In the first quarter century after independence, while the rest of the country remained oblivious to the tumult in the North East, the region and its people saw only one face of India. The young Naga, Mizo or Manipuri knew little about Mahatma Gandhi or Subhas Chandra Bose and failed to see ‘the separation of the colonial from the national’. Indian independence did not matter for him or her. What these young men and women saw, year after year, was the Indian soldier, the man in the uniform, gun in hand, out to punish the enemies of India. He saw the jackboots and grew suspicious when the occasional olive branch followed. When rats destroyed the crops in the Mizo hills, leaving the tribesmen to starve, the Mizo youth took the Naga’s path of armed rebellion. Far-off Delhi seemed to have no interest in the region and, like in 1962 when Nehru left Assam to ‘its fate’, the North East could be abandoned in the time of a major crisis.
In my generation, the situation began to change slowly, though the conflicts did not end. More and more students from the North East started joining colleges and universities in ‘mainland’ India, many joining all-India services or corporate bodies after that. The media and the government started paying more attention to the North East, and even a separate federal ministry was created for developing the region. Now federal government employees get liberal leave travel allowances, including two-way airfare for visiting the North East, an effort to promote tourism in the picturesque region. As market economy struck deep roots across India, Tata salt and Maruti cars reached far-off Lunglei, Moreh and even Noklak. For a generation in the North East who grew up to hate India, the big nation-state was now proving its worth as a common market and a land of opportunity.
Boys and girls from the North East won medals for India, many fought India’s wars in places like Kargil, a very large number picked up Indian degrees and made a career in the heartland states or even abroad.
More significantly, the civil society of heartland India began to take much more interest in the North East, closely integrating with like-minded groups in the region, to promote peace and human rights. Jaiprakash Narain and some other Gandhians had led the way by working for the Naga Peace Mission but now the concern for the North East was spreading to the grassroots in the mainland. The fledgling Indian human rights movement, a product of the Emergency, kept reminding the guardians of the Indian state of their obligations to a region they said was theirs.
How could the government deny the people of the North East the democracy and the economic progress other Indians were enjoying? What moral right did Delhi have to impose draconian laws in the region and govern the North East through retired generals, police and intelligence officials? How could political problems be solved only by military means? Was India perpetrating internal colonisation and promoting ‘development of under-development’? These were questions that a whole new generation of Indian intellectuals human rights activists, journalists and simple do-gooders continued to raise in courtroom battles, in the media space, even on the streets of Delhi, Calcutta or other Indian cities. Whereas their fathers had seen and judged India only by its soldiers, a Luithui Luingam or a Sebastian Hongray were soon to meet the foot-soldiers of Indian democracy, men and women their own age with a vision of India quite different from the generation that had experienced Partition and had come to see all movements for self-determination as one great conspiracy to break up India.
In a matter of a few years, the Indian military commanders were furiously complaining that their troops were forced to fight in the North East with one hand tied behind their back. Indeed, this was not a war against a foreign enemy. When fighting one’s own ‘misguided brothers and sisters’, the rules of combat were expected to be different. Human rights violations continued to occur but resistance to them began to build up in the North East with support from elsewhere in the country, so much so that an Indian army chief, Shankar Roychoudhury, drafted human rights guidelines for his troops and declared that a ‘brutalised army [is] no good as a fighting machine’.
In the last few years, the North East and the heartland have come to know each other better. Many myths and misconceptions continue to persist, but as India’s democracy, regardless of its many aberrations, matures and the space for diversity and dissent increases, the unfortunate stereotypes associated with the North East are beginning to peter off slowly. The concept of one national mainstream is coming to be seen as an anathema in spite of the huge security hangover caused by terror strikes like the November 2008 assault on Bombay. The existence of one big stream, presumably the ‘Ganga Maiya’ (Mother Ganges), is perhaps not good enough for India to grow around it. We need the Brahmaputras as much as we need the Godavaris and the Cauveris to evolve into a civilisation state that is our destiny. The country cannot evolve around ‘Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan’.
India remains a cauldron of many nationalities, races, religions, languages and sub-cultures. The multiplicity of identity was a fact of our pre-colonial existence and will determine our post-colonial lives. In the North East, language, ethnicity and religion will provide the roots of identity, sometimes conflicting, sometimes mutually supporting. So a larger national identity should have more to do with civilisation and multi-culturalism, tolerance and diversity, than with the base and the primordial.