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Home / Columns / In the Northeast, BJP makes a U-turn, writes Shekhar Gupta

In the Northeast, BJP makes a U-turn, writes Shekhar Gupta

Vajpayee fought Nehru for imposing ILP restrictions. His successors have extended it

columns Updated: Dec 12, 2019 21:08 IST
Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar Gupta
Nehru’s Northeast approach rested on ‘hastening slowly’, or gradual integration. The Jana Sangh did not approve
Nehru’s Northeast approach rested on ‘hastening slowly’, or gradual integration. The Jana Sangh did not approve (File Photo)
         

The tribal states of the Northeast have been promised Inner Line Permit (ILP) protection from the fallout of the CAB-NRC process. To explain what this means, I need to do some storytelling. One very special privilege of holding a most distant outpost in difficult times is how much attention, time and affection you can get from people who’d be way above your station in “normal” times.

One of my many blessings of my three-year stint in the Northeast as The Indian Express correspondent based in Shillong (1981-83), therefore, was how some brilliant, old, and eminent people dropped by, mostly unannounced, at our tiny “Assam Type” cottage home in a quaintly named neighbourhood, Kench’s Trace. One such, on a brilliant and fortuitous afternoon, was NK “Nari” Rustomji, a doyen of what used to be called the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS). It was designed to manage India’s most sensitive northeastern border (essentially tribal) states. It consisted of a tiny, elite of the elite, set of officers, hand-picked by Jawaharlal Nehru and his tribal affairs adviser (especially for the Northeast), anthropologist Verrier Elwin.

Rustomji, an Indian Civil Service officer of the 1942 batch, had been a favourite of both. He had held the most important positions in those difficult and dangerous decades, including as prime minister (PM) to the Chogyal of Sikkim. Long after retiring, he had become a writer and was a devastating raconteur. He was spending time in Shillong because he was working on a new book: Imperilled Frontiers. He had earned much fame already with an earlier one called Enchanted Frontiers.

In the early 80s, the Northeast had four active insurgencies (Naga, Mizo, Manipuri and Tripura tribals) and a mass movement in Assam so popular it had blocked off the flow of crude from its oil fields to mainland India’s refineries. That’s why the book’s title, Imperilled Frontiers.

One theme recurring through his book drafts was “hastening slowly”. He said this was the innovative plan Nehru and Elwin had devised for the Northeast’s tribal regions. They wanted change to come to these distant, sparsely populated, tribal and sensitive regions eventually, but at a pace that these fragile communities and geographies could absorb.

Elwin, by the way, was a self-taught anthropologist who fell in love with Indian tribes, became a friend of Nehru and, in 1954, became the first Briton to be given Indian citizenship. It is only then that he was appointed the adviser to the PM on tribal affairs, especially in the North Eastern Frontier Agency or NEFA as Arunachal Pradesh was then called. In 1957, he published his Philosophy for NEFA. You can find more details in Ramachandra Guha’s biography of Elwin.

The essential pillar of the philosophy was that “people should develop along the lines of their own genius and we should avoid imposing anything on them”.This rested on the idea of controlling and carefully calibrating the interaction between these communities and “outsiders”. ILP restrictions on outsiders from the rest of India freely travelling to these states was the instrument to implement this. Nagaland, Arunachal (NEFA) and later Mizoram came to be thus “protected” with ILP.

Not everybody agreed. Least of all the Right-nationalists of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party). It saw the usual Nehruvian woolly-headedness here, and sometimes, even a diabolical Western conspiracy. Even at their most charitable, they compared these ILP areas with the Reservations the Americans had built for their natives. Why should we quarantine our fellow Indians into the wild, only so missionaries could go and convert them at will?

The Hindu Right was joined in its fears by socialist Ram Manohar Lohia. He made two visits to NEFA to break through ILP restrictions, was arrested, and returned.

After the 1962 debacle, these voices strengthened. Under pressure, a broken Nehru conceded the demand from the Jana Sangh — articulated by young Atal Bihari Vajpayee — that India resettle one lakh “sturdy” Punjabis, especially Sikh ex-servicemen in NEFA. Elwin fought back. The Jana Sangh, however, said the state which the Chinese had just invaded, had a Muslim chief secretary, Parsi adviser (Rustomji), and a Christian chief anthropologist (Elwin). It was unacceptable. Guha’s biography mentions how Elwin visited the home ministry on February 21, 1964, and was told by another Northeast specialist officer, Rashid Yousuf Ali, that the decision to resettle Punjabis and lift all restrictions was final. He had the file on his desk. The next day Elwin met friend Nehru. He died the day after, at 62. Three months later, Nehru died too.

Time-travel now quickly to today. Nehru, under his “British” friend’s influence, bought into the idea of ILP. Vajpayee and Lohia wanted it out. Over the following six decades, successive Indian governments allowed restrictions to weaken, and the result was welcome integration, hastening slowly.

Now, Vajpayee and the Jana Sangh’s children haven’t just re-strengthened the ILP restrictions, but extended them to an entirely new state, Manipur, and also added to it Nagaland’s Dimapur, a bustling cosmopolitan town in the plains.

Postscript: For all the talk of his Christian influence, Elwin had ceased to be a Christian years ago. He was cremated according to Buddhist rites in Shillong.

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