IN THE NAME OF THE NATION: India and Its Northeastby Sanjib Baruah. Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, 2020.
TWENTY years after his seminal, and in many ways, his most read book, India Against Itself, Sanjib Baruah’s latest work, In the Name of the Nation: India and Its Northeast (2020) is an illuminating account of India’s postcolonial frontier and, self-avowedly, one in which history meets memory. Baruah’s earlier work has not only been a significant part of the production of intellectual knowledge on the region but also remains a ‘critical event’ in the historiography of the contemporary Northeast.
Among other contributions, one benefit of that first book was the author’s attempt to liberate the Northeast from the hitherto flat and totalizing narrative that had reduced the region into what he elsewhere refers to as India’s tribal and ‘Mongolian fringe’, collating perceptions of both colonial governors and native Indians about how it appeared to others.1 If the concern about an emerging complex political landscape in India’s Northeast inscribed with turmoil and subnationalist revolt was its core, a theme that he further complicated in Durable Disorder (2005), In the Name of the Nation, the author explains is an attempt to analyse the racialized optics through which this frontier has been viewed and ‘managed’.
Baruah’s nuanced understanding of what was a spatial enigma to the colonialists to a vast territory straddling several international borders that needed governance dovetails seamlessly into the politics behind the creation of Excluded Areas and Partially Excluded Areas (including the Tribal Areas of Assam), a territory he argues is ‘now a large part of today’s Northeast India’ (p. 27). In the opening chapter of the book, ‘The Invention of Northeast India’, Barua builds his thesis around this imperial frontier that directed strategic plans for a ‘Crown Colony’ between 1945-46 with designs to administer the region alongwith Burma as a British protectorate, away from the rest of the country, which eventually failed to take off.2 This exclusionary metaphor borrowed from colonial geography becomes for Baruah a point of entry into his now widely acknowledged discourse on the nation and the Northeast, in the larger ambit of South Asian social and political history.
In this theatre of territory and control, the task of fixing and forging identities of the various peoples of Northeast India in the pre-independence era assumes for the postcolonial state an urgent preoccupation, the author reasons while its ‘official imagining of the region’ emerges as a vexing issue concomitant with matters of nation and citizenship. To this drama unfolding in the peripheries of the nation-state, the borderland dynamic against an animated history of Partition throws up the ‘citizen/foreigner binary’ in the Northeast, a trope that has been the raison d’etre of much of Baruah’s recent academic and political writing.
In The Name of the Nation resonates, particularly for the reader familiar with Northeast India’s borderland studies, with the rich intertexts available in the works of David Ludden, M.S. Prabhakara, Willem van Schendel, and more recently Malini Sur, among others, that provide the matrix on which Baruah founds his poetics of Partition memory and the ‘impossible desire’ of belonging. Even as the debate on citizenship in Assam and Northeast India, amidst the CAA-NRC triggered movement continues to rage (now pushed to the backseat, as the pandemic threatens to overhaul all lives) the author’s disclaimer to steer away from discussions on the citizenship question or the ‘migrant’ obfuscates the reader’s expectation of a sustained argument of this in the book (p. 56). Yet most of Baruah’s energetic exegesis of the paradox that the ‘Northeast’ seems to be, and its troubled relations with the nation state which he states what the book is about, is dotted in this chapter with accounts of humane and affective experiences of border crossings rendering the figure of the migrant central if uncertain and ‘ambiguous’.
These early chapters of In the Name of the Nation set down the tone and the complex milieu that frame the narrative, taking the ‘frontier’ as the vantage from which the history of this region is observed. Baruah’s hints of a possible postnational nature of citizenship somewhat recalls Saskia Sassen’s earlier and famous postulations on the western migrant in her eponymous Guests and Aliens (2000), caught in a similar if different citizen-building exercise of documentation, bureaucratic authority and governmentality leading to a perhaps more pragmatic approach to human mobilities.3 If the former’s concern about precarious citizenship in this book is foreshadowed in the identity politics that occupies much space in his previous works, it is also possible to connect the larger themes of In the Name of the Nation with the keywords of a 2007 policy paper Baruah called ‘Postfrontier Blues’.4 Understandably, his recent work develops these ideas first introduced as a possible policy intervention, something that he revisits in the third chapter, which to my mind is central to both the book’s architecture and theme.
