On 7 September 2022, India’s principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress, embarked on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, a walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir to “unite” India from so-called “divisive” forces.
But the slogan ‘Bharat Jodo’ does not go hand-in-hand with the grand old party’s legacy of Partition, separation and segregation.
The history of the Indian National Congress is rooted in division and exclusion, especially its relation with and treatment of the people living beyond the Chicken’s Neck.
The Indian National Congress and its towering leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi laid the foundations of modern India and ruled India for a total of nearly 60 years, steering the country for longer than any other party.
It is safe to say that this single party laid down the standardised vision of India as a nation.
But while the Nehruvian consensus stood for the liberal ideals such as equality, some people continued to be more equal than others and its vision of India excluded many Indians, particularly people from the North East.
In 1952, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that he was apprehensive of the North East as “they may lack the feeling of oneness with the rest of India”.
This racial gaze of excluding the region in the imagination of the Indian nation was passed on from generation to generation.
The “othering” of the North East is evident in the lack of attention the region receives in the national discourse and the rigid hierarchical nature of nation-periphery interaction.
Stories of exclusion, othering and victimhood dominate the political narratives of North East.
Stories of how the Congress leadership almost bent down to the Muslim League’s claim over Assam to be a part of Pakistan and how prime minister Nehru almost lost Arunachal Pradesh to China in 1962 have been passed on from generation to generation.
While Hindu and Sikh refugees were allotted colonies in North Delhi, Bengali Hindu partition refugees from Sylhet were excluded from even these basic humanitarian facilities.
For the leadership at the helm of the Indian state, the North East was a resource frontier populated by outsiders that did not benefit them politically.
Studies by noted academics and economists Sundaram and Tendulkar in 2003 and Konwar in 2019 indicate the central government’s gross neglect of the north-eastern region that resulted in rampant state-induced poverty.
The two studies indicate that while poverty in India declined in the 1980s and 1990s, Assam remained as one of the only few states where it increased.
The study further concludes that this continued to affect the region until 2011-12.
At the same time, the region lacked even basic infrastructural, medical and educational facilities.
This was also the period that witnessed rampant militancy and secessionist movements in the North East.
Leaders of these movements stood against the Congress-led Indian state’s exploitative economic policies, suppression of tribal and ethnic identities, failure to address the question of illegal immigrants and gross violations of human rights under the garb of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
This infamous tradition of treating the region as “the Other” was challenged when Narendra Modi in his Manipur rally in 2014 called the North East as India’s astalaksmi.
In 2014, the National Democratic Alliance spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in the Centre.
Since then, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) started making in-roads into the North East starting from Assam in 2016 and later expanding its footprint in Seven Sisters.
The government focused on providing good infrastructure, healthcare and education, while fostering the true spirit of unity and social harmony.
The North East today boasts of a multitude of new highway projects, several new bridges on the Brahmaputra, laying down of new railway lines connecting the capital cities of the states, developing waterways and upgrading the 12 non-operational airports in the region, reducing the distance between Delhi and the North East both literally and figuratively.
In terms of healthcare, the North East led the way in India’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Not only did the region adopt effective preventive measures, but also had a higher rate of testing compared to the rest of the country, better record of contact tracing, and commendable healthcare arrangements in place to treat the affected patients, all of which resulted in a low positivity rate as well as a better recovery rate.
These successes were a culmination of the revolutionary changes in the healthcare sector in the previous five years.
The region has achieved similar feats in the field of education.
In particular, Assam has been applauded for the government’s efforts to provide free education, interest subvention on loans, mainstreaming menstrual hygiene through provision of free sanitary pads and giving free scooters to meritorious girl students.
One of the most striking features of the North East is its ethnic diversity; the region is home to nearly 200 distinct and unique tribal communities.
Treated as “lesser Indians” and neglected for several decades, these communities took up arms against the Indian state.
The government of India committed itself to ensuring the transition of the region from one plagued by turmoil to a peaceful one and made efforts to help in the rehabilitation of surrendered insurgents, emphasising talks over arms, discussions over conflicts.
The signing of the Bodo Accord in 2020 and Karbi Anglong Peace Accord in 2021 are examples of the government’s lasting legacy.
Additionally, the government has also brought prosperity for the backward sections of the society, including tribal and adivasi groups, tea garden workers and other minorities.
In 75 years of Indian Independence, this is the first time that the integration of the North East has been realised.
The hopes and aspirations of 4.55 crore people living beyond the Chicken’s Neck are being realised by the Indian state under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The grand old party, meanwhile, beats the drum of ‘Bharat Jodo’, failing to realise that clouds of a dark history of negligence and oppression looms over its future.
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