A book of political non-fiction, a travelogue, and a novel set in the North East are, at once, troubling and disturbing because they enter a terrain where academic texts seldom venture.
SANJOY HAZARIKA’S IS A HARD BOOK TO READ. POSSIBLY BECAUSE the early chapters highlight the meaningless brutality of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The AFSPA allows the army absolute freedom to do almost anything and get away with it, and it was the fallout of the arbitrary way in which the borders were drawn up by the British and passed down through Independence. It was felt that the hills and the plains could not be separated whereas in reality there was no real connect between the hill folk and the dwellers of the plains. “. . . it is on the cusp of that irresolution (of precise territoriality) that many of the Northeast’s internal problems lie,” Hazarika writes.
Hazarika writes about Bordoloi whose name most people do not know, who fought for the creation of Assam. There was also the issue of the Nagas who had their villages scattered all over the hills and so laid claim to different parcels of land. Nagas were very often pitted against Nagas and their incursions extended to other states like Manipur.
Against these diverse narratives were the Indians who did not relate to North Easterners at all, labelling them Chinese, or non-Indian, for the most part. In an earlier book, Hazarika refers to the fact that North Easterners refer to people beyond the borders of Bengal as strangers in the mist. There are very few links between the hills and the greater part of India, though Tripura, led by its chief minister, was successful in lifting the AFSPA in 2015 after eighteen years, and it was withdrawn in 2018 both from Meghalaya, and in eight out of sixteen police stations in Arunachal Pradesh.
Hazarika describes the effects of the AFSPA starting with Manipur and the shooting of Manorama, leading on to the tale of a twelve-year-old dragged from his verandah and beaten and shot with his family locked up and able to watch it all helplessly from a window. He also mentions Irom Sharmila’s political naiveté that led her to an electoral defeat.
Each state has different narratives, though the Naga one is probably the most complicated. The different tribes were against anyone who was for India, even their own people, and they went down in history for mooning Jawaharlal Nehru. The Naga quest for a homeland is similar to the situation that prevailed in Mizoram, though the latter state now has a troubled kind of peace about it. However, the talks between the two Naga clans of T Sakhrie and the Dollie, that ended in an apology for Sakhrie’s murder on the part of the Dollie, is a small ray of hope in a long history of strife and Nagaland deserves the space that Hazarika gives it.
Now young North Easterners are aware that the rest of the country is moving ahead while their part of India lacks infrastructure, resources, basic needs and understanding—what was written up in the Shukla Report of 1996 still remains true—and therefore unless they migrate, they will remain lost in the past. Hazarika describes some of their experiences, both happy and unhappy depending on the circumstances—poets, writers and singers are making a reputation, and the Shillong Chamber Orchestra performing in front of Obama and the Pope—though media reporting is constantly and heavily dominated by the harassment of North Easterners in Delhi (and other Indian cities).The problem, Hazarika explains, is that a large section of the Indians are lumpen with no understanding of anything except mob violence.
Hazarika is now head of the Commonwealth Rights initiative in India, but his work in the North East goes back a long way. From his narrative he seems to imply that he was instrumental in putting together talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) chiefs Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah whom he met in casual floral shirts in Bangkok and then formally in Delhi. Hazarika’s anger is palpable as he had worked to bring about peace and understanding in the face of the central government’s determination to wear the North East down, bare breasts and all.
It is this anger that makes Strangers No More a hard reading backed by the slow despair of most of the stories—a fifteen-year-old girl shot crossing a barbed wire fence between Bangladesh and West Bengal en route to her own wedding. The fact is that a legacy passed down by the British has continued seventy years after Independence with little or no mitigation of brutality and no room for the people of the North East in the heart of India. Though the region is no longer a country of strangers, India has to work hard to ensure that its various peoples enjoy the full benefits of citizenship without these heartrending instances of arbitrary brutality. The book is in the end a demand for justice and understanding—the arguments have shifted from guns to words because, as the Naga poet, Easterine Kire writes—and Hazarika quotes her:
We are using words today
Not because words are more powerful than guns
But because we want to rise above guns because all that
They do is kill.
ANIL YADAV STARTED OUT ON HIS JOURNEY TO INVESTIGATE THE KILLING of Hindi-speaking labourers in Assam before an election in the year 2000. Well, that was not the reason why the journey began; Yadav was out of a job and needed something to do. He and his travel companion had run out of job leads and the Assam massacres made a suitably impressive entry point to the North East. Add to that the fact that to the rest of India, the North East existed and still exists as one of those ‘here be dragons’ kind of places on the atlas. No one in the Indian mainland was really interested in what happened in those tribal places—the Nagas are headhunters, in Mizoram they eat dogs, in Tripura stinky fish etcetera, etcetera. The scenario is complicated by the fact that Manipur is known for its insurgency, and until recently, for Irom Sharmila’s fasting to call off the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In a sense the situation is something like the one in Kashmir except that the Kashmiris do not have slanting eyes and hence cannot be mistaken for Chinese. North Eastern students are frequently harassed in Delhi and occasionally in Bangalore, if the media information is to be believed. Yadav was aware of all these stories but had no actual knowledge of the North East barring the information gathered through textbooks. So he decided that the time was right to break through the myths. With him he took his friend Anhes Shashwat and the two of them rolled through the States looking into stories that they had heard or read, hoping to find a bestselling book at the end of it, that would free them from having to depend on salary cheques and pandering to editorial whims. They were both of them jobless and fancy-free individuals. Anhes gave up the journey in the middle of the month because of ill health, but Yadav continued on his own.
