What ails our perception of North East India?
By Ananya S Guha
A lot of discussion on North East India is focused around questions of politics, identity, society, and even literature. Seminars are held all over the country generating debate and polemics. The death of a young student from Arunachal Pradesh and other such instances in the past have raised the question of racial profiling. One view also challenges the singular notion of North East India as one entity, considering factors of linguistic and religious divergence. Many of the seminars and conferences only result in producing books, which publishers from Delhi, eyeing the academic market, take advantage of. But the exact problematic of North East India often belies answers. Why do the people feel alienated? What is the periphery versus the ‘mainstream’ question? Hasn’t the concept of mainstream, despite disputatious over its meaning, gained currency for want of a better expression?
First, let us look at the alienation question. That this exists is indubitable. But why does it exist? This is something which must be answered, or looked into critically. Is it about the racial factor or racial difference, something which was prevalent in certain parts of South India in the 50s and 60s? In his lucid book, India: The Siege Within, M. J. Akbar has pointed out with perspicuity how separatist tendencies began in South India first, demolishing the myth that all talk of secessionist tendencies started in North East India.
Second, we must keep in mind the sensitive issue that the people of North East India, especially the youth, are treated indifferently, or ‘differently’ when they go to the ‘ mainland’, resulting in a lot of protests in the recent past.
Third, the predilection to treat the North East as a separate block and entity. This is tenable to a great extent because of border affinities and lack of development and connectivity. But a seminar in an air-conditioned room in New Delhi is certainly no solution. I say it is true ‘to a great extent’ because at some social and political level the minds of the people meet, and they identify with one another out of empathy and look askance at New Delhi or the ‘mainland’. This happens because of some experience in the process of negotiating with people outside the state and their rude behavior or derogatory remarks.
Fourth, the carrot and stick policies of governments have created social disparities and divides. The classes have not been a result of a natural evolution, but has been thrust upon societies by sops and lure of money. This has also lead to corruptibility.
Fifth, the sensitive question of identity in the face of a threat of being overwhelmed or outnumbered by other communities, especially the migrant. I have always been saying that close-knit communities evince such a threat because of small numbers, where there is a behavioral pattern akin to a family. This must be comprehended or understood. This is certainly not necessarily parochialism. Parochialism exists in all communities of India, and the rubric of ‘unity’ is tested time and again. This happens with reference to community, caste, and religion. That India has withstood such pressures historically is a grand testimony to its powers of absorption.
The solution, if any, rests on subverting the myth of mainland-periphery dichotomy. All regions are a part of the country; there is no mainstream or sub-stream. In treating North East India as a singular identity, we have to also comprehend its rich diversity and intra-tribal communities. Not many know that the official language of Nagaland is English, which is also one of the official languages of Meghalaya. The sense of alienation must be perceived as a problem of isolation and not that of parochialism. The people who have lived here for generations must identify with the major communities, and insist on their local identity as well. The identity question is one of allegiance and may not be racial in intent. In fact, one person can have multiple identities in a clear-headed manner. Also when people from outside the region come here, say on transfer, they must show a genuine interest in the cultures of the people, rather than just waiting for their tenures to end.
Cultural assimilation is the only solution to sectarian outbursts. Insulting people by making disparaging remarks about them or their communities can only hurt their feelings, enabling the sense of alienation to fester. Wounds take a lot of time to heal.
Community dispersion to other states of the country from this region can also help not only in terms of economic sustenance, but that of cultural exposure. I am sure the process has begun, and will accentuate in years to come.
The current interest in North East Indian literature is a welcome sign, and many authors of this region are winning plaudits for their literary and musical talents, as well as in sports. The examples of Meghalaya, Manipur and, of course, Assam, are important cases in point.
History, let us hope, will be re-written.
Ananya S Guha is Regional Director, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Shillong.
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