The Need for Revisiting the Historical Writings on Northeast India

Whenever we come across names of cities like Delhi, Pune, Kolkata, Jaipur etc, numerous historical facts associated with these erstwhile imperial cities flash in front of our eyes. Delhi conjures up images of Prithviraj Chauhan, Pune boasts of the legacy of the mighty Marathas, Kolkata lays claim to the legacy of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda, and Jaipur bears testimony to the illustrious Kacchwaha Rajputs who are well known in history for their administrative acumen as well as architectural contributions. But what about the history of cities like Guwahati, Imphal or Kohima? Which figures, locales, or cultures truly define these cities of Northeast India? If one were to ask these questions to, say for example, an average Indian layperson, he will probably draw a blank. Even research scholars of history might not possess in-depth knowledge about the contribution of these aforementioned cities to the rich history of India, beyond, of course a few lines here and there that they might have come across as scattered references in our standard history text books. There has been a deafening silence of the Northeast in educational curricula across India’s syllabi, which is indeed a cause of concern.

Blinkered Historiography

For more than 60 years in the history of the independent Republic of India, the history/histories of 45 million of its citizens living in the states of the Northeast region of the country have been absent from our school, college and university text books. Northeast India is home to over 272 ethnic groups and communities. However, there is no collective writing, publication or inclusion of its varied histories in the syllabus or the text books of the country’s schools and universities. This ignorance or lack of awareness is one of the major causes of the wrong perception about people from the region.

Most Indian citizens are somewhat familiar with India’s ancient dynasties and kingdoms, its freedom fighters and perhaps even the modern conflicts which the country struggles with. But many a time, these faces and facts are rooted in India’s so called mainland states. India’s ‘peripheral’ regions rarely feature in mainstream Indian historical narratives. Consequently, the Northeastern states have been the victims of this steady isolation. In the process, the day-to-day triumphs and struggles of their residents have received little public attention across a larger section of Indian media and citizenry. Encouraging sustained discourse on the Northeast across the country needs to be started from the ground level. The current isolation of the Northeast and the poor public understanding of it can be largely attributed to an underwhelming academic curriculum; both, school and university textbooks have hitherto been generally silent on the region and its past. Better representation of the Northeast in historical curricula alongside India’s other local cultures could sharpen its focus in the eyes of students, government and all Indian citizens.

Since Independence, the standard Indian education system has secluded the histories of more than 45 million Northeastern citizens, who account for nearly 4% of India’s populations. To a layperson, the Northeast is nothing more than a handful of stereotypes of being home to insurgents, terror attacks, and AFSPA violations. Beyond these tropes lies a rich historical record displaying the cultural and political prowess of the Northeast which has been overshadowed by the legacies of imperial dynasties like the Mauryas, Guptas, Mughals etc. in our standard history textbooks.

The roots of this isolation date back to the British Raj. They had a clear-cut motive to isolate the Northeast for its own gains. Hence, an attempt was made to disturb major verifiable historical. As a matter of fact, a whole new government department, named Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies was created in the province of Assam in 1928, in order to write a history of Northeast India and a narrative was created wherein the hill communities of Northeast were dubbed as ‘uncivilised, savage’ by using powerful mediums like ethnographic accounts of people like J P Mills, Verrier Elwin, Haimendorf etc. They have been described as ‘primitive’ having no history at all.  This is far from the truth; verifiable historical evidence and artefacts available, spanning from coins of the 7th century AD to the modern era, refute such one-sided historiography.

Unfortunately (as has been the case with much of India’s standard history writings), colonial accounts of its past persisted post-Independence. During the first six decades following independence, various top ranked educationists serving as advisers to central governments from time to time, seem to have been suffering from colonial hangover and have made various authentic records/sources inaccessible to the larger academic circles of the country. Historians have shown less interest in Northeast India and the area has been hitherto looked upon as a ‘living anthropological museum’. The culture of the region has been looked upon as ‘exotic’ thereby virtually categorising the people of the region as possessing unique traits and heritage which is perceived as different from the rest of the country. Such representations of the region in media narratives as well as political circles have increasingly led to the marginalisation of north-eastern citizens, virtually categorising them as the ‘other.’

