“Northeast” ” North East” “North-east”- catch phrases all of them. The exclusionists stress on their differences- from the so called main land and from each other. The inclusionists cannot stop reiterating their “sister”lines, the need for a collective harmony, for a unity that reiterates a shared history. What was once an utterly “neglected” region of the Indian territory has now begun making its presence felt amongst the mainstream. In fact by now, with the aid of a variety of awareness systems (both positive and negative) most of the world, (why India alone) can rattle of the seven North Eastern States of India proudly as Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. However, much information and understanding of these states still remain to be widely disseminated. For instance, since we have begun with a look back on our past let us begin with the crucial question of history itself. How many of us know of the genesis of these seven states in the first place?
The history almanacs and the hyper-real library called the World Wide Web will throw back several pages of dates and events on a cursory search. Dates that go back to pre-British era, dates that move forward into the late twentieth century. Dates, coupled with time and places- so many of them that they open up a huge Pandora’s Box in front of us. It is common knowledge today that the region we are talking about has had a history fraught with tensions of various sorts –tensions that still raise their ancient yet stubbornly unrelenting heads over matters like what is the correct terminology to be used in reference to these states in question. Should we be clubbing them together at all or should they be given their own space and time in history, in our own pages of research, in our understanding of their coming into being? No simple answers. Instead terms like The Sixth Schedule, Plebiscite, Secession, North Eastern Council and Autonomy literally made us go crazy as they danced about us, mocking at our ignorance, at our helplessness, our inability to take a stand as neat, precise and simple as a History textbook would like us to take. What we discover is a murky melodramatic epic of sorts with lots of twists and turns of dissents, mistrust, rebellions; of friends growing close and falling apart. So like an Ekta Kapoor serial. Only so much graver in significance.
Every break up causes heartbreaks but they don’t come as a surprise to the people involved because each breakup has a preceding period of turmoil making both the parties aware of an impending separation. The breaking down of Berlin wall was a surprise but not The USSR. So was the case with Pre Independence Assam.
The northeast , then mostly known as Assam and which used to include Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, had to pay the highest price for its Independence and that price is an area of 1,45,067 sq km and a population of about 23 lakhs. Excluding areas of Sylhet which was literally gifted to East Pakistan and some 60 sq miles of area to Bhutan. Of course, pre-independence Assam itself was no static independent territory. Having been gradually annexed to the Bengal Presidency after the Treaty of Yandabo(1826)- a process that took around five years to complete- Assam had turned into a part of the Eastern Bengal and Assam province in 1906. By the time of 1937, several turn of events had taken place and Assam had its own legislative assembly and the process of the evolution of the state did not stop there.
If you want a brief, a very brief story on how the states came into being then it can be put across in just a line: Post Independence Assam comprised a vast area which includes the present day states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, but after some bitter periods of turmoil and rebellion followed by agreements and peace talks, the states separated out. We guess, you know this much by now. Isn’t that how things work out? But the entire story of the reorganization and formation of states isn’t that short and simple. Manipur and Tripura were already separate kingdoms but the first seeds of separation was sown during the Simon Commission reforms way back in 1929 and that spanned (to be politically correct and to be sticking to history dates that is) till 1971 when Meghalaya and Mizoram were declared Union Territories. So far the story seems to be just a continuation of the anga-bhanga kind of Divide and Rule Policy of The British that made Assam and East Bengal a separate province in the first place in 1906, doesn’t it? Perhaps it was, perhaps it was meant to be something else but ended up being the same at the end of the day. Who knows, who can tell? We can only ponder and become opinionated. Or perhaps we can try to remain neutral chroniclers ( we all know by now that such a chronicler is as real as a unicorn grazing with the cows in the meadow) and continue with our story.
