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Tantalisingly Intertwined and Complex

The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East by Sudeep Chakravarti, Simon and Schuster India, 2022; pp 399, `899.

The Mirror Has Many SidesFor some time, many of us have been looking forward with anticipation to the latest book by Sudeep Chakravarti on the North East, The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East. The book essentially focuses on the complex politics and political games in Nagaland and Assam, with a deep dive into the vortex of ethnic and insurgency politics in these states with glimpses of it in Assam and Tripura. I was fascinated by the title because it reminded me of my first book on the region, Strangers of the Mist, Tales of War and Peace from India’s North East, published 28 years earlier. The title for the blurb on the inside flap also appears to be a play on John le Carre’s bestselling novel on espionage and the Cold War, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Here it is “Traders, Pushers, Soldiers, Spies.”

Chakravarti has written some outstanding books on insurgency, culture and history—these include Red Sun: Travels through Naxalite CountryHighway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land; and The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community. Of these, I regarded Highway 39 as one of his most engaging work as it tells many stories of conflict, tragedy, and oppor­tunity and opportunism built around a road that ploughs through the states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, connecting governments and rebels, people, and contesting ideas. He refers to his conversations for that book and meets some of the protagonists of those stories again, as do many of us when we go back to learn about change and continuity, minor and epochal transitions in society, systems and individuals, as new priorities, new politics, new ideas and new work emerge. It is a time-tested way of undergirding, understanding, and affirming both the micro and the macro picture.

In his new book which sprawls over nearly 400 pages, Chakravarti employs a mix of deeply personalised narratives as well as brusque, staccato reporter’s notebooks, with numerous interludes (that is what he calls them, placing experiences and stories, framed in boxes) between chapters.

An Ideological Construct

What is fascinating is of course the idea of the Eastern gate, the main title, which is an ideological construct. What does this mean for Manipur, where it took birth? How does this play into the fertile cauldron of conflicting reflections and anxieties that bubble in Manipur almost every day and the deeply sensitive and remarkably creative Manipuri people, both the Meiteis of the plains and the Nagas, Kukis, and other ethnic groups of the hills?

The Eastern Gate is an ideological concept which has emerged in Manipuri consciousness over some time. Some years ago, the scholar Vijaylakshmi Brara drew my attention to an ancient saying but as a way of looking at the then Look East Policy (now Act)—that prosperity and peace would come from renewed connectivity to South East Asia where many communities of the North East trace their roots. But would it also mean that the Western gate to the rest of India would remain open or not?

As of now, with the Myanmar situation being acutely conflicted and the infrastructure boom on the Indian side, the Western gate remains very much open. The highways to enable the movement of goods, services, and people across Myanmar to South East Asia which were celebrated with fanfare a decade ago are virtually closed. There is little hope of the Eastern gate reviving until Myanmar’s conditions improve. Without safe and smooth access through Myanmar, the North East will increasingly have to turn to its bête noire, Bangladesh, to break free of its landlocked status. This has already begun to happen, albeit in a modest way with the first shipload of goods coming from Patna to Guwahati via Bangladesh. Yet, this took an extra­ordinarily long route—via the Bay of Bengal as the Farraka Barrage on the Ganga means that navigation is not possible. The lack of foresight of policy planners often creates new problems even as they seek to resolve the existing ones.

Compelling Stories and Details

The Eastern Gate is divided into three books with 42 chapters. A motley range of characters including politicians, drug addicts and dealers, insurgent leaders as well as government negotiators and spooks saunter across its pages. A few figures dominate the narrative, including R N Ravi, the former government interlocutor with the premier Naga insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) (Isak-Muivah [I-M]), and who later became the governor of the state. Ravi went on to challenge both the I-M supremo Thuingaleng Muivah and the state chief minister far too bluntly for the liking of powers there and in Delhi. In a letter to Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, Ravi basically accused his government of doing nothing to tackle the “armed gangs”—his description for the rebel group which was extorting at will. “The scenario in the State is grim. The law and order has collapsed” (p 360).

Ravi paid for his outspokenness and his belief that Delhi would unfailingly support him. He was removed from both positions and sent to Tamil Nadu to occupy the Raj Bhavan there. Muivah, ageing and ailing, has held out against no less than four interlocutors and six prime ministers. Rio remains firmly ensconced as chief minister. The Framework Agreement that was brokered with much fanfare in 2015 is still to fructify.

The author details some of the wealth of the NSCN (I-M) and its members as well as the break-up of its taxes and budget outlay. Details of Naga state officials arrested for funnelling funds to the underground throws fascinating light on their operation style but one wishes that there was more on how this, in turn, translates into the unaccounted wealth of ministers, politicians, and rebel leaders (who live in splendid non-isolation in large palatial bungalows in Dimapur). Many of them are believed to have acquired extensive properties across the North East and the country, including in tony neighbourhoods in New Delhi.

Chakravati is at his sparkling best when he tells compelling stories that he personally witnessed. These crackle off the book’s pages like automatic gunfire—relentless and smooth. To cite a few,

T, the glassy-eyed arms dealer, who is high on meth and mirth, offers Berettas, Glocks, Brownings and Smith and Wesson and even assault rifles.

The old Naga general who tests an emptied Walther and warns that Manipur will fall apart if the Nagas do not get their homeland. A visit to a drug dealer’s den.

