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India: The Mongolian Fringe

by Sanjib Baruah, 8 March 2013

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Himal Southasian, Vol 26 (1)
Issue on ’Are we Sure about India?’, January 2013, pp. 82-86.

The exodus of Northeasterners from a number of major Indian cities underlines a reality that the Indian national elites would rather not talk about.

‘The Mongolian Fringe’ was the title of a 1940 official paper authored by Olaf Caroe, the foreign secretary of the British-Indian government in New Delhi. It referenced the Himalayan region, including areas such as “Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and northern Assam.” In Caroe’s eyes, as historian Alastair Lamb put it, the region had a “predominantly ‘Mongolian’ population (despite the clearly non-Mongolian nature of the Nepalese ruling family).” An unabashedly racialized view of the world characterized this genre of imperial geopolitical writing. The racial term ‘Mongolian,’ according to the time’s prevailing scientific theories of race, applied to most peoples of central and eastern Asia, including Tibetans, Chinese and the Japanese. To colonial officials like Caroe, the divide between Mongolians and the inhabitants of “India proper” was self-evident. Talking about the Excluded Areas of Assam (now a major part of today’s Northeast India, former Governor Robert Reid said that “neither racially, historically, culturally, nor linguistically . . . [do the people]. . . have any affinity with the people of the plains, or with the people of India proper.”

This racialized gaze was not the exclusive domain of British colonial officials. Speaking about the implications of the Chinese takeover of Tibet, Independent India’s first Home Minister Vallabhhai Patel wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru:

All along the Himalayas in the north and north-east, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of the potential trouble between China and ourselves.

Six decades later, those racial ideas are no longer publically articulated with the same confidence. In their place, however, there is a ‘racialized regime of visuality’ to borrow a phrase from Cultural Studies scholar Joseph Pugliese. In India this makes its presence felt via the use of derogatory words like ‘Chinky’ or ‘flat-nosed’ in the rough and tumble of everyday life, and words like ‘Northeasterner’ or ‘Pahari’ in polite conversation. In the summer of 2012, Indian elites had to come to terms with the reality of this racialized regime of visuality when, following reports of violence between Bodos and Muslims in western Assam and rumours of possible reprisals, there was an exodus of panicked Northeasterners from major Indian cities including Bengaluru, Pune and Chennai. “Everyone who looks even vaguely northeastern—be it Nepalis, Assamese, Nagas or Mizos,” said a news report from Bengalaru, “[was] quick to head to the train station.” Given the reality of this regime, fast becoming part of the neoliberal spatial politics of India’s major cities too, it has become necessary to reinstate the term ‘Mongolian’, rather than choose any of its euphemisms.

The significance of texts like ‘The Mongolian Fringe’ or Patel’s letter to Nehru lies not just in the evidence they provide on the dominant racial ideas of the past. Those ideas were to some extent inscribed into institutional practices of the state. ‘The Mongolian Fringe’, it is worth remembering, was concerned with what Lamb called “the problem of the defence of India’s northern border” in light of the multiple ‘Mongolian’ tracts on India’s north and the “distinct imperialisms at work, those of the Soviets and the Japanese, the Chinese and the Tibetans.” Suspicion of the Mongolian Fringe was built into the institutional matrix of the British colonial state in India, and substantial traces of it remain in the practices of the postcolonial state. Contemporary India’s inability to make a clean break from them has resulted in missed opportunities for generating pan-Indian social solidarity based on trust and reciprocity.

Assimilation in Assam

The Assam Rifles, a military force established soon after Assam was incorporated into British colonial India, provides an interesting example. The ‘pacification’ of this frontier through punitive expeditions against ‘savage’ tribes was part of its mission in the colonial era. Captain George Dunbar—who was associated with it during its earliest phase—described this role bluntly:

Assam has hill tribes on its border. . . the border tracts have always needed protection from what might otherwise be frequent petty raids. This protection is given by military police battalions, now the Assam Rifles.

So central was the role of the Assam Rifles in establishing British control over large parts of Northeast India, that many of state capitals and district headquarters in the hills of the region (including Aizawl, Kohima, Mokokchung, Halflong and Tura) first became developed as outposts of the Assam Rifles.

Today, the Assam Rifles are a paramilitary force under the Ministry of Home Affairs and under the Indian army’s operational control. The scholar Gautam Sen, a sympathetic observer, lists among its post-independence accomplishments: retaining Aizawl and ensuring the presence of the Indian state during the Mizo uprising in 1966, and restoring control to Nagaland in 1971, after the National Socialist Council of Nagalim had seized de facto control of the state. According to an official Indian government website, the Assam Rifles’ “contribution towards assimilation of the people of the North-East into the national mainstream is truly monumental.”

 ‘India’s Inability to change has resulted in missed opportunities for pan-Indian solidarity’

What does the apparently seamless transition of the Assam Rifles from carrying out punitive expeditions in the colonial era to engaging in counter-insurgency operations in independent India mean? What does the project of assimilating Northeast India into the national mainstream say about the suspicion vis-à-vis the Mongolian fringe in postcolonial India?

