Can India’s Far East transition from conflict to peace?

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is a dispassionate account of conflict resolution, peace and prosperity in one of the most charged geopolitical sweet-spots in Asia


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Tue 21 Dec 2021, 10:36 PM

Sudeep Chakravarti, an inveterate journalist and editor at heart, wears many hats. He is a writer of narrative non-fiction and fiction; an analyst of socio-political and security issues in South Asia; a columnist; and consultant to media and think-tanks. His latest work of narrative non-fiction — The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East — is set in the conflict zones of Nagaland and Manipur in India’s Far East. wknd. spoke to Chakravarti about his latest work.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

From corporate and business profiles to macroeconomics and the markets, including a crackling piece on Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates for India Today in the 1990s, to shining light on India’s Maoist rebellion in Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and now The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East, how did you manage to reinvent yourself as an author and give up a cushy editorial job over 15 years ago?

An editor’s job was excellent, it paid very well and opened many doors, but I wouldn’t describe it as cushy! It was hard work and that came with the territory. The transition, or reinvention, was relatively smooth. I wanted to tell stories that were sometimes not possible to tell as part of mainstream media but were no less crucial from the point of view of a country and its people. Stories away from the mall-stupor of urban India, stories of disconnect in a country that flaunts connectivity. Truths over falsehoods. Papered over histories. False histories. Stereotyping. Presumption. Everything that contributed — and continues to contribute — to misunderstanding vast tracts of India and hundreds of millions of Indians. How can India find peace and prosperity if the majority of its citizens don’t? The need to keep such stories alive is my motive force, the reason behind my life as a writer. But I have retained my connection with the media with consultancies and columns, and I also occasionally teach journalism and communications. I may now be described variously as a historian, author and analyst, but journalism remains my first love.

What’s the defining craft behind narrative non-fiction?

The defining craft behind narrative non-fiction is intensive and extensive research, reading, keeping receptive senses wide open, balancing and appreciating widely divergent points of view, on-the-ground feel, interviews and conversations, and coalescing all these into engaging writing. The approach works for all genres I work in: history, culture, ethnography, governance, conflict resolution — and, of course, fiction. For me, it’s important to take a story beyond academic and intellectual cloisters and share it with a wider world. In that it’s not much different from, say, writing a lengthy feature for a newspaper or a cover story for a magazine —and in any case, a true-blue journalist needs to carry the prerequisites I’ve just listed. In my early days as an author, I used to motivate myself: don’t panic, 80,000 or 100,000 words are just several cover stories strung together!

Let’s go back to Tin Fish, a packaged nostalgia about the life and times of teenagers at an elite boarding school in Rajasthan in pre-liberalised India. What was the trigger for that?

I’d take it beyond what you term packaged nostalgia to a situation where, within the setting you describe, Tin Fish, my first book, a novel, is actually a commentary about the life and times of India of those pre-liberalisation years. Nobody really lives in a bubble even if they believe they do. The trigger was manifold. I was in a been-there-done-that mode in my career, having worked at some of the best organisations in India and the world — I began with The Asian Wall Street Journal — and handled everything editorially, including convergence. In addition, the media in India had begun its downward spiral — this was 2003-04 and the spiral hasn’t ended. Moreover, I always wanted to write books, conduct my own research. I came back home after a particularly enervating day, worked out, showered, and began to write Tin Fish. I wrote the first draft in a six-week burst. It’s how I write books in any case. Much research, mulling over and absorption and then an intense burst of several weeks or several months, when I live and breathe a book in progress.

What kind of research did you do for your latest book?

The Eastern Gate is the result of more than a decade of research, travel, numerous interviews, and extensive field notes. To put it another way: From libraries in New Delhi to having tea with weapon smugglers by the border with Myanmar. The timing for the book was just right, and I had to bring together the skills of a journalist, analyst, historian and ethnographer to weave together The Eastern Gate. Here I have employed a ‘dispatches’ style of storytelling, and, of course, interviews with rebel leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, policymakers, army and police personnel, intelligence operatives, analysts, gunrunners, those in the narcotics trade, those privy to peace-negotiations, and community leaders. It’s a wide canvas because the subject deserves a wide canvas, but the core intent is conflict resolution, peace and prosperity in one of the most charged geopolitical sweet-spots in Asia.

How does your latest work take the narrative forward from Highway 39: Journeys Through a Fractured Land?

In a way Highway 39, published in 2012, was a prelude to The Eastern Gate: it sought to explain the history and root causes of some key conflicts in far-eastern India, and the despair and distress of several decades. It was an attempt to unravel the remarkable and brutal recent history of Nagaland and Manipur, their conjoined and restive present, and their uncertain yet desperately hopeful future. It portrayed a picture of people brought repeatedly to breakdown through years of political conceit and deceit, poor and presumptuous governance, immense ethnic tensions, rebellions on account of a great disrespect of local identities and aspirations, outright conflict, human rights horrors, a cumulative and wrenching insecurity — and, yet, coming through it all with inspirational resilience. The Eastern Gate takes it several steps beyond. It is based on the region’s pivot for India’s Act-East policy, the gateway to a future of immense possibilities that could create a new Silk Route. It maps the attempts to transition from war to peace, and tries to keep a firm gaze on the future.

Lastly, as you relocated to Goa 17 years ago, and have since been engaged in scuba diving and marine conservation, are you looking at a book on these subjects in the near future?

Diving and marine conservation are among my great passions away from research and writing. Indeed, in a happy twist my dive guru is also a person with whom I have collaborated most closely on marine conservation. For me it’s a ‘zen’ thing too. I’ve thought seriously of writing about these subjects, both in terms of creative non-fiction and fiction. You could say these books are works-in-progress!

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