What Yadav discovered at the end of it was intense empathy for the people of the seven North Eastern states. He put down his experiences in a free-flowing narrative, some of it anecdotes inspired by swigs of rum, a lot of philosophical musings on the state of the nation and descriptions of what he saw as he journeyed up and down the Seven Sisters.
Basnet’s translation comes seventeen years after the original book was published in Hindi. His language flows with Yadav’s tale telling. The title is a kind of catchphrase that recurs throughout the book. The head official of the mutth or monastery at Majuli, Mahant Narayan Chandra Dev Goswami, mouths it as he tells the two wanderers that they are not to drink or eat meat as long as they are there. People indulged in other places, he believed, but were those even countries to be considered? The phrase recurs on a bus jammed with Border Security Force personnel, in the middle of a meditation on the Hindu demon, Mahisasur, in fact anywhere one can think of.
The point about the title is that it also sums up what most mainland Indians think of the North East. Is that any kind of country? Do civilised—meaning Aryan—people really live there? To his credit Yadav does not try to simplify life in the North East or look for solutions to the problems—he describes it as it is. The people he finds are neither simple nor savage. They are the most powerless—strength-less, he writes—and the most left behind. And yet, sometimes they have moments of being in control. They inhabit a Middle Earth in which militants swim like fish in the water and the fact that there is a problem is very evident. Everyone there is certain that he or she belongs to a marginalised community. Everyone is part of the minority and all the clashes are a result of this.
Yadav does not spend the same amount of time in all the places that he visits and that affects the value of what he has to record. Meghalaya for example sees more of him—he lingers in a Kendriya Hindi Sansthan Guesthouse in Shillong and documents reasons for the internal hostility towards outsiders. The reason for his longer stay in the state is that Meghalaya along with Assam is now the more stable of the seven states. Mizoram, on the other hand, is reduced to that old canard of the flowering bamboo and the start of the Laldenga spearheaded rebellion.
The format he uses has no chapters and sometimes this is awkward, though the high spirits of Yadav’s narrative and his occasional sarcasm at the treatment being meted out to the North East come through. What Yadav had to document was a tale that still rings true—Manipuri issues, Bengali domination in Tripura, and the rootlessness from the state of the Indian union. The more it changes, the more it remains the same—but yes, Yadav is no longer jobless and he has that notable book under his belt.
SHILLONG TIMES TAKES ITS NAME FROM THE OLDEST ENGLISH LANGUAGE paper in the North East, though it also has a slight hangover from Malgudi Days. Nilanjan Choudhury has put together a coming-of-age novel set in Shillong at a time when the Bengali-Khasi clashes were beginning to grow out of control. Set against this backdrop is the story of Debu, a nerdy Bengali boy who makes friends with an older Khasi boy and a pretty Khasi girl. Choudhury’s story deals with the normal escapades that afflict fourteen-year-olds who are trying to grow up while hiding things from their parents. Debu has the additional problem of the conflict to deal with apart from the growing pains involved in swigging whisky, eating forbidden pork chow mein and hanging out with a bad lot.
Choudhury points out that the conflict is a result of misunderstanding within the communities and the age-old problem of Bangladeshi migration that still plagues the North East today. As someone who had grown up in Shillong at the time he describes, Chowdhury is aware of the issues. Neither of the sides will give in, and the Bengalis have a distinct disadvantage since they are in the minority, though they feel that they are culturally superior to the tribals who eat all kinds of forbidden food and strum guitars.
There are odd attempts by the Bengali community to abandon fish and so deprive the Khasis of a source of income, which results in a fallout between Debu’s parents and the rest of the community. Ultimately, in the scenario of obstinate misunderstanding, whoever befriends is lost—whether Khasi or Bengali, a state of affairs that persists to this day. North Easterners are often called ‘Chinky’ in Delhi and the feeling that the seven states do not belong to India lingers, resulting in continuing insurgency and hampering growth. North Easterners have no option but to leave their home states to seek jobs in the heartland and find themselves confronted with discrimination.
Choudhury has a nice lively streak of comedy when he describes Debu’s first encounters with the forbidden—as in Pink Floyd—whisky and the famous pork chow mein. Shillong Times is at its most vivid in those chapters. However, Debu’s coming-of-age is, as the subtitle of the book describes it, ‘a story of friendship and fear.’ Much of it was experienced by Choudhury himself who lived in Shillong as a boy and who is well aware of the nuances, not to mention the sudden, shocking outbreaks of violence, and this familiarity sets the tone with the opening chapter. Debu is forever being chased by something and his only salvation lies in his facility with maths—creating a combination of darkness and comedy.
For the rest, the story it tells of outsiders in an increasingly alien environment could apply to any country, even to Indians in America who create their own diaspora and cling to their customs, while reluctant to return to their roots. It is a story that will remain relevant for quite a while, on the heels of Kiran Desai’s novel, Inheritance of Loss.
Anjana Basu is the author of six novels. She has had a book of short stories published by Orient Longman; the BBC has broadcast one of her short stories, and her poems have featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. She has appeared in The Antigonish Review. The Edinburgh Review and The Saltzburg Review have also featured her work. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses in Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007.