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Book Review: Sanjoy Hazarika’s ‘Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast’

By Namrata Pathak

Title: Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast
Author: Sanjoy Hazarika
Publisher: Aleph Book Co, 2018.

Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast is a sequel to Sanjoy Hazarika’s polemical and densely packed, Strangers of the Mist, a book that is remarkably different on the ground that it projects the insider’s brush with the North-East of India, a patch of land that is enveloped in a mist, a hazy blanket of half-truths, impenetrable and insular. The evocative title, Strangers No More, hinges on an encounter, an actualization stemming from a familiarity. When the pallor is gone and when the mist no longer looms large, you see things as what they are. You no longer confront strangers inhabiting in a strange land, exotic and different. The book is an act at demystifying the land and the people. It aims to dismantle the copious tags that we tend to attach to both – be it an overarching marker of identity or the stale tale of being stranded in the periphery, the invisible fringes. Unequivocally hinting at the ever changing equation of the centre and periphery, and our agenda to configure every text produced here in regard to this, Hazarika shows how reductive such a reading is. Hazarika is at once dismissive of the hackneyed binary that is at work here – we have overused it and emptied it out. It has lost its sheen. It stands lacklustre and frigid in present times. Maybe his is an act of stating how slippery these terms are and how often we flatten the differences inherent in them by giving in to sweeping generalizations.

While examining the movements and events in history, Hazarika recalls the words of Frank Kingdon-Ward, the famous British explorer and Botanist, “I am fully conscious that a complete account of the regions visited is a task beyond my power.” This is a candid confession on the part of both Hazarika and Kingdon-Ward. Credited for his treks and search for fabled lands, Kingdon-Ward took immense interest in the Tsangpo Gorge through which the Yarlung Tsangpo, also known as the Brahmaputra in Assam, flows by. Likewise, Hazarika travelled extensively along the river through Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Bangladesh. He is aware of the arduous and incomplete task of documenting the land and the people and knows how deeply personal it can be. Taking up the challenge of putting “stories of legend, imagination, future challenges and perspectives as well as personal experiences into a narrative flow,” Hazarika makes us embark on a journey through hills and vales, lush forests and rivers, myths and lores of the eight Northeastern states.

He begins with the deaths in conflict in Manipur, and takes up the case of Irom Sharmila and Manorama in the context of AFSPA, an Act dating to 1958. The twenty-four year woman, Manorama, a member of the PLA, a small rebel unit in Manipur with a history of guerrilla warfare, died out of bullet injury in her vagina and lower parts of the body. She was hit, dragged out of her house, and thought to be raped. Hazarika retorts that everyone knows Manorama’s story, but no one knows who killed her. State-based violence has prevailed in Manipur throughout decades. The AFSPA under operation is based on the Disturbed Areas Act, which throws light on the inadequacy of the local enforcement authorities to deal with security conditions. But there are a number of loopholes in its implementation and operational strategies, and also in the roles that the government play, both the state and central. Irom Sharmila, on the other hand, broke a number of hearts when she exclaimed that she failed to defeat New Delhi or revoke the AFSPA by her mere hunger strike that ran for a period of sixteen years. She stirred the hornet’s nest by ending her hunger strike in August, 2016. This left many of her followers angry and aghast, an act that culminated in her humiliating defeat in the poll. She was able to garner only ninety votes in her low-budget campaign against Okram Ibobi Singh in Thoubal district. As Hazarika points out, nobody seems to consider the other side of the woman, a facet that is beautifully captured in Anubha Bhosle’s Mother, Where is my Country? – a woman who yearns to smell the flowers, falls in love with a Goan expatriate, wants to live a life beyond her nasogastric tubes and a violent past.

Nagaland is a tiny state with a population of barely 1.5 million with not less than sixteen recognised tribes in it. Nagaland is protected by Article 371A of the Constitution which gives the state the authority to make its own laws and impose taxes. No law passed by the Parliament is binding on the state and the state legislature has to approve of it and pass it. In this vein Hazarika interprets the idea of shared sovereignty which surfaced in 2012 and has been a part of official documents used during negotiations of different kinds thereafter. The concept acquires a new colour at the face of ethnic mobilization, internal discord among tribes, and the inability to define the position of those indigenous Nagas who are located elsewhere, in other states, who do not wield power in their home state.

However, Hazarika begins “A Troubled Peace in Mizoram” with an anecdote of an idealistic young fighter, Sangliana, an Indian Army Brigadier’s son. Sangliana left his home and hearth, his college in Shillong to join an underground rebel group in the Mizo Hills. Despite being an Army officer’s son, Sangliana had felt the sting of discrimination and racial slurs in the Hindi heartland. Under the Biblical name of Operation Jericho which came to being on 28th February, 1966, an army of around 20,000 men captured the treasury, government offices, and the AIR in Aizwal. Sangliana was a part of the band. Roughly forty years later, the man lives and still believes in the rights of the Mizo to a separate homeland.

While talking about Assam and other neighbouring states, Hazarika looks at the nexus between ULFA, NSCN, and NDFB in aiming for a futile political authority, autonomy, and developmental goals in certain pockets of the Northeast. The armed groups in Assam and the Northeast as a whole depend on an access to camps in Myanmar, and a collaborative agenda to amass funds and weapons. The way the Centre pushes the peace process and other participatory avenues further decide the involvement of the rival groups.

In Strangers No More, the core issues that Hazarika examines at length are, “politics, policy, law and disorder, violent uprisings and painful reconciliations, offence and defence, conservation and oppression, history and the contemporary reality, stereotyping and breaking out of the mould, hope and despair” – this he does by acknowledging that the frameworks often shift with distance and time, with political and economic structures, with a deep understanding of other cultures and points of contact, and with shared responsibilities. Hazarika concludes in a positive and futuristic note. Thus, at the end, he opines, “Reconciliation and change can happen not because they are the ‘right things’ to do – but because we want them to happen. We cannot give up.”

Strangers No More is available here.

Dr. Namrata Pathak 
teaches in North-Eastern Hill University, Tura, Meghalaya. She has two books up her sleeves, Trends in Contemporary Assamese Theatre (2015) and Women’s Writing from North-East India (2017). Her articles and research papers are published in national and international journals of repute.


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