Review: Understanding India’s Northeast: A Reporter’s Journal by Rupa Chinai

While Rupa Chinai’s latest book, which draws on her three-and-a-half decade long engagement with the north east, features warm human stories, it also highlights the great need to preserve the region’s fragile ecology

books Updated: Dec 07, 2018 20:02 IST
Thangkhanlal Ngaihte
Thangkhanlal Ngaihte
Hindustan Times
reportage,Brahmaputra,Assam
In a photograph dated January 29, 2013, miners keep warm by a fire inside a deep mine shaft near Rymbai village in Meghalaya. (AFP)
351pp; Rs 600; Earthcare Books

In 1980, Rupa Chinai, along with a senior colleague, went to Guwahati for the first time to report on the incipient Assam movement against “illegal immigrants”. They stayed in the region for a month touring Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya. The visit yielded a special supplement in Himmat weekly magazine entitled “Northeast in Turmoil.”

The visit also led to Chinai’s life-long bonding with the troubled, if beautiful, northeast region and its people. Her insights gleaned from more than three decades of being associated with the region form the body of her book, Understanding India’s Northeast: A Reporter’s Journal (2018).

Unlike books which set out to analyse a pre-given question, this work looks for issues and engages with them extemporaneously. The issues discussed differ widely from state to state and each state, except for Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, has a chapter devoted to it. The long period covered means that some facts and observations may no longer be relevant and it is occasionally difficult to link the incidents narrated with the time and location. More careful referencing of the works cited or used, including the author’s own, would have made the book easier to navigate.

In a picture from April 2011, a crane lifts miners out of a 300ft deep mine shaft near Lad Rymbai, in the district of Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya. (Getty Images)

Despite these quibbles, I have to add that the book is an eye-opener and I loved it. The people of the northeast people often gripe about reporters who parachute in, meet with predictable sources, and pass ill-considered judgments. Rupa Chinai is not one of those reporters. She does not focus on breaking news or making headlines. Instead, she digs deep and finds common ground. Her modus operandi is to embed within tribal communities for weeks, examine the reasons for conflict and alienation, and attempt to give pointers to a sustainable future for them. For once, insurgencies and political conflict do not dominate the narrative.

There are many warm, if sad, human stories. The reader meets Abdul Karim, a char islander in the Brahmaputra who braves the flood waters each year to eke out a precarious living for himself, his three wives and 12 children. It is impossible not to note the number of Karim’s wives and children, which fits a certain stereotype perfectly. But Karim does not come across as a dangerous “illegal Muslim immigrant”. He is, like many around him, just trying to stay afloat. His day begins at 3am when he goes fishing -- something which will earn him Rs150 in the market. The money barely covers his family’s food expense for the day. The flood has destroyed 70 percent of his crops, and his children romp around the river bank, unaware of the bleak future that awaits them. One of them, Saher Ali, a class two student at a school comprising a thatched hut with three wooden benches, declares that “the prime minister of India is Mahatma Gandhi.” “When I grow up,” he adds, “I will go to Guwahati and Tezpur. After a lot of days, after I have grown up, I will go to Bombay and visit you.”

Chinai walks us through the daily struggles of the tea labourers who are confined to their isolated enclaves, oblivious of the outside world. Here, the literary rate is 25 percent against Assam’s average rate of 73, and children start plucking tea leaves at 11 and marry by 15. She uncovers the ghastly reality behind the exclamation, “I would rather die than be a tribal born in Tripura!” She takes us to the deep interiors of Mon and Tuensang districts of Nagaland, where people still trek for miles for basic dispensary facilities. The author also elaborates on the damages wrought by the Bodo traditional loan system called kuruk which charges interest rates of up to 10 percent per month. Those who cannot repay have to forfeit their livestock, property and land, and are forced to leave the village.

Author Rupa Chinai (Tomi Ete)

And then there is growing encroachment from state projects and haphazard resource extractions. Preserving the region’s fragile ecology is now a pressing challenge. Chinai’s survey indicates that states like Nagaland, where land is generally owned by the community, have a better chance of collectively resisting the onslaught. Places like Lad Rymbai in Meghalaya, where land is privately owned, simply could not resist the lure of easy money from coal extraction. This new money from land acquisitions and mineral extraction makes a few people millionaires, but further impoverishes the majority and ravages the land. It exacerbates income inequality, dilutes deeply held values and threatens to tear apart the social fabric. There is warning here for other tribal regions too, including the Zomi areas of the Manipur hills, where land is held in the name of the village chiefs.

Read more: Curse of the black gold: How Meghalaya depends on coal

An expose of what ails the northeast from the inside, this book also provides words of caution on what is coming from the outside. Urgent questions need to be answered: What mechanisms can ensure community participation in development plans? What are the downsides of tourism promotion? What are the ecological costs of the necessary transition from jhum cultivation to plantations or cash crops? Are call centres and hotel management the only avenues for unemployed youth? The conversation must start now.

Thangkhanlal Ngaihte teaches political science at Churachandpur College, Lamka, Manipur.

First Published: Dec 07, 2018 20:02 IST