paradigms will only exacerbate conflicts. Development has to be inclusive to be really effective, and it should reduce inequalities rather than increase them.
In the North-East, the most-heard accusation is Delhi’s neglect of it. How would you analyse this?
I would imagine lack of understanding of a complex region is a more serious problem between Delhi and the North-East, rather than neglect. The nation-state and the region don’t understand well enough. My book’s prime purpose is to bridge this knowledge gap, a gap that exists in understanding each other, between the nation-state and the region and within the region as well.
Is Delhi a bigger culprit vis-à-vis problems of the North-East or is it the local political class that has quite often been accused of hobnobbing with insurgents for their own benefit?
Both the local political class and their patrons in Delhi are responsible for the quagmire in the region. India should try to develop stake-holders rather than collaborators in the region. It should promote chief ministers who govern their states properly, rather than those who contribute generously to the ruling party’s election funds for mainland states, because then one would be encouraging the siphoning of funds and those who are responsible for it .
Where do you feel the problem lies in the Centre’s handling of the problems in the North-East?
I firmly believe that the North-East and, for that matter, West Bengal and Sikkim, should have a greater say in India’s neighbourhood policy relating to Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, Myanmar and China. If India has to pander to Tamil sentiments in its Sri Lanka policy just because Tamil parties assert themselves, it should address the eastern and North-Eastern states while working its Look East Policy. It should not merely Look East, it should Act East.
The government often says there is need of ‘integration’ of North-Eastern people with the ‘mainstrem’. Do you agree with this view?
Nothing upsets me more than these words – ‘integration’ and ‘mainstream’. Does it mean there is one mainstream in India, the Ganges or something like that and all other streams must flow into it? That’s nonsense. The multiplicity of identity is a fact of Indian life, so we need parallel streams to flow rather than all merging into one so-called mainstream. Neither the obsolete and misplaced concept of mainstream nor the American melting pot model will work for India where diversity is enormous and historical in nature. We are not a settler nation-state like the US where people from all over the world are expected to dive into a great American melting pot and come out as fried American chickens. In India, every region has a distinctive racial character and a historical memory. And the North-East is India’s Mongoloid fringe, it was never part of any pre-British empire and it is an area of India that looks less and less India and more and more like the highlands of Southeast Asia. But this can be leveraged by India to connect to Southeast Asia and south-western China – and this could bring in much desired economic benefits. Integration cannot be a mandatory national agenda and it will be unacceptable to a region like Northeast – it should be voluntary or else it would not work. Nations cannot be built like high-rise buildings, they evolve.