Beyond the Siliguri Corrido, the so-called chicken neck of Indian territory that runs between Bangladhesh and Nepal, lies an India very different from that of common preconceptions. This is an area surrounded by Tibet, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, hemmed in by the Himalaya. As Samrat Choudhury writes in the introduction to his new book, Northeast India: A Political History, “the Northeast is a protuberance that hangs on to the rest of the country by a slender thread, barely 21 kilometres wide at its narrowest point.” What follows is an attempt to shape a political history of a region that has seen mass political turmoil while ongoing debates rage around ideas of ethnic, political and cultural identity.
While the eight states that make up the region share many similarities regarding their often-turbulent relationship with the Indian government, they are all highly diverse and unique. As Choudhury openly admits, it is far too diverse a region to provide a comprehensive overview of all factors and themes related to northeast Indian politics. Rather, Choudhury writes, his aim was to write “a readable narrative account guided by the two eyes of history, geography and chronology” and to provide an “accessible introduction to the political history of Northeast India.”
Two introductory chapters provide an overview of the northeast’s somewhat unique journey to become part of the Indian state. Choudhury writes “The Northeast as it exists now is … more of an administrative construct rather than a historical region with a shared past.” He provides a brief background of the ancient northeast, then moves onto general overview of the political history of the last 200 years or so. Choudhury subsequently provides a chapter on each state, giving a flavor of the major themes and political events in each state’s recent political history.
The history of the northeast is not one limited to just India, but also to modern-day Myanmar, Bangladesh and China, and these linkages are all explored. Choudhury provides numerous examples, such as Burmese forces invading Assam in the early 19th century to restore King Chandrakanta Singha to his throne and how the Burmese would go on to conquer Assam three times. He details how these attacks led to the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. Not only did the end of the Anglo-Burman war in 1826, see the first tracts of Burmese territory colonized by British forces, but the resulting Treaty of Yandabo also saw large parts of northeastern India colonized as well.
The northeast’s political environs were also shaped by trends within the UK. Choudhury details how the growth of tea consumption impacted imperial design, as Britain was spending so much money on Chinese tea, an alternative viable source was greatly designed. Assam had just that. The discovery of tea in Assam, which had until then not been found outside China, was huge. The birth of the northeast’s tea industry was hugely important to East India Company’s coffers, but also came to be a huge domestic employer and remains a vitally important industry to this day.
Other impacts of colonialism are explained at length, for example, debates between the colonial administration and eager missionaries also played out in the region. Choudhury details arguments between colonial offices who wanted to leave traditional practices as they were, to maintain the support of local chiefs, compared to the missionaries who saw themselves as agents of change and wanted to bring in societal reform, along with mass adoption of Christianity and education, to propagate the spread of Christianity. Colonial officers alongside missionaries also introduced the written script to previously oral cultures, yet other changes were not so popular. British attempts to outlaw local home production of opium in favor of government production and supply came against much unrest culminating in a revolt against British rule, which was forcibly quashed in December 1893.
Since Independence the northeast has seen numerous insurgencies fighting for independence, protest movements and political discontent, all related in some way to their political and cultural differences from the rest of India and to a desire for autonomy from rule by New Delhi. These issues are rooted in history. Importantly them, Choudhury shows the direct links between the northeast’s historical past and modern political strife. For example, as the Raj struggled to fill the labor gap in Assam, it strove to attract migrant labor to the state, descendants of these migrant laborers, most of whom were from modern-day West Bengal and Bangladesh, now face rampant discrimination and islamophobia and are cast as “illegal immigrants”. Yet the book is far from limited to a political history of the East India Company and the Raj but also includes a highly detailed analysis of contemporary northeastern political history. The background to the Tawang territorial dispute in Arunachal Pradesh is well explained as is the story of Sikkim’s controversial accession to India in 1975. Choudhury provides an illuminating background as to why so many in the northeast have a troubled and strained relationship with the Indian government, not to mention its armed forces.
So often the history of the NE is characterized by cliches of tea, tribes and missionaries; Choudhury goes much further than these worn-out tropes and provides a far richer and more detailed portrayal. He explains how individuals in the northeast sense of Indian identities are managed when China, Myanmar or Bangladesh lie far closer than Delhi.
This is a well-written, detailed yet engaging history of northeast India and touches on all the major key themes that have shaped the region. It serves as a strong introduction to major themes and history of each individual state, as well as overarching themes that permeate the states as a collective and sets the scene for a modern understanding of the northeast’s political divisions and bitter acrimony.