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DURABLE DISORDER: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India by Sanjib Baruah. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2005.

BOOKS on the Northeast have regularly documented its ‘problems’ or studied ‘crises’ – this agenda itself the first stumbling block to a clear assessment of the region and its unique geographical and political location. This ‘problem’ and ‘crisis’ rhetoric has encouraged ‘description’ or ‘narration’ as the commonest response and ‘persecution’ or ‘neglect’ as the most readily adopted position. Against this scenario, Sanjib Baruah’s work (and both his books, India Against Itself and Durable Disorder are part of the same project) is a salutary attempt to give linguistic and theoretical muscle to analyses of problems, speaking about the region within a widely accepted discourse about nations, constituent nationalities and subnationalist, independentist aspirations. In other words, the rhetoric of ‘problems’ is eschewed in favour of a rhetoric of ‘understanding’.

Both of Baruah’s books are deeply and interestingly located in a specific disciplinary context. As an ‘outside’ reader – someone who approaches the discipline of political science from the discipline (or perhaps indiscipline) of literary and cultural studies – my own contexts of reading both the situation and the book determines what I find in the books. The need to engage with Sanjib Baruah’s work, because both of us are looking at the same site, has also provided the occasion for asking a set of questions that are inevitable to interdisciplinary exchange. Where are the writer and the reader located – are they inside or outside the area of the work in the same way? At what level is the most fruitful interdisciplinary exchange possible – and extending this, particularly in the kind of analysis that is at stake here, who speaks for whom, and who is capable of or has the right to speak? At what precise point, beyond the specific/contingent aspects of his argument, is Sanjib Baruah speaking to me? I realized while reading him that academic exchange across disciplines probably takes place most productively at the level of concepts, and it is the framework or under-structure of both books that is of greatest interest to me.

India Against Itself was a book that spoke at several levels to very different kinds of scholars. While making a sensitive and sympathetic assessment of subnationality – an issue that is interesting in itself and is also therefore a valuable source of information on the area – Baruah also implicitly placed his argument within the postmodernist discourse of ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ and the postcolonial locationist problematic of ‘inside-outside’, indicating the place he was speaking from and legitimizing his revisionist view of separatist/‘independentist’ aspirations. The book used, effectively, the postmodernist knowledge about master and little narratives – keeping them in a kind of balance (despite the federalist solution offered at the end), largely because of the position that Baruah had assigned to himself, of one who was both inside and outside the field of study. Subnationalisms became the little narratives that a master narrative creates, seeks to repress and is subverted by. It is interesting to see how this idea travels into the second book.

Durable Disorder takes the dramatic confrontation of master and little narratives to the theoretically logical point of ‘durability’ – disorder that is here to stay. It projects an image of little narratives that have found their place in the sun – all of them having legitimacy because they have been accommodated within the Indian state in different ways – through invitations to talks, through cultural expressions of their connection with the people, and so on. The idea of their continued existence as little narratives is a romantic alternative that is attractive because of the possibility of their claiming and retaining oppositional space. However, the fact that a concept does not always prove useful but is in fact severely tested by a context is evident in the book’s exploration of different kinds of little narratives and their continuance, which is finally a difficult, perhaps utopian option.

The master/little narrative configuration, the centre/margin one or its exemplar, India/Northeast are binaries that seem destined to be with us in the particular direction that democracy in India has taken. Baruah refers to the ‘protective discrimination regime’(10), and the ‘Indian’ policy of ‘nationalizing (a) frontier space’ (34), including these in a general thematic reiterated throughout the book of democratic sentiments failing to meet the pressures of insurgency – especially because of the perceived needs of counter-insurgency. Baruah’s perception of this centre-margin frame places his argument within a critique of binary relationships – noting the centre’s tendency to articulate its mastery or will to power and therefore continuing to provide fertile ground for the emergence of the resistant or the separatist.

This motif is traced in the conflicts that ‘underscore the dissonance between the ethnic homeland model and the actually existing political economy of the region’(11); in central efforts to find answers by ‘extending state institutions to frontier areas through development efforts’ (25), or nationalizing the peripheral space; or by appointing retired generals as governors. This last is an interesting thesis, particularly in the case of former Assam Governor, S.K. Sinha and his three-pronged strategy of ‘containment of violence’, ‘psychological initiatives’ (making Assam proud of its past, its culture etc, and India of Assam – especially evident in the steps taken during his term as governor to resurrect and project Lachit Barphukan and have Sattriya recognized by the Sangeet Natak Akademi as a classical dance form) and ‘economic development’ (54).

Baruah’s investigation of the role of memory in the process of identity formation is another way of understanding the politics of the Northeast, offering, in the specific cases of Assam and Nagaland, new angles on long-existing insurgencies and their ability to draw sustenance from civil society. He examines once again the politics of subnationalism, seeing in the rise of the ULFA ‘the advent of critical ideas about development’ (125) and the transformation of democracy, because of ‘ULFA’s brand of militant, independentist politics’ (175), and tracing, as in the first book, ‘an unofficial history of the Assamese nationality, its hopes, aspirations and disappointments’ (128) through the songs of Bhupen Hazarika.

