Megalith to Chorten Speak up for the Khas


Jhumming in a Chittagong



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Jhumming in

a Chittagong

hill tract.

reported was as valuable as gold. The numberof Thai speakers in Assam is small, but there is a Thai Associa­tion and the community is politi­cally active.

There are Garos in Meghalaya and in Bangladesh; there are Nagas and Mizos in India and in the neighbouring hillsof Burma. Festivals, liquor, dance, and music shape approaches to life and habitat of the tribes. History and contemporary experiences also forge attitudes, affinity and identity, the latter being regarded as the most crucial in maintaining both distanceanddignity in the face of intrusion of the larger cultures of South Asia. Convictions about the sanctity of borders are weaker here than elsewhere. Many Nagas still refer to their own region as "Western Nagaland", referring to areas with Naga communities in Burma as "Eastern Nagaland". Guwahati, the capital of Assam, is closer to Hanoi than it is to Delhi. Watching graceful young women in sarongs, skirts and blouses pedal to work in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, one could easily imagine being in Vientiane or Rangoon. There is a fierce pride and independence that marks the tribes. And a disdaindespite using the good things that moneycanbuy and Centralfundscan achieve—for the national elites and locals who they patronise.

This bewildering medley and mosaic is dear to the social scientist, but makes administration and political control extremely complex for the faraway capitals, be it New Delhi, Rangoon or Dhaka.

Shadow Play

What the constituent regions of the Far Eastern Himalaya also have in common is scarcity of information and difficulty of access. Southeastern Tibet, northern Burma, the Yunnan highlands, theChittagong Hill Tracts, and Northeastern India—these are areas with negligible international profile. There is no other region this large in all of Asia of which as little is known. The fierce independence, deep

enmities and seemingly eternal violence all occurs in a kind of a vacuum as far as the outside world is concerned. Relegated to the far comers of each of the nation states of which they form a part, the inhabitants live in a media shadow.

The recent outflow of the Rohingya and newsabout drug trade keeps northern Burma in the news pages, but on the whole this region is out of the information map. The same is true for the Chittagong Hill Tracts, whose sole claim to fame seems to be the outflow of Chakmas. Southern Bhutan is in the news only because that is where the Lhotshampa refugees emerge from. Compared to the detailed social science and other research that has gone on in, say, the Uttarakhand or Nepal hills, researchers have left the Far Eastern Himalaya largely alone. Even here, however, the south-eastern extremity of Tibet is unique for the absolute unavailability of information.

One of the reasons there is little reporting and research is because outsiders face restrictions in travel everywhere in the Far Eastern Himalaya. Nowhere do the national authorities of Burma, Bangladesh, India, Bhutan, and China allow free movement of outsiders, and in many cases there are restrictions even on citizens. Everywhere, diplomats, journalists scholars and independent travellers face special problems.

Thus have national governments successfully shielded the brutal

military operations they have taken against the locals—often rebellious minorities seeking to preserve their identities—from outside eyes. By restricting access and travel,they have obscured this region from the ears and eyes of their own people as well.

It is by the choice of the locals that Indian citizens from the 'mainland' require special permits to enter the Northeast. However, this exclusivity is a double-edged sword, for it is due to this very lack of access that infbrmationabout theuniqueness and aspirations of the Northeast is kept from the larger India,

Nevertheless, more news about the Northeast gets into the press than any of the other regions. In compa­rison to the news blackout as far as Southeast Tibet or Northern Burma are concerned, the Indian Northeast comes across as a very 'open' society indeed. Perhaps, as the rest of the region struggles to catch up, they too will be dogged by the problems that India's Northeast today faces. Perhaps, in that sense, the experience of the Northeast will be instructive for thoseelsew herein the Far Eastern Himalaya, the rulers and the ruled alike.

Unity in Adversity

A shared ecology and geography, and a history of isolation, has given rise to lifestyles and languages that link the tribes and communities behind the five frontiers. In fact, many of these tribes have more in common with


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May/June 1995 HIMAL







each other than with the nation states of which they form distant appendages.

The cultural chasm between the people of Northeastern India and those of the 'mainland' issodeep,and the leap through time that they have to take to catch up with the national cultural mainstream so great, that this region is unlikely to be psycho­logically integrated with India for some time to come. If the Sikkimese even tod ay refer to the border point at Rongphu Bridge as the place where "India begins", the feeling of distance is much more palpable in the hill states that lie to the east of Bhutan. Perhaps the map, too, aids in developing this mental state: every other part of India, including Kashmir, is joined integrally to the mainland, whereas the Northeast hangs on a 14 km neck of land between Nepal and Bangladesh.

The entire Far Eastern Himalaya is peopled by marginalised commu­nities. These are peripheral groups, distant from the levers of governm­ental power. Much of their economic and political affairs are controlled and manipulated by all-powerful central entities. In most cases, tiny powerful local elites have emerged, patronised by the Centre, but these are invariably alienated from their own communities.

The failure to cope with change, an inability to deal with the major forces of economic and social transition that are transforming our world, is creating a deep sense of unease among this population.

A region that is used tooral traditions is beingasked to turn to the newspaper and satellite television, one which used the traditional tribal methods of dispensing justice through village councils and chiefs is having to embrace British jurisprudence.

Vibrant communities are therefore turning inwards and nurturing deep resentment towards what they perceive to be colonial behaviour by central governments and national elites. This is true of the Nort hea sterner's a tti tude to wa rd s the Hindu-dominated and Hindi-speaking belt of the Canga plain, of the Chakma's towards Dhaka's rulers, and of the Tibetan's towards the Han cadre who call the shots from Lhasa.

Seen in reverse, loyalties of Nepali speakers being questioned in Thimphu,oft he Cha kma in Dhaka, of the Naga in Delhi, of the Rohingya in Rangoon. The domestic policies of the national governments to the marginal peoples are almost identical, varying perhaps only in the intensity of violence with which rebellions are crushed.

Th e problem pro file of the region is also similar: a lack of industrial development, sluggish economic growth, a tattered infrastructure of roads, telecommunications and power, escalating demographic change, inadequate use of natural resources such as water, environ­mental degradation, low per capita income, and poor agricultural practices. Added to all this, of course, unrest and insurgency.

Because national authorities seem unable to recognise the cultural chasm, to meet basic needs, nor to devise a formula for sharing of the natural resources in which the region is so rich, there will be no peace in the Far Eastern Himalaya. While the people agitate for their identity, government is perfectly willing to exploit mineral reserves, al low forest s toberazedfortimber, and rivers to be dammed. A withering away of national boundaries is not in sight, but as long as the reality of separateness is not understood, the problems of the region will remain unaddressed and the inhabitants will continue to su f fer under-development and violence.



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