The strength of Baruah’s arguments, I imagine, lies in the honing and development of the neologism of the ‘postcolonial frontier’ that emerges from his close and critical engagement with the idea of the Northeast, deepening the epistemologies that shaped his original insights into this embattled space. To be sure, In the Name of the Nation advances the need for a shift in the lens with which Northeast India has been viewed for far too long. Clearly, for Baruah whose intimate understanding of the region precedes his theory, the identity prism which has held together most studies and recent research is an exhausted project – historically, intellectually and ontologically. The lonely and sad figure of the migrant replaces the formidable gun-toting rebel, easily the Northeast’s most famous visual icon for several decades, in the public imaginary which now inhabits both popular representations as well as scholarly accounts. Baruah’s new book indicates strongly that political economies of migrations and resource is what turns the region, arguably contentious for the nation-state, into ‘both a settlement and a resource frontier. Northeast India (thus) may be the perfect example’ (pp. 76-77).
Claims of indigeneity, a layered notion in the present politics of nationhood, and prevailing hierarchies among the easy binaries of settler/indigenous, tribal/non-tribal or an even more pronounced dichotomy of recent times, migrant/citizen, Baruah argues, make for growing inequities in the developing economies of the world. While the fixed notions of a territorially determined nation-state favour exclusionary politics, the author optimistically reimagines settlement frontiers as ‘inclusive’ and ‘hybrid places’ of globalization that however, paradoxically, legitimizes new forms of dispossession, extraction and even expulsion. This narrative of development is mediated by the present anxiety of nature’s disengagement from local livelihoods and ecology, as apparent, for example, in the coal frontier of Meghalaya and its lifeworld. Lopsided wealth and elite clusters that flourish from the practice of such extractive economies in the region transform social relations, something that animates Baruah’s conversations, personal memory and ethnographic research, and which is an important marker he emphasizes, of how societies prosper or fail.
Most of the book, while addressing serious theoretical considerations of the nation-state, the frontier and democracy is also an exercise in reading social behaviour and responses to contingent realities of present-day Northeast India. The author’s self-reflexive participation in it reinvents the political theory he offers. Materiality and its discontents, whether of native populations or in respect of the sovereign nation state, retell for the reader what Baruah asserts must be the approach to development, ‘not as a category of analysis, but as a category of practice’ (p. 88). Thus, In the Name of the Nation also doubles as an anthropology of movement, of how migrants become settlers, or how settlers graduate to political subjects even as their rights remain ambivalent. The simultaneous emergence of elites and subalterns in the saga of a region, the author, after anthropologist James Ferguson, recognizes is undergirded by the colonial ethno territorial frame of the Northeast which works on the principle of exclusion always rendering certain groups as ‘insiders’ while others remain ‘outsiders’, eliciting new ethnic and political mobilizations (p. 92). This inherent complexity informs Baruah’s understanding of the project of development and is echoed in the section on ‘After Nation-Building and Development’ in the conclusion to the book. As a meditation on democracy and/or its deficits, the work may be read not only for its concerns about Northeast India, but as underscored in his Preface, for also the larger question ‘of the continuities and ruptures between colonial and postcolonial institutions.’
In a book that otherwise purports to preoccupy itself, to a great extent, with how societies accommodate or encounter development, the chapter on the Naga conflict and discussions of ceasefire politics away from the conflict/identity narrative addresses the complicated mechanics of peacemaking. Baruah’s reading of this rebellion is profitable to the reader, in that it makes a sharp case for the territorial dynamic of the Nagas and the Naga Hills leading to the imaginary of ‘Nagalim’ and the Inner Line regimen that has dictated movements along borderlands adjoining the plains of neighbouring Assam from the 19th century. While this colonial regulation continues to be disputed for what one historian alludes to as the drawing of a ‘revisable, mobile and pliant boundary’, its salience in the contemporary context of protectionist tendencies of native/tribal societies of India’s Northeast is rightfully emphsized here by Baruah (p. 120). The isolationist proclivities of these border territories have led to the current ‘informal sovereignty’ which prevails in the territory the Nagas proclaim as Nagalim. Mediated by the plea for what is called the Naga Collective Spirit, these moves are now complicated by the Government of India’s nod to a Naga flag to symbolize their ‘shared sovereignty’ in the ongoing peace process.
