Less than a month before we in Mumbai suffered that agonizing attack by an unknown enemy, the heart and spirit of my home state was ripped by 11 bomb blasts. Like the surreal siege of Mumbai, it was also an orchestrated, meticulously planned attack. In less than an hour, explosions went off one after the other—outside the state high court, outside Cotton College, the city’s most important educational institution, below the largest flyover in the city, blowing up cars, shops, men and women. The state machinery, always many notches below the people’s expectations, froze.
That evening, Assam was in the headlines of most TV news channels. National broadsheets wrote editorials about the North-East stalemate—which remains a conundrum for most Indian journalists. The coverage didn’t last more than a couple of days.
Writing on the Wall: Penguin, 161 pages, Rs225.
Soon thereafter, the timing was probably coincidental, Penguin released a slim collection of personal essays by the man who has doggedly and passionately been covering the North-East for decades—an insider in the true sense who calls the region “an anthropologist’s delight and an administrator’s nightmare”. Hazarika, perhaps the only recognized commentator on the region, was a guest at almost every news channel on that dark day.
Writing on the Wall: Reflections on the North-East is a reminder of the man-made mess that overshadows the beauty of the region today. People here have long stopped going to flag-hoisting ceremonies on Independence Day and Republic Day because the fear of a bomb blast always lurks on such occasions.
Hazarika, an Assamese himself who now runs the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, has authored six books on the North-East, including Strangers of the Mist (1994) and Rites of Passage (2003), and the breadth of his study is immense: the region’s vulnerable ecosystem, its ethnic complexity, natural disasters, its people, mutilated by terrorism and insurgency, the rise and ebb of the Ulfa movement, the pressing political issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh and the aftermath of the All Assam Students’ Union movement in the 1980s, which is India’s only organized students movement that ended with its leaders forming a government.
Divided into five sections, Hazarika’s book could be read as a primer on the region, encompassing Hazarika’s study that spans decades. He has travelled through the eight states comprising the region and documented the problems facing its 200-plus ethnic groups—the infighting, issues of identity and misguided notions of autonomy that drive some violent movements.
The book begins with a section on “waters of hope”, the rivers—especially the Brahmaputra—and their tributaries that sustain human livelihood and ecosystems. Every year, the Brahmaputra wreaks havoc in Assam with floods, and the state government has done little to build new embankments and rehabilitate thousands who have been displaced by it. He reiterates what he has concluded after reporting from the region for years: “Little do we realize that in the Brahmaputra valley floods are not the principal threat to development; it is the erosion that is gnawing away at the lands and resources of people, their homes, and their hopes.”
Forgotten: Most Indians know little about Assam. Utpal Baruah / Reuters
With Hazarika, we visit villages of Nagaland and the youth of Manipur; the Ulfa’s strongholds; and the places surrounding the site of the infamous Nelli massacre of 1983 which killed at least 2,000 Bangladeshi immigrants. In some chapters, Hazarika ruminates on what it means to be an “immigrant” in today’s world, and how in the North-East it only implies the evil.
In 2007, I visited Assam after a gap of three years. It is hard not to be touched by its breathtaking natural beauty. The cosmetic present of its cities and towns and its highways tries to hide its horrific past of insurgency and the fear of violence that gnaws at its people through the year. The young have left Assam for better opportunities, and the old only have remorseful tales.
Writing on the Wall illuminates what has gone into making Assam and the North-East what it is, and it must be read to understand an India that most Indians know little about.