“Ima, as everyone called her, was calmly efficient. She measured heroin - No. 4 in parlance - from a hollowed-out bamboo bowl into a kokta, a tiny metal container usually used to measure ground tobacco and spices.”
For someone who has spent a long-time reporting and studying what is commonly known as India’s northeast, I can tell you Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East, has been written to the last detail. For some it may well be too granular to process. For the uninitiated, “India’s eastern elixir” may be overwhelming. In the author’s own words, it is a “…seductive, stunningly complex cocktail”.
For years I have been troubled by the generous usage of “northeast” to refer to 8 states with strikingly different history and anthropology. This book makes a case of changing that erroneous term because it is indeed India’s east. Thus, the name ‘The Eastern Gate’.
It also sets the geo-political context of the region that should have been India’s highest priority in terms of development. The geography: Kunming in south-western China is just over a 1,000 kms from Guwahati, an hour’s flying time. Lhasa in the Tibetan Plateau is just 389 kms as “the eagle flies”. Sylhet, in Bangladesh, a strategic hub, is less than 150 kms and Dhaka a mere 300 kms. Instead, this region is forever falling off the map. The only consideration, however, is the innumerable brigades of the Indian Army posted there to fight Indian citizens and often ending up in mindless violence like the recent Oting massacre in Nagaland by the elite para commandoes. An operation that yet again went awry.
Smoke and mirrors
Given the impenetrable layers of realities in the understanding of this fascinating borderland, my title for the book, however, would have been ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ a phrase the author uses later as a section head. He cautions right in the beginning: “It’s part of the grand palace of smoke and misleading mirrors where nobody knows anything and everybody knows everything.”
The book begins with gun running and narcotic smuggling while documenting the underbelly of my favourite border town, Moreh, which I first visited in 1988 when the Burmese uprising was happening across the road. The author has rare access to the underworld alleys of this strange town with its multiethnic demography. To use a cliché the town is still under the shadow of guns and behind a smoke of narcotic trade. Narcotics, as the author says is “Moreh’s plasma. As with weapons, this web connects several communities, both ethnic and economic.” All feed off the narco-economy, including army officers like Col. Ajay Chaudhury who was arrested in February 2014, ferrying pseudoephedrine tablets from Imphal to Moreh. The quaint border town is bridled to the north and south with liberated zones of poppy and cannabis cultivation. Moreh, as the author points out, “is the first hub of denial.”
It is from this point that the stories travel between Nagaland and Manipur at a frenetic pace. The use of copious field-notes throughout the book is an interesting design in the structure but it distracts from the storytelling. The notes are nevertheless important; they are the inner working of a journalist laid bare and could serve as a great toolkit of how to research and report. Each reference is laden with history and anecdotes, policies, and laws. The discordant notes in the region’s politics can be felt in the breakup of the chapters and paragraphs. The “cocktail” mix of stories and interviews laced with forgotten footnotes makes the book an invaluable reference for researchers.
Having written a book on ‘encounters’ I was naturally curious to see his field notes in the chapter on state sponsored killings. I would like to understand why such a gross human right violation across these two states occupy so tiny a place in the book. The very nature of state encounters violates the right to life and raises the question of impunity. However, this is only an interlude in the minefield of information that the author laboriously weaves across time, place and action.
A million mutinies
One of the few chapters without field notes is the one on migration that is at the heart of a million mutinies in the region that the book traverses. We are provided with a historical overview to arrive at the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act. But I would like to know more about the migrant conundrum that has been weaponised to fuel every little fire; internal and external, historical, and forced.
The preface to the book ends with a prophecy; “For many in this far-eastern region of India, geographically as well as intellectually ‘Mainland India’ lies to the west, beyond the western gates that can so easily be shut. Unless Indian’s entire far-east enables it - and India in turn enables and empowers its far-east for the privilege - India’s expectations of journeying through the eastern gate will remain a chaos of bad faith, bad policy and fractured dreams.”
The author says, “India’s far-east will remain in churn in the foreseeable future.” I am tempted to go with this prediction.
Kishalay Bhattacharjee, author and journalist, is Executive Dean of Jindal School of Journalism and Communication
BOOK REVIEW: The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East
Published: Simon & Schuster India
Pages: 432. Price: Rs 699