The nationalist projects of both the Nagas and the Assamese thematically bring together this and the penultimate chapter of the book as Baruah ties in twin discourses of rebellion, insurgency and the postconflict lives of these bordering states. Using fiction, testimonies and his own memory to recount the deadly violence perpetrated by the state in Assam in those years, since alluded to by its dubious ‘secret killings’, the author recovers ULFA’s (United Liberation Front of Assam) tryst with the security state and antagonists from the many stories, lore and even gossip that have emerged as ‘guerrilla literature’ and rebel diaries of former cadres, recast in a recent literary critique as ‘deathworlds’.5
Baruah’s sustained analysis of ULFA through what he terms ‘the lens of contentious politics’ connects this discourse to a rich web of scholarship and contemporary studies on insurgency, to which his book speaks (p. 132). His arresting narrative flows through the landscape as he weaves the motif of the state’s official memorialization of 17th century Assamese naval warrior, Lachit Borphukon into the tapestry of this unruly rebel country, arguably, an awkward and delayed attempt to inscribe the littered history of the Northeast with the name of the nation. For, he remarks, ‘there is no evidence thus far that the framing of Borphukon as an Indian military hero has successfully displaced his regional patriotic framing as a symbol of Assam’s autonomous past’ (p. 152). Arguably too, ULFA’s own deification of Lachit as muse and inspiration, a frontier figure, Ahom by lineage and inextricably connected to Assamese nationalist iconography, has been appropriated in postconflict times by the state’s counter-insurgency template in a ‘politics of memory’, Baruah notes, drawing attention to the tangled relations the nation has with its Northeast.
The final chapter gestures towards the Northeast’s trajectory of resistance and democratic imagination in the remembered image of Irom Sharmila, Manipur’s gallant anti-AFSPA crusader engaging ‘in her remarkable act of citizenship’ against the draconian law that suspends everyday life in the state. That her historic 16-year long protest by fasting in the AFSPA regime did not resonate much with rest of India, rues the author, perhaps also confirms that violence of different forms enacted on the bodies of those who inhabit the Northeast are not deemed as violations of the sovereign self. A fact also reiterated by the Mizo memories of airstrikes on Aizawl and its forced evacuation in 1968, or the ‘fake encounters’ in Imphal. For Baruah, these events are inseparable from ‘the political will… to reanchor the institutions of the democratic postcolonial state in a radically different set of assumptions’, while conceding that counter-insurgency measures have matured during the long peace-making years (p. 176).
In the Name of the Nation, thus, seeks alternatives in a beleaguered postcolonial world for more robust forms of democratic citizenship, as Baruah asks several questions pertinent to today’s diversely-populated Northeast. Do the rigid official metrics of observing democracy work in the ‘postcolonial neo-life’? Are the ‘stretched lifeworlds’ of migrant populations of Northeast not proof of how the citizenship question may be mired in contingencies of the postcolonial moment? Is the project of democracy undertaken several decades ago still ‘an unfinished business’ in the frontiers of the nation-state?
As an insider’s intimate understanding of the region, this work will prove to be a rich contribution to scholars of politics, history and society while discourses on democracy shall accommodate Baruah’s persuasive if provocative projections of its 21st century experience from a South Asian space. This book unravels several puzzles of the Northeast conundrum to academics and policy makers, and prompts new imagination even as it poses other questions that emerge on the shores of this frontier territory. To look for all the answers in it, though, is to miss the rhetoric and irony of Sanjib Baruah’s powerful conclusion to his master-trilogy on India’s Northeast.
Rakhee Kalita Moral
Associate Professor, Cotton University, Guwahati
1. See ‘The Mongolian Fringe’, Himal Southasian 26(1), 14 January 2013, pp. 82-86, for Baruah’s invocation of the discriminatory label and colonial practice of designating eastern Himalayan peoples as such, owed to foreign secretary Olaf Caroe’s sweeping ‘racialised gaze’ of the northeast and the highlands of Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal.
