Book Review: Strangers of the Mist by Sanjoy Hazarika

India’s North East, its people, and its culture are about as different as one can get from the mainstream Indian identity of the Hindi speaking people of the plains of central India. In light of this disconnect, Sanjoy Hazarika’s book is quite aptly named ‘Stranger of the Mist’. This has been one of the most influential pieces of literature that has brought nuance into the discussions on the region. Hazarika’s academic work on the North East reflects his background in journalism, human rights activism and his lived experiences as a citizen of this region. Although it was written in 1994, this book remains one of the most important pieces of literature on the region and has shaped much of the discourse. It is interesting to revisit it in the context of the controversy surrounding the updating of the National Register of Citizens in Assam. The question of who can be considered an Indian echoes the sentiments behind many of the nationalist rebellions in the region. 

            The book gives a comprehensive, historically grounded view on why immigration has been a problematic issue for Assam. Assam is one of the few places in the world where the demographic majority was reconstituted by immigration into the region. Where once the native tribes held a majority, immigration from erstwhile East Bengal and Bangladesh diluted their already limited political power. The mainstream understanding of this immigration is limited to the refugee influx during the 1971 war for Bangladeshi independence. Moreover, the allegiances of Indian Bengalis -who were in positions of power in Assam – to their Hindu-Bengali brethren who were immigrating into the region, heightened the alienation of the local Assamese population. However, Hazarika digs further back into history to reveal the pre-independence immigration of Bengali Mulims into the region. There was a concerted effort by Mohammad Saadulla, the Prime Minister of Assam under British Raj and Mohammad Ali Jinnah to create a Muslim majority in the region so as to legitimize claims of its inclusion into Pakistan. This was eventually thwarted by the intervention of the leaders of Congress, the British beurocrats and Gandhi. However, such historical events linger in the memory of a region. This made possible, the vilification of immigrants and foreigners, diverting attention from the administrative failures that have contributed in large part to the anger and separatist tendencies.

The book is divided into three main sections. “The Bangladesh Syndrome” addresses the historical roots of the North East problem with regards to the partition and 1971 war. It also touches upon the role of East Pakistan and China in creating and supporting the separatist movements. This section does not seem very engaging at first, but helps understand the communist inclinations of some of the rebel groups that will emerge later on. The first few chapters are mostly a third person historical account, unlike the consequent chapters which are interspersed with narrations of the author’s personal experiences and interactions with people like Angami Zapu Phizo, the leader of the Naga National Council. Section 2 titled “The new Rebellions” charts the progression of various separatist movements like the United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland.

The last section called “A Search for Solutions” is only 15 pages long in a 333 page long book. Considering the author’s extensive scholarship on the region, much could have been learned from expounding more in this section. However, many of the cautionary words Hazarika gives in this section echo in today’s context of the government’s decision to update the NRC. This chapter notes that “attacks on refugees of different color and community are increasing” and that governments are becoming more right-wing in order to compete with alt-right movements. In the matter of dealing with the refugee situation, he cautions against attempting to throw them out of the country as this would “mark a violation of their human rights and trigger terrible communal riots”.  What is proposed in the book is that India must “send firm messages to both Nepal and Bangladesh that further infiltration will not be accepted”, but also that India must work with the international community towards “improving the sustenance levels and lifestyles of Bangladesh and Nepal” so as to address the cause rather than the symptom of illegal immigration. Hazarika repeatedly points out that the problems in North East must be viewed as a multilateral issue between nations. He also warns about the dangers of divisive identity politics for the sake of the vote bank, and critiques the BJP for communalizing the North East problem. Much of his critique of the BJP applies to the current government’s approach to the region as well. As comprehensive as this book is, there is a more fundamental ideological struggle against cultural hegemony and biased notions of development that the author has evidenced throughout the book, but not stated explicitly.

The first of these themes that is left unexplored by the book is regarding the conflicting notions of development held by the Indian administration and the locals. Both the British and the initial Nehru administration mostly followed an approach that let the tribal people be in charge of their own affairs. However, the national security threats in the subsequent decades from the Chinese infiltration in Arunachal Pradesh and the war in East Pakistan changed the center’s stance. The government started connecting every remote part of the North East by constructing roads, dams and government institutions. This brought the native communities in touch with the larger Indian society, contact with which was previously limited to the Bengali population. Instead of promoting a bilateral cultural exchange, this exercise created conditions for cultural hegemony. The tribal way of life, of living in symbiosis with nature, was looked down upon as inferior to the concrete jungles and lifestyles of plenty that the Indian elites aspired to. This mindset informed much of the policies of the government which led to the loss of the native identity, breeding resentment among the population. This issue has often been viewed as secondary and disconnected from the seemingly more important problem of lack of development and economic opportunities. This is why much of the scholarly work and political solutions focus on creating economic growth and preventing illegal immigration from diluting the native’s share of the pie. However, this assumes that there is a singular notion of development – economic development – that every citizen aspires to. This assumption puts the tribal peoples’ desire to preserve their way of life directly in conflict with the development machinery. Culture is not only a matter of traditions and language, but also about how a society chooses to define its needs and the methods to achieve it. Although the economic concept of “unlimited wants” (with limited resources) seems all too normal to us, it is not the only way to live life. The story of the North East provides much credence to the saying that development flows from the barrel of the gun.

State repression can often lead to the growth of separatist movements and prove to be counterproductive in the long term. However, as Hazarika writes, the immediate concerns posed to national security by the Chinese support of the separatist movements often overpower any discourse surrounding the course of action. Despite the widespread communist connections of the insurgency movements, the communist allegiance of the separatist movements is misunderstood. This is the second assumption that the Hararika could have questioned but fails to engage with. He writes about the conditions under which these communist ties were formed. After several years of futile appeals to the administration to address their grievances, the communities of the North East found that rebellion was the only language that the government understood. However, it is not easy to create as much disturbance as what the likes of Phizo’s Naga National Council created. Rebellion takes resources, logistics and training, something that was readily provided by the Communist Party of China. Hazarika talks about how the rebels trekked past Arunachal and into China in the aftermath of the 1971 war when the insurgent camps in East Pakistan had become dysfunctional. Therefore, communism was more a conduit for the nationalistic aspirations of the people of the North East. Even though the Communist Party knew that it wasn’t growing the communist bloc, it was enough to for them to be a thorn at India’s side and destabilize the region. Interdisciplinary scholarship with developmental economists like Amartya Sen, social scientists like Hazarika and perhaps even scholars of International Relations would help redefine the narrow-minded epistemological underpinnings that government policies have been based on. It is impossible to end separatist tendencies through development if the government cannot reach a consensus with the locals on what development means in this context. Hazarika has written a book that brings out this palpable dissonance between the notions of development but does not engage with it critically while proposing solutions to the North East problem. This reveals how embedded Hazarika’s work is, in his position as a scholar in leading western academic institutions. He fails to question the epistemological framework upon which his understanding is built and that handicaps his analysis to a certain extent. However, 25 years later, this book remains essential for understanding India’s North East and its people which is a significant achievement by itself for any piece of literature.

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