Between hope and despair: A review of Sanjoy Hazarika's book 'Strangers No More'

(The book

A journey through the eight States of North East India, the present book is a sequel to Sanjoy Hazarika’s earlier published and much acclaimed title Strangers of the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast. Hazarika states that Strangers No More is a deeply personal book through which he intends to understand and express his concern on topical issues pertaining to politics, policy, law and disorder, violence and painful reconciliation, conservation, oppression, acts of stereotyping, thereby capturing hope and despair in the process.

Media representation of the North East has perpetuated an image that has continued since the colonial period and into the postcolonial phase. The author addresses this by showcasing the lesser known and untold stories from the field, forests and villages.

He has been involved in peace building initiatives in the region for a long time. The book is informative and offers details which people in the field of academics and journalism are often not privy to. The chapters of the book do not necessarily follow a topic or issue in terms of a chronology.

In the introductory chapter titled ‘Disputed Border: Divided Peoples’, Hazarika sets the tone by informing us about the complex historical and political developments in the region. The first and second chapters of the book focus on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the horrifying rape and killing of Manorama Devi and struggle conducted by Irom Sharmila against AFSPA. The issue of AFSPA has been addressed in other parts of the book as well. The author provides an insider account of the committee report which was set up on AFSPA. He laments the indifference of the state and its lack of will in implementing the recommendations and suggestions of the report.

In ‘The Nagas: A Rocky Road to Peace’, Hazarika reveals the difficulties encountered in the Naga movement. He charts the genealogy of political process, from Nehru to Vajpayee, that shows the complicated history of the Nagas. Similarly, he discusses the troubled manner in which peace was established in Mizoram. This chapter is packed with factual stories and narrates the manner in which a sovereign state treats its own integral part as an enemy territory and unleashes violence.

The chapter on Assam examines the context of the emergence of the ULFA and then the SULFA. The relationship between the ULFA leaders and their operations in Myanmar and Bangladesh has also been discussed. The author questions the viability of these armed groups and traces the role of civil society and state in bringing peace in the region.

The subsequent chapter begins with the Assembly election of 2016 in Assam. Interestingly, it compares certain indices of human development of Bangladesh and concludes that the neighbouring country is faring better than India and especially Assam. He also discusses the National Register of Citizen and Illegal Migrant Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act. The Nellie massacre is illustrated through the personal experience of the author including a confrontation with the police official KPS Gill. Hazarika empathetically discusses the issue of illegal migrants and their plight and interrogates Upamanyu Hazarika’s report on illegal immigration.

In discussing Upland and the Border States, the author focuses on Arunachal Pradesh. For him the Indian government has a special interest in this region from the perspective of frontier. He discusses the water issues in the State by quoting Kenneth Boulding’s amusing ode to water but accuses him of not addressing the ecological concern in his couplet. He brings out the nuances and contradictions of anti-dam protests in Arunachal.

In the ‘Lost Kingdom’, the author paints a grim picture of Sikkim and Meghalaya. Earlier these States were full of natural resources but due to excessive extraction, these places look lifeless and dull. Meghalaya was one of the regions which used to get the highest rainfall but is now dependent on artificial water sources.

‘Stranger No More: The New Indians’, the concluding chapter, begins with the episode of a young man from Arunachal Pradesh who was killed in Delhi in 2013. The incident generated a huge uproar and brought to the fore issues of stigma, discrimination and racism that people from the North East region face in mainland India. But contrary to this, the author says that studies conducted by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia revealed that youngsters from the North East region are determined to engage with mainland India and seek equal treatment on issues of dignity, rights and entitlements. The majority of women who were interviewed opined that they would still encourage their relatives to come to metros and explore opportunities. The author discusses the case of a mob lynching in Dimapur, Nagaland and the movement against outsiders in Meghalaya. Drawing from his mother’s narratives, he suggests that even outsiders to the region had love and emotion for the place. They have also contributed to the growth and development of the region.

Hazarika enlists popular personalities from the field of cinema such as Jahnu Barua, Seema Biswas, Adil Hussain, of sports Mary Kom, of music Zubin Garg, Alobo Naga, Papon and so on, and of literature Temsula Ao and Dhruva, to convey the message that the people of Northeast have also represented in the overall cultural domain of the national arena. He ends the book by quoting Maulana Altaf Husain Hali and says pride, prejudice and hatred are old markers. They can cause our downfall.

In the epilogue the author has placed various factual narratives though in a disjointed manner ending with Borkung Hrangkhawl’s (BK) dreaded story and his signature track Never Give Up which came out of his horrific experience.

At times the reader gets tired of long elaboration of events and places. Sometimes it gives crucial insights and sometimes it distracts the reader as it jumps from one event located in a particular space and time to another without demonstrating a logical link for the same.

However, Strangers No More is a good read for those who want a historical and contemporary understanding of the ground realities of the North Eastern States. Read More