The absurdities of governance

By Nitin Sethi
Published: Friday 15 April 2005

-- Durable Disorder, Understanding the Politics of Northeast India New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2005 p265 Rs 495

In November 2004, Makiko Kimura, a post-doctoral student from Japan was banned by the Assam government from making a presentation in Guwahati on the 1983 Nellie massacre in Assam -- the carnage had claimed 1,800 Muslim lives. The lecture had been organised by one Sanjib Baruah, director of the newly set up Centre for North-East India South-East Asia Studies (ceniseas). The Centre had come up as part of the well-known Omeo Kumar Das Institute for Social Change (okdisc, a government body). In a state where physical violence is more talked of, the cultural repression hit ceniseas hard. It is now winding up. Baruah has left Guwahati, a grieving father of a baby that had died a pre-mature death. He is now professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York, usa.

Why did the Assam government (and some say even interests in okdisc) block the lecture? Some critics say it was because the lecture threatened to ask awkward questions -- after all, it was Baruah's brainchild and this social scientist has had a proclivity to embarrass authorities. If one goes by Baruah's new book, Durable Disorder, the critics may have been right. It hits hard and re-examines 'the northeast' like few would dare to.

The book is a compilation of this social scientist's writings published earlier, mostly as articles in journals and magazines. Specially revised for this volume, the articles make a coherent case for questioning the idea of a nation having a 'policy' for a part of itself.

Flawed nationalisation Chapter four of the book is especially striking for the range of ideas Baruah pulls in to explain the historicity of the nationalisation project. The article shows how the land tenure in Assam was devastated during colonial rule. The British converted annual lease system that had prevailed till late 19th century into a ten-year lease system. This was done to introduce permanent cultivation in large tracts, including tea estates. The new system ignored all other non-agricultural uses of the land. It's common knowledge that it has landed Assam in a mess, with the government struggling to manage the numerous gardens that have failed.

And this is not all. The same processes are now replicated by the s tate in Arunachal Pradesh as well as Mizoram. Settlement of rights and promotion of settled agriculture is looked upon as the way ahead. The s tate persists with its hackneyed reasoning: settled agriculture eases bureaucratic work besides bringing in 'development'.

Surely all this is well reported and documented one may ask? Yes it is, in vernacular as well as in English. But where Baruah makes a mark -- at least for readers not familiar with the northeast -- is in contexualising information and using them to ask provocative questions. The security wallahs might find it easy to belittle the book as a set of ideas and not a corpus of achievable tangible targets. But aren't we glad that someone is looking at social processes at last rather than going ga-ga over false 'achievements'?

Baruah does not pull his punches when he questions the consequences of the Border Road Organisation's roads in Arunachal or the army general's post-retirement role as a patronising governor. He also doesn't fight shy of talking of the parallel economy run by insurgent groups in some regions of the northeast. Each example re-examines the role of the all-pervading idea of the nation-state and how hard boundaries affect people in the region. He shows the fallacy of trying to solve the problems of one region in the northeast while ignoring difficulties in the other.

This is path breaking. For, much social science research on the northeast has stagnated into trite discourses on ethnicity. This suits the s tate: it keeps uncomfortable questions at bay. Baruah's book is all about unleashing a few more questions about the northeast, as much for the people of the region as well as for those who have a prescription ready even before they can diagnose the situation. Durable Disorder is creditable in not coaxing the reader to empathise with the region -- a norm many books on conflict areas follow. It instead demands that we understand the northeast's complexities and the absurdities of governance. And, undoubtedly it does a good job of it.

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