Northeast India has for decades constituted the limit of India’s cultural and political imagination. Media, policy makers, development experts, and scholars alike present the region as a dysfunctional landscape inhabited by ethnic political entrepreneurs, corrupt politicians, armed forces fighting semi-permanent insurgencies, and backward tribal groups. A zone of natural beauty and ‘primitive culture’, yet largely irrelevant to national political and cultural life.
This common place perception ignores that the North East for decades has been of utmost strategic importance to the Indian state. Not only is this a highly militarized frontier region where sensitive relations with China, Burma and Bangladesh are constantly managed. It is also an area of huge economic importance and natural resources: large dams, extraction of coal and crude oil, minerals, timber and much else. State agencies, large companies, militant groupings, local state governments and many local entrepreneurs are involved in a high stake scramble for positions in this extractive economy.
The region has for decades also been central to the two main ways that the Indian state grapples with cultural and social minorities: on the one hand, there has been several successful ethnic mobilizations for separate states and autonomous zones. The central government’s strategy has for decades been to maintain and juggle a precarious balance between state elites in the smaller states in the region, and multiple armed groups that also exercise local forms of shadow government and de facto sovereignty in many areas. On the other hand, there has been a growing tendency to ‘incorporate’ communities in this region into the larger national community by according them Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste status and the educational opportunities and reservations accompanying such status. This status presupposes that a community can prove that it has been the victim of social discrimination and/or cultural and geographical remoteness from an imputed ‘mainstream’ national culture and polity.
This ‘remoteness’ was amply illustrated when the exodus of thousands of Northeast migrants from metropolitan cities across India made it to the front page of the major Indian dailies and also the New York Times on August 18, 2012. The exodus was described as caused by panic and rumors, and erroneously portrayed as yet another symptom of a deep and irrational conflict between Hindus and Muslims across India. Most reports ignored the most obvious question: what are the daily experiences of racial discrimination and vulnerability that have created a situation of acute insecurity that make it plausible for hundreds of thousands of people to leave homes and livelihoods on the basis of somewhat flimsy rumors of enmity and possible attacks, as was the case in August 2012?
These are some of the questions and paradoxes that will be explored at the Northeast India Workshop at Stanford University in March 2012. This is the first in a series of workshops that will bring together scholars from South Asia, US and Europe together to develop conversations that will help situate Northeast India as an important location from where one can rethink the existing understandings of human rights, citizenship, resource politics, and identity movements in contemporary India.
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