The Armed Forced Special Powers Act [AFSPA]—a law that provides legal cover to the armed forces during counterinsurgency operations—may throw some light on these questions. Under this controversial law, the armed forces can make preventive arrests, search premises without warrant, and shoot (and kill) civilians. Since AFSPA makes court proceedings contingent on the central government’s prior approval, soldiers have effective legal immunity. Originally adopted in 1958 during army operations against Naga, and applied to what was then the Naga-inhabited areas of Assam and Manipur, AFSPA is now in effect in most of Northeast India, albeit mostly as a ‘sleeping Act’ — to borrow a phrase used by the government of Mizoram, where it continues to be in effect even though it has not been used since the end of the Mizo rebellion as in the 1980s. Having the AFSPA in place in a state in this ready-to-use manner enables the government to declare with a simple notification that an area, the entire state, or parts of the state, is ‘disturbed’ and then deploy the armed forces which, given the ‘special powers’ under AFSPA, effectively suspends fundamental freedoms.

This aspect of the AFSPA will seem extraordinary to people familiar with international human rights treaties and conventions. It is generally accepted that if a democratic government decides to suspend fundamental freedoms, it must do so only after the most thoughtful and public of deliberations. In addition, there must be statutory provisions to ensure that such suspensions are limited, exceptional and temporary. The manner in which AFSPA is kept in place in Northeast India enabling the suspension of fundamental freedoms by executive decision with barely a hint of public deliberations contradicts these principles, and can only be read as an instance of suspicion vis-à-vis the Mongolian Fringe being institutionalized in the practices of the postcolonial Indian state.

The metropolitan experience

As thousands of Northeasterners fleeing major Indian cities in overloaded trains in the summer of 2012 made apparent, large numbers of people from the Mongolian fringe now live elsewhere in India. Job opportunities in the service sectors of these booming cities have been a magnet for such migrants. The number of Northeasterners now living in Delhi is estimated to be at least 200,000. In restaurants, shopping malls, hotels, spas, call centers and the airline industry, the English-speaking skills and the ‘Oriental’ looks of young Northeasterners — and of women in particular — are in great demand. In consumer spaces that project a “global aesthetic” responding to the desire of many Indians to ‘live abroad in India’, Northeasterners appear to have become essential accessories. As the ethnographer Duncan McDuie-Ra writes, “The highly orientalised labour force constructs a space that is in Delhi but not of Delhi; perfect for the ‘world class’ aspirations of the middle classes.”

A Naga employee at a high-end store in Delhi told McDuie-Ra “For Indians it is like going to Bangkok for shopping. We look the same but some of us can speak Hindi.”

How do these contemporary encounters with the Northeasterner as the foreigner-within — living in the heart of India’s globalized cities — relate to the practice of suspicion?

The past summer’s exodus followed rumors of reprisals for what was portrayed in the press as attacks on Muslims in Assam. Muslim activists in Mumbai organized a rally to protest the violence against Muslim Rohingyas in Burma and Muslims of East Bengali descent in Assam. They were especially angered by falsely attributed images of purported violence against Muslims that were circulating on the Internet. The fact that events in a foreign country — Burma — and in Assam were both seen as being part of the same story speaks volumes about how at least some people in Mumbai view the Northeast of the country. Perceptions vis-à-vis the Mongolian fringe were being shaped by the ‘racialized regime of visuality’, thanks to the ease with which photos and video footage can be manipulated and circulated on the Internet. A blog post by Pakistani journalist traced the origins of some of the most widely circulated morphed images to China and Thailand.

There were a few incidents of violence involving people presumed to be from the Northeast, though the causes of those incidents were often unclear, including an unexplained stabbing in Mysore of a Tibetan student. Threats of reprisals circulated rapidly through an SMS campaign, leading thousands of people from the Mongolian fringe to head to the security of their ‘home’ region. A woman waiting for a train in Bengaluru to return ‘home’ was quoted as saying, “We do not want to take any risk as nobody comes to our rescue when we are attacked.” A Chinese-Indian lawyer who had lived in Bengaluru for 30 years wrote that during those days he suddenly became self-conscious of his physical features while in public spaces. “A miasma of fear, doubt and anxiety has descended on the city,” wrote Lawrence Liang. “It is possible that much of this has been fuelled by rumours and hearsay; and while the rumours may be false the fear sadly isn’t.”

McDuie-Ra’s ethnographic study of Northeasterners in Delhi tells us that while many of them avoid political engagements, they regularly turn up for two sets of public protests: those decrying violence against fellow Northeasterners and those against AFSPA. Through these, they assert the right to fair treatment as equal citizens of a democracy, and the expectation of general reciprocity from the state. They make a powerful connection between their sense of insecurity in Delhi because of violence against Northeastern women, and the insecurity that their friends and family feel in their home regions from the Indian armed forces.

The politics of the Mongolian fringe in India’s metropolitan centers are primarily about seeking integration as equal citizens, but not assimilation. Theirs is a vision of India where as much as they adapt to the ‘majority nation,’ they expect the latter to respect difference, accommodate their identities, and adapt to their ways. They make these demands not just in their remote Northeastern homelands, but also in the nation’s capital, and in other metropolitan cities.

P.S.

Reproduced here in public interest and for educational and non commercial use.