I first discovered that ‘we’ were seen as ‘different’ when we moved to Chandigarh. I was 16, and rather surprised when we were visited at lunchtime by Mrs. Khunjoo , who lived in the next apartment. Surprised because we don’t generally expect visitors at lunchtime. Certainly not visitors who spring lithely over the balconies as Mrs Khunjoo did.
“Will you have lunch” my mother , ever hospitable asked her, the first time she manifested.
“No no sister,” she said. “i just want to see.”
“What do you want to see?”,I asked.
“No, please , just what you are eating ?”
She advanced upon our table. My Mother uncovered our serving dishes. She stared at it like some mystery was to be uncovered.
“Arre!” said Mrs Khujroo. “Rice? Dal?”
We do these things. We eat rice and dal but Mrs Khujroo was hoping that she would see something exotic.
“Do people from Nagaland really eat dogs?” asked my landlady when she first learnt that I was from the North East. She was offended when I walked out of the room. Mrs Vaidya (named changed to protect the innocent, namely me) failed to even realise that what she said could be offensive. Mrs Vaidya represents mainland India’s opinion about the seven states of North East India. But at least she has given me a place to stay. Many other North-Eastern students have been turned away because they don’t “look like us”. The other thing is institutional. Don’t believe it? Consider this.
One of India’s proudest moments was at the opening ceremony of the XIX Commonwealth Games. It was one of those moments when one feels proud to be part of such a great Indian Union. The Indian contingent marched in led by Abhinav Bindra proudly carrying our Indian flag. Before him, the signboard holder was wearing the Mizo tradition Puanchei dress. Such a proud moment for the North East to be finally recognised at a event of this scale.
The very next morning the Times of India front page had a photograph of the Indian contingent. “All the teams were led out by girls wearing saris in different styles, except for the Indian team, which was heralded by a girl in a Naga dress.” So much for a “knowledgeable” leading daily.
No North Eastern student in a mainland metropolitan city would be surprised by this sheer ignorance. It has become a part of their lives and an accepted fact that they do not belong here. Nor has the mainland made them feel like they’re part of this country. Hundreds of students come every year from the North East to seek admission in Delhi University. The joy of seeking admission is often cut short by the difficulties faced in the capital. Racial discrimination, language barriers, sexual harassment and trouble finding accommodation are only some of the numerous problems.
“How do you guys contribute to the economy besides tea and a few bombs to seek attention?” says an educated, upper middle class boy in a conversation we had about the various states in India. Of course, it did not matter that just one state, Assam, produces 55 per cent of India’s tea and 60 per cent of its plywood and a substantial part of its crude oil. Of course, he failed to name three out of the seven states. Of course, he didn’t even care to know the names of the capitals of the states. His attitude was clear; how did it matter.
“With a name like Ass-am, what do you guys expect?” he says.
“Have you ever been to the North-East?” I asked.
“Are you nuts?” he asks, this brave mainlander, always willing to mock the name of a state to a woman. “Dude, you guys are like dangerous. I might get killed or abducted or something.”
But then I don’t expect much better from him. He thinks Muslims should “go back where they came from”. (I won’t go into what it is like to be Muslim and North-Eastern. Not enough room. Not enough time.)
To the mainland, the seven states of the North-East are ‘sisters’. This term reeks of paternalism, a patriarchal way of reducing seven independent and diverse states into a single identity. This is why I get really angry when the media talks about the problems of the North-East. Manipur is not Assam. The problems of Meghalaya are different from the problems of Arunachal Pradesh. Trying to work out a single solution that will be inclusive is like trying to find one cure for all ailments.
Let’s consider what happens when Shabana Azmi decides to fast for the rights of slum dwellers facing eviction. The media arrive. The politicians make promises. And within a week, Ms Azmi can return to her biriani. Meanwhile Irom Sharmila has entered the eleventh year of her superhuman fast, protesting the indefensible Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that has been imposed in Manipur and most of the Northeast since 1980.The Act allows the army to use force, arrest or shoot anyone on the mere suspicion that someone has committed or was about to commit a cognisable offence. The Act also prohibits any legal or judicial proceedings against army personnel without the sanction of the Central Government. Is this how our own country wants to treat its citizens? When the government imposes such measures, it only speaks of the centre’s failure as a governing body. Even as the entire country marks the anniversary of Mumbai 26/11, most mainland Indians remain ignorant of the fact that hundreds of their brothers and sisters that die every year of government action.
Some argue that it is the sheer physical isolation that makes it impossible for mainland India to find out about anything about the North-East. States like Tripura and Arunachal and Mizoram aren’t even connected by the railways let alone any other form of infrastructural and educational development. Nitin Gokhale, an NDTV journalist who has written extensively about the North East and its problems says, “Physical isolation from the mainland has aggravated the already existing mental quarantine”. So we don’t even exist and if we do we’re not part of India.
What does it take to qualify to be an Indian? When Nehru spoke about our tryst with destiny, was he thinking the North East? When the Jana Gana Mana was adopted as the National Anthem, did anyone think of the North East? Is anyone thinking right now ?
NB : This is post by Leilah Zeenat Hazarika from North East India, living in Mumbai.