HAVING travelled through states blighted by Naxalite conflict in Red Sun, author Sudeep Chakravarti journeys through Nagaland and Manipur in his latest book, Highway 39, a familiar mix of travel, commentary and analysis. Soumik Mukherjee catches up with the writer, who tells him the Northeast is a subject no non-fiction writer can afford to ignore.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
When did you decide to write on the Northeast?
The idea of writing a book on the Northeast has a long history. The only reason I couldn’t do it earlier was because of my profession as a mainstream journalist. The Northeast, unfortunately, was not the region of focus for the publications I worked with. I have seen India’s liberalisation from ground-up and top-down, of which most of us were the direct beneficiaries. I’ve always been astounded with the delusional world we live in. Call it ‘Middle India’, call it whatever. I have many phrases for it. There is this magical creature, the leapfrog. India’s development story is similar to this leapfrog. Its policy-makers are always taking these leaps from point A to point B and the space in between is on no one’s radar — a null space. This space is the main construct of our country. This is what drives me to do what I do now and the book is the outcome.
What is the evolution of the Naga movement?
Strictly in the Naga context, there is criticism against many rebel leaders that they have gone soft. They are now ministers in the rebel governments, like any minister in the federal government in Nagaland. These are the fat cats — they live in plush bungalows and enjoy the best of life. But this is now an open debate in the Naga society, which is very healthy. Things have changed over the years. People are coming out into the public domain and questioning the rebel leaderships along with the political leadership. This leads to some amount of introspection even within the rebel groups.
Why is the Northeast absent from the mainland mind-space?
The people of the Northeast have been projected as those who don’t want to be a part of India. The high-handed people — politicians, bureaucrats, military officers — these were the ones telling the stories from Northeast. So, there was definitely miscommunication. That is why, in this book, I’ve tried to write the stories of the people squeezed in between the Naga rebels and the Indian State. Telling these micro stories, along with stories of Irom Sharmila, is important.
What is common between the conflict in Northeast and the Maoist zones?
The common people. Their status is the same everywhere, be it in the Maoist heartland or the Northeast or Kashmir. The State of India has the grand reputation of treating its own people badly. It has brutalised, raped, maimed and killed them because it wants them to be a part of the country. That is indeed the greatest irony of all.
How do you juggle life between Goa and conflict zones?
It is only the geopolitical space that is different. I wanted a peaceful place for my work and that is why I chose Goa; away from the chaos.
Soumik Mukherjee is a Correspondent with Tehelka.