Also important in this particular understanding of the region is ‘the cultural politics behind pro-independence movements’, expressed in the recourse to a ‘revisionist historiography linking the Northeast to South East Asia and de-emphasizing its connections with the rest of India’ (54) – something that provides Baruah the occasion to offer his solution in the Look East policy. And a useful step in the process of understanding is the recognition that subnationalisms ‘origin(ate) in and (are) sustained by civil (not political) society – rising in the rupture between civil society and the state’ (134).

In the process Baruah also asks what must be one of the most important questions in understanding separatist tendencies: ‘How does a social space become available for the reproduction of subnational imaginings and political projects’ (135), invoking Bachelard’s concept of the poetics of space (though Baruah does not use it as much as he may have in examining the many levels at which a particular conception of space affects the idea of nationality).

The comparison of past and present is one of the strategies that Baruah follows throughout the book, and he comes to it once again from the familiar colonialist critique of the British imposing ideas about civilization and progress on indigenous agricultural practices – the ‘clash of two resource use regimes’ (84-96) causing a rupture in a society’s conception of itself and becoming another historical source of discontent.

While mapping the region’s unique historical experience as necessary in the effort to understand and analyze, Baruah urges the necessity of review by the centre of its policies for the Northeast. ‘The challenge for India,’ he says, is ‘to reinvent a poetics that rejects the imaginaire of homelands and of peoples with exclusive cultures and histories – one that privileges interrelationships over boundaries’ – an option that seems natural because it is closer to ‘the publicness of Indian homes’ (143). Unfortunately, Baruah does not follow this idea through with a more detailed discussion, perhaps with the help of Bachelard. Instead, one actually hears an echo of the EU model – where small regional interests are comfortably accommodated.

This indeed is the dilemma the book places its readers in. There are very good ideas, interesting perceptions, and necessary new angles of viewing the problems of the region. But with several of the ideas, one is left wishing for that extra edge, that little more. For example, of special interest, given the general theme of the book is the clear image of a dominant centre in the chapter on ‘Generals as Governors’ – a motif that perhaps could have been fleshed out by tracing the centrist narrative in the governor’s constitutional position, but also in Sinha’s case, the distortion of constitutional provisions because of connections with a particular political ideology that helped consolidate and utter a particular nationalist discourse.

Commenting on the problems associated with the use of the term ‘Northeast’, Baruah observes that it ‘cannot easily become the emotional focus of a collective political project’ and may instead become the ‘“place-making strategy” of an oppositional political project’ (4). This accommodation of separatism raises apprehensions about the solution that, in this book, he does not overtly offer. In India Against Itself, Baruah had suggested greater federalism as a panacea for the disintegrative impetus of subnational movements. In this second book, he examines various kinds of ‘disorder’ – tracing them to the centre’s expression of its power and its establishment of the national narrative through the appointment of generals as governors, or nationalizing space by extending the reach of its institutions – and therefore seeing the continuance of ‘disorder’.

But the politico-economic option of the Look East policy does not seem to evolve naturally out of the narrative of disorder and instead appears to be offered almost as an appendix to the book, though one is prepared for it by his references to the cultural links between these regions and the neighbouring countries of South East Asia. While the radical nature of this option would demand closer scrutiny for its economic and political viability, especially in the face of India’s sensitivity to the transgression of borders, the chapter itself, offered as conclusion to the book, is less densely argued than it may have been. Baruah does not scrupulously evaluate the option in its Indian context. Why should he not, for example, have factored in northwestern India’s links with Pakistan and Afghanistan (similar cultural and even closer personal, familial links), or looked at the political and economic efforts of the SAARC, or even critically scrutinized successive Indian efforts to establish business and other connections with countries of the East, instead of merely offering the European Union as a model? I feel that in this case Baruah has not realized the potential of his own theoretical project in the book, especially the position of interpreter and observer whose unique inside-outside vantage point is a luxury many of us do not have. By eliding over India’s own current politico-economic experiments he has denied himself the advantage of accessing the complexity of being inside both Assam and India, and of being outside both.

Having said all this, however, I would still urge that Baruah’s work continues to merit attention. It is satisfying to watch how Baruah balances his concepts and reading positions to frame the two books. Individual chapters reflect the theoretical understructure with which he works – the binary of centre and margin, its role in the creation and sustenance of ‘disorder’, and the related concepts of master and little narratives – preventing this from becoming just another book on the Northeast.

The way the idea of subnationality, integrated into a more federalist structure, shifts into the image of ‘durable disorder’, is very much a function of the position that the viewer/author takes in each case – the outsider-insider status (with emphasis on the outsider in India Against Itself) changing to insider-outsider (with emphasis on the insider in Durable Disorder – Baruah put this collection of essays together while based in Assam on a Ford Foundation fellowship) – the inclusion of little narratives as little narratives, and not as integrated and therefore erased as India Against Itself finally seems to have suggested. One looks forward to the next step in this exhilarating journey of an idea.

