Learning about the Northeast, learning from the Northeast

Samrat Choudhury offers the first comprehensive – and highly readable – political history of the region

GN Bureau | August 7, 2023

#politics   #history   #nationalism   #Northeast  
A scene from the Tuluni festival, held in Nagaland on July 8 this year (Image courtesy: tourism.nagaland.gov.in)
A scene from the Tuluni festival, held in Nagaland on July 8 this year (Image courtesy: tourism.nagaland.gov.in)

Northeast India: A Political History
By Samrat Choudhury
HarperCollins | 432 pp | Rs 699

Around the time of the golden jubilee of India’s independence, in 1997, there began a series of books on the history and culture of the country. It was only in the last decade or so that the scene opened up, beginning with books centred on specific cities. In the recent years, the trend has turned to states/regions. ‘Northeast India: A Political History’ by Samrat Choudhury is the latest, and among the more readable ones in this category.

Though the Northeast rarely makes news in the ‘mainland India’, for the past three months it has been. And a large section of people who otherwise readily explain the why and the how of every political controversy is somewhat confused. Unfortunately, to most people – and we are talking of readers of newspapers and the like, the region on the other side of the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ is a vague, amorphous entity. Some will be able to name the seven (or is it eight?) states, a few of them will be able to name the capital of each of them as well. Only UPSC types and experts can say anything further.

That may be a bit of a caricature, but Choudhury’s new work indeed fills a gap and offers interested readers a thorough introduction to the region.

“The book I’ve written is one I had long looked for as a reader: a simple overview of the history of Northeast India,” the author says in a statement. “There were none, and with good reason. This area is incredibly diverse and complex, different communities often have clashing versions of their own histories, and putting it all together in one book is scarily difficult. I would have given it up as impossible but took heart from the fact that others, braver and more capable than me, have written histories of larger spaces such as all of India, and even of the whole world.”

He says this book (first published in the UK by C. Hurst & Co.) is meant to be a simple introduction and overview of the political history of all the states that constitute the region, and of the region as a whole. “I hope that students, civil services aspirants, policymakers, and anyone else interested in a brief and easy text on the region will find it useful.”

Indeed, the book can serve as the first, helpful reference for any non-specialist reader. There is not one history of the northeast but histories of each of its constituent states, and many parts of them remain outside of or parallel to the broad contours of the nation’s history over the past few centuries. The culture of each state is distinct too. So, Choudhury, an accomplished journalist whose previous books include ‘The Braided River’ (2021), a travelogue tracing the journey of the Brahmaputra, presents an overview of the history of each state, from the pre-colonial times to the post-independence era, in a separate chapter. Given the complexity of their demographics, any narrative of the past may be open to contention and the author chooses to stick to standard sources, present an outline of the history without taking sides, and turn the reader to the relevant literature for further reading.

In the concluding chapter, Choudhury however turns to a summation of sorts, and here he shares his opinions too – especially on the question of the place of the Northeast in the grand ‘Akhand Bharat’ project of the Hindu right wing. His nuanced view is the obvious and the only conclusion after tracing the contours of time through kingdoms and treaties over the preceding pages. In fact, like no other region of India, it is this beautiful Land of Seven Sisters, rich in a variety of diversities, that can help other Indians see beyond a narrow version of nationalism and identity.



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