Geography And Socio-Cultural Dynamics:An Ethno-Centric View Of Northeast India And South East Asia Relationship Falguni Rajkumar IAS (Retd)

GEOGRAPHY AND SOCIO-CULTURAL DYNAMICS: An Ethno-centric view of Northeast India and South East Asia Relationship

Falguni Rajkumar IAS (Retd)*

Geography and climate of the Northeast Region** (NER) of India comprising the seven states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura is tectonically and morphologically part of East Asia, (‘Region’), while politically it is part of South Asia. The mountains and highlands in the region, an extension of the Minor Himalayan ranges runs south as the Arakan Yoma in Myanmar. It divides the two great river-basins of East Asia; the Great Bengal Plains: the confluence of the Brahmaputra, the Ganges and the mighty Meghna in Bangladesh and the river basins formed by the Irrawaddy and its many tributaries in Myanmar.

Various ethnic groups and sub-ethnic groups of similar, the not-so-similar, if not identical have lived, shared and flourished in this unique geographical space having similar climatic conditions. They also share many common, easily identifiable socio-cultural traits and attributes as well as similar linguistic links giving rise to an unique set of ‘grouping’ of people in this part of the world.

Disruptive geo-politics:

The history and politics of the region, however, changed all these as ‘man-made’ political boundaries and divisions were super-imposed on this naturally formed geographical space at various times of history disrupting the peoples’ ways of life, destroying anthropological links and the acculturated socio-cultural ties and bonds. The once contiguous and accessible region made possible by the many naturally formed communication corridors that made trade, commerce and movements of people possible, sadly got disbanded. An example is the fate of Northeast India, which got completely ‘cut-off’ and segregated from the rest of the country after independence. In many cases, people belonging to the same ethnic group like the Nagas of Nagaland, the Meiteis of Manipur, and the Tai -Ahoms of Assam got divided from members of their own community and groups living in Myanmar. These irrational divisions would be one of the primary causes for the various political uprisings in the NER and the adjoining regions in Myanmar.

*Chairman, Board of Governors, IIM, Shillong. Former Secretary, NEC, Government of India, Shillong

**Sikkim is now considered as part of Northeast even though not contiguous with the seven states.

Geography, Climate and the Geo-strategic perspective:

Engineered by the British, the ‘Region’ became the hot-bed of international intrigues and politics, of one-upmanship among competing powers; the Chinese, the Burmese rulers and the French who were entrenched in Indo-China. They transformed the region into a strategic outpost by giving a military character to an otherwise placid ‘ungovernable’ physical space. The British India government by converting the Northeast frontier province of India into a strategic out-post dealt with it geo-centrically and geo-strategically rather than anthropo-centrically or ethno-centrically. The Northeast region came to be seen and dealt over the years as a geo-strategic region ever since.

The British in taking this rather myopic view oversimplified the problems and issues of the region by quite unabashedly forgetting that the ‘Region’ had human beings living in it. They deliberately overlooked the fact that these people, comprising of various ethnic groups, had similar if not identical anthropological origins, links and a shared pattern of migration from South East and East Asian ‘Region’ into the

Northeast of India, which they call home. The British simply ‘painted’ the ‘Region’ as one large blot of inaccessible physical space where the people in them really did not matter.

The insensitive superimposition of the man-made political boundaries and converting the region into a no-man’s land by transforming it into a strategic buffer-zone, combined with the ingeniously contrived demarcation of the NER administratively into ‘Excluded’ and ‘Partially Excluded Areas’ and segregating and dividing people based on the areas of their domicile introduced the politics of ethnic identity in the region. Identity politics is in many respects one of the main causes of the problems in the NER today. This division of people and communities within the NER itself has been described by many experts on the region as the apartheid of the people of the NER. Sadly, independent India followed these British policies in administering and governing the NER; as a mere strategically important physical space, nothing more and nothing less. This approach has been the bane of British-

India’s and unfortunately, independent India’s Northeast frontier policies.

The inference is obvious, the tendency to see the Northeastern region of India essentially from the geo-strategic perspective and encapsulating its governance and administration predominantly by the more digressionary security considerations over the years, has by a process of reductionism, undermined the more important ethno-centrical perspective, where people matter, to insignificant slots of importance. This approach and attitude of the Central government over the years has alienated the people of the NER, which has led to the piquant situation where there is a total disconnect between the Government in the centre and the people of Northeast India.

These qualificatory observations are necessary since understanding the issues and problems of the Northeast region of India from this perspective has a direct bearing on the kind and quality of relationship and equation the people of the NER will have with the people of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Eastern Nepal and Myanmar; their immediate neighbours and in the larger South East Asian context. Since the NER has always been seen and dealt predominantly from the security perspective, these countries, with the exception of perhaps Bhutan, have been seen and dealt more as adversaries rather than as friends. Consequently, contacts of Northeast Indians with people in these countries have largely been perfunctory if not all-together absent.