Nandana Dutta

TOWARDS AN ASIAN ECONOMIC COMMUNITY: Vision of a New Asia edited by Nagesh Kumar. RIS for Developing Countries, Delhi, and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2004.

INDIA-ASEAN PARTNERSHIP IN AN ERA OF GLOBALIZATION: Reflections by Eminent Persons. RIS for Developing Countries, Delhi, and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2002.

AN adequate review of these two books must take into account their publisher, because it is the purpose of the publisher that lends part of the significance of these volumes, a point to which I shall return in the concluding part of the review. The publisher – Research and Information System (RIS) for Developing Countries – is an autonomous research institution established with financial support of the Government of India as India’s contribution to the creation of a ‘think-tank’ for the developing world on global issues in the field of international economic relations and development cooperation. RIS is also mandated to function as an advisory body to the GOI on matters pertaining to multilateral economic and social issues and is envisioned as a forum for fostering effective intellectual dialogue among developing countries.

The two volumes, thus, are explicitly geared towards facilitating government policy-making processes in the area of multilateral trade and development cooperation. Given the more than a decade-old focus of the government to promote trade and cooperation with East Asia – a thrust popularly known as the ‘Look East’ policy – the articles in these volumes are focused on issues of international economic relations and cooperation that can serve as background information for people working in an advisory capacity for the Indian government.

The volume edited by the Director of RIS, Nagesh Kumar, provides the reader with comprehensive information on the existing and prospective status of trade-figures among a possible Asian economic community and rigorous analysis of the economic rationale for going all-out towards actualizing this vision. The arguments presented in support are very persuasive. The southern part of the globe – mostly consisting of countries known as ‘developing’ – certainly suffers from some handicaps when it comes to the northern ‘developed’ part. Moreover, the international economic policies of the northern countries do not exactly translate into creating a more level playing field. The decade of the 1990s witnessed the formation of regional trading blocs among the developed nations (EU and NAFTA for example) that has led to a rising proportion of the world trade being conducted within these blocs. The blocs were formed in anticipation of increased emphasis on competitiveness and thus were clearly a strategy to curb the rise of competitiveness. As Kumar points out, ‘[g]iven their weight in the world economy and the world trade… the diversion of trade and investment away from the rest of the world economy in favour of intraregional trade has adversely affected the growth process in other regions that are not a part of these blocs’ (2004:1). One key reason for envisioning an Asian Economic Community is therefore strategic. The recent economic crisis in East Asia has made apparent the need for relative financial autonomy of the Asian economy from the already dominating financial system of the developed north. So far there have only been steps towards subregional trading blocs (AFTA and SAFTA are cases in point) in this area. Awareness is growing now for a bloc comprising the entire area of Asia.

The logic behind the vision of an Asian Economic Community is not only outward looking; there are strong internal reasons for pursuing this goal. The potential for a flourishing economic zone already exists, and the individual papers in the volume present different aspects of the potential. Following Kumar’s introduction, we get Shanker’s paper detailing the historical connections between the Asian communities and cultures that have gone into forming what we today generally describe as the Asian civilization. This historical overview provides a compelling argument for reconsidering Asia as a natural economic zone where for centuries the famous Silk Route was used for a vibrant flow of ‘goods and services as well as labour and capital’ amongst the Asian countries. And with trade, as a corollary, came the exchange of ideas that till this date serve as lubricant for cultural exchanges and glues for communal solidarities in this part of the world. History provides evidence for the fact that before colonialism tore asunder this fabric of cultural exchange and trade, Asia as a region had emerged with such exchange. Can history be made to repeat itself? If so, in what form? Without entering into any philosophical speculation for the purpose of this review, we may want to take some cues from history and re-envision an economically and culturally bound prosperous and pluralistic Asia.

The rest of the volume is divided into two parts. Part I, ‘Emerging Patterns of Economic Integration in Asia’ contains three articles covering the ASEAN’s contribution to the building of an Asian Economic Community, an East Asian FTA as a building bloc of an Asian Economic Community and the place and contribution of India towards an Asian Economic Community. Part II, ‘Prospects and Areas of Pan-Asian Economic Integration’ consists of four articles covering the implication of economic cooperation among JACIK (Japan, ASEAN, China, India and Korea) countries, complementarities and potentials of intra-regional transfers of investments, technologies and skills in Asia, the prospects for financial and monetary cooperation in Asia and lastly, a vision of a Reserve Bank of Asia to provide an institutional framework for regional and monetary cooperation in Asia.

