Patronage democracy and its alienating principles
INDIA may claim to be one of the world’s largest democracy but a huge chunk of its citizens suffers a deep sense of alienation. Maoism is but one of the expressions of an alienated people. Insurgencies in North-east India draw strength from the fact that for several decades the region was, as proposed by Verrier Elwin to Jawaharlal Nehru, left to develop according to its own genius, or alienated from positive development processes. What actually happened is that the genius in the tribal was never considered important enough or comparable to what is known as the civilising mission of the British, which was later adopted lock, stock and barrel by Indian rulers.
We in the North-east would be deceiving ourselves if we think we are using even a fraction of our native wisdom. And believe me, we have plenty of that. The number of medicinal herbs available in the region would put the Hortus Malabaricus (an encyclopaedia of medical plants from South India) to shame. Traditional healers and bone-setters enjoy a reputation of their own. A London visitor to Mawlynnong (a serene hamlet in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills, also known as the cleanest village) was appreciating the living root bridge (a bridge held together by the intertwining roots of a number of trees for years together) and taking photographs when he suddenly lost his footing and perhaps cracked a bone. The villagers helped him to his feet, took him to a healer close by. The man applied herbal medicine and used a bamboo splint to support the leg.
The tourist returned to Shillong, happy with the treatment he received. Although friends advised him to visit an orthopaedist, he decided to do so on his return to London, since he was leaving within the next two days. Upon reaching home at least five days after the incident, he visited his local hospital for a check-up and the X-ray results showed the splintered bone was healing well and that nothing much needed to be done except wait for it to heal naturally. The man had taken the herbal ointment with him and applied it religiously until he was completely healed.
This is just one incident. There are several such accounts from villages on a daily basis. But in the absence of any kind of certification, these traditional healers will continue to remain outside the larger umbrella of the government-recognised Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (Ayush). This is where tribal genius gets short shrift.
Now let me come to the point. The National Advisory Council, considered an impressive body and headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, was recently constituted. What has shocked people of the North-east is their representation in this august body by someone who has the least knowledge about tribal values, their world view and their native wisdom. The NAC could not find a tribal to represent the region, so it chose North Eastern Hill University vice-chancellor Professor Pramod Tandon to represent the 238 ethnic communities of the region. This is not to say that Professor Tandon should not be part of the council if his credentials as a botanist who has also done extensive work in biodiversity conservation are anything to go by. But the NAC is meant to be an inclusive body that should not send bad vibes to the people of the North-east that they are not good enough to be part of the set-up.
Going by the NAC’s composition, the tribes who constitute roughly about 12 per cent of the tribal population of the country and 25.81 per cent of the total population of North-east India, have every right to feel alienated and slighted when they are being represented by a rank outsider. The Nehru-Gandhi family, particularly Rajiv Gandhi, was known to be particularly close to the North-east tribes. Is all of this in the past? Or is the NAC also governed largely by Congress political wisdom than by the idea of getting on board views coming from even the smallest and marginalised communities? Obviously, Sonia Gandhi herself could not have possibly identified the diverse range of people who are at present in the NAC. She would have relied heavily on some of her courtiers in the AICC. These in turn have their own agenda in nominating “People Like Us” types.
Someone heading the Union ministry of environment and forests would naturally be blinkered and only identify another with a qualification in that subject as befitting to be in the NAC. It just depends on who has Sonia Gandhi’s ear. Going by sheer numbers, the North-east does not make political sense. Uttar Pradesh would be more conducive to cultivate. But this is India and if the powers that be in New Delhi do not want to see this country fragmented and belligerent, then they would do well to appear to be inclusive.
In the first NAC, the North-East was represented by Professor Mrinal Miri, also Nehu vice-chancellor at the time. But Miri, apart from being a philosopher of renown, is a humanist and above all deeply rooted in tribal culture and could be expected to represent all of us with grace and dignity. Or are we to take it that Nehu is a compulsory part of the NAC and therefore every vice-chancellor must necessarily be nominated to that council? Or that Nehu is best suited to represent the North-east? Will someone please clarify?
Democracy in India has failed to integrate its citizens and allow their blood to course through its veins. It has left our huge chunks of citizenry who do not fit into the mould of democracy fashioned by the ruling elite of Delhi. At one time, North-easterners were told to join the mainstream (meaning to integrate with the Indian culture and give up their unique identities). This phrase, “join the mainstream”, is an insult to the intellect and native wisdom of the tribes. They come from a civilisation that is neither Aryan or Dravidian but is closely linked to the Central Asian and Austro-Asiatic cultures. Big rivers and pristine streams criss-cross their lands. So why would they leave these to join a mainstream they are unfamiliar with?
The North-east is known to be a rice gene pool. Of 35,000 varieties of germ- plasm in this country, roughly 8,000 are from the region, which has a luxuriant biodiversity. Nagaland has one of the tallest varieties of rice. The variety of flora and fauna is immense. If such is the diverse natural wealth of the region, is it possible that the people here do not possess wisdom enough to contribute to the larger pool in Indian civilisation? To say so would be to discredit nature itself.
The NAC would be poorer for excluding one of the most vibrant regions of this country. Sonia Gandhi might like to take a fresh look at the composition of the NAC, which is known as the conscience-keeper of the UPA government. One of the more creative methods of integrating the minds and hearts of the tribes (I use the word tribe although many resent it, only because the Indian state does not accept the term “indigenous peoples” as a substitute for tribe) across this country is to make them feel they have some say in the way this country is governed. The tribes no longer want to be beneficiaries of programmes and schemes thrust down their throats. They are fed up of patronage democracy that has caricatured them as indolent creatures incapable of looking after themselves. The tribes want to be active stakeholders in Indian democracy. Will they be allowed to do so?
The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at