2. For a prefatory account of the actual plans see, David R. Syiemlieh (ed.), On the Edge of Empire: Four British Plans for Northeast India 1941-47. Sage, New Delhi, 2014.
3. Saskia Sassen, Guests and Aliens: Europe and its Migrations. New Press, New York, 2000.
4. See, Sanjib Baruah, Postfrontier Blues: Toward a New Policy Framework for Northeast India. East-West Centre, Washington, 2007. In this important study, meant to be a new policy for the region, Baruah analyses the idea of development gaps that prompt governance of what has been a frontier, and that the NE, as an ethnos hit by rebellion and conflict needed more sensitive nation-building tools within the democratic dispensation, already complicated by the transnational aspect of human mobilities and citizenship paradigms.
5. See Amit Rahul Baishya, Contemporary Literature from Northeast India: Deathworlds, Terror and Survival. Routledge, New York, 2019.
AT NATURE’S EDGE: The Global Present and Long-Term History edited by Gunnel Cederlof and Mahesh Rangarajan. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2018.
ANTHROPOCENE as a geological concept has made us acutely aware of scale and temporality when considering the human ecological relationship. It has pushed us to recognize collective and cumulative impacts of human activities, planetary level changes and consider geological time scales. Here is a timely book that reminds us that meticulous attention to particularities and diversities of the local must not be forgotten if we wish to build a nuanced picture of planetary changes, and more so if we hope to act on it. ‘The Anthropocene appeal to humankind does not substitute for its diversity’ (p. xix).
The editors begin with a critique of apocalyptic and crisis frameworks that pervade social science discussions on environmental change. They connect this to the almost exclusive focus of scholars on the modern period or recent era in human history. They call for a long-term history that illuminates processes and trajectories that lead us to the present to replace an obsession with conditions and epochs. Some chapters in this edited volume respond admirably to this call, while a few seem to ignore it, even if they may have other merits.
Focusing on the former first in this review, Kathleen Morrison persuasively argues in the first essay that the concept of the Anthropocene is unnecessary ‘not because humans have not changed the earth but because we have done so throughout the Holocene and even before’ (p. 3). She examines the historical inflection points posited to mark the beginning, middle or end of the Anthropocene, the operation of scientific models, and dualistic ontologies, revealing the hidden Eurocentrism of the Anthropocene concept. It is this Eurocentrism, adds Michael Adams in a later chapter, that leads to an apocalyptic understanding of environmental change. Focusing on indigenous cultures, he says that ‘for many individuals and societies all over the world, risk and uncertainty are part of daily life. It is affluent modern communities who position apocalyptical change as being in the (distant) future’ (p. 75). Drawing on his knowledge of Australia and India, he notes the ebb and flow of ‘wildness’ both conceptually and practically in the ecological and social histories of these regions. This sweeping perspective, however, tends towards romanticization of non-European cultures and societies. Generalizing statements, such as on India’s deep history of reverence for animals as reflected in its Gods and centrality of respect for animals in mainstream Hindu society, completely miss the complexity of the relationship between reverence and destruction, or the hierarchy of animals and humans in this society.
Sandra Swart’s essay is an exemplary piece that illuminates the importance of long-term history. She discusses the methodological aspects of long-term historical research that must necessarily engage with multiple methods and sources of data. In her evocatively titled essay (‘History Eats its Young’) on the long-term history of South Africa, Swart shows how ‘a long term view explodes the myth of discrete ethnicities and disrupts notions of homogeneity’ (p. 126). She exposes the ideological and political hold of unchanging nature and people in nature that pervades even the otherwise more nuanced environmental narratives of Africa. Similarly, Vasudha Pande’s expansive regional history traces the perpetually contingent and changing long-term histories of anthropogenic landscapes of the central Himalaya. Drawing from archaeological findings on the earliest human habitation in the inner Terai of western Nepal, this chapter guides us through the multiple and continuous human making of the Himalayan landscape we wish to protect as ‘natural’ today. The impossibility of a linear trajectory is brought out in the multiple ways humans destroy and ‘enhance’ nature.
