The woes in India’s north-eastern states arise because the tribes there are treated like ‘endangered species in a reservation’ and insufficiently integrated into the national mainstream, contends Sunanda K. Datta-Ray.
The Mon-Khmer language of Meghalaya state’s Khasi and Jaintia tribes suggests Cambodian roots. The Ahoms, who ruled Assam for 700 years, call themselves Tai. An Assam chief minister once imported a Laotian to teach Ahoms their forgotten ancestral tongue. ‘Rome conquered Greece, Greece conquered Rome,’ he told me, referring to the Ahoms’ complete assimilation in India. Sikkim’s Bhutiyas are Tibetan. Most other groups are Tibeto-Burmans from the Shan states, southern China or Mongolia.
Ambiguity about their place in India goes back to British anthropologist and missionary Verrier Elwin, who advised leader Jawaharlal Nehru not to let outsiders settle in tribal areas, to preserve an idyllic tribal homeland.
But isolation led to turmoil. Regarding India as alien, some tribes looked elsewhere. Nagas sought arms and training in China, which claims a strip of territory along the controversial MacMahon Line. Rebel Mizos found sanctuary in erstwhile East Pakistan. Manipuri guerillas slipped in and out of Myanmar. That brought in the Indian army, adding to friction, ferment. [Straits Times]
India’s policy of letting the north-eastern states preserve their unique ways of life is in stark contrast to China’s official policy on its far-flung regions. There, the state-promoted trans-migration of the Han Chinese into areas like Xinjiang and Tibet is causing ethnic tensions. In India it is the other extreme – the isolation caused by India’s policy is being construed, sometimes correctly, as official apathy. As Datta-Ray argues, India will have to reach out to the north-eastern states, and let them in at the same time. Better road, air and telecommunication links will be a precursor to any such effort.