Letting the North-East in

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.

2 thoughts on “Letting the North-East in”

  1. Have nowadays become a regular reader of ur muses, first linked here niraj’s blog. Totally agree on ur thoughts abt the isolation breeding alienation argument abt the N-E. Wonder if u can also explore the pernicious effects of muslim illegal immigration frm bangladesh on the local demography and economy as well. I believe in parts of lower assam the situation in now serious. Hindu immigration frm Bangladesh may even be condoned on account of political persecution suffered there but muslim immigration is a double whammy and must be fought off!

    Orginally posted by sudhir at April 27, 2004 10:12 AM

  2. Sudhir

    Illegal immigration must be curbed regardless of the religion of the offenders. The situation on the borders with Bangladesh is worrisome because accompanied with the demographic problem, there is a security problems. There are terrorist camps on its territory and it looks like it is becoming some sort of a hub for international terrorists – recently a huge arms shipment was seized in Bangladesh, it was reported valued around at least US$100m. The good news is that the Bangladesh forces seized it, the bad news is why such a big consignment found its way to Bangladesh in the first place.
    Given the porous borders, both illegal immigration and terrorist cross-infiltration are red flag issues.

    As far as giving asylum to fleeing Hindus goes; I India should certainly not discriminate against refugees based on their religion. That flies agains the idea of India.

    What is more important is to ensure that refugees are not politically used as ‘vote-banks’. That is India’s internal struggle. Its probably the toughest.

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