While the introduction and the historical overview offer the broad rationale for moving towards an Asian Economic Community, the other two sections offer closer analyses of some of the possibilities and problems on the way. From a purely economic point of view, the question that demands serious consideration is whether an Asian Economic Community will close off opportunities for multilateral trade with countries outside of the community and whether eventually that will prove to be a gain or loss for the members of the community. The strongest argument for an Asian FTA is that a regional economic integration through an AEC will pave the way for the success of the region in the process of further globalization. But if that were not the case, would the closed community be able to distribute the gains of intra-regional trade among the subregions that would be considered fair by all? The problem that might arise in due course is intra-community competitiveness where one subregion may out-compete others that may have similar comparative advantages. The scenario that worries some is the rapid rise of the Chinese economy and the heavy flow of FDI in the Chinese economy which may divert such inflow away from the ASEAN thus affecting ASEAN’s competitiveness.

The AEC, however, should have some important advantages to offset these possible problems. The East and South Asian countries are competitive in several knowledge-driven industries owing to a large workforce of relatively educated population at a comparatively low wage. Regional trade arrangements for these industries can create trade with the coming into force of the economic law of increasing returns that may push their cost curves below the international competitive level. And ‘the more the regional partners pool their skilled labour, the more they can benefit from economies of scale’ (2004:65). As we all know, India, among some others, enjoys some special advantages in this sphere.

An important question that needs immediate attention is the coverage of intra-regional trade. That is, whether it should only be restricted to goods or be extended to services and investment and agricultural products. Would free movement of agricultural products across the region be to the benefit of all the members? Notwithstanding the problems, the volume certainly establishes a case for the existence of complementarities in merchandise trade and production at least among the JACIK countries along with a potential for intra-regional transfers of investments, technology and skills.

Integrally related to FTA are financial arrangements. Stability of exchange rate for the region as a whole is the foremost requirement for a successful AEC. This is what has led to the vision of a Reserve Bank of Asia to provide a framework for regional and monetary cooperation in the region. As the current unipolar world of finance is patently unfair for Asia, the only alternative for Asia is to set up a regional financial infrastructure geared to helping the regional economies along the line of Europe. Any such institution, however, must be built carefully so that the demand for cooperation does not impinge upon the sovereignty of the member nations.

The feasibility of the policy prescriptions made in the first volume is ensured by the political will expressed in the second volume, which contains reflections by eminent persons on India-ASEAN partnership in this era of globalization. The volume emanated from the India-ASEAN Eminent Persons Lecture Series launched in December 1996 with the objective of promoting awareness about the reality and potential of the India-ASEAN partnership. The series aims at updating the image that ASEAN and India have of each other so as to eliminate misunderstandings during interactions as much as possible. The introduction to the volume sums up the objective of the series as ‘Renewal and Symbiosis through Knowledge’ (2002: xvii).

The lectures have been classified in the volume into four broad parts: Part I presents a visionary perspective on the India-ASEAN relation as articulated by the prime minister of Malaysia. Part II includes lectures reflecting on globalization and the East Asian Economic Crisis of 1997. Part III covers lectures dealing with the broad theme of India-ASEAN partnership and opportunities and challenges facing it. Part IV combines lectures dealing with sectoral issues such as science and technology in general and as applied to food and nutrition, sustainable development and health. It also deals with the issue of corporate governance and cultural sovereignty in the context of globalization.

The foremost concern that permeates these reflections is driven by the spectre of the economic crisis of 1997. It taught the ASEAN economies that they were still ill-prepared to participate in the game of global trade and exchange without handicaps, something the more prepared/developed players were not willing to concede to them. The alternative therefore was to withdraw from a completely open yet uneven playing field to embark on creating a more secured trading zone that would allow these economies the necessary time to prepare themselves. Hence the overall agreement to press on towards the eventual creation of an Asian Economic Community.

What the crisis made clear was that currency speculators had played a predatory role in bringing it about and therefore there was an urgent need to subject currency trading and global capital market to some sort of surveillance, transparency, accountability and discipline. The absence of these systemic checks and balances were compounded by the weakness of the banking sector and poor corporate governance. We have to understand the call for an Asian Reserve Bank and related institutional reforms in the financial sector in this context. The Malaysian strategy of dealing with the crisis has been highlighted as an effective one, though Malaysia enjoyed some advantages in this regard which were absent in other economies.

The other issue that has received the most attention is the areas of cooperation between India and the ASEAN nations, given that the economies are characterized by complementarities in their factor and resource endowments and capabilities. Indian strength in IT software, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals were noted and the ASEAN sought assistance from India in these areas.

Unquestionably the two volumes are essential reading for anyone interested in the macro-economic possibilities of regional trade with ASEAN and beyond. One significant question though remains unanswered. In all fairness to the volume, however, it must be admitted that the question is being posed from outside the logic of the compilation of the volumes. This is where we come back to the point made at the very beginning of the review: the significance of the purpose of the organization in compiling and publishing the volumes.