The inability to deal with these countries as friends, whose cooperation and support are vital and necessary for improving the economic conditions and plight of the people of the NER has greatly handicapped the development efforts in the NER. This approach and attitude has in many more ways than one, greatly handicapped India’s ability to see and deal with the NER as a geographical asset for the country; the arrow-head of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ rather than as a liability. It has taken decades for India to realise this fact. It now has to be seen how far this realisation gets translated into action and becomes a reality. This policy aphesis has possibly been one of the saddest aspects in India’s handling of the affairs of the Northeast.

The Geo-Centric and Ethno-Centric perspectives:

What does an ethno-centric perspective of Northeast India mean for it and the South East Asian ‘Region’?

A Northeast India and the ‘Region’, devoid of the security preoccupation and tag attached to it, or by moderating emphasis on it, changes the entire perspective of how one looks at and deals with the various issues and problems faced by the NER and its neighbouring countries. For instance, the Brahmaputra, the Barak and other west and south-west flowing rivers from the NER that causes annual havoc in Bangladesh leading to large scale exodus of affected populations eastwards into the neighbouring higher plains of Assam and other adjoining Northeastern states over the years, upsetting the demographic composition and creating huge administrative and other problems for the Government of India and the various state governments of Northeast India, becomes a concern for both India and Bangladesh*; the two South Asian neighbours. This issue has been a major point of friction, acrimony and misunderstanding between the two of them. Similar problems are created by the south

*Amartya Sen; Poverty and Famines, Famines in Bangladesh, Chapter 9, p-131. Sen in his study of the two Great Famines of Bengal of 1943 and the 1974 in Bangladesh explains the phenomenon of the devastating floods in Bangladesh as the annual handiwork of the mighty Brahmaputra along with other rivers of Northeast India.

flowing rivers of Nepal and Bhutan into India that causes extensive damage in the states of Bihar and West Bengal.

From a geo-strategic and security perspective, these natural calamities and the consequential fallout have different implications and connotations that can quite often distort the real facts by digressing from the main and primary source of the problem; the floods, which requires both short-term and long-term solutions and attentions.

Such a perspective can change people’s perceptions about the natural calamities, or for that matter, even accidental man-made disasters, by taking them into other dimensions totally unrelated or unconnected to the problems and issues at hand.

On the other hand, from an ethno-centric perspective of the NER and the ‘Region’, all these rivers, including the Brahmaputra and its tributaries acquires a much more benevolent and benign demeour. They; particularly the Brahmaputra, as it flows into the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh where it is joined by the Ganges and the Meghna ‘become’ the last of the great south-west flowing rivers of the East Asian River system whose potential can be tapped by both India and Bangladesh for the benefit of their respective citizens. Conversely, the havoc these rivers create becomes the problems of both countries as it affects people of both countries. Consequently, the situations and problems caused by these rivers, essentially by-products of the topography and climate of the ‘Region’ are best dealt and tackled collectively as a ‘Region’ by all the affected countries (in the instant example between India and Bangladesh) rather than as separate political entities either as Nation-states or as states/ divisions within any of the countries.

Implicit in this observation is the ineluctable fact of how from the changed (people-centric) perspective, the disasters caused by the geography and climate of Northeast India, or for that matter any in the ‘Region’, which transcends national boundaries; be it Bangladesh or the whole of Eastern India, becomes the problems and concerns for all affected countries as these affect the lives and well being of their respective citizens. This realisation and view of the problem greatly reduces, if not completely ends, the belligerent and acrimonious approach in dealing with each other when such natural disasters occurs or take place. From this changed perspective, the challenges posed by the geography and climate of the ‘Region’ like sharing of river waters, both downstream and up-stream, problems of communication and connectivity; all important factors for enhancing the quality of life for the people in these countries; be it commerce, trade and enhancing mobility of people for better people to people contacts etc, are no more hindrances or insurmountable issues and problems.

In this changed scenario, both geography and climate or the calamities they cause ironically become opportunities for the affected countries to come together, renew their friendships and jointly address and overcome the situations at hand through cooperation and partnership. These tragedies caused by the geographical and

natural phenomenon indirectly than become change-agents; enablers and facilitators for peace: extremely important elements for changing attitudes and altering mindsets.

Taking off from this heuristic premise, where people become the focal point of policy initiatives, the Northeastern Region of India than becomes that part of East Asia where two anthropologically distinct sets of people; the Indo-Aryan races and the Mongoloid racial stocks meet, and where two major streams of civilisational influences; the Indic-Aryan civilisational sensibilities, ethos and value systems meet the South East Asian civilisational influences. The NER in its new avatar; where the focus is on human beings and are not mere accessories or props, both the two streams of civilisations cease to be seen as ‘separates’ or opposites, representing two separate confrontational racial stocks or value-systems. Instead, together they provide an opportunity to the various ethnic groups who have converged over the years in the NER to re-negotiate their respective cultural boundaries by engineering a situation that is capable of regenerating a process of assimilation of various influences; both social and cultural, which Homi K. Bhabha once defined as ‘cultural hybridization’.