On should not forget the indelible role played by the North-eastern states in India’s freedom struggle, since as far back as the 19th century. The Battle of Imphal-Kohima during World War II greatly influenced the Indian freedom movement and galvanized mass public demonstrations, eventually inspiring the revolt of the Royal Indian Navy in 1946. Although voted as the ‘greatest British battle’ by the National Army Museum in London, Imphal-Kohima remains largely forgotten in India alongside scores of other movements and martyrs of Northeastern origin.

Such a selective reading of the past has widespread repercussions on current national ideals of diversity and development. While the concept of unity in diversity has definitely been able to create the idea of a nation, it has simultaneously led to the development of an identity crises amongst the alienated communities. In the recent past, the dissatisfaction with this ‘policy of neglect’ manifested itself in the form of secessionist movements in the northeast that have continuously been threatening the ‘unity’ of India”.

The lack of infrastructure, development and opportunities for the youth have resulted in a brain-drain from the Northeastern states into metropolitan cities. Apart from landing up in a new environment with stiff competition for education and jobs, citizens’ lack of awareness about the Northeast which stems from its historical exclusion often results in prejudiced and derogatory interactions, manifested in the form of racial discrimination and abuse perpetuated on the northeast people, especially in metropolitan cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, etc.

Winds of Change since 2014

In recent times, especially post-2014, the government led by Shri Narendra Modi, as well as educational authorities have become increasingly cognizant of redesigning educational curricula to account for the Northeast’s past and future. In 2017, the NCERT commissioned a supplementary reader titled North East India: People, History and Culture with the objective of inculcating interest amongst children. A word of caution needs to be made here though. Introducing such regions as being ‘separate’ from a larger Indian history only furthers innate biases amongst young learners and the general public. The history of northeast India should not be seen as something exotic or unique, but as a very normal/natural part of pan-Indian historical development. The whole idea perpetuated by some ignorant academicians that Northeast India is different from the rest of India is wrong and should never be the ‘starting line’ for deliberations on Northeast Indian history.”

Being a major stakeholder in the Centre’s ‘Act East Policy’ could aid the Northeast’s assimilation process. India is keen to consolidate its position as a major South-East Asian ally, and the Northeast is the key that connects this region to the Indian mainland. Consequently, the Cabinet under the current leadership has passed many schemes to promote industrial development and improve connectivity in the region — to the tune of almost 45,000 crore rupees. Over the past nine years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number and expansion of highways. The railways are reaching many more places, air connectivity has improved spectacularly. India’s booming services economy have enabled the North East’s super-talented young people to spread across the country to work. This has also brought about mental and emotional connectivity, furthered that feeling of national belonging, of Indianness or Bharatiyata. The Modi government has, meanwhile, done a commendable job in bringing old historic figures of the Northeast region, who not only fought the British but also resisted the marauding Islamic powers like the Delhi Sultanate, Mughals etc., to the national mainstream: Rani Gaidinliu (Naga), Kanaklata Barua (Assam), U Tirot Sing (Khasi), Bir Tikendrajit Singh (Meitei, Manipur), Raja Prithu (Kamarupa, Assam) and so on. Of course, Lachit Barphukan has now been elevated to a national icon, given that he fought and decimated the Mughals in the historic Battle of Saraighat, fought in 1671.

While official histories in India are typically malleable and controversial, at least they keep alive the debates and legacies surrounding different cultures and communities. The comprehensive neglect of the Northeast’s history for over 60 years is an anomaly in this regard. It has silenced an entire region, leaving behind fractured social relations and impressions across past and future generations. A holistic perspective to understanding the history of India, cutting across historical epochs, is the need of the hour. More and more primary sources and oral histories need to be unearthed in order to give voices to these marginalised and silenced voices of Northeastern India. Seminars and conferences on the historical themes related to the northeast region need to be organised every now and then. Young research scholars, particularly from the north eastern states should be encouraged to present papers on the relevant themes, based on original historical sources. If the nation is to show for its steadfast claims of integrating its ‘peripheral’ territories, honest efforts must be directed towards including the region, its peoples, cultures and histories into its structural fabric. In this context, India’s educational curriculum is a vital place to start off at.

The writer is a Senior Research Fellow with the Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation. Views expressed are strictly personal.