Since RIS functions as a think-tank for the Government of India, the economy in question is an aggregate of the actual diverse and uneven economic scenario of the nation. The economic analysis we find in the volumes is macro-economic analysis, since the economic interest represented here is that of the nation as a whole which, as we all know, is an imaginary. Economic development and problems are very unevenly distributed across the length and breadth of the nation-state. And it is this unevenness that gives shape and colour to electoral politics in democratic India. It is taken as given in a democracy that the political interests of the ruling group do not necessarily reflect the demands and aspirations of all the peoples within its territorial jurisdiction nor does the ‘national’ interest take into account the historical differences in the life-situations of the people in different parts of the country.

It is politics therefore that has to supplement the aggregative economic analysis of the volumes. The vast differences in the nature and priorities of civil societies in various parts of India makes macro-economic planning only the first step towards making actual economic policies.

Especially in the case of India-ASEAN economic cooperation or the formation of an AEC, the political situation of the northeastern region of India will have to be brought to the centre of such deliberations. If indeed we want to take a cue from history and want to revitalize an Asian cultural-economic community, then we must consider trade routes through the Northeast, for it is the people of the Northeast who are the living proof of the exchanges and migrations that made the emergence of Asia possible. A re-envisioning of that network and exchange must therefore allow for an active role for the people of the Northeast by way of building the necessary infrastructures for trade as well as revising institutional constraints on trade like the irrational tariff structure. The macro-economic aggregative projections will therefore have to be supplemented by detailed cost-benefit analysis of such facilitating measures.

At this point, however, we run into a critical problem that calls into question the raison d’etre of the nation itself. We have been talking about the ‘people’ of the Northeast who are the living proof of a historical Asian community. But one of the major problems in the Northeast today turns on precisely this question: who exactly are the people of the Northeast? Aside from socio-historical research into the bewildering diversity of culture and history among the people who at present reside in the Northeast, the urgent need is for a political imagination that can create a plural democratic culture among the splintering ethnic groups of the region.

The risk that we run is that a successful political imagination may run counter to the territorial logic of the nation-state of India.

Dulali Nag

ASSAM AND INDIA: Fragmented Memories, Cultural Identity, and the Tai-Ahom Struggle by Yasmin Saikia. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005.

Fragmented Memories is indeed a welcome break in the gray litany of the conventional histories of Assam. We have been ostensibly spared the pain of another stale, linear account of annexation, colonization and recovery of a pregiven space and a predefined people. Elegantly structured and lucidly written, this book imaginatively oscillates between anthropology and history to appreciate how the category (Tai-) Ahom was produced, understood and lived over at least the last two hundred years.

The central argument of the book is simple and provocative. The precolonial references to the Ahom did not denote a fixed ethnic community. On the contrary, Saikia contends, ‘[t]he Ahom in the buranjis was both an idea and a system designed to strengthen a pluralistic crossroads society and culture.’ As the term travelled to the colonial period, it was increasingly rigidified, racialized, and inferiorized in the official imagination. Such colonial crystallizations substantially contributed to the Tai-Ahom identity movement in postcolonial India which, through its sharp articulation of transnational cultural affinities and passionate construction of local histories, has radically ethnicized the meaning of being an Ahom.

If accepted, the thesis can reverse a foundational credo of Assam history and creatively disengage it from the residual ideology of identities. Particularly the claim about ‘[t]he loose, fuzzy, indefinable Ahom’ of the precolonial period can simultaneously upset government and guerrilla agendas today. Unfortunately, evidences fail to catch up with the majesty of the contention. First of all, the absolute opposition that Saikia sets up between precolonial fluidity and colonial inflexibility is difficult to sustain at both the empirical and theoretical levels. The remarkably contingent and constrained power of the colonial state in its northeastern frontier makes us wary of the neo-nationalist demonology which unsuspectingly reproduces the imperialist self-image of the British regime as an omnipotent totalizing force.

Second, her fascinating interrogation of the Ahom buranjis seems a little opinionated and frequently energized by a strategic confusion between precolonial titular designations and collective self-expressions. In her eagerness to discover the non-ethnic perspectives of the precolonial Ahom, saikia elides the question of the structures of inequality and offers almost an idealized and sanitized image of the precolonial regimes. Paiks appear only once in the entire book and what the British chose to understand as slavery is not even brought up. Consequently, despite her admittance that she ‘cannot determine definitively what “Ahom” meant in precolonial Assam,’ it seems perfectly plausible to her that ‘[e]veryone within the [ahom] polity had the potential to fit within this category.’

Third, while initiating a much-needed discussion about the cultural-political landscape of the Brahmaputra, Saikia fails to problematize, what Appadurai has called, the production of locality as ‘an ideology of situated community.’ Her recurrent references to ‘Upper Assam’ as a distinct homeland for the tai-Ahom identity movement do not deal much with the ways in which this particular spatial register was drawn up within the colonial matrix. But if it is claimed that ‘Ahom was not a specific group identity, but a position connected to its place – that is, Ahom was only in the domain of swargadeos [monarchs],’ a more thorough analysis of the question of precolonial territoriality may be in demand.

