Nearly a quarter century ago, Sanjoy Hazarika enthralled the uninitiated with his book, Strangers in the Mist, encapsulating in one place hitherto unknown aspects of the seven states we collectively call the Northeast. It helped demystify the remote region for visiting journalists (who only concentrated on militancy and military presence in their reporting), occasional travellers and to an extent those in-charge of governance in Delhi.
Now, the author — journalist, activist, intermediary between governments and insurgent leaders — has penned a kind of follow-up to that book, trying to capture all that has changed in these intervening 25 years. In fact, the subheading of Strangers No More is “New Narratives from India’s northeast”.
Reading the book, however, one gets a feeling that Hazarika is trapped in the same old narrative that lays the blame for all that is wrong in the region at the doorstep of the Centre alone.
The book, more like reproduction of pages from Hazarika’s personal notebook, meanders from one unrelated topic to another with no central thread binding the chapters together. While his concern for the region, injustice meted out to its people and his deep insights into the complex mosaic of ethnicity is above reproach, Hazarika fails to highlight much that has changed in the northeast in the past two decades.
The region, physically isolated from the rest of the country for years because of poor connectivity, also suffered from victimhood, thanks to many of its social and political leaders who benefitted from exploiting the inherent insecurities among common citizens, has for the past two decades received all the assistance for its development and progress, sometimes in excess of the demand thanks to a deliberate decision to bridge the gap between others regions and the northeast.
Today, infrastructure development in the northeast is perhaps among the fastest in the country; many of its young men and women travel far and wide in search of higher education and greener pastures and make a mark through sheer talent and hard work; the violence levels in most states is down to the lowest in decades. And yet Hazarika has chosen not to speak about the changed circumstances except in passing. As someone who is from the region and has only good of the northeast at heart, I expected Hazarika to focus on the brighter side rather than the by-now familiar lament about the mistakes, the excesses and the neglect heaped by “outsiders” on the northeast. Admittedly, there much that remains to be done in the northeast but it certainly is better off than it was even at the turn of the century. Hazarika’s book, however, fails to gives us the complete picture perhaps because he is himself deeply immersed in its politics and development.
So he is on familiar ground when he writes in much detail about his own role as an intermediary between one of the oldest insurgent groups, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muivah) or NSCN (I-M) and the then government of PV Narasimha Rao and his stint as a member of a central government appointed panel to review the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958. His effort to get the NSCN (I-M) to the negotiating table is commendable and must be acknowledged as an important achievement. Hazarika is, however, dismayed, almost bitter, in not being able to get the AFSPA repealed despite the Jeevan Reddy committee (of which he was an important member) recommending it.
While I agree with the contention that in areas that have shown improvement, AFSPA should be withdrawn — with simultaneous pull-out of the Army which needs the legal protection of the law — it is difficult to envisage government of any persuasion to scrap the Act simply because no one can guarantee that its application will not be required in the future. After all, it is the only Act that gives the Army, the nation’s ultimate weapon to protect territorial integrity and sovereignty, the legal protection — and not impunity that Hazarika repeatedly mentions in the book.
Yes, there have been some regrettable excesses and atrocities committed by errant Army troops but the Indian Army’s overall human rights record and its restrained counter-insurgency, counter-terrorist operations are far better than any army in the world. Moreover, it must be remembered that the AFSPA has been scrutinised by the Supreme Court of India and held as valid. And it must not be forgotten that AFSPA gets implemented after state governments impose the Disturbed Areas Act. The conditions for imposing Disturbed Areas Act occur because matters have spun out of control of the local authorities and therefore the Army gets requisitioned. The politicians, social leaders and bureaucracy by implication fail to arrest the situation from deteriorating. And yet, Hazarika, attempts to pin the blame for most part on the Army and the AFSPA.
That said, my own understanding is that in many parts of the Northeast where peace has returned, the AFSPA must be lifted and responsibility of maintaining law and order must be entrusted to the respective state governments. Repealing the Act, however, is not an option any government can realistically exercise.
Overall, Strangers No More… may attract the uninitiated but the Northeast is no more a distant, strange land that it was when Hazarika wrote Strangers in the Mist in 1994, for those who are better informed about the region and care for its well-being.