The problem of viewing the nation as a container


By Pradip Phanjoubam

(The following paragraphs are another excerpt from the writers forthcoming book written as a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, IIAS.)

The prevalent tendency in the study of Northeast has been to look at the region as an island segregated from the rest of the world. Seldom have the region been looked upon as possibly a product of the larger environment within which it exists, which by the very nature of its political geography would transcend national boundaries. Often this outlook is determined by an inherent and possessive hubris of a national community wanting to see all territories and peoples within its political geography as essentially a part of the national organic being. Every part of India therefore must belong to the India story alone, or the Indian historical mainstream, and any other narrative which do not conform to this standard of national imagining, thereby, become deviant and alien, and must ultimately be brought into the mainstream. But the story of the Northeast cannot but be honestly told alongside those of the countries which straddle it on practically all sides. This then is the problem of the Northeast narrative at its essence, defined by a core contradiction between what is projected as the Indian national mainstream and the different streams that the region expectedly have always also belonged to.

The nation, as Peter J. Taylor once wrote, in this context becomes akin to a cultural container. Nothing spills outside it and conversely, nothing from outside spills into it. Any historical stream which tended not to fit perfectly into this container becomes a problem area. Furthermore, it is another characteristic of the State universally to be suspicious of these `deviant and non-mainstream`™ histories and peoples. The Indian State has been no exception. India`™s first home minister, Sadar Vallabhbhai Patel`™s letter of 7 November 1950, to the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru is just one alibi of this. In this letter, the leader reverentially referred to in India as the Iron Man, apart from showing deep political insights and understanding of the mind of India`™s northern neighbour China, also is unambiguous of an irredentist suspicion of the `non-mainstream`™ Northeast.

Patel`™s political foresight is remarkable in almost predicting the 1962 war with China at a time Nehru`™s India was befriending China and canvassing for bringing the country into the UN fold, making India the sole country outside of the Soviet bloc to do so. But in this 1950 letter he also cautions Nehru to be wary of the population of the Northeast, whose loyalty to India he says has always been suspect: `The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians.`™ Elsewhere, the statesman does acknowledge the cross border interrelatedness of histories, but this is seen as a matter for the nation to be wary of: `All along the Himalayas in the north and north-east, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of the potential trouble between China and ourselves.`™

Indeed, the conceptualisation of nation as a cultural container becomes extremely problematic in the context of a multi linguistic, multi ethnic, multi religion country like India. Especially in dealing with peripheral provinces such as the Northeast, an approximate 98 percent of whose physical boundary is international, there can be no other way of studying the place, its histories and peoples without doing so in consonance with the territories beyond these international borders. In any case, these boundaries are mid twentieth century phenomena, and stories earlier than the period will not have them at all. In many ways, whatever their biases informing their own views of the world, colonial historian who worked on maps bigger than the confines of national boundaries in many ways provided a clearer pictures of the pasts of these peripheral regions. Chroniclers of imperial history such as Alexander Mackenzie, Edward Gait and Robert Reid therefore remain indispensable in any serious study of the Northeast region.

In this chapter, which is a continuation of the previous chapter, I shall argue some more how an understanding of Tibet`™s history is important in coming to grip with the idea of the Northeast and the region`™s psychology. It should be interesting therefore, to explore and discover for instance how Imperial Russia`™s interest in Mongolia would have had an impact on the evolution of the idea of the Northeast. How Britain`™s zealous and over protective outlook towards its empire`™s frontiers in Afghanistan and Persia too would have had similar influences in the shaping of the Northeast. How the clash of interest between Russia and Britain in Tibet and their decision to agree to a treaty-bound mutual exclusion of each other from the region would ultimately leave the field clear for China`™s entry into Tibet. How this decision of the two powers in turn profoundly influenced the security environment of the Northeast, as well as introduced an element of uncertainty to the northern boundary of the region. How in summary, the Great Game, the name given to the undeclared territorial rivalry towards the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century between Britain and Russia, two great powers of the era, was a big factor in the making of the physical map as well as the psychological makeup of the Northeast. I shall also argue how the McMahon Line, with all its flaws and blemishes, is very much a product of this Great Game.

