The land that time forgot?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 May, 2004, 12:00am

Much has been written of India's lingering cultural footprint in Southeast Asia. But the current elections, as the world's largest democracy with 675 million voters seeks to renew itself, are a reminder that the Mongoloid races are also a vibrant, if unsuspected, presence in the eight states of northeastern India bounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Tibet and Myanmar.

South and Southeast Asia meet here. Recent joint exercises with American troops highlighted the region's geostrategic importance. If the northeast moves into the 21st century, it could play a dynamic part in India's proposed road, rail and trading links with China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

What holds it back is the philosophy of a British anthropologist and missionary, Verrier Elwin, who advised India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, that tribal areas should be frozen in time as an idyllic homeland free from contaminating modern influence. But isolation led to turmoil. Unable to identify with India, some tribes looked elsewhere. Rebel Mizos found sanctuary in erstwhile east Pakistan. Manipuri guerillas slipped in and out of Myanmar. Secessionist Nagas sought arms and training in China. These movements brought in the Indian army, adding to the ferment.

Some of the 40 million people who live in this triangle of hill and jungle still feel ethnically and emotionally cut off from the Indian mainstream. The first phase on April 20 of a staggered election in 142 out of 543 parliamentary constituencies was, therefore, marked by violence as secessionists tried to prevent people voting in Manipur and Tripura. I was told that in nearby Meghalaya some constituencies were infested with guerilla fighters and others with wild elephants, nobody being sure which were more dangerous.

The Mon-Khmer language of Meghalaya's Khasi and Jaintia tribes suggests Cambodian roots. The Ahoms, who ruled Assam for 700 years, call themselves Tai. Sikkim's Bhutiyas are Khampa Tibetans. Most other groups are Tibeto-Burmans from the Shan states, southern China or Mongolia.

Outsiders are not allowed to buy land or settle in these areas. But thousands of illegal Nepalese and Bangladeshi immigrants have fanned out across the region. Western Indian traders control commerce. Local politicians pay lip service to New Delhi and line their pockets with development funds.

In spite of the bloodshed, secession is less a serious option than a bargaining counter. Although their 26 MPs cannot make much difference to the national power equation - only one, a former parliamentary speaker, is known outside the region - northeasterners see the election as an occasion to renegotiate terms. India's market economy, TV channels and Bollywood's appeal have forged links at the popular level. Elwin would have been horrified at the drinking dens, discos and dingy cybercafes that enthral Rousseau's Noble Savage.

Exploitation and vulgarisation will continue if the tribes are treated like an endangered species in a reservation. India is opening up to the world. The final voting on May 10 will follow yesterday's second phase of the elections in 83 constituencies. But no matter who wins, when the outcome is announced on May 13, this 14th general election can only further the economic liberalisation that Congress initiated in 1991 and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party adopted with gusto. Even Indian Marxists agree on reform.

The post-election government should remember that globalisation cannot exclude only the Mongoloid northeast.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author