Once this important dimension of the ethno-scape of the NER and the

‘Region’ is understood and appreciated, formulation of appropriate policies commensurate with the region’s unique needs and requirements can be put in place. Such a policy will have the basic ingredients capable of transforming and making the NER of India into a region of peace, friendship and partnership by fostering a sense of ‘belongingness’ and ‘togetherness’ among the various communities and ethnic groups from within the region, and thereafter capacitating them to extend such a desires and feelings among the people of the Southeast Asian nations. The NER and the whole ‘Region’ then has a chance to become a zone of peace, rather than be a region of conflicts and contestations. India has played such roles in forging these links with its South East and East Asian neighbours in its long history, albeit through the sea route. The present attempt is to reconnect to its South East Asian neighbours through the continental land route through Northeast India.

From the foregoing arguments it is apparent that many problems and issues between India (read Northeast India) and its immediate neighbours in the South East Asian and South Asian region have arisen primarily due to incorrect appraisal and application of the two perspectives; the geo-centric (geo-strategic) and the ethno-centric, adversely affecting their problem solving abilities. These occurs because what should be dealt as geomorphological related problems have most often instead been dealt as ethno-centric issues. While conversely, what ought to have been dealt as ethno-centric related problems, have instead been dealt as geomorphological issues and problems. In short, an unintended interpolation and inappropriate contextualization of the two distinctive dimensions of the geo-politics have taken place leaving both people and the governments in these counties often upset and dissatisfied. Appreciating this ‘dynamics’ in the proper perspective can prevent most

irritants that trouble India’s NER within, as well as in its relationships with its South East Asian neighbours.

Need for People to people contact:

From the ‘mellowed’ atmospherics created by the ethno-centric perspective and approach in resolving various issues and problems, as opposed to the much more rigidly and belligerently entrenched geo-strategic and security perspective ensconced within the notion as separate nation-states, all other issues like economics, social and political ties and various other aspects can be dealt and handled much more amicably and constructively. Northeast India than can truly be the land-bridge and the Northeasterners the ‘link-people’ with people in the South East Asian region, especially with those living in their immediate neighbourhood.

The underlining theme in all these narrative is the urgent need to bring the people of Northeast India and their Asian neighbours closer together by providing to them appropriate platforms and forums without in any manner undermining or circumventing the power or authorities of the governments in these countries. What is needed is a much more proactive policy to facilitate ‘people to people’ contacts; the main missing link in Indo-South East Asian relationships. Devoid of this, the whole plethora of agreements and engagements becomes mere soulless exercises (inanimate entities) largely devoid of the much needed emotive bonding that the unique socio-cultural ethos; descriptive of the various communities of Northeast India posses and share with most of their South East Asian neighbours. Such a proactive approach of ensuring greater ‘people to people’ contact can greatly facilitate and enhance the trade and commercial ties between India and its South Asian and South East Asian neighbours.


The NER of India, Bhutan and Eastern Nepal prior to independence was a natural hinterland of a region that is now Bangladesh. Similarly, large population of people living on the eastern half of NER depended on Burma for their various requirements and needs. All these made the people living in this ‘Region’ natural partners for trade and commerce, where the produce, raw materials and minerals from the highlands moved down to the lowlands and in turn, goods and other finished products were brought up, mutually benefiting and complementing the needs of people living on both sides of the border. Life has never been the same ever since the sub-continent got divided politically at various times in history. And yet, given the circumstances created by the topography and climate of the ‘Region’, compelled by the need to depend on each other for sustenance these border-people and communities continued interacting and trading with each other clandestinely, inspite of every effort made by various authorities to prevent them from doing so.

One can deduce from all these that the various man-made barriers either need to be better managed, or modified, if not altogether done away with, if a true ‘Asian’

dawn is to become a reality. It is no body’s case that the international boundaries can be redrawn, but the fact that people on either side exist and need each other should be sufficiently strong enough reason for these governments to move faster so that people can communicate and know each other better.

Edward William Soja, post modern geographer and urban planner on the faculty of UCLA, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and in the London School of Economics had defined the concept and notion of ‘Thirdspace’ as follows.

“I define Thirdspace as an-Other way of understanding and acting to change the spatiality of human life, a distinct mode of critical spatial awareness that is appropriate to the new scope and significance being brought about in the rebalanced trialectices of spatiality–historicality–sociality.” (Reference: Wikipedia). This is what a truly intelligent ‘Third space’ in Northeast India and South East Asian region should hope to achieve eventually.

They say wise people learn from past mistakes and try to avoid or redress them. Are we; Indians and South East Asian neighbours, not capable of rendering credence to this old wise saying as a practical proposition by coming closer to each other taking into consideration the changing world order where political boundaries are slowly losing much of their relevance being overpowered by economic considerations and compulsions? Appreciating and understanding the implication of this reality in the present context may mean a real movement forward for India (read North East Indians) and its South Asian and South East Asian neighbours.