Great Game East:

Not many have tried to explore these connections. But of the few, at least one has gone even beyond to suggest the Great Game has a sequel. In Bertil Lintner`™s 2012 book `Great Game East`, the author argues that after the Great Game in Central Asia concluded in the early 20th century with the changes in power alliances in Europe post WWI, another one began unfolding in the South and South East Asia. This time the rivalry is for the control of Asia`™s most volatile frontier `“ the Indo-Burma region. This Great Game East is between the Western and Eastern Blocs began, and the Western Bloc`™s mission, at least in the beginning, was of combating the spread of Communism in the world. One of the chief protagonists in this conflict theatre, as elsewhere, understandably was the US which through its undercover agency, the CIA, ran operations supporting Tibetan resistance fighters even as the ultimate defeat of Chiang Kai-shek`™s Chinese nationalist party the Koumintang, KMT, at the hands of the Chinese Communists, became imminent towards 1949. Prior to the 1962 India-China war, when hostilities between India and China was still not open, this was done without the knowledge of India, and with the assistance of Sikkimese and Nepali sleuths. The operation headquarters were in East Pakistan and Nepal. After the 1962 war, India too became party to this game.

In reciprocation, China too in the 1970s and 80s, openly extended help to Northeast insurgents, beginning with the Nagas. But here too, the power alignments would shift in the years after the 1962 war. China would fall out with the USSR, the archrival of the US, even as India finds itself drifting closer to the USSR. Consequently, the US would warm up to China. Before 1962, while the battle line of the Cold War was clearly marked between the Western democracies and the world Communist movement, the equation was far more complex in South Asia. Immediately after WWII, the US under President Harry Truman and then more urgently under President Dwight David Eisenhower, began identifying China as a major threat and challenge for the West in its fight against the spread of Communism in Asia. The Americans first tried to fight the Communists in China through the Chaing Kai-shek`™s nationalist government. Chiang Kai-shek, a long time ally of the West, a nationalist who abhorred the Communists, and a devout Christian, fitted the bill well, especially during the Eisenhower era propaganda war, when the conflict was depicted as a fight between the Godless Communists world and God-fearing `free world`. The president, himself an orthodox Christian, even incorporated prominent evangelical leader of the time, Billy Graham, in his propaganda war against Communism. `The Eisenhower administration also `added the words `In God We Trust` to all US currency, and the phrase `Under God` to the Pledge of Alliance, thus distinguishing Americans from the Little Moscovites who were solemnly pledging to their hammer and sickle flag.`™ Truman, though also a devout Christian, unlike Eisenhower declared the thrust of his campaign was to prevent a Third World War. When Chiang Kai-shek`™s defeat at the hands of the Communists became imminent, America began looking to India for an ally. Both Truman and Eisenhower knew India`™s importance in this war, and thought as a democratic and religious country, it was a natural ally. The Prime Minister of India during the period, Jawaharlal Nehru, however remained unmoved, engrossed as he was in building up the Non-Aligned Movement, NAM, which he earnestly believed was the alternate world order. Nehru was not a Communist supporter, but he wanted to deal with Communism on his own terms, not as a foot soldier of America`™s war. As an agnostic liberal, he was also uneasy with America`™s crusade with an overly religious hue. When America tried to enlist India as an ally in the wake of North Korea`™s invasion of South Korea, Nehru only offered to be the mediator to bring the West to the negotiating table with the Communists, much to the annoyance of the Americans. Nehru`™s neutralism not only piqued the Americans, but it was also ultimately to drive them to lean towards Pakistan, when it became certain India would not be the anchor they needed so much in South Asia. This in turn would spiral, and India would begin leaning closer to the USSR, and indeed China. The 1962 India-China border war would therefore not only break Nehru`™s heart, but also cause a radical shift in the power alignment in the region and indeed the world. China would begin drifting from the USSR, and jumping at opportunity, the US would begin covertly wooing China.

It is also said the controversial 1970 book by British Australian journalist reporting for a British newspaper from India during the 1960s, Neville Maxwell, `India`™s China War`, which the then American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger openly praised, is also believed to have been one of the catalysts in this thaw in relation between the US and China. It is significant that Kissinger in 1970 and the then US President, Richard Nixon in 1971, made their historic visits to China flagging off a new era of power alliance, paving the way for China opening up to the Capitalist world. Maxwell`™s book, based almost solely on Indian sources, in particular the still classified Gen. Henderson Brooks-Brig. Prem Bhagat report 1963 on India`™s disastrous 1962 war with China which apparently was leaked to him, is generally considered as brilliantly written and researched book. Reviewers however have noted that he is too enthusiastic to agree with the Chinese views and equally enthusiastic to disagree with the Indian views. The book damns India as the aggressor and portrays China as the aggrieved in the 1962 war.


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