It is no place to point out the trifles, even if it is as glaring a mistake as putting the date of the establishment of the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies as 1904 (instead of 1928) or as significant an exclusion as she imposes on a strong and popular Indological tradition (from, say, H. Torrens in 1840 to Nagendranath Vasu in 1922) which sought to invent an Aryan ancestry for the Ahoms. But the anthropologist in Saikia certainly gets the better of the historian. Her exciting and extensive fieldwork in the Tai-Ahom villages painstakingly portrays the colourful details of recent history. With a remarkable ease she shuttles between interview texts, childhood memories, family conversations, promotional literatures and media reports to give us a good sense of the overlapping careers of the independentist ULFA and the revivalist Ban Ok. However, the hurry with which Saikia leaves the debate around identity and homeland and settles in favour of a more humane but nonetheless integrationist Indianism at the finale of the book – scribing a one-page prescription for the Indian history curricula – is a little perplexing, given her sensitivity to the concerns of the community imagination which often spills over the sanctioned boundaries of the nation-state.

Applause to Saikia, once again, for making a start towards unsettling the boundaries she ultimately chose to remain trapped within.

Bodhisattva Kar

MAKING SENSE OF CHINDIA: Reflections on China and India by Jairam Ramesh. India Research Press, 2005.

AS rising powers cohabiting a common geopolitical space, it is natural that India and China will find that their paths frequently intersect in the future. This is all the more so given the combined weight they will come to command in the global system. It is indeed a measure of growing interest that comparative assessments of India and China are increasingly becoming both fashionable and inevitable. Jairam Ramesh chooses the interesting wordplay Chindia to describe the interactions of this dyad in his new book Making Sense of Chindia. The book is a veritable melange, offering perspectives on issues ranging from the role of US in the region, the Sino-Pak equation, prospects for India-China economic cooperation, role of Islam in Chinese history to China’s battle with AIDS. With a foreword by Strobe Talbott, the book is a valuable contribution towards understanding the nature of India’s growing engagement with China. This is especially useful at a time when scholars are debating the emerging contours of this important relationship.

Arguing for the need to jettison ‘old mindsets’, Jairam Ramesh makes a strong case to strengthen sub-regional economic cooperation between the contiguous regions of India’s Northeast, China’s Southwest, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Sub-regional cooperation, as he rightly points out, is not a ‘recipe for the Balkanisation of India’ but holds the promise of ‘building new bridges, both physically and politically.’ China’s goal of developing its southwestern region indeed coincides with India’s own domestic imperative of strengthening the external orientation of the Northeast. It would, however, have been useful if Ramesh had explored the feasibility of this idea more critically, given the fact that while it makes strong economic sense India is unlikely to view this purely as a commercial proposition with unalloyed benefits.

China’s rising economic, strategic and physical presence in its neighbourhood is likely to induce a certain reserve on the part of India to support Chinese initiatives to foster multi-dimensional trans-border linkages. What China does when it achieves preponderant economic power is thus hardly likely to be seen as a ‘separate issue’ by India. This will explain why, although it is willing to engage China bilaterally, India is clearly not comfortable with engaging it sub-regionally. China’s southern thrust will be seen to hold huge implications for India including issues relating to water management and management of the ecosystem and biodiversity. These need to be urgently placed on the agenda of India-China talks since the Tibetan ‘water bank’ is in every sense Asia’s water bank and the environmental sustainability of Tibet means the environmental sustainability of much of Asia.

Commenting on India’s attempts to forge linkages with its eastern neighbourhood, Ramesh makes the curious assertion that India is yet to actualise many of its ‘lofty announcements’. He fails to take note of how India is beginning to shed its long held inhibitions to trade by land and is actively involved in creating a sub-regional communication network, including the East to West corridor through Myanmar, to integrate the Northeast with the economies of Southeast Asia.

On the whole, it would have enhanced the value of the book had the author tried to locate the dynamics of Chindia within a broad template that draws interlinkages between their bilateral, regional as well as global level interactions and, more importantly, shown how these are likely to play out on critical issues. This calls for a more nuanced understanding of Chindia since there are inherent dangers in viewing this dyad only through the prism of conflict or cooperation. As India moves away from making simplistic binary choices of seeing China either as a friend or as an implacable foe, it will be interested in defining the relationship with China more broadly. What is often missed in analysis is the fact that cooperation and competition will not have parallel trajectories but will increasingly intersect on all critical issues. For instance while much is made of the commitment to the norm of multipolarity that India and China share, India’s determined pursuit of multipolarity would also imply increasing pressure on China to accede to the norm within Asia.

