Last Wednesday [11th December] when the Rajya Sabha cleared the Citizenship [Amendment] Bill [CAB], there were loud protests against it. Parts of the mountains and valleys of the North-East [Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya etc.] reverberated with the sounds of slogans, protests and even sporadic incidents of violence. It was a painful reminder of my days in Mizoram in the 1970s during the height of insurgency there.
I recalled my stint in AIR, Bombay [now Mumbai] during the Emergency when I was asked to write and produce a series of features on the states of the North East. This obviously was a directive from the AIR headquarters in Delhi, probably as part of familiarizing our listeners with the hitherto rather obscure states and Union Territories in the North East. At that time many of the territories in the North East were reeling under insurgency and violent armed conflicts. Sikkim incidentally had become the 22nd territory of the Indian Union on 16 May1975 when the monarchy by the ‘Chogyal’ dynasty was abolished. This interestingly was less than a month before Emergency was declared on 26 May 1975.
Though I had never gone beyond Calcutta and didn’t know much about the North East, was happy to do these series, as the series had no direct relation to the Emergency related publicity. When the background research was done, I realized how ignorant people in the mainland were about the North East. The script had to be written entirely on library research, pouring over whatever books one could lay hands on. Recordings of music of the territories especially folk and tribal music were received from our Programme Exchange and Transcription Service in Delhi.
After the first couple of scripts were written there was need for a general title for the series and considering the undulating or imposing hills and mountains in the area chose part of a gnomic poem by the 18th /19th century English poet William Blake as title. The poem by Blake, so chosen as title was, “When Men and mountains meet”, reflecting ‘moral aphorism’. I also felt that the people who live in the shadows of the majestic and sublime Himalayas, have indomitable courage and are no less adventurous than those who conquer the Everest!
All the names of almost all these states had were association with the lofty mountains. For example Arunachal Pradesh means land of the rising sun or the land of dawn-lit mountains and Dong in Arunachal Pradesh receives the first rays of the sun in India. The capital of Assam, Guwahati itself boasts of two hills. Many of the districts of Manipur are hilly. The breathtakingly beautiful hilly land of Meghalaya’s capital Shillong is situated at 1491 meters above sea level. The highest peak in Nagaland Saramati is 3877 meters above sea level. Mizo means a dweller of the hills from which the name of Mizoram is derived. For the indigenous people like Limbus and Lepchas and the Bhutias who established the Chogyal dynasty in the 17th century in Sikkim, the snow-clad Kanchanjunga is the protector of their Buddhist faith. So the title “When Men and Mountains Meet” was selected as for the entire North –East, mountains are a symbol of their religious and cultural heritage- also an inspiration for being courageous to fight the forces of nature.
It was some quirk of fate that in a couple of years after the broadcast of my serial “When Men and Mountains Meet” from AIR Bombay, I was posted in AIR Aizawl, Mizoram and decades later, was in Sikkim as an academic associated with the Central University in Gangtok! These two tenures and travelling around the region gave me an opportunity to quite intimately understand the people and their culture. Such experiences also helped to shed previously internalized notions, complexes and prejudices.
I consider it a strange coincidence that as parts of the North -East mountains were afire with anti CAB protests on 11 December, a day, the United Nations and nations of the world were observing the annual International Mountain Day. How are they connected? You may ask and that exactly is the point. Before delineating on that, it is necessary to know that Mountain Day is observed for “young generations to take the lead and request that mountains and mountain peoples become central in the national and international development agendas, receive more attention, investment and tailored research” [www.fao.org/ir]. While the ongoing anti-CAB protests by the mountain people were on account of their fears of being overrun by those who they call plainspeople or outsiders, they also fear threat to their habitat of the hilly regions. The United Nations points out that, mountains are home for 15% of world population and a quarter of the world’s land animals and plants. Conservation of mountains is a key factor for sustainable development and is part of Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. It may be too farfetched to assume that influx of outsiders into the mountains threatens indigenous mountain people; yet there is a need to address their fears.
Is it not tragically ironic that widespread disturbances, involving young people in the North- East and students elsewhere coincided with the International Mountain Day? I don’t intend to get into the politics behind it or the sagacity or otherwise of CAB. It is a fact that following the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, there were grave misgivings in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura etc. Such an outbreak of protests therefore could have been anticipated by the powers that be. No further comments on the unfortunate happenings are considered necessary to avoid any judgmental conclusions. Instead, one earnestly hopes that normalcy would be restored through peace and dialogue.
When we look at the territories in the region, their people, culture and world view, it is important to consider their past. The predominantly mountain people here, like all mountain people in different continents of the world, were isolated from what we call our Indian mainland. They were contented in their individual identity and ethnicity and avoided much of interaction with the outside world. In fact most of them were suspicious of the people from the plains. There were of course tribes which maintained even hostile relations with the authorities. For example, the Mizos raided the British plantations in Cachar and took away whatever they could and these tribesmen, then called head hunters of the Lushai hills were a thorn in the flesh for the British. It is only after the intervention of the Baptist missionaries that there was an end to their animosities. Proselytisation by European missionaries in Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and parts of Manipur in fact had led many observers to conclude that this had further intensified that isolation.
The North Eastern states barring probably Sikkim, have had conflicts including bloody armed ones since independence mainly on account of alleged neglect, sub national aspirations, lack of mutual understanding and perhaps a hegemonic approach on the part of successive governments at the center. As many groups of people across the North East have Mongoloid features, spoke non-Aryan and non- Indic languages and dialects, practiced other faiths and have different sartorial fashions and food habits, mutual assimilation and acceptance were hard to come by. So the people of the mainland or what we consider ourselves as the mainstream ought to be more empathetic to the mountain people.
However, one feels that the nation and those responsible for running its affairs need to handle the fragile mountain people and communities with greater empathy, care and concern. It is heartening that there is a Ministry of Development of North Eastern region with an annual budget of Rs.3,000 crore. This Ministry deals with matters related to the socio-economic development of the eight states. PTI reported in August, 2019 about the government’s ambitious plan to launch 200 projects worth Rs.3,000 crore in 100 days!
The North-Eastern states were in a sort of time-warp when I went there in the 1970s. There were very few signs of visible progress and in many parts of the region the roads and bylines were being patrolled by security forces. Vehicles moved in armed convoys, Years later during my visits to some of the states there, it was clear that the wheels of progress were in motion and perceivable improvement in the law and order situation could be seen. Yet a lot more has to be done and are being done, but the pace of progress is much slower as compared to the rest of the country. I am afraid, the issues like the anti-CAB agitation may be a dampener in the process of development.
It is said that man does not live by bread alone. Along with material progress the state has a responsibility to be considerate and sensitive to the sentiments of the mountain people in the North –East. They are a self respecting and proud people who can be hurt easily. In order to avoid any possible alienation the authorities need to understand the minds of the mountain people. William Blake actually said, “Great things are done when men and mountains meet”?