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BOOK REVIEW|’In the Name of the Nation’ :Sanjib Baruah’s wonderful new book on Northeast India


With the recent turmoil in India’s Northeast overshadowed by the corona pandemic , it is time to ponder over what shape the CAA-NRC conundrum will take in Assam and the rest of the country once the virus has been handled and other latent fissures reopen and how the success or failure of the Naga peace process will impact the region and the nation.

Sanjib Baruah’s new book, ‘In the Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast’ (published by Stanford University Press) seems to have hit the market at just about the right time — just when the nationwide lockdown has given more time to all  to read and think.

But it is priced too high for the Indian market (Amazon is offering it at Rs 2234) and Stanford University Press would need to tie up soon with an Indian publisher to provide a cheaper Indian edition. In the current scenario, where readers are forced to go digital, it is too much to expect that even those seriously interested in Northeast will get SUP to ship the book from US.  Baruah’s publishers may have to provide an online Indian or South Asian version priced at one-fourth or one-third the US price , if they want wider readership for the book where it matters — India and its Northeast and the neighborhood.

Only then can such a wonderfully written and well argued book makes sense to India and its people who grapple with the riddle called ‘Northeast’.

Baruah stands out as a shining academic star because he is from the Northeast (Assam to be precise) but has the benefit to look at the region from a distance (he teaches in New York).

So, in a way, he is both an insider and an outsider, capable of feeling his way through the region’s many faultlines but also able to place it in a larger national- and regional-perspective.

The tragedy is that this outstanding scholar, who had come back from US to set up a research outfit CENISEAS within the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development , could not survive the ‘academic politics’ of Guwahati and had to return to Bard College in New York where he has been teaching for a long time. 

But even during his short tenure in Guwahati, Baruah not only brought together a wide array of scholars ( who wrote wonderful research papers for CENISEAS) and organized thought-provoking seminars (sans the ceremoniality of ghamochas and chakis) but also nurtured a new generation of bright scholars who have done excellent work and impacted the academic discourse on Northeast in a profound way. 

One could only wish that Sanjib Baruah is brought back to Northeast (Guwahati or Shillong) to set up a world class social science research institute with adequate funding – and some of his proteges also make their way back to help create a great research environment unaffected by the intense conflicts raging in the region. 

Because any process of conflict resolution can only work if the understanding of the problem(s) is unbiased and clear and the academic researchers can actually provide the government with policy papers that come up with workable solutions of vexed problems. 

Since the new citizenship regime that the BJP is seeking to put in place has created a volatile situation in India’s Northeast, Baruah’s book will be a welcome read for anyone interested in understanding the enormous complexities of society and politics in the far frontier region.

For Indians, it provides a rich understanding to the ‘troubled periphery’ of the country which Baruah had, in a previous book, described from a ‘durable disorder’ syndrome.

A very brief excerpt from Baruah’s book, provided below, will provide the background that will make clear why the BJP’s new citizenship regime has run into considerable opposition in Northeast, specially in Assam.

It is important for India’s present rulers to avoid seeing the whole nation and its complex dynamics, especially in a unusually complicated and diverse region like the Northeast, through the religious Hindu-Muslim binary.

The book is a must for all who want to have a better understanding of Northeast – but Baruah must get his American publisher to tie up with an Indian publisher so that his countrymen can buy a cheaper Indian edition.

 Excerpts from ‘In the name of the Nation: India and its Northeast

 That Partition generated a massive new flow of Hindus into India is well known. What is less well-known — and contrary to the expectations of the architects of Partition — is that it did not stop an old pattern of migration from densely populated deltaic eastern Bengal into relatively sparsely populated Northeast India: that of poor Muslim peasants in search of land and livelihoods.

The legal status of migrants from across the border remains a controversial issue in India… Hindu Partition refugees do not generally occupy a minoritized space in most parts of India. It is relatively easy for them to integrate into local society… But in Northeast India, the challenge has played out very differently for two reasons. First, both migration from eastern Bengal and opposition to it in this settlement frontier began well before 1947.

Second, there is the “forgotten story of India’s Partition” — that of the district of Sylhet. This region — a part of Bangladesh today — was a district of the province of Assam before it became a part of East Pakistan in 1947. The status of this Bengali-speaking region was a controversial issue in the politics of colonial Assam.

Assamese Hindu political leaders of the Indian National Congress advocated its separation from Assam well before Partition. In some Sylheti Hindu Partition refugee narratives, they bear more responsibility for Sylhet becoming a part of Pakistan than even Muslim League politicians that fought for a separate Pakistan.

A significant segment of Northeast India’s population bears the burden of the inter-generational trauma and memories of the partitioned geography of Sylhet. Not surprisingly, there is among them a very different view of this history — and its implications for post-Partition India — from that in the rest of Northeast India.”

It is not usual for works of non-fiction to have heroes and heroines. But Baruah almost treat Irom Sharmila as one. There are other unexpected heroes too as you will see in his conclusion. Interestingly, Baruah’s admiration for Irom Sharmila is expressed in a  new language — “acts of citizenship.”

As  he says in page 176: “The ability to imagine a more democratic future for India enabled Irom Sharmila to engage in her remarkable act of citizenship. Unlike ordinary practices of citizenship, such as voting or paying taxes, such acts of citizenship have historically expanded the horizons of citizenship all over the world.” 

Baruah admitted to this writer in a chat that he has  come to admire her visceral dislike for AFSPA – what he describes as her “politics of situated knowledge and her situated democratic imagination” (p 185).

In other words,  Baruah is trying to rescue the spirit of democracy from the hands of India’s  political elites.  I cannot agree more — the future of democracy lies in the messy politics of protest and resistance.

A lot of thinking and reading has gone into the brief discussion in page 190:  “if the democratic idea has commanded extraordinary moral force in the recent history of the world, it is not because of the appeal of democracy as a regime type but of democracy as a political ideal–“the best human weapon ever invented for humbling power.” 

As a result, Baruah have a very different take on Irom Sharmila’s electoral defeat than the conventional one (in page 184-186).

It will be unfair to spell out what is in the book — please read it to find out. 

Courtesy – NeNow

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