“Knowledge is power
History does not repeat itself,
but rhymes.”

— Margaret Atwood

At a time when history is being rewritten, challenged and erased, the importance of the knowledge of history is also at once, ironically, being reiterated. One tends to think of history in terms of textbooks and facts and dates one crammed for exams and promptly forgot, but perhaps what one increasingly needs to realise is that our understanding of the world necessitates an understanding of history. The truth of that observation is something that journalist Samrat Choudhury’s book Northeast India: A Political History compels us to admit as his meticulously researched work makes its way into the world against the backdrop of the violence that continues in Manipur.

North-East India has of late made its presence felt on the mainland thanks to the volume of literature from the region that is being published, the sportspeople who have earned laurels for the country, and a growing ease of access that has put the region on the travel map. None of this, sadly, translates to any understanding of the North-East, especially since any study of its history and politics largely remains absent from our history books. Not only does this lack of knowledge lead to a sense of complete apathy, but it is also, as recent events have demonstrated, dangerous as the absence of knowledge paves the way for any manufactured narrative to hijack the reality of the complex and complicated history of the region and its people.

Past and present

Choudhury does not simplify the North-East for his readers, and rightly so, because any effacement of its complex history since its inception would be a disservice to the region. Instead, Choudhury maps the political history of the area from pre-colonial to present times, one state at a time, with research and writing that behoves his journalistic career. Geography is at the heart of the politics and history of the states that comprise the North-East, and the book begins by giving the readers a lay of the land while stating an intention to “report facts and events as honestly and accurately as possible … and [has]... avoid... interpretations ... except in the concluding chapter.” Neutrality of perspective is an impossibility, but Choudhury minimises it with research that never fails to ascribe a viewpoint to a source or document.

In doing so, the author successfully and conscientiously not only writes a history of the North-East but also contextualises its complicated birth in the larger context of the history of the emergence of India as a modern nation-state. So whether it is the Quit India Movement or the Partition of India, the author correlates these events with those unfolding in various parts of the North-East, which serves the dual purpose of demonstrating the impact and implication of these events on the region while at the same time mitigating a sense of isolation and disconnection that the North-East continues to struggle with even in present times.

It was after the signing of the treaty of Yandabo in 1826 that the North-East began to take on an amorphous form as the result of the advent of British Colonialism in the region. But while the North-East is tied by many commonalities, predominant within it is a contradictory sense of being important owing to its frontier status, accompanied by a continued feeling of neglect.

The differences among the states are equally important to register. It is instrumental in understanding the region beyond the nomenclature that is imposed on it for administrative ease, because many of the conflicts and issues that the states are beleaguered with are rooted in historical disputes that the people of the North-East have had with one another. Therefore, Choudhury’s approach of detailing the history of each state, from its inception to present times, of examining their relationship with one another as well as with the mainland and overarching historical events is a useful and illuminating one.

Clashes, rebellions, and not-sisterhood

As expected, this history of the North-East begins by detailing the history of Assam, primarily owing to the fact that with the exception of Manipur and Tripura (and Sikkim, which is a very recent inclusion), most of the remaining states were carved out of what was once Assam. So the account sets out to map the history of this region by mapping the arrival of tea, Christianity and modernity in the North-East, and consequentially revealing how commerce as always, was at the centre of British interest even in the North-East.

This interest in the region was multiplied by the fact that making inroads here meant unlocking possibilities for lucrative trade with the neighbouring kingdoms of Burma, Bhutan, China and others. The writer’s account of the history of the states of North-East reveals that Assam historically has had closer ties with the rest of the country, and possibly was more involved with the policies forged by the leaders of the freedom movement, which in turn has impacted the evolution of many of the other states in the region.

In the stories other states, a certain kinship of history is observed between Manipur and Tripura, owing to the fact that both states witness a troubled progression from being princely states to democracies, a path that is crisscrossed by several clashes and rebellions. In many of the states such as Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, what is revealed are repeated attempts at a contrived cohesion that simply ignores the reality of the diversities of tribes and ethnicities wherein two neighbouring tribes lived in such isolation from each other that they could neither communicate nor understand one another’s language.

In fact, it is a history of hostility and infighting amidst clans, tribes, neighbouring regions and kingdoms, along with a constant sense of threat of invaders ranging from the Burmese, the Mughal and the British in more recent times, that suggests a sense of fragile shared history amongst the states here. The tragedy that Choudhury’s account underlines is how a wilful drawing of boundaries in the region, heedless of the geographical, political, cultural, historical, linguistic and religious realities, is at the root of the problems and violence that continue to plague the North-East.

Present tense

Choudhury’s narrative makes it amply clear that historical blunders committed by the short-sightedness of the British were compounded by their continuation by the Indian state, the price for which the North-East has paid through countless insurgencies, loss of lives, and the continued terror of living under monstrous acts such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The writer convincingly demonstrates that two of the most burning issues that continue to play out in the political arena of the North-East are the issues of identity and “illegal” immigrants, issues that catalysed the anti-CAA protests and the bloodshed in Manipur. Both are presented as issues that originate from a systemic lack of understanding of the history of the North-East and its people, and as those that the political class wants to keep alive in the interest of reaping rich electoral dividends.

Choudhury presents this history of the North-East in a style that is an engaging mix of reportage, documentation, explanation, and analysis that is at times interspersed with the anecdotal or even personal. Given the paucity of written accounts, especially of pre-colonial history, of the region, the writer interestingly seeks recourse to even myths and legends at times to write the history of a state. Such a practice is greatly relevant and laudable, as orality is an integral part of the culture of the North-East and much stands to be gained by harvesting the riches it holds for a better understanding of the North-East.

The history of how each state enters into a union with the Indian state does tend to get a tad repetitive, but perhaps unavoidable given how things panned out during the period when British colonialism came to an end. One of the most important things the book offers is its narration of events that depicts instances of resistance offered by the North-East to British colonialism, and the struggle of most states and their people to retain their identity and autonomy, although the path chosen may not have been always commendable.

Samrat Choudhury’s Northeast India is not an easy book to read but completely fascinating, and it deserves every bit of time and effort, especially if one is truly invested in the North-East and wants to engage with meaningfully.

Northeast India: A Political History, Samrat Choudhury, HarperCollins India.