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


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.

Illustrati­on by TANMOY CHAKRABORT­Y

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