The shared commitment to the principle of power sharing notwithstanding, there will be differences on how each interprets it. Again while both will have common stakes in the process of Asian regionalism, increasingly Chindia will become a site for multiple contestations on key definitional issues, questions of inclusion and exclusion and prioritization of security concerns. Contestation however does not make conflict inevitable. Under the rubric of engagement, there exists considerable scope for forming issue-based coalitions on areas where their interests converge as shown by successful coordination on diverse issues such as the G-22, Montreal Protocol and joint equity stakes in overseas oil and gas fields among others.

By tracking the rapidly transforming trajectories of India and China through a comparative interpretative lens, Jairam Ramesh is essentially studying a fast moving target. This is a task he does justice to and thus provides a good addition to the ongoing debate on the subject. The inclusion of a list of references, a bibliography and an index would have been definite value additions to the book.

Nimmi Kurian

WOOING THE GENERALS: India’s New Burma Policy by Renaud Egreteau. Authorspress and Centre de Sciences Humaines, Delhi, 2003.

THIS work, the product of two years research by the author who is a scholar at the French Foreign Affairs Ministry sponsored Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities, Delhi, delineates and analyses what it sees as India’s ‘new’ policy towards the military regime in Burma, from around the time when the land that was historically (and in colonial times) known by this name formally took on the ancient nomenclature of Myanmar, in May 1989, in a throwback to a name derived from a ‘golden past’.

Its focus is on the shifts, real or perceived, in Indian policy towards Myanmar over the years, in particular in the context of the military coup of September 1988 (actually a ‘coup within a coup’) and the vicious crackdown that followed, the disorganised defiance by the fragmented democratic forces united only in opposition to the military regime (the State Law and Order Restoration Council – (SLORC) which reinvented itself as the State Peace and Development Council (SPRC) in November 1997), the persecution of Aung San Suu Kyi under both the dispensations and the continued impasse in the promised transition to democracy and civilian rule in Myanmar – which the democratic opposition continues to denote as Burma.

The time frame of the analysis during which these shifts are traced and analysed is about a decade and a half, beginning with the military crackdown of September 1988. A rather less defining policy initiative that has influenced these shifts is the enunciation and implementation of the so-called ‘Look East Policy’, coinciding, not by accident in this reviewer’s opinion, with other major shifts in the country’s economic and political policies supposedly necessitated by the changes in the balance of economic and political forces internationally – the emergence of the US as the sole super power and everything that has followed therefrom – though such inferences are not spelt out by the author.

Its broad perspective is that such a policy, which inescapably also means accommodation with the military regime in Myanmar, is not in the long term interest of India, or even of Myanmar, not to speak of the legitimacy it has bestowed on the military regime and, to that extent, made the process of transition to democracy more difficult than ever.

Like much work on contemporary affairs, the book published barely two years ago already appears rather dated. This is so because of its political perspective which is influenced by a perception that the political dispensation then in office in Delhi (the BJP headed NDA) was there more or less for good; and that the ideological contours of this policy and the shifts therein were heavily influenced by the Huntington thesis, the so-called clash of civilisations, in which India saw Myanmar as an ally in its struggle against ‘Islamic fundamentalism’.

The obverse of this perception is that the political forces opposed to the BJP were motivated by ‘moral’ considerations in the conduct of foreign policy. This policy, with its ‘idealist and humanist… thrust’ (p. 121) based on ‘the moralistic and idealist perspective of Indian diplomacy’ (p. 135) is at various other points described as having been ‘fundamentally idealistic’ (p. 128), of having had ‘solid roots in Gandhian and Nehruvian traditions’ (p. 131), ‘idealist and moralising’ (pp. 132-3), and so on. Indeed, the fundamental perspective of the sub-section entitled ‘India’s realist turnaround’ (part III, chapter Six, pp. 132 ff) is informed by this supposed dichotomy between the ‘moralism’ that was central to Indian policy towards Burma (that was) during the times of Nehru and Thakin Nu, and the ‘real politick’ that is a feature of the post Rajiv Gandhi dispensation.

What this analysis ignores is that countries, big or small, superpowers or little blobs on the world map few would recognise, have permanent national interests that inevitably also get reflected in and determine their foreign policies. The point hardly needs to be made in respect of India’s policy towards Myanmar, or Myanmar’s towards India. Indeed, the historical background provided in the two chapters of Part I, despite the recourse taken to infelicitous and turgid concepts like ‘geo-strategy’ and geopolitics’, does underline this continuity, from Nehru to Narasimha Rao to Vajpayee. As the author’s own facts and analysis show, India’s ‘new’ Burma policy is not really so new at all.

They also provide some useful information, some of it of only a historical curiosity value, about the number and spread of persons of Indian origin in Myanmar, their religious breakdown, patterns of migration, the degree of ‘Burmanisation’ (which ceased or became irrelevant long before ‘Burma’ as a political nomenclature ceased to exist, and such matters. The author also provides some useful insights into the influence of the Indian freedom movement on colonial Burma’s own national resurgence and assertion as found expression in its political parties and organisations. That this resurgence, even while being influenced by the Indian currents and ideas, also necessarily had an ‘anti-Indian’ element is one of those contradictions that informed India-Burma relations, though such ‘anti-Indianism’ is now a marginal issue.