Anneli Ekblom’s historical ecology of cattle in Mozanbique describes the long history of selection and interbreeding practiced by farmers and herders that has resulted in the high genetic diversity of cattle breeds in Africa. Herders in different landscapes selectively bred cattle to enhance different traits suited to their specific landscape, climatic conditions and predator risks. Cattle, Elblom narrates, are a companion species and particular breeds of cattle can have a strong role for the identification of a community and its heritage. Rohan Arthur’s ‘Narratives from the Indian Seas’ is a rare gem that presents evidence from his research on near shore marine ecosystems to make the case for a productive historical ecology replacing conceptions of the pristine. Challenging a dominant conservationist ideology that sees humans as an exogenous disturbance to ecosystems, he shows how exiting ecosystems are a product of historical contingency. Tracking disturbance and response in the reefs of Lakshadweep, he finds that one of the most densely populated archipelagos with fishing as the economic mainstay, also has very low fishing pressure. Both chapters reveal the long-term processes of social life of resident peoples that result in favourable ecological outcomes. .
Other chapters in this book add a historical dimension to specific conservation concerns; they often neglect or do not exemplify the specific contribution of a long-term historical perspective underlined by the editors, or ignore their cautionary advise against harmonious golden pasts and crisis imaginations of the present. Harini Nagendra’s essay provides a somewhat linear account of ‘the changing ways in which encounters with wildlife have been framed, appreciated and sought to be managed, as settlements have formed and grown into towns, cities and metropolises’ (p. 106). It is a valuable empirical contribution on changes in the framing of human encounters with wildlife as Bengaluru urbanizes and becomes a metropolis. Ravi Agarwal’s insightful chapter describes the social-ecological history of the Yamuna river that runs through Delhi; Sunil Amrith cautions against the sense of a timeless unchanging coastal culture and proposes a new environmental history of India’s coasts. These chapters exemplify in some ways T.R. Shankar Raman’s claim in the last chapter on the blurring of three kinds of boundaries in nature conservation in India: a spatial boundary between protected wildlife reserves and other human land uses in the wider landscape; a boundary in time that sets periods of historical landscape transformation or reservation apart from earlier pristine or later recovery periods; and a boundary in imagination that cleaves the human as a being separate from nature.
Finally, history is perhaps always partial, but can a history of Israel be written today without a mention of the atrocities perpetuated on the Arab population of Palestine? Can a discussion of regeneration of landscapes hide the violent occupation of that land and experiences of displacement of people who once lived and shaped these environments? Alon Tal’s lament on the loss of Israel’s biodiversity leaves the reader with these questions. Similarly, David Biggs makes an important statement on the need for a historical perspective on militarized landscapes. His focus on Vietnam, however, leaves out the specificity of a successful anti-imperialist struggle that defeated a mighty imperialist power that produced this particular militarized landscape.
Overall, this book is a critical intervention that needs to be widely read. Eschewing populism, this book provides evidence that attention to specific diverse long-term histories not only enriches but also rescues a planetary perspective from becoming inane. It deserves wide and careful reading by historians, other social scientists, conservationists, and anyone concerned with the future of our planet.
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi
UNDERSTANDING HUMAN ECOLOGY: Knowledge, Ethics and Politics by Geetha Devi T.V. Routledge India, 2019.
THE book addresses the linkages between humans and nature and examines the causes of the ecological crisis and environmental issues that humanity currently faces. Starting by discussing the complexities of defining, explaining and understanding the discipline of human ecology, this book primarily aims to (i) examine the domain of human-environment interactions from a multidimensional point of view; (ii) to explore this interface through its ethical, political and epistemic overview, using the notion of value that humans attribute to their environment. Also, the book analyses the relations of power between various interest groups and their use of natural resources with a theoretical framework of human ecology.
As humans deal with issues of the environment on multiple levels and ideologies, Geetha Devi examines human-environment relations using important concepts such as value, politics, and knowledge. Moving beyond using a single aspect of human ecology, the author discusses the complex human-environment interactions through a multifaceted approach. In doing so, the author addresses the drawbacks of other studies that concentrate on human, nature, and political or scientific perspectives, mainly in isolation.
