The Northeast frontier and the British


By Pradip Phanjoubam

The following paragraphs are another extract from the manuscript of the book I am writing as a fellow of the IIAS Shimla currently. These paragraphs occur in the third chapter dealing with the making of the eastern boundary of the Northeast, and therefore deal with Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram chiefly from the perspective of the evolution of the boundary with Burma. I have removed footnotes and references to give it a newspaper article feel. I picked these paragraphs out from page 10 onwards hence the abrupt beginning. I owe an explanation to IFP readers. I use these extracts as my Sunday column because I am in the crucial stage of my project right now and have no time or energy to write independent columns for the time being.

This is a rough sketch of the eastern frontier of the Northeast region. Though incomplete, it should give an idea of the manner in which a national boundary evolved here. Since delineated and demarcated boundaries are very much a Western notion, it would be to the purpose to take a look at what the British found when they entered the region, and what strategies they used to mark the territory they newly acquired in ways they knew and are comfortable with. To do this, a closer study of what is a frontier from this vantage would be interesting, and Lord Curzon’s Romanes lecture of 1907, two years after he retired as viceroy of India, should provide valuable insights into the subject. He reiterates in the lecture that ‘In Asiatic countries it would be true to say that demarcation has never taken place except under European pressure and by the intervention of European agents.’

Obviously Curzon’s views on frontiers cannot be the British official policy statement on the matter, but as a knowledgeable, influential, administrator with a long and illustrious career looking after the frontiers of the British Empire, and an explorer of repute in his younger days, these views would certainly conform to the general outlook of his time, particular of the British. From the perspective of this chapter, the most interesting part in this rather long lecture, are in what Curzon describes as artificial frontiers, as opposed to the more obvious, ancient and common, natural ones, formed by the sea, mountains, deserts, marshes and forests etc.

Of the artificial ones again, it is the category which he calls buffers which is most intriguing. These range from simple agreements on ‘no man land’ strips of land between neighbouring States, to extremely sophisticated political and administrative arrangement between two rival States to keep another State in between them as neutral. The Tibet case would rank as one of the most nuanced. A 1907 treaty between Russia and Britain sought Tibet to be kept under the suzerainty of a lesser neighbour, China, but out of any direct influence of either Russia or Britain.

In Curzon’s own words: ‘The same Agreement contains a further novelty in international diplomacy, in the shape of a neutralizing pledge about Tibet made by two Powers, one of which is contiguous while the other has no territorial contact whatever with that country. Tibet is not a buffer State between Great Britain and Russia; the sequel of the recent expedition has merely been to make it again what it had latterly ceased to be, namely, a Mark or Frontier Protectorate of the Chinese Empire.’

The ‘buffer State is an expedient more or less artificial, according to the degree of stability which its government and institutions may enjoy, constructed in order to keep apart the Frontiers of converging Powers.’ It is another matter that by the Anglo-Russian convention of 1907, Britain ended up not only tying itself up miserably in the hope Russia would be kept at a distance from its prized colony of India but also leaving Tibet completely open for ultimate Chinese occupation.

If not for this, the Simla Conference of 1913-14 could have been a bilateral one between Britain and Tibet as there would have been no necessity of involving China in it. The McMahon Line, the northern boundary of the Northeast, would arguably have also not been in any controversy as it is now.

When the 1907 Anglo-Russian treaty was being negotiated, Russia was no longer its aggressive self, licking its wound from a humiliating naval defeat at the hands of Japan in 1904-1905, and it was Britain which was dictating terms. British negotiators did not even allow Russia’s wish to include Mongolia within the purview of the negotiations. But as scholar of the Tibetan question, Alastair Lamb, remarked of the negotiations, as in Judo, Russia was using its opponent’s weight to floor him.

In the same lecture, Curzon also talks of the tendency of frontiers to grow outwards, reflecting the urge for colonies to expand. How ‘of all the diplomatic forms of frictions which have latterly been described, it may be observed that the uniform tendency is for the weaker to crystallize into the harder shape. Spheres of Interest tend to become Spheres of Influence; temporary Leases to become perpetual; Spheres of Influence to develop into Protectorates; Protectorates to be the forerunners of complete incorporation.’ To this he adds: ‘The process is not so immoral as it might at first sight appear; it is in reality an endeavour, sanctioned by general usage, to introduce formality and decorum into proceedings which, unless thus regulated and diffused, might endanger the peace of nations or too violently shock the conscience of the world.’

