OF INDIA, BUT APART
PATRIOTISM FOR ONE’S COUNTRY IS NOT THE DEFAULT SETTING IN THE NORTHEAST WHERE THE LANDSCAPE HAS BEEN SCARRED BY TUMULTUOUS AND VIOLENT HISTORIES AND CONFLICTING LOYALTIES
THE YEAR IS 1948. ROBERT REID, the ex-governor of the Northeast provinces, travels to the then Naga hills (now Nagaland) as India is newly independent, where the events surrounding Partition, and the turmoil and trauma it brought about, are quickly unravelling. There’s political uncertainty with regard to the Northeast provinces: what is their future in this vast subcontinent? Amidst this sensitive historical moment, Reid hears of the assassination of M.K. Gandhi at the hands of Nathuram Godse, a staunch Hindu nationalist. In his shock and grief, he tells his Naga host, the Konyak chief Changrai, that Gandhi is dead. The historian Yasmin Saikia, in her book on Assam, Fragmented Memories, captures this telling encounter between Reid and Changrai. Changrai is baffled and says he does not know who Gandhi is. Reid explains it was Gandhi who brought about Indian independence and is the reason the British are leaving India. Changrai laconically replies: ‘I see, it is he who has caused all this trouble for the Nagas.’
This moment captures a depth of irony over what Indian independence and its promise of upholding the freedom of every individual as an equal citizen has meant in a region that has experienced injustice and indignation. For various indigenous movements for sovereignty, such as the Naga National Council (NNC), the Mizo National Front (MNF), the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), that emerged all over the region as a result of India’s
independence, Changrai’s remarks make perfect sense, for independence means different things to different people. The Northeast quickly became alienated by the intransigence of the Government of India led by Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress that privileged national integration through systematic military prowess over dialogue and accommodation of difference. It became clear that there was no meeting of minds. They had to accept an imposed Indian identity that refused to accommodate their cultural and political uniqueness and aspirations. The Indian state saw the region as a recalcitrant periphery; they had to make it bend to their will.
Fast forward to 2019. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have surpassed their electoral win of five years ago and formed the government. In India’s Northeast, they have formed governments in Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and built coalitions in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram as part of the NorthEast Democratic Alliance (NEDA). In a short time, they have obliterated the Congress as the dominant national party by utilising their key electioneering ideology of a national party with a regional outlook. But an existing tension cannot be overlooked if we are to understand what happened. How can the BJP truly enfold a region into
a united India where much of the region has resisted this unity?
There are three ways of understanding these recent events. First, it is obvious that the BJP’s strong nationalist agenda of maintaining the territorial unity of India is non-negotiable. When the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) launched attacks against the Indian military in Manipur on June 4, 2015, killing 18 soldiers of the Dogra battalion, Indian special forces responded by reportedly killing over 100 NSCN-K militants on June 10, 2015 at the Indo-Myanmar border. Muscular nationalism had entered the fray.
The BJP’s position is also tempered by those willing to sit across tables and chairs with them. The Framework Agreement with the NSCN-Isak/Muivah (NSCN-IM) on August 3, 2015 is seen as a ‘political’ document that assesses the ‘unique history of the Nagas’, an acknowledgement first made in 2002 by BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Framework Agreement lays out the basis for the Government of India and the NSCN-IM to continue negotiations towards a final agreement on the Indo-Naga situation. Acknowledging the distinct Naga history upon which their struggle is articulated is a first step in mollifying their grievances.
It remains uncertain, though, if the agreement is primarily a way to prolong and tire the Naga leadership into submission, or if Vajpayee’s acknowledgement of the ‘unique history of the Nagas’ has been translated into political action. Various Sangh Parivar (family of Hindu nationalists including the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activists I have interacted with over the years acknowledge the historical hurt caused by the militarisation of the region and thus support the Framework Agreement, but simply as a peace settlement without any talk of sovereignty. The territorial unity of India is too high a price to sacrifice so easily. Whatever the decision may be, it puts the spotlight on the Sangh Parivar. Either they suppress the Naga movement through the machinations of state power and enact what the political scientist James C. Scott calls Seeing like a State, or they accommodate the Nagas’ vision of who they are in an effort to win hearts and minds. Many Sangh Parivar activists who work tirelessly doing seva (service) are the ones exposed to the whims of the people on the ground, and it is they who might bear the consequences of what is decided.
Second, accompanying the ascendancy of the BJP is the singular idea of Hindutva that has now become widespread. What does this mean to a region that has resisted efforts to impose a singular identity? Hindutva is jostling for space amidst the diversity of ethnic, religious and territorial affiliations by playing the ‘indigenous’ card. The idea of indigeneity allows them firstly to position themselves as ‘sons of the soil’, an idea that resonates with many in the region whose own identities are rooted very much in the land. It also allows Hindutva to make distinctions between those who are ‘indigenous’ and those who are ‘foreign’.