The initial section of the book provides a comprehensive sketch of the environmental scenario of the 20th century. It presents various narratives by scholars from England in the 1700s regarding conservancy of London’s Thames River and George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature. Covering other significant works by American conservationists and poets such as Emerson and Thoreau, the chapter addresses the various environmental issues in the Global North and South, along with the importance of conservation groups, clubs, and national parks that played a vital role in conservation. In addition, the chapter examines the impact of literature, scientific knowledge, institutions, the role of emerging nature professions, and management acts that shaped the way conservation is understood today. The impact of events such as the Great Depression and the capitalistic industrial businesses that resulted in decades of development, gave rise to various writings on the disastrous effects of unlimited economic growth, demonstrating the changing ideas, practices, and relations of human with nature.
The central theme of the book is how different value systems perceived nature: conservationists, preservationists and reform environmentalism. The dichotomy of conservation/preservation to current ‘reform environmentalism’ as a value-laden domain of human ecology is primarily based on the principle of Jeremy Bentham’s ideas on utilitarianism. Humans, as an essential part of the ecosystem, formed the basis of reform environmentalism that values the existence of other species in the ecosystem for human survival, and therefore, emphasized the need to maintain a balance between humans and nature. The chapter covers critical principles and analysis of other frameworks such as deep ecology, ecofeminism and social ecology that provide insights to both environmental use, its exploitation and ways in which people respond to environmental degradation. For example, in the 1960s, the celebration of World Earth Day began as a way to combine social values to care for and prevent further damage to the earth.
The link between politics and environment is examined in detail in the chapter ‘The Question of "Political" in Environmental Thought System’, emphasizing that these movements cannot be separated from their local political contexts. Environmental movements, such as the Chipko movement concerning the socio-political context, provide a helpful understanding of the deep connections between politics and the environment. Inequality between various groups such as, who protects the environment and how some communities are denied access to natural sources, raises questions of social and environmental justice.
The chapter covers several examples of how local and indigenous communities are dispossessed from their natural resources and habitats because of mega-development projects. The unfair distribution of resources is stark, especially when multinational companies are allowed to exploit natural resources while denying access to the local population. These movements were perceived and portrayed as standing against the idea of progress and development and, therefore, examining these movements helps us understand social conflict through the lens of environmental studies. The meaning of ‘political’ and how political power plays a role in the environmental movement is analysed using different case studies from India (such as the Silent Valley project, the Chipko movement, and Save Narmada movement) and from other parts of the world (environmental movement and struggle of the Ogoni People in Nigeria).
The theoretical framework of human-environment relations and ‘Human Ecology’ as a methodological reflection is an important chapter. The author attempts to justify the domain of human ecology by highlighting the importance of ecological science as well as socially mediated actions as a useful way to approach human-environment interactions.
The chapter ‘The Making of Human Ecology’ discusses its interdisciplinary nature as a discipline. According to the author, human ecology is claimed by the disciplines of both sociology and geography, and later by other disciplines as well. For example, many scholars have discussed human ecology – its various definitions and comparisons. Albion Small and George Vincent, both sociologists, and John Paul Goode, a geographer and author of the well known Goode’s World Atlas, were prominent in the development of geographical sociology which contributed to the subject of human ecology. The section on ‘The Human Ecology as a Discipline’ discusses the challenges faced by the discipline in studying environment/nature. Its shift from studying schemes of classification without considering the presence of humans, and later including humans in ecological sciences, is a significant paradigm shift.
Based on case studies from both natural history and human ecology, the chapter shows the interdisciplinary nature of scholarship and how essential it is to use different methods rather than the methods used by a particular discipline. The chapter draws examples from Amazonian biodiversity and the Sikkim Himalaya, highlighting the relationship between species (both human and non-human communities) with their habitat. These case studies employ methods that help us understand the inter-connections between human-environment impacts – thus reflecting on the interdisciplinary nature of the domain of human ecology.
While the book covers a range of themes that are useful in examining the human-nature interface, the treatment of the chapters is rather ‘textbookish’. The sections are somewhat bereft of analysis, making the chapters descriptive and sometimes uninteresting to read. There are also sections with the same title, which can be confusing. However, the strength of the book is that it has plenty of information which scholars of environmental studies, development studies, practitioners and NGO personnel interested in the environment, will find useful.
Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar