Beware the Political Potter
By Monalisa Changkija
We are a few days away from entering the second month of the New Year. “Oh, how time flies” would be our normal reaction but time is flying at super speed. Perhaps, it is my “fertile imagination”, but in the past couple of decades or so, days, nights, weeks, months and years seem to pass by faster than when we were younger. Is the world spinning faster on its axis or is our time vanishing to the Prime Video, Netflix and smartphones? Except for the fact that people who don’t have the time and the inclination for leisure activities vouch that time is racing faster than the speed of light, I wouldn’t have begun my first Assam Tribune Column for 2024 talking about time and its current “racy” ways.
Sure, we are still basking in the afterglow, and suffering the hangovers, of the festive season, at least in Nagaland, where all kinds of events are relentlessly happening and imminent events are being announced. The excitement in the air is almost suffocating, especially as work, more or less, comes to a standstill. But in my beautiful State, life normally gets slowly normal only after the Easter Breaks. After that, things are not so pretty. Perhaps, it’s the same in other Northeaster States, especially as the Bihu season starts. Till May, we will be celebrating our various tribal and community festivals; which reminds me ~ here in Nagaland it is commonly advised not to go to Assam during the Bihu season because nothing would get done. So, you see, we have so many similarities but we so seldom, and so little, celebrate our similarities. We are neighbours with so many commonalities for a reason but alas, we look only at our negligible differences because our focus is misdirected towards our little interests and agenda. Then, we allow political motives to swallow us just as the Brahmaputra swallows much of Assam during Monsoons. Why should the interests, motives and agenda of the politically ambitious ~ a minuscule percentage of our Northeastern population ~ herd us around like mindless cattle? Something to ruminate on, as the big battle awaits the country in a few months’ time.
There’s a big race in April-May that could very well re-write the history, politics, economics, cultures and relationships once again in this region, for which preparations began years ago. We have to realise that the people are not the competitors of this race but the umpires ~ so let’s not get treated as the competitors answerable to the umpires or believe we are competitors and behave as such. But, you see, that’s one of the traits of the political class ~ they can turn themselves into anything and in the process turn the people into anything with twisted logic and narratives. Too bad we allow ourselves to be moulded like clay by the political potter. For instance, everyone knows the adverse impact ending the Free Movement Regime (FMR) along the India-Myanmar border would have on Northeastern States such as Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal, especially as our people have lived across the British-drawn borders centuries before the colonisers landed here. Yet, except for the Mizoram CM, all political parties in power in the region, including Nagaland’s, have kept mum (at the time of writing this) ~ once again prioritising the party over the people. So, with no option, it is time for Northeastern people to learn about the FMR, speak out and stand in solidarity with the people of these States.
It is so obvious why suddenly the Government of India perceives the FMR as inimical to national security and it isn’t only the internal conflict in Myanmar. Sure, the conflict has led to large number of Myanmar citizens entering the aforesaid States seeking safe haven with their racial and cultural cousins. True, safe-harbouring immigrants cost money but it would be less than a fraction of immigrants that are envisaged to live in India courtesy the CAA. Moreover, can a fence end cross-border insurgency or terrorism or drug and arms smuggling? Does the world have any record of that? Border fencing is just another muscle-flexing exercise and a Band-Aid measure.
Now is the time for the Northeast media, intellectuals, academicians, writers, poets, religious, social, cultural, even political organisations, labour, trade and other unions as also women, youth and students associations to stand in solidarity with the conflict-affected hapless people of Myanmar, who have sought refuge in Northeastern States, as much as stand in solidarity with the people of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal who cannot and will not turn a blind eye to the sufferings of our kin living across the border. The thing is: why should the FMR, an acknowledgement and recognition of the racial affinities and relationships of the peoples both sides of the India-Myanmar border, be sacrificed in the attempt to re-write the political narratives of a political party in power to justify a conflict in one of the border-States or re-write narratives in any other border-State? In a carton in one of our local newspapers, the protagonist tells her husband: “Now we have to take permission to go from the bedroom to the kitchen” ~ superbly and succinctly stating the fact that homes in our border areas span across India and Myanmar; so do villages, legendary Longwa in Nagaland’s Mon district, is a prime example. A good number of our villages cross the India-Myanmar border to till their fields in Myanmar and return home to Nagaland every day for centuries. There would be many such instances in all Northeastern border-States, Now, would the Government of India compensate such citizens with alternative land after fencing is done? If so, where ~ considering we have a totally different land-holding system in Nagaland, protected by Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution?
Ending the FMR and fencing the India-Myanmar border also spot-lights other issues: (a) the India-Myanmar border, demarcated by the British, is not considered the last word hence the call for Greater Nagaland, which includes Naga-inhabited areas of Myanmar. True, in their talks with the Government of India, both the NSCN IM) and the 7-group Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) have reportedly agreed not to pursue it. Nevertheless, amongst people here, hope persists. (b) What happens to the Centre’s much-hyped promises of boosting border trade at Longwa and Avunkhu? (c) How would the Centre deal our Eastern districts, whose tribes would be affected since almost all Naga tribes of Myanmar belong to the same tribes and interact daily? Reminder: Nagaland’s Eastern Nagas, compromising seven tribes, have been demanding Eastern Nagaland State, which they have now scaled down to Autonomy, outside the influence and control of Kohima. (d) Sometimes, Nagas are late to react but when we do, we do so unambiguously and emphatically. Would such unambiguous and emphatic reaction impact on the Naga negotiations?
Almost all Northeastern States abut neighbouring countries and fencing here today, elsewhere tomorrow, would affect our age-old cultural and economic interactions. This commonality calls for all Northeastern States to stand in solidarity against scrapping the FMR and border fencing. Time is moving faster than ever hence of essence before the bulldozing and fencing begins.
(The Columnist, a journalist and poet, is Founding Editor, Nagaland Page)