We must remind you however that the Sixth Schedule to the Indian Constitution was another factor which led the way towards formation of the separate states. Why is this so important? Because the formation of the modern states of the northeast has as much to do with the evolution of the caste and the tribal classification in India as it has to do with socio-political events of war and imposed territorial annexations and cessations. The Sixth Schedule however was not a scheming dexterous ploy of the British. It was and still is very much a part of the series of Independent India’s visions of progress and empowerment. Envisioned for self empowerment of the tribal regions, our then PM Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru declared that the Autonomous Councils his government wholeheartedly advocated for would not only safeguard the respective culture and traditions of the various tribal communities but also help them develop along the lines of their own genius. “We should judge results not by statistics or the amount of money spent but by the quality of human character that is evolved” were his words. A dream of utopic equal progress for the marginalized and so far neglected areas of the country one would call it – a dream that also sowed the seeds of working in favour of tight knit closed communities on the basis of one’s minority listings and ethnic classifications that did not unfortunately see much change from the anthropological surveys and classifications carried out under the British regime.
We must digress here to mention that The Ethnological studies and Anthropological studies have been a continuing feature of the Indian Census and the trail blazed by former Census Commissioners of India among whom one must mention Bains, Risley and Hutton. These studies were halted with the 1931 census due to various contemporary socio-political reasons and were revived thiry years later under Dr. Mitra, the Census Commissioner of 1961. Hutton (1931) an Oxford-trained anthropologist , is in particular important to our understanding of the “tribal communities” in the northeast since as P. Padmanabha, Registrar General, India puts it in his 1978 introduction to the census, his “professional training enabled him to make a mark not only in the Census Organization but also in the academic world. His studies of racial and ethnic distributions of the peoples of the sub-continent and the tribes of Assam, Nagaland and north-east India are acknowledged as monumental, particularly as he was among the first to write full scale monographs on the tribes”. Risley in 1911 had already brought in the idea of one caste/tribe being superior/inferior to another by deciding to present his census on the basis of caste/jati “ranking” thus bringing in the genesis of concepts like Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Castes. Hutton though not in full agreement with Risley did little to change the ranking. He added matter regarding the functioning and the dynamics of operations within the castes. If the Census of India, 1901 introduced the mainland for the first time to some of the “most primitive societies or tribes” living in the interior areas like Lushai Hills (Mizoram), North Eastern Frontier Agency (Arunachal Pradesh) and Nagaland, Hutton’s surveys and monographs extended into a more in depth study of Naga tribes- their land tenure systems, rituals besides tracing a racial and ethnic civilization progress through anthropological understanding of these tribes based on a study of their blood-groups and physical features- a process that was carried out by his succesors like Guha. The censuses do not hesitate to look at these SCs and OBCs as “aboriginal population” and their primitive and aboriginal nature is often stressed upon by the linguistic surveys that are taking place alongside under the British cataloguing system – a process that saw its fruition in the periodical Linguistic Survey of India taken out by Grierson.
In other words the backwardness stressed upon was not only economic and infrastructural as most Post Independent surveys and censuses claim it to be. On paper, in pursuance of the national government’s policy to discourage community distinctions based on caste, race, etc., the 1951 Census gave up the questions on these aspects, which were earlier given priority. However, paradoxically it reinstates these very points at its crux when it further mentions that the only relevant question on this confined itself to ‘Special groups’, namely., whether a person belonged to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe or a Backward Class or the Anglo-Indian community, so as to meet the requirement of the Constitution for the weaker sections of the society. Though there was a conscious move to focus on the festivals, indigenous crafts, markets of these communities is noted in the censuses to follow, the stereotypical prejudiced understanding of a tribal primarily as a “primitive” rather than a neutral “belonging to a particular ethno/racial community carried its cultural baggage in a layman’s perspective of the northeastern states and any population therein that did not confirm to the mainland Brahminical understanding of the four castes and their sub varnas.
It is hardly surprising therefore that the Sixth Schedule ended up promoting a feeling of alienation and a need to break out and reinstate oneself as the mainstream rather than the marginal in one’s own native geographical locations even as it did allow for some massive strides of economic progress in the said regions.
To be continued …
By Fried Eye Research Team- A Myra Mani Project
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