Is there a way out of the ethno-political cauldron in India’s far-east?

Ever since I read The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community (Rupa Publications, 2017), I have been on the lookout for nonfiction books written by Sudeep Chakravarti. What attracted me towards his approach to nonfiction is not only the vast array of research materials he brings on the table but also the way he combines research with creative nonfiction and then tells the story in his uniquely flowy yet punchy manner. But when Sudeep’s The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East landed on my desk, I was faced with a dilemma. While The Bengalis and Plassey: The Battle That Changed the Course of Indian History (Aleph Book Company, 2020) fall well within my areas of interest, I can’t quite say the same about this one.

It was the lingering taste of The Bengalis that made me skim over the first few pages of The Eastern Gate (Simon & Schuster, 2022). After describing why this region is India’s gateway to realizing its eastern ambitions, Sudeep cuts to the chase, stating that the Naga peace process is central to establishing peace in Nagaland and Manipur, and “to a lesser extent, to Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.” His aim of him is to look at options for working out a viable peace deal which does not rise and fall in sync with the government’s “Look East” or “Act East” policy but which sees “things from the perspective of this region”.

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Throughout the book, between sections of a chapter, there appears in italics what Sudeep calls in a note at the very beginning “a ‘dispatches’ element”, which weaves into the narrative “news breaks … information and messages received and exchanged, notes, and thoughts as preparatory to writing …”. This element adds a unique flavor to the book, often assuming a satiric tone, the kind of which I have yet to encounter in a nonfiction work of intense deliberation.

As the first chapter begins with a mysterious arms dealer who displays to the author a collection of various weapons, Sudeep’s prowess in narrative nonfiction becomes evident. His narrative of him is as detailed as a journalist’s, as thorough as a researcher’s, and his storytelling of him is as literary as a fiction writer’s. From the mysterious dealer, Sudeep takes us into the bowels of Moreh’s dark underbelly. Moreh is the conduit for arms, drugs, contraband, and other smuggled products to flow between India and Myanmar and China.

While sharing details of interviews with security personnel about the narco trade, he writes: “They pointed to the involvement of at least a dozen rebel groups of all ethnic persuasions such as Naga, Meitei, Kuki, and Zomi, active in Manipur; and that of the political, bureaucratic and security establishments. All feed off the narco economy. All want to control it. All find some accommodations, find a level.”

As I traversed this vast terrain, I realized that the region involves hundreds of political and historical ramifications. The ethno-political churn, as Sudeep calls the political situation, is combustible and has always remained so since the 1940s. Ethnic groups with some clout derived from their “demographic heft” have their own rebel groups that, by default, are pitted against rebel groups of other ethnic persuasions. For example, the Meitei and Kuki rebel factions are at war with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), especially with the NSCN (IM). In many cases, one ethnic group has several factions that are fighting each other to a bitter end. Consider the deadly battles between NSCN (IM) and the breakaway faction NSCN (K).

As the “dispatches” demonstrate, Sudeep knows this terrain as intimately as one knows their hometown. Just like a master storyteller unravels the different interconnected stories in a novel, layer after layer, Sudeep unpeels the issues underlying the multi-layered conflicts in this region. As Sudeep walks the reader through this region, political ramifications multiply, and it is only likely that they will encounter missing links. At this juncture, what I found to be most remarkable is that Sudeep consciously does away with a chronological approach; he rather combines dispatches, interviews, creative nonfiction, analyzes and research in a non-chronological way that provides all the missing links in addition to making one want to know more about the future developments.

Ultimately, it all boils down to the Alternative Arrangement and the Framework Agreement. Alternative Arrangement (AA) is a “demand by several Naga tribes under the umbrella of the United Naga Council … to be delinked from the administrative ambit of the government of Manipur to deal … autonomously with the central government in New Delhi.” The FA was signed in 2015 between the Government of India and the NSCN (IM) with the aim of putting an end to conflict with Naga rebels and finding a solution to ending “an uneasy ceasefire with IM signed in 1997”. It wasn’t long before it became obvious that the FA was one more piece on the region’s “game of chess”.

Sudeep’s book, which combines several disciplines with a creative approach, marks a rare achievement in the genre of nonfiction. Whether one is interested in partition history or this region’s geopolitics or more particularly, about the Northeast, they will have to consult this book, which, most definitely, will provide them with all the details, data, perspectives, and analyzes they perhaps need to know.

Rifat Munim is a writer, editor, and translator based in Dhaka.

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