Chats with police officers and intelligence officials where he has come to drink their liquor and pick their brains.

The visit to the Unified NGO Mission in Manipur.

Among the most powerful are the one and a half pages on Vidyarani (p 169), “same age as my daughter” where she does not speak at an interview and runs out because she wants to throw up. The child had been picked up by the police and kept in illegal custody because “the state is upset with her parents.” The note quotes a social welfare worker saying that the girl worries that if she speaks “the truth something bad will happen to her parents.”

A Challenging Read

However, the notes and diary jottings, though interesting overall, can also be frustratingly brusque at other times, making a complicated story even more complex. Matters are not helped when these italicised jottings are at times disconnected to the larger narrative or the succeeding chapter. Chakravarti tries to put together the differences, challenges and convoluted internal rivalries and jousting within governments (both state and union) as well as conflicting armed groups in a single narrative. This is a daunting task for any author—and The Eastern Gate becomes a challenging read, as it marshals detailed facts in many intertwined narratives that jump from incident to incident and move between processes and time lines.

One wishes that the editors had worked closely with the author to enable a free flow of this important narrative especially since the numerous interludes, reporter’s notes, and granular approach to detail can lose a reader. For example, referring to the killing of an Arunachal Pradesh member of Parliament with 10 others in a guerrilla ambush in 2019, Chakravarti writes:

In contrast, media in Nagaland was careful not to tag any particular faction of NSCN, papering over the incident with a general reference to “NSCN.” Besides K and I-M, at the time of the killings, there was also the Reformation or R faction, and the NK or Neopao Kanyak-Kiovi Zhimomi faction—the latter two also in peace talks with the government. Moreover, as we have read, internal dissent led to the K’s faction’s post-Khaplang chief Khango Konyak being removed by a coup in 2018, and his place claimed by Yung Aung, a nephew of S S Khaplang, the original K in the faction’s name—and who died in 2017. After his ouster Khango Konyak moved to India with loyal cadres and sued for peace as the faction NSCN (K-Khango). (p 272)

One would also urge the addition of a separate glossary of organisations.

There is need for attention to details which may appear minor—Phizo’s niece was Rano Shaiza; she did not use the family name of Iralu after her marriage.1, 2 The issue of migration in and to Assam is lightly treated (it could have been easily left out or referenced in the introduction). So too the questions of the sensitive Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens. Much attention is given to articles in Economic & Political Weekly of 1960 relating to Assamese–­Bengali riots and the reporter’s notes which are extensive elsewhere in the book are missing in this chapter. The first page (306) of that chapter refers to “tens of thousands” of Bengali Hindus fleeing from the then East Pakistan in anti-Hindu riots and also of “tens of thousands” of “Garos, Khasis and Hajongs.” Some figures would have been useful as it would help place the CAA issue in perspective. The author appears to have drawn upon his earlier book, The Bengalis, for this segment.

AFSPA

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) has a place in The Eastern Gate. Most interesting is an account of former army chief General Bipin Rawat’s outburst at his officers for signing a petition to the Supreme Court opposing the act’s dilution. In December 2021, news broke out of the massacre at Oting. In a botched operation, a special army unit fired at and killed several Naga miners returning home, thinking they were an insurgent group. No warning was given and the special operating procedure was violated according to the Nagaland director general of police. That incident led to fresh calls for the act’s repeal.

After a few months, the Indian government moved adroitly. I was in Assam when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on 28 April that New Delhi was removing the AFSPA from most parts of Assam, parts of Nagaland (for the first time since it was first imposed there in 1958) and more police station jurisdictions in Manipur. The latter was in addition to all Imphal municipal areas from where it was lifted in 2004. The AFSPA is not being repealed but has been technically put in abeyance in these places which could no longer be defined as “disturbed areas.” The latter description enabled the use of the act. It was a move that would meet the concerns of both the armed forces and civil society groups.

One cannot blame a reader or an observer for being perplexed at this tortuously complex situation. The Eastern Gate has placed a mirror to this incredibly convoluted and difficult scenario, reflecting the multiple challenges facing the state, the region, its communities, politics, and internal conflicts. Indeed, there are several books compressed in Chakravarti’s book which turns up in the manner of a smorgasbord with many items on display, all tantalising and sometimes quite confusing, which is understandable, given that the mirror has many sides.

Notes

Rano was married to Lungshim Shaiza and became the first woman member of Parliament elected to the Lok Sabha from Nagaland. Her husband who was killed by Naga militants at an election rally in Manipur and was the brother of the former chief minister of that unfortunate state, Yangmasho Shaiza who was assassinated at his private home; the Shaiza and Phizo families have suffered grievously through this entire situation. These are books in their own right for they tell many compelling, gut-wrenching stories of blood and tears.

2 Muivah has acknowledged in interviews to the human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar and her husband Sebastian Hongray of the I-M’s “hand in the killing of Yangmaso Shaiza, the former chief minister of Manipur, his brother Lungshim Shaiza as well as several attempts made on the life of Rishang Keishing, another former chief minister” (Haksar and Hongray 2019).

Reference

Haksar, Nandita and Sebastain M Hongray (2019): Kuknalim, Naga Armed Resistance: Testimonies of Leaders, Pastors, Healers and Soldiers, New Delhi: Speaking Tiger.

 

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Updated On : 17th Jul, 2022
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