This pattern of colonial expansion also marked the British penetration of the Northeast region. Here however, it was not always expanding by annexation of established States, but also of non-State spaces, and therefore the peculiarity of the evolution of its frontier in the region. No other mechanism is a louder articulation of this frontier policy, and indeed the ingenuity of the British government in frontier administration, than the Inner Line system which came into existence by the Bengal Inner Line Regulation of 1873.

The Inner Line was in many ways the British administration’s answer to tackling the non-State spaces they encountered in the Northeast region. However, as the administration made it plain, ‘this line does not necessarily indicate the territorial frontier but only the limits of the administered area… it does not in any way decide the sovereignty of the territory beyond.’

This outlook was also spelled out in Curzon’s Romanes lecture in sketching the nature of the Durand Line 1893 which was drawn between the tribes under British and those under Afghan influence. However, ‘over many of these tribes we exercise no jurisdiction, and only the minimum of control; into the territories of some we have so far not even penetrated; but they are on the British side of the dividing line, and cannot be tampered with by any external Power.’

It is interesting that the Inner Line Regulation was the first law promulgated in Assam. This was done ‘under the authority conferred by the Statute 33 Vict., Chapter 3, which gives to the executive Government of India a power of summary legislation for backward tracts. Such laws are called Regulations to distinguish them from the Acts, or laws passed after discussion in the legislature,’ as colonial historian, Edward Gait explains it in his influential “A History of Assam”.

This implies, from the time Assam came under the British in 1826 till the time of the promulgation of the Inner Line Regulation in 1873, Assam was governed under no particular law specific to the needs of the region. The Inner Line then is also, as Richard Keatinge, the first chief commissioner of Assam who assumed his charge on 7 February 1874, and was given the charge of demarcating the line, discovered, not just about giving a ‘territorial frame to capital’ as Assamese scholar Bodhisattva Kar, puts it, but ‘more deeply, it was also supposed to demarcate the Hills from the plains, the nomadic from the sedentary, the jungle from the arable – in short, the tribal areas from the Assam proper’.

Kar continues ‘…what lay enclosed by the Inner Line was not only a territorial exterior of the theatre of capital – it was also a temporal outside of the historical pace of development and progress. Though encountered on the numerous plateaus of everyday life, the communities forced to stay beyond the Line were seen as belonging to a different time regime – where the time of the law did not apply; where slavery, headhunting, and nomadism could be allowed to exist. The Inner Line was expected to enact a sharp split between what were understood as the contending worlds of capital and the pre-capital, of the modern and the primitive. ’

Why then was it necessary at all for the British to draw this line if it was not to be the limits of its territorial possession? When the British took over Assam from the Ahoms, because there was never anything as a demarcated boundary, the outer limits of the Ahom kingdom was not certain, but the hills surrounding the Assam valley were, though loosely controlled fell within the Ahom domain through tributary relationships with the hill tribes, therefore the British presumed they had inherited them from the Ahoms.

It must be kept in mind, 1873 was the time tea gardens were expanding rapidly and speculators in tea were hungering for more land. Together with them, timber, rubber and coal merchants were entering Assam in a big way. These speculators invariably were routinely encroaching into the hills and thereby coming to be in friction with the hill tribes. The government was increasingly coming under pressure from these businesses, especially tea planters, to extend its administration into the hills and ‘getting it entangled in several legal disputes’.

The Inner Line finally happened because the government increasingly realized that because of its lack of control over the communication between the non-rent-paying populations and the speculators the government was losing out on substantial amount of revenue…’ Kar further surmises.

The administration however had a more sanitised version of its reason for deciding to draw the line as Gait notes: ‘The unrestricted intercourse which formerly existed between British subjects in Assam and the wild tribes living across the frontier frequently led to quarrels and sometimes, in serious disturbances… The opening of tea gardens beyond the border-line also at times involved the Government in troublesome disputes with the frontier tribes in their vicinity.’

One thing among others is clear. The need for the Inner Line became urgent because of the new economic activities that came along with the colonial administration driven as it was by revenue concerns. This should also make enquirers into this chapter of the history of the region curious as to what the relations between the hill tribes and the Ahom rulers were before the advent of the British colonial administration.

A growing volume of scholarship now exist on this subject driven especially by a renewed awakening of academic curiosity in hill-valley, Non-State-State relationship in the South East Asian massif, or Zomia, a notion already elucidated earlier in this chapter, and of which the Northeast is generally considered a part. The credit for this reawakened interest must go to Yale professor, James C. Scott, whose book, Art of Not Being Governed, has also already been mentioned earlier in this chapter.


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