North-east and the problem of forgetting and healing

For many pre-modern societies, the mainstreaming process of history itself has been a cause for such traumas.

Published: 25th August 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th August 2019 01:16 PM   |  A+A-


For representational purposes (Photo | PTI)

Pradip Phanjoubam
Senior journalist and author of The North-east Question: Conflicts and Frontiers Email:

In one of his most quotable quotes, nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”. How very significant this trite bit of wisdom is, especially for those societies which have traumatic memories to resolve and forget. Difficult as it may be for these societies mourning and longing for what they feel they have lost, there are few other ways than to leave the past behind and move on. It is also true that this is easier said than done.

For many pre-modern societies, the mainstreaming process of history itself has been a cause for such traumas. For many it has often meant complete and abrupt abandonment of their traditional ways of life, beliefs and sense of community—a complete switch, often enforced, of traditionally-held primordial worldviews.

From this vantage point, history has not always been kind to the north-east region of India. To briefly rerun this history, it tells of a traditional world abruptly finding itself confronting British colonial administration after the Treaty of Yandabo, 1826, which ended a very violent period of Burmese occupation of Assam and Manipur. Assam, then under the British, was almost the entire north-east of today with the exception of Manipur and Tripura. Assam was annexed and made a province of Bengal, but Manipur and Tripura were left as protectorates, though with a purpose in the British colonial scheme of things. 

The British then evolved an ingenious mechanism to administer the region, demarcating it broadly into ‘administered areas’ consisting largely of the fertile productive plains, much of which were already under organised centralised bureaucracies of feudal states, and ‘un-administered areas’ of wild, sparsely-populated mountainous territories beyond the plains where tribes untouched by modern ways lived.

In 1873, the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation was introduced to draw an ‘Inner Line’, to demarcate the two regions. The very next year, 1874, conceding demands by a growing Assamese middle class, Assam was separated from Bengal to become a chief commissioner’s province. The rise of Assamese linguistic nationalism is engaging, but another story.

The Inner Line was the British administration’s answer to tackling non-state spaces they encountered in the north-east. Although these territories beyond the line were claimed as British possessions, they were not administered, except for occasional punitive military expeditions to demonstrate British authority to rebellious tribes for making raids on British subject villages in the foothills. Protectorate states like Manipur were used in the control of these non-state spaces.

The Government of India Act, 1919 classified the territories beyond the Inner Line as ‘Excluded Areas’ and they were left out of the provincial legislature introduced by the Act. They were instead kept under the charge of the governor of the province. The Government of India Act, 1935 reclassified some parts of the ‘Excluded Areas’ as ‘Partially Excluded Areas’. These were given some representation in the provincial legislature, but by nomination of the governor and not election. This administrative structure is what India inherited in 1947.

Much of the vexed politics of identity in the north-east today is predicated by this past and bear close resemblance to the frictions within what Willem Schendel called ‘Zomia’ and James Scott elaborated in his influential book, Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland South East Asia. Zomia corresponds with the wild mountainous massif of South East Asia inhabited by once primitive tribes, interspersed by fertile valleys where agricultural surpluses led to the emergence of ‘Paddy States’. 

In modern times, when the ‘non-state-bearing’ populations of Zomia awoke to state consciousness, they found themselves already part of other states. This is at the crux of most of the endemic identity entangles in the region. In the cases of principalities which were states already, the circumstances of the merger with India are often the sore point.

The question is, how much of this past must the north-east bid adieu to so its road to the future is unfettered. Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia provides some insights. In Mourning, the mourner does not allow the space between him and his loss to collapse. The commitment is, while not forsaking the memory of the dead, the living must move on. Melancholia, on the other hand, becomes a narcissistic engagement in which the mourner begins to take perverse pleasure in the fact of his mourning, thereby perpetuating the grieving. The second is often where the north-east is.

As August nears a close, another of Manipur’s traumatic experiences in its recent history is worth recalling.For this former princely state, September is a cruel month for many reaons. September 13 is observed as Black Day by Kukis, commemorating those of the community killed in the Naga-Kuki clashes in the 1990s. September 21 is a bandh day enforced by Meitei rebel groups to protest the signing of the Merger Agreement with the Indian Union in 1949 by Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh under house arrest at Shillong during a visit.

This agreement came into force on October 15, and Manipur became a part of India, but only as a Part-C state, in effect rubbing salt into a wound. As September approaches again, the question in Manipur is, must these remembrances continue to be about opening up old wounds to bleed further or should they be about mourning to come to terms with the losses and then look to future challenges and prospects?

In this onerous task of sublimating collective past traumas, the calibre of politics in the hands of a characteristically dishonest, law-manipulating political leadership has not helped. The current BJP government in the state, for instance, returned only 21 seats in the 60-member Assembly in March 2017, but wrested power with the help of Congress defectors. One and a half years later, one of the defectors is a cabinet minister and another seven sit in the opposition benches but vote with the treasury. Yet the 10th Schedule, which requires such defectors to seek fresh mandates, has not been invoked yet. Such brazen disregard of rule of law at the very top expectedly has only embittered rather than restored the faith of the people in the system.

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