Quite naturally, the most interesting part of the book is its delineation and analysis of India’s ‘Look East’ Policy’ – seen by the author as the defining element of ‘India’s New Burma policy’ – hence the sub-title. The book provides much useful background information about the evolution of this policy, the interlocking and parallel structures created as part of this policy, as well as the Byzantine calculations behind these games that countries play (pp. 103ff).

1. July 1997: Myanmar joins ASEAN.

2. 6 June 1997: BIST-EC (Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation) comes into being.

3. 22 December 1999: Myanmar, with common boundary with India and Thailand, joins BIST-EC, transforming it to BIMST-EC. [Third BIMST-EC summit in Delhi, July 2000].

4. China enters the field with its Kunming initiative. Members include BIMST-EC, minus Sri Lanka and Thailand, plus China. Kunming I, 15-17 August 1999, in Kunming, Yunan, China.

5. Kunming II (now known as BCIM initiative) in Delhi, 5-6 December 2000.

6. Kunming III: Dhaka, 6-7 February 2002.

7. Mekong-Ganga cooperation (MGC), a new entrant into these regional arrangements. Members: India, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Essentially an Indian initiative, this keeps both Bangladesh and China out. First meeting of MGC, Vientiane, 10 November 2000.

8. MGC II: Hanoi, 27-28 July 2001.

The inference drawn and the interpretation made of this policy is however not useful or even clear.

‘Thus, the diplomatic choice of developing institutions has enabled India to move closer to Myanmar by entering into a regionalist institutional network,* along with it. None the less, while the political progress achieved within the purview of the Indian “Look East Policy” has demonstrated India’s willingness to dialogue with the Burmese dictatorship, the hidden intent could bell be the reshaping of Asia’s strategic map by putting the South-East Asian countries at the centre of a possible strategic competition between India and China.’

In a footnote at the point denoted by the asterisk, the author informs, though this bit of information hardly clarifies matters further, that this ‘regionalist institutional network’ could also include the ASEAN Region Forum (ARF) and the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAC) of which, the author further helpfully informs, India is a full member – unlike ASEAN.

It is surely not accidental that this process of ‘structuralisation’ (if one is permitted to coin such a horrible word), with all its contending and collaborating features began with Myanmar becoming a full member of ASEAN, in the teeth of opposition by the US and the European Union (which refuse to acknowledge the new name), so deeply and touchingly committed to Human Rights. Indeed, Myanmar has refused to stand down from its chairmanship of ASEAN, which it is due to assume next year when the rotating chairmanship devolves on it, despite the threat of the US and the European Union to boycott the summit which will be held in Myanmar.

The bulk of concluding part of the book constitutes a cautionary critique. India is bound to come a cropper if it continues to cherish the illusion that its accommodation with the military regime, coupled with its ‘Look East Policy’, actually little more than a forward policy under a new garb, will somehow provide it with a strategic advantage in the region over China, simply because China has been longer in this game than India.

Perhaps. But more central to this cautionary critique is the perception, indeed the conviction, that any accommodation with the military regime in Myanmar is not merely not advisable, but is also immoral. This is in tune with the selective morality of much western thinking on the polity of countries of what used to be known as the third world – the good, the bad and the ugly. Like the Lord High Executioner, the US (with its allies always going along, with some initial demurs) continually renews and revises its own Little List of countries that need to be disciplined. After Iraq, it is the turn of Iran now. Tomorrow, Cuba, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Burma, Russia too, according to the US Secretary of State, all of which require the tonic of democracy to be administered with force and violence if necessary. The world has gone beyond the old policy of isolating the baddies which, events turned out, never worked. The US policy of ‘isolating China’, a ridiculous idea if ever there was one, simply did not work. So, we have now instead a more activist intervention to bring about regime changes in counties that do not satisfactorily meet the requirements laid out by powerful NGOs and advocates of ‘human rights’ based in the US and West Europe – the very regions that pillaged the Third World. No one seems to have even suggested that more than any of these countries, the US qualifies to be at the top of the ‘Little List’.

Wooing the Generals, in theory and in an ideal world, is not a good policy, though the mere fact of a government, or even a regime being headed by generals, does not make it necessarily undemocratic. Some of the worst war criminals in history have been civilians, though the US Presidents who were and are war criminals have got away with murder because God and Justice has always been on the side of the Big Battalions. In the case of Myanmar, the Generals are also clever politicians, as has been demonstrated in the numerous accommodations they have reached with sections of the democratic opposition, though they are yet to succeed in their true aim of marginalizing Aung San Suu Kyi. This does stand in contrast with the actions forty years ago of another set of Generals, in the neighbourhood, who sorted out with the active support of the US and its allies another civilian leader – President Sukarno of Indonesia.

M.S. Prabhakara