The states of northeast India, connected to the rest of the country by a narrow 20km wide strip of land that skirts Bangladesh, holds enormous economic value to the Indian government: the land is rich in resources, and provides an overland trade route through southeast Asia to China.
But the region – a strategic corridor between the planet’s two most populous nations – is fraught with instability.
Residents are poor and isolated from the rest of the country; there are waves of illegal immigrants; and large swathes of land are earmarked for coal and gas extraction, risking environmental degradation.
Physically, the people of this region also look different from most Indians. This ‘difference’ has made them subject to racially motivated violence and discrimination in other parts of the country.
At home, it has given rise to a number of intergenerational separatist movements and armed insurgencies – civil unrest that has led to military occupation.
Duncan McDuie-Ra has spent the last 15 years researching in the growing border cities across this tumultuous region, investigating how violence, the presence of the Indian military, and new mining operations, has been affecting lives.
“This is a fascinating place to witness globalisation and inter-Asia connectivity happening on the ground,” says the professor in UNSW’s School of Social Sciences.
One of his first projects examined the dangerous application of an extraordinary law known as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, introduced by India's government to suppress suspected insurgencies.
The results of his work were used by human rights organisations working in the region, to document abuses carried out by the Indian government against its own citizens.
“The practical applications of the research emerged quite quickly,” McDuie-Ra says.
His work has also helped shine the spotlight on racism in India, particularly against migrants from the north-eastern states, who have been forced to move to other states in search of work.
In August 2012, in what the Indian media dubbed ‘the exodus’, 30,000 migrant workers from the northeast region fled the city of Bangalore in the country’s south after violent attacks and SMS-delivered threats.
“The pressure on politicians to address racism and racial discrimination became very intense,” he says. “It very quickly became an issue of national importance."
McDuie-Ra conducted extensive studies on northeast migrants living in the Indian capital, Delhi, working alongside them in a call centre, and living in their impoverished communities.
The results of this work included two books on the subject: Northeast Migrants in Delhi: race, refuge and retail (2012) and Debating Race in Contemporary India (2015).
These works helped to bring the racial discrimination these migrants were experiencing into the national discourse and were used in the high level Bezbaruah Committee, set up by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs to find ways to protect north-eastern peoples.
His work is helping to inform a better understanding of the region, which is strategically important to regional and global security.
“This research is part of a much larger global narrative about resources, autonomy, border disputes, self determination for ethnic minorities, and security.”