Journalistic Vision of a Conflict Zone: A Review of Rupa Chinai’s book


Understanding India’s Northeast A Reporter’s Journal by senior journalist from Mumbai Rupa Chinai is an exhaustive account of unravelled realms and untold tales of political as well as personal encounters of a land less known though not forbidden to the ‘mainland’ Indian reader.  The book covers a span of over thirty years of reporting from Northeast India to national dailies and journals like Indian Express and Economic and Political Weekly to name a few. The book begins with an introduction to a scene of mindless violence during the 90ies in a Naga village where 40 Nagas and six Meiteis were killed that had benumbed the author in her face to face encounter.  The idea of the Northeast entered the author’s consciousness as a child through her family friend Niketu Iralu, a Naga social activist working with Rajmohan Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson who incidentally wrote a preface to this book. The book intricately encapsulates the historical terrain of the colonial era and also deals upon the Ahom colonial policy of separating the hill and valley through ‘posa system’.  The sensitive issue of language amongst small ethnic groups and the linguistic chauvinism of the dominant ruling class e.g. the caste Hindu Assamese in case of Assam find an investigating concern in Chinai’s narrative. The narrator seems to suggest that “the Indian Government’s failure in taking timely action to defuse ethnic conflict was also an important factor leading to the proliferation of protest movements which later morphed into insurgencies” (p.27)

Rupa Chinai at her book launch. Photo by Bishakha Datta

Rupa Chinai is blatantly honest about the journalistic tendency of the mainstream Indian reporters to homogenize the entire Northeast as a monolithic entity and the main motive behind her book is to induce greater interest for the region in national print media.  Rather than themes or issues the book is conveniently divided into seven chapters where the five chapters besides the introduction and conclusion focus on the five north-eastern states excluding a detailing of Arunachal, Meghalaya and Sikkim on the basis of their demographic, socio-political and ethnic issues. The Mizoram chapter which is titled ‘A simmering pot that can boil over’ starts off with the description of the blooming of the inauspicious Milokhana bamboo flowers in every half century that forecast the occurrence of famine. In this case the reference year being 2007. She accounts that the unifying factor for the Mizos is the prevalence of a single language within the state.  The next chapter focuses on Manipur which Chinai rhapsodizes as ‘the land of liquid gold’. The reference point of the year 1980 when she first came to Imphal in defining the chapter seem to be far-fetched in view of the current state of affairs.  The inter-link and rivalry between the insurgent groups of Northeast like KNF and ULFA is succinctly covered here as well the parallel government run by the insurgent outfit National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) group is documented. She specially mentions the prevalence of Bandh culture in the Northeast and cites the example of the food crisis in Manipur in November 2011 caused by a 120-day blockade. The immigrant issue is a pertinent problem of the Northeast. Chinai talks about the need for a legal and political clarity for a multitude of groups such as Bengali migrants in Assam or Tripura; the Chakma in Arunachal or the Chakma and Bru in Mizoram. The narrative also makes a passing reference to the ‘Framework Accord’ between NSCN (IM) and the present BJP government.

In the Tripura chapter the author highlights the case of the tribal population being reduced to a microscopic minority after the capturing of political and economic power by the Bengali Hindus. Chinai dwells consciously into the social history of the revival of the indigenous Tripuri language Kokborok after the usurpation of the Bengali cultural influence. The Left Front government decided to use the Bengali script for writing Kokborok despite opposition from Kokborok speaking intellectuals. Although Kokborok was recognised as an official language of the State in 1979, use of the language and script has become a major cause of divide and political acrimony between those in favour of the Roman and Bengali. Chinai’s narrative delves into the plight of the faceless existence of Tripura’s tribes a major issue as they have no charge over the state’s affairs mostly dominated by the Bengali-ised tribal elite as remnants of a Tripuri tribal base. The Tripura story reveals the insidious mind-set of cultural fundamentalism as opposed to the idea of pluralism and diversity and is therefore anti-national. The book also reminds the reader of the Mandai massacre that brought Tripura to the forefront of national consciousness where 250-400 Bengali Hindus were killed by indigenous people followed by looting and destruction of property. In the postscript to the chapter she refers to the problems faced by its ethnic groups who once again came to the forefront with the revived demand for ‘Twipraland’.

