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Contemporary Ethnoscape

Amit Prakash

By Sanjib Baruah
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. xi 265, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 9 September 2005

The volume under review is both a fresh look at the issues being faced by the Northeast and also an attempt to locate some of them in a historical and socio-cultural context. The book, unlike many of the books on the Northeast, is neither patronizing of the cauldron of ethnicity and violence that the Northeast lives through nor is it a simplification of the web of cross-cutting issues that are very much alive in the region. On the contrary, Baruah has managed to offer a socio-economic and culturally located analysis of some of the many complex questions that one has to deal with in order to negotiate the everyday reality of the Northeast.   The volume tries to think outside the hackneyed paradigm of ‘insurgency’ and questions the developmentalist mindset that ignores the present-day suffering in the name of nation-building and development. Also, an attempt is made to interrogate the academic and policy discourse that is heavily dependent on the colonial constructs of the “tribe and castes; language and dialects; hills and plains” which is often “dressed up these days as ‘ethnic studies’” (p. viii).   The first chapter of the book is an attempt to understand the causes, meaning, significance of the pattern of violence (‘insurgencies’ and ‘counter-insurgencies’) in Northeast India, which is no longer temporary or aberrant; and which “co-exist somewhat awkwardly, with elections and elected governments, free press, an independent judiciary and investments in the name of development” (p. 3). The sustained capacity for counter-insurgency has led to a localized institutionalization of authoritarian practices. In this context, the chapter focuses on formal and informal structures of governance and the democratic deficit.   Historicising the term ‘Northeast’, Baruah reports that there is an inordinately high density of militias in the Northeast: thirty-five in Manipur; thirty-four in Assam; thirty in Tripura; four in Nagaland; and, three in Meghalaya. All of these differ widely in organizational structure, political influence and numbers. This description notwithstanding, it is difficult to territorially define these militias owing to their tendency to overflow operationally, organizationally as well as ethnically across boundaries. Although most militias have an ethnic agenda, not all answer to this description and many pursue a civic national project and seek to cultivate a multiethnic support base.   While discussing the contemporary ‘ethnoscape’ of the Northeast, Baruah argues that it is a product of a symbiotic relationship between state and society (pp. 8-12). He questions the military-oriented solution ...

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