Both Christianity and Islam are seen as foreign forces, which entered the country to dupe innocent bystanders by accepting a way of life completely alien to the geo-religious map of India. While it seeks to de-indigenise these forces, Hindutva also has to accommodate the way Christians in the region, who have a large following, assert their identity as a basis for their belonging, and thus by extension, their sovereignty. As a way out of this impasse, Hindutva summarily defines Christianity as an inner activity that can co-exist with an external patriotic national self (Hindu as a civilisational force). They are, however, not always complementary or accommodative towards Muslims. One can see this in the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016, which has ignited protests all over the region, is one example of the contested nature of belonging. Those belonging to minority religions—which include Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Sikhs and even Christians—escaping persecution from predominantly Muslim countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan) will be rehabilitated in India. If Muslims are the ‘other’ in the larger Hindutva imagination, what place will they have within the debate over the Citizenship Amendment Bill or the National Register of Citizens (NRC, in Assam)? Will such mechanisms explicitly exclude them, even though many of their homes are in India?
One can get a sense of these polarising debates around citizenship. For the BJP, both the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the NRC, according to The Hindu, are understood as methods of ‘keeping Muslims of Bangladeshi origin out of the state historically allergic to migrants’. Amit Shah, the then BJP president, is reported as saying that ‘the
MANY INDIGENOUS NATIONAL MOVEMENTS MAKE AN ASSERTION OF HISTORICAL DIFFERENCE. THE BJP AND SANGH PARIVAR FIND WAYS TO DEMONSTRATE THE REGION’S ETERNAL CONNECTION
BJP felt the bill was necessary to prevent Assam from becoming a Muslim-majority state like Kashmir’. The growing resurgence of indigenous politics all over the region based on exclusive territorial claims could align with these ideological designs articulated by Shah.
Finally, the Sangh Parivar forces actively seek to assimilate the region within the larger Hindutva universe. They have done so in several ways. Many indigenous national movements make an assertion of historical difference: that the region was never a part of ‘India’. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar, therefore, find ways to demonstrate the region’s eternal connection. Stories are a powerful way to evoke this sentiment. Let me give you one example.
On March 28, 2018, the chief ministers of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat came together to celebrate the marriage of Lord Krishna and Rukmini during the four-day Madhavpur mela (fair) in Gujarat, a state in western India. Thousands gathered at this mela from all over India, with around 150 cultural troupes from the Northeast as the bride’s representatives to celebrate the ‘immortal journey’ Rukmini undertook from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat to marry Lord Krishna. The coverage, broadcast on television and social media sites, demonstrated colour, diversity and ‘unity’, the latter achieved through
bringing together the east and west under the Union ministry for culture’s slogan of ‘Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat’ (one India, great India). The BJP-appointed governor of Arunachal Pradesh, B.D. Mishra, captured the sentiment: “You are here on the western border of India and we are from the eastern border, 3,500 kilometres away. But this distance has always remained connected. If somebody from the other side of our border claims that Arunachal belongs to them, they are grossly wrong because if our princess could come here 5,000 years ago and you could make her the queen, it clearly means Arunachal has always been with India and will continue to be so.”
This is a clear attempt to forge a common history amid divergent voices arguing for the very opposite, leading to the fragmentation and dissolution of the body politic of India.
What do these events mean in the face of Hindu nationalism, the celebration of Indian independence and the accompanying feeling of patriotism? Will Hindutva resurgence in the region reduce this tension by promoting feelings of patriotism and the celebration of ‘India’? Or will this simply make the battle lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ clearer for a region that has seen violence in the past 70 years?
One could suggest that ethnic homeland politics all over the Northeast will have no place in the overarching ideology of Hindutva that professes a unitary territorial reality at its core. There is no seamless narrative that tidies the edges and smoothes the surface upon which history in the Northeast is etched. Hindutva, like every modern ideological force, will have to manage the complex algorithms that characterise this mountain babel— from the British, the American and Welsh missionaries, the Japanese and now the Indian state.
Yet, there is an interesting tension that goes to the very heart of every nation-state. The stronger the centrifugal force, the more adaptive the countervailing forces become. Patriotism for one’s country cannot simply be expected in a region where the tumultuous and violent histories have scarred the landscape, and where loyalties are distributed amongst various entities. One can understand Changrai’s reaction to Reid’s sentimentality upon hearing of Gandhi’s assassination; perhaps it was the beginning of all the trouble for the region and its people. In Changrai’s honesty, there is an important truth that remains relevant even today.