The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies was founded by a British royal charter on the last day of 1600. An enterprise of London based businesspersons that imported spices from the East Indies, it later came to be known as the East India Company.
The ‘East Indies’ were lands previously classified by western imperialists to signify lands east of the Indus—what became Hither India (British India) and Further India (South East Asia). As the merchants came to gain political control of the region aided by the British crown, consideration of colonial expansion continued to be greater than the people they drove to starvation.
The 1826 Treaty of Yandabo ended the long and expensive war (funded by the colony) the British fought with and the Ava rulers of Burma. The Ava kingdom—that had extensively, and disastrously, raided the Axom and Meitei kingdoms—promised to keep its hands off the Axom and Meitei valleys (as well as Rakhine/Arakan, among others).
Thus began the British classification and conquest of lands North East of Bengal. But here, swathes of conquest blind spots remained in the hills that the British considered of no use, or far too dangerous, for imperial trade and political control.
What the British left undone, the Indians have vowed to do. Today this region of erstwhile volatility has been recognized by the Government of independent India as the “missing link” to its own political and economic aspirations. Making this part of public policy, thereby legitimizing post colonial control of land, people and resources, a new parlance has been created in the form of, first, ‘Look East,’ and then, ‘Act East.’
Even in the post colonial construction of geography and peoples that inhabit it, east has remained east and west the west. Only goalposts have shifted—yesterday’s east were the generic Indies, today’s is the generic North East; yesterday’s west was London, today’s is New Delhi. In our continuing colonial imagination of the self, east is to be conquered by the west. Like the women who were traded as erstwhile missing links (read wives) to buy stability, the “North East” of the Indian Union is today nothing but a link in the larger chain (India’s stability), insignificant unto itself.
These attitudes were amply on display as the North East Connectivity Summit unfurled in Kohima on September 22-23, 2017. Various nation states and multinational companies were flown into the Nagaland State capital to auction off resources at the altar of western policies. People’s voices remained unanimously missing; all these years, the people of Guwahati, Dimapur, Itanagar, Aizawl, Imphal, Shillong, Gangtok or Agartala were not significant enough to connect to each other but now that the West, once again, wants to Act East, this must be done.
Imperialism, capitalism and colonialism have almost always lost at the altar of the people. Just like ‘East Indies’ became a misnomer as subcontinental peoples reiterated control over their central position over their lands, ‘North East’ will also one day become a redundant term as it comes to be controlled and defined by the people inhabiting these lands.
Till then, may the Act East of the West shower the region with the resources required to do so.
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