Sudeep Chakravarti's non fictional narrative: 'Highway 39 Journeys Through A Fractured Land'' recently published by Harper Collins India is a very significant contribution to our understanding of a historical, social and political understanding of two strategic and contiguous states of North East India: Nagaland and Manipur. These two states afflicted with brutalization of their societies, is a thematic concern of the book written with striking clarity and prose.
The journalist turned scuba diver Chakravarti came into the limelight by his book on Naxalites in Central India. Written in the confessional mode and style Charavarti exposes the ruthless strategic indisposition of the State in tackling insurgency related problems in these two states and alienation of the common people through a tactless understanding of situations, by both Central and State Governments. During the launch of the book in Shillong, a couple of months back, Chakravarti stated that his book on the Naxalites or Masists attempted to profess that these protagonists of a supposed war, were not speaking of Maosim, but were fighting for good governance and livelihood. The idea struck me as something which did not seem to be in the cognition of the powers that be. I was happy to be a panelist on 'Highway 39' during the launch in Shillong.
Highway 39 begins in Numaligarh in Assam and ends in Moreh bordering Myanmar. It is the lifeline of these two states, that is Nagaland and Manipur, and any road blockade in this highway cuts off the states in terms of supplies and essential commodities, as well as of course connectivity. Using the technique of travelogue, shifts in real time, going to one place and coming back to it, it must have taken almost a year of travel on Chakravarti's part to recount the narrative juxtaposed with constant jotting down of notes, and recording interviews such as those with NSCN ( I-M) leaders in their spaces in Hebron camp at Dimapur.
Chakravarti begins with references to the Naga insurgency beginning roughly in the 60s under the leadership of Phizo, but factions emerged, Phizo died virtually in exile and now he is forgotten, his grave located near the Nagaland Secratariat. Chakravarti loses no time in going into the movement led by the NSCN, but does not forget to mention the two factions there as well, concentrating of course on NSCN ( I-M), perhaps the more 'popular' one. Chakravarti's daunting forays into Muivah's home in the Tangkhul districts of Manipur, engages himself with the history pernicious atrocities of the Indian Army in the past such as the brutal murder and attempted rape of a fourteen year old, something which cannot be wiped out from the racial memory of the community. Then there is a switch to the valley of Manipur peopled by the Meitei community, whose insurgency dates back to the late 70s and early eighties, but where insurgent armed forces have been broken up into fractious groups.
The history of the Meiteis, the existence of their historic kingdom of Kangla are more than touched upon, and forms a major dialectic of the book. Aligned to the Manipur question, is the question of a greater Nagaland which includes the hilly areas of Manipur, which Chakravarti touches upon. The AFSPA which people like Irom Sharmila are protesting against gets special attention, obviously in attempts of contextualization of activism, protests and people's movements and reactions.
The scene shifts back to Nagaland, where instances of the common people brutalized and losing kith and kin, because of Army retaliatory measures are touched upon with pathos. In Manipur of course Irom Sharmila's relentless fight by fasting is described, as well as instances of how common people have been physically maimed and have become mentally reclusive, are highlighted, tinged if I may say so, with underlying grief, if not anger. These are the revealing and touching and indeed tragic aspects of this deeply sensitive book.
We have to look at the 'other' point of view. This is of critical significance of our understanding of history, culture and the 'whys' and 'whats'. Positing reductionist understanding of India's North East will not do. The microcosmic cultures, their history, their brutalization have to be considered not only in empathetic terms, but also in the manner of friendship. This Chakravarti has been able to achieve, as his sojourns, and the people he befriended, clearly indicate, in his finer moments of grief and expostulations. Here is a crumbling and sensitive mind out to find out the escaping truth- why, why, why did all this happen!
The book brings to the fore major questions of North East India. The first is that of suffering - of the common person. The second is the crucial question regarding the role of the Army. So we have two forms of militarism, that of the insurgents, and that of the Indian Army.
Chakravarti's book is a record of his hurts and a plea for reconciliation, as he discerns the glint of hope, in the ordinary person. This is the book's 'extraordinariness'. This piece is not meant to be a review, I have attempted that elsewhere. This is an attempt at internalizing elements of the book, which have struck chords in me, and have haunted me to no end.The book also brings in its wake the debate between the disputatious mainland and out land, or hinterland. We have to wipe out, in my opinion these illusions if we are to maintain any semblance of the much vaunted unity, we repeatedly talk about, while characterizing the Indian Union. Otherwise it will be a grand myth, and figment of a fertile imagination! The book is tragedy extraordinaire!