Sisters in arms

(Published on February 7, 2014 in The Hindu Business Line – BLInk)

Author Nandita Haskar on what distinguishes the Northeast

Human rights activist and lawyer, Nandita Haksar has been associated with Northeast India for the past 30 years. Her latest attempt to promote understanding and respect for the people of the region is a book titled Across the Chicken Neck: Travels in Northeast India, where she undertakes the challenge of travelling beyond the Chicken Neck, a slim strip of land barely 33 km long, which connects the entire Northeast to the rest of India. Excerpts from an interview:

What is the Chicken Neck?

The Northeast region of India shares only two per cent of its border with India and 98 per cent with our neighbouring countries — China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. This two per cent land that links the entire region with mainland India is called the Siliguri Corridor or the Chicken Neck. The journey was born from a need to understand the region as a whole; to understand its diversity and its politics in cultural and political contexts.

Tell us about the identity crisis faced by the tribes you encountered there.

Few people realise that the Northeast used to be our link with the outside world through the old silk routes both by sea and land. Assam was linked to China and many tribes were involved in active trade with Tibet, Bhutan and beyond. These trade links were broken by the British who stole lucrative trade from people and built artificial borders which resulted in gradual isolation.

After India’s independence, very little attempt was made by way of real development, and when people rebelled or articulated their grievances, their voices were stifled by bullets and bombs. I am referring to the bombing of Aizawl in the ’60s and the atrocities committed by the Indian armed forces in Naga areas. To sum it up, the “identity crisis” is a fight by people and communities fighting the ignominy of being forgotten by history.

What is the role of religion?

The original religions of the people were based on the agricultural cycle. Many of them were also woman-centric. These religions were destroyed by Sanskrit speaking tribes who implemented a process of Sanskritisation. The Christian missionaries also destroyed many tribal institutions. My book talks about these hidden histories and of the clash between old religions and the new ones.

Which insurgencies have affected the Northeast most and how?

The book covers 15 insurgencies. I have tried to give the historical context of the armed rebellions and a face to the rebels. For example, the Bodos have been demanding recognition of their language since the ’50s but it was only after they picked up arms that the Bodo language was included in the eighth schedule of the constitution.

The insurgents have restored a sense of dignity and self-respect in their respective communities and have recovered histories that were sought to be destroyed. They have forced the Indian state to concede to legitimate demands and have protested against oppression and injustice. Having said this, I have also raised many questions about their methods and more importantly, their lack of vision for the future.

The Northeast includes different states, with their own characteristics. How do you break it down in your book?

Yes, the Northeast consists of eight states and within these states there are some 400 communities each with their own language, culture, and history. There is a debate about whether we can speak meaningfully about Northeast. This was my dilemma while writing the book.

I believe that in some contexts we can speak of the Northeast as a whole but in other contexts we must remember that the eight states are very different: Sikkim, Manipur and Tripura were kingdoms that merged into India after independence, while other communities had powerful kingdoms in the past such as the Ahom, the Dimasa and the Khasi, and many other communities lived in village republics.


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