The Nagaland Chapter is titled “Nagaland: In search of an honourable settlement” and cites that the Indo-Naga problem is one of the most intractable issues confronting post-Independent India where the Nagas consistently asserted that their movement for self-determination is rooted in the facts of history and the compulsions of geography, culture and race. Making a psychological analysis of the situation she writes that the deep sense of Naga alienation is the fear psychosis created by the continued army presence and the imposition of repressive Acts that have now been in force there for decades. The Naga society experiences fratricide of the worst kind by the disillusionment created by the underground groups like NSCN-IV and NSCN-K, NNC and others that are fighting for power amongst themselves. The author vehemently asserts that the government of India has to end its ‘fence sitting’ in the Northeast and act positively to end the gun culture, institute channels of accountability for the flow of money; ensure justice and good governance; speed up the development process- particularly infrastructure and communications — in tune with the aspirations of local communities. The author’s personal repertoire with activist Niketu Iralu unfolds the changing process of civilizations, adapting mind-sets towards a realistic vision of progress for the Nagas as a quest towards peace and reconciliation with the government of India. Besides issues of draconian military measures of controlling unrest and the pressing concern for amicable means of uprooting Naga conflicts the narrative shifts towards the description of the self-sufficiency of Khonoma village and their exemplary internal democratic line of leadership.

Later in the chapter she also depicts her own experience with the traditional Naga healers in a land cut off from modern medical facilities. She cites the example of Konyak Nagas as the last repositories of knowledge in traditional medicine.  Her discussion with Monisha Behal, a health researcher brings into fore a detailed discussion on reproductive issues and the lack of knowledge about contraceptives in the Naga villages. The low literacy rate in Nagaland owes to the lack of teachers in remote areas. She accounts her visit to the traditional Changlang village and calls it the storehouse of good karma. There is a glaring similarity of the Naga festival Aoleang with the Assamese bihu. Even for a tradition of head hunters it suggested a season of peace as the writer says:

“During Aoleang time it was however, a time of peace and even the human skulls they had collected were fed a little rice and meat as an offering of propitiation.’’(p.233)

The Assam Chapter is a bit sarcastically captioned as “Reversing a culture of harmony amidst diversity”, nonetheless, the writer begins her narrative discussing the enamouring hospitality of the Assamese people. The ethnic origin of the tribes of Assam is well researched and documented in the Assam chapter. The current demographic divide between the Assamese and Bengali Muslims of Assam are covered with the narrative focus on the Assamization of Bengali Muslims. The prevailing Brahmanical dominance among Assamese caste Hindus who constituted a part of the Kanauj Brahmin baggage was contradicted by the cult preached by Srimanta Sankardeva. The narrative expresses clearly that the linguistic chauvinism of the Assamese middle class resulted in insensitivity towards its indigenous groups. The imposition of Assamese over tribal communities is a part of ‘linguistic chauvinism’ of the dominant Assamese speakers, wrapped by the constant fear of becoming a linguistic minority. This linguistic ostracism led to social ostracism and was deeply felt by the Bodos, the largest plains tribe of Assam resulting in the demand and strife for a separate Bodoland.  In contrast, the Bengali speakers posed challenged to the economic cake enjoyed by the Assamese caste Hindus who held the political and cultural hegemony in the land. In continuation with her take on the Bodo conflicts and the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council after the signing of the Bodoland Accord of 2003, she cites the horrific consequences of their lack of governance in the unprecedented Bodo-Muslim conflict of 2012 which left behind countrywide repercussions. The chapter also brings within its ambit a discussion on the Karbis, the char areas and the life at the tea gardens.

The concluding chapter of the book is envisioned as “Building a future: Sustainable development and livelihood in the Northeast” in its heading. Here she convincingly asserts that the depletion of natural resources of indigenous communities must be a national concern. She seems to suggest that the Northeast is the last vestige of India’s natural bounty and should not be shrouded by the idea of development advertised by the Look East Policy:

“The opening of trade corridors between India and Southeast Asia poses a serious challenge to communities living in the sensitive and troubled border states of Northeast India. Swept by the powerful forces of globalisation, will these traditional groups be mere bystanders watching the flow of caravans? Alternatively, will they be enthusiastic participants in a process that unleashes their potential and opens the way for economic independence and an improved quality of life for their people?”(p. 305)

Though the book seems to be mainly designed for a Pan-Indian readership, Rupa Chinai’s narrative is not merely the sympathetic view of the outsider. Understanding India’s Northeast – A Reporter’s Journal is on the whole a valuable journalistic text for the reader both inside and outside the Northeast that provides a deeper insight into the history of language dominance, inter-tribal relationships and protest movements in this ethnic war zone with a rich cultural and natural heritage less tainted by communal colours than the mainstream Indian ethos. Except for the huge lacuna in the time frame of describing events the book shall remain a valid testimony to the study of ethnic conflicts and government interventions from the region.

(Dr Sabreen Ahmed is a Phd from JNU, New Delhi. She is an Assistant Professor in English (A PG Department affiliated to Gauhati University), Nowgong College), Assam.