Earlier this year, I spent ten days travelling through three states of northeastern India. My journey began in Manipur, where, on my first night, I had dinner with a bunch of academics and journalists. The humour on display was black: it was aimed chiefly at the two agencies that, between them, control and dominate the Imphal valley: the army and the insurgency. Speaking of the utter incompetence of the local administration, one Manipuri joked that "the State has withered away, even before the revolution". Another told the story of the recent upgrade of Manipur University to the status of a Central university. Money was coming in by the barrel, to be distributed by less-than-orthodox means. The campus of the university, on the outskirts of Imphal city, needed a permanent wall to be built around it. According to the version passed around at that dinner table, the contract for the wall had been divided into four parts, each allotted to a front man for a different insurgent group.
My journey ended in Assam, where I was to speak at another new centre of higher education funded by the Central government, the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati. The IIT campus is sited on hilly terrain where Ahom kings had once lived. After they had faded away, their courts and palaces had crumbled into the jungle. Now, however, the land had been freshly colonized by modern structures of glass and concrete, some housing computers of varying shapes and sizes, others the men and boys assigned to play with them. The buildings were impressive - none more so than the guest-house where I stayed, which is built around a lake.
I was not told how much of the money spent on the new IIT campus reached the pockets of the very many insurgents and ex-insurgents who stalk the districts of Assam. But after my lecture, I did hear a very characteristic complaint. I had spoken on the history of contemporary India, and inevitably the name of India's first prime minister figured in my lecture. During question time, an Assamese academic recalled, with palpable pain, the speech made by Jawaharlal Nehru on All India Radio during the India-China war of 1962. After the Chinese had overrun the Indian forces on the border, they came sweeping down the Brahmaputra valley. The plains of Assam beckoned, when the Chinese returned just as suddenly as they had come. Sometime during their forward march, Nehru had come on air to say that his heart went out to the people of Assam.
The sentiment was (and is) amenable to more than one reading. Those sympathetic to Nehru might see it as an expression of concern, behind which lay affection and even love. His heart went out to the Assamese because, with the flight of the Indian army, they were at the mercy of an unknown, and most likely unforgiving, enemy. But my questioner interpreted the remarks very differently. For her, it reflected unconcern and even betrayal. By saying what he did, Nehru had given up on the Assamese. Instead of expressing a proper resolve to beat back the intruders, he had turned his back on his own people, delivering them up to the foreigner.
I answered the questioner by pointing to the possibility that what she and her fellow Assamese intellectuals saw as betrayal was actually an expression of concern. Then I added: "In any case, it is 45 years since Nehru made those remarks. Even if his words were carelessly chosen, must we still be stuck with them?"
To be sure, the Assamese are not the only Indians to think - or to have thought - that those who live in New Delhi condescend to them. The political programmes of those very successful regional parties, the Akali Dal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, are founded on the belief that the Sikhs and the Tamils have been treated as second-class citizens by the government of India. The sense of being discriminated against is also powerfully felt by the Bengalis.
Assam is further away from New Delhi than even Calcutta or Chennai, and Manipur and Nagaland are further away still. It is, indeed, in the northeast of India that these feelings of exclusion and discrimination are most keenly felt. Assam participated large-heartedly in the freedom struggle; and got very little in return. Manipur was annexed under somewhat dubious circumstances. Nagaland and Mizoram were historically never part of the broader Indic civilization - separated from it historically, geographically, and culturally, they found, to their mystification, that when the British left, they were designated part of this new nation, India.
No state in the Northeast has been altogether free of insurgency. All have witnessed armed struggles, of varying degrees of intensity, seeking independence from India. Viewed comparatively, the Indian experience is of a piece with the other new nations of Asia. China has had much trouble with its borderlands, with Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims who resent the political and cultural domination of the Han. The Burmese army has been occupied for decades in trying to suppress rebellions in the Karen and Shan uplands. The Pakistani army has effectively ceded control of Waziristan to tribal marauders.
The building of nations has historically been filled with pain and the shedding of blood. Move backwards from contemporary Asia into early-modern Europe, and consider the troubles the British had with the Scots, the French had with the hill people of the Pyrenees, the Spaniards had, and are indeed still having, with the Basques. But unlike the France or Britain of the past, and unlike the China and Burma of the present, India is a democracy. It cannot therefore simply suppress voices of dissent and protest. It must seek to engage with them.
The Indian government has a responsibility to understand and respect the people who live on its peripheries; so do the citizens who live in states more keen to count themselves as part of India. When they travel to places like Delhi and Bangalore, the residents of the northeastern states find that they are met with indifference and incomprehension. Punjabis and Kannadigas alike joke heartlessly about their allegedly un-Indian looks, about their unfamiliar dress and diet, and more. The insurgencies in states such as Assam, Manipur and Nagaland were aimed, in the first instance, at the Central government. But they were fuelled also by the sense that the people of India had chosen to ignore or condescend to them.
Those insurgencies have since degenerated into extortion rackets. Knowing this, the Nagas are by no means uncritical supporters of the NSCN(I-M), nor the Assamese of Ulfa. But their anger at the Indian State remains. So, too, their disappointment and dismay at the lack of fellow feeling among the residents of the Indian heartland.