Sunday, 22 July 2012



In his recent book, Highway 39, Sudeep Chakravarti brings forth north-eastern India, as he tracks the region, people and problems. He tells Biswadip Mitra what it will take to integrate the region with ‘mainland India’

We begin the conversation with the reasons as to why the region has become a conflict zone. Is it the high-handed attitude of India, or cultural differences, or some vested interests fomenting trouble there? “I would go with ‘high-handed attitude’ as the primary reason, and the others as subsidiaries. People do not take to protest, and sections of them to war, unless driven by root causes,” says Chakravarti, adding that the “relative isolation” of the region following Partition got enforced in many ways. When the emerging Naga leadership wanted autonomy, instead of dialogue, India’s response was “a paranoid near-genocide.” Similar responses were seen in Manipur, says the author. “Over time, India’s feeding of local, ethnic insecurities among various tribes to contain a few groups led to conflict going viral.”

Staggering lack of development and administrative callousness “fuelled the Mizo rebellion.” The response was like that in Nagaland. “Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya’s issues of identity and lack of development fuelled several insurgencies.”

Chakravarti, who is “driven to write about conflict” had earlier written the book Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. “Solution is precisely the reason why I write about a problem, a conflict, in a humanised, anecdotal manner,” he reveals, adding, in India and South Asia, there is “a grave tendency to scrabble after an orgy of good news and forgetting the lamentable deficiencies that this country and region have not overcome.” He also laments the “tendency in metropolitan India and policy-making circles to ignore the unpalatable and live for ‘mall stupor’.” He calls the charmed inner circle the ‘inland’, while those living beyond that as the ‘outland.’ But the ‘inland’ remains disconnected with the ‘outland’ though it is the ‘outland’ on which the overall health of the country depends.

Describing his experiences, Chakravarti says while travelling by car, train, autorickshaw, boat, taxi, bus, at times in aircraft and walking for long stretches, he got “an opportunity to study aspirations and futures of this geopolitically- and commercially-crucial region” that can play a major role in India’s Look East policy. And as he travelled, it was not easy for him to not lose hope, seeing “what Indians do to India.” Chakravarti could see “what works alongside what lamentably does not”. It was tough, and he has “no shame in admitting that on and around Highway 39, while researching as well as writing the book, on several occasions” he was “saddened and enraged by everyday brutality, and India’s lost opportunities.” This book, then, is “an attempt to tell a credible, researched story with emotional quotient.” With the varied perceptions of several people he interviewed, Highway 39 is the story of people in the region and “the story of India’s unfinished integrity,” he adds.

When asked how people of the north-eastern States can be integrated with the rest of India, Chakravarti says their identities and aspirations must be respected. “It will take more local governance, more development, far less corruption, and more inter- and intra-regional interaction. Not all people there hate India, but many hate the idiocy and arrogance of India’s leadership that for so long refused to respect their needs and aspirations.”

I ask whether peace can be achieved in the region. Chakravarti sounds optimistic. “With several insurgencies winding down over the past two years, thaw in bilateral relations with Bangladesh, and recent elections in Myanmar that offer glimmers of democracy, theory appears to be inching closer to practice,” he wraps up with lots of hope.