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Is it northeast, far east, or just east?

People in India connect relatively well with the seven states. Some of India’s top stars have come from the region and made their states proud

New Delhi: I remembered Sudeep Chakravarti, the Django of Indian journalism whose scuba skills are as brilliant as his pen, once telling Mini Menon, a top anchor, that he often feels the northeastern states have virtually fallen off the map of this big nation that is called India. Why? Chakravarti had many reasons, once people would travel to those regions freely. But post-Independence, movements started through Siliguri, the chicken neck corridor in north Bengal. Sudeep said he would not call the states north-eastern but far-eastern because of the disconnect of the seven states (read sisters) with the rest of the country. I guess things have changed considerably since then. People in India connect relatively well with the seven states. Some of India’s top stars have come from the region and made their states proud. And the news channels do fairly decent reportage from the northeastern states, not just Assam floods and rhino deaths in Kaziranga reserve forest.

But the divide Sudeep talked about in the television chat and the divide Sudeep wrote in his book, The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East, still exists. Sudeep, let me not call him Chakravarti in this copy, has brilliantly written the book to its finest and last detail. Why not? Sudeep calls the states a “seductive, stunningly complex cocktail”. And he would prefer to call it India’s eastern states, not northeastern. I have a feeling that’s precisely the reason he has called the book The Eastern Gate.

The book is a lesson for India’s politicians arguing over religious discourse, country liquor, sky high statues near rivers and in the middle of seas, taxes for online games, cricket cash, and rockets to the Moon and Mars. The author, a seasoned journalist, reminds Indian politicians why they should have accorded these seven states top most priority in terms of development. I doubt if politicians with focus on northeastern states have read the book, they have not reacted to suggestions offered by the author. Some work, however, has happened. In the early 2020s, new rail routes are being tried out between Assam and Manipur, new highways are being designed to increase connectivity in the region.

Sudeep argues for more. He says Northeast India accounts for nearly a seventh of the country’s landmass and hosts nearly 50 million people. Sudeep argues, argues and argues and says the region is a gateway to immense possibilities, from hydrocarbons to regional trade, and a bulwark of the country’s security in the shadow of China. He reminds the rulers of India that the region is also home to immense ethnic and communal tension. The ongoing Naga conflict remains shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty.

This is not all. The author feels there cannot be a Look- or Act East Policy by overlooking the region. “India’s relations with this region will mark the country’s engagement with its northern and eastern neighbours—China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan. Equally, there can be no doubt whatsoever that India’s relations with these neighbours will have a direct bearing on how this region thrives, or falls by the wayside, in the future,” he writes. And then, in almost the same breath, he says (read writes): “India’s eastern elixir is a seductive, stunningly complex cocktail.”

So let’s drop the politics that has kept the seven states in not such a happy condition and let’s return to the basic contents of the book. The writer says repeatedly that the states are located strategically to the borders in the eastern parts and should have been accorded priority by the Centre. But has it happened? No, it hasn’t. The author has explained where Guwahati is located from the neighbours. He says Dhaka is 300 kms away and Sylhet less than 150 kms, and you can reach China by flight in an hour’s time. Yet, the region is constantly falling off the Indian map and all one sees are countless brigades of the Indian Army posted to quell violence. In short, it means the Indian Army fights Indians, there are times when the violence is mindless. One needs to remember there is routine narcotics trade, illegal cash transfers and gun rackets in the region, the Army easily justifies its stay.

Sudeep’s understanding of this fascinating borderland helps him weave through many layers in this book, he knows the issues that constantly haunts the region. And hence, he wrote: “It’s part of the grand palace of smoke and misleading mirrors where nobody knows anything and everybody knows everything.” Sudeep must have nourished his sources as a journalist, his grip on Moreh, a border town located on the India-Myanmar border in Tengnoupal district of Manipur, reflects it when he talks about the border town that still indulges in heavy narcotics trade. It is a unique narco-economy that feeds many, including soldiers of the Indian Army. Remember  Col. Ajay Chaudhury, arrested in February 2014, while ferrying pseudoephedrine tablets from Imphal to Moreh? Well, Sudeep walks like the Phantom through the town during the day and night, talking to its people who are brave because they live under the constant threat of guns and narco trade. No wonder he calls narcotics the actual plasma for people of Moreh.

He refers to his notes time and again in the book, especially when he is travelling between Nagaland and Manipur. The heady mix of stories and interviews make the subjects interesting as the author weaves across time, place and action. I went back and forth time and again while reading the tome, an invaluable piece of research, a minefield of information. Time and again, Sudeep refers to the ever-changing equation between the Indian authorities and their autonomy-minded opponents like Thuingaleng Muivah of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. Muivah once told the author: “Nagas will become stronger all the time. Do you think China has become weaker and you have become stronger?”

The author touches upon the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that set many parts of the country on fire and explains in detail with a solid historical overview about the contentious migrant conundrum that has triggered many tensions in the region, bloody or otherwise. He reminds readers that this is the region that nurtures legislations like the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, that permits soldiers of the Indian Army to hurt and kill citizens with impunity. Remember the uproar over the controversial Act when 14 innocent villagers were killed by the security forces in Nagaland’s Mon district in December last year? He warns the politicians that unless the Centre empowers the seven states, New Delhi’s expectations of driving trade through its borders will remain nothing but “a chaos of bad faith, bad policy and fractured dreams”. The book is solid fuel for thought on the seven states and how the states and its people can fit into the national identity.

I have just one issue with the book. Why Sudeep soft-pedalled the issue of state sponsored killings, and the human right violations that continue to wreak havoc across India’s Northeast. I will ask him when he comes to Delhi and walks into a cafe with his notepads and books. Sudeep is always great company.