How does India treat the north-easterners?
Although India is a good example of a country having within itself a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, there are certain parts of India who feel alienated from the ‘mainstream’. The north-east is a prime example.
Maybe I did not think too deeply of this earlier because I was insulated from the reality. I did not ever feel that north-easterners were any different from us…or at least not more different than those from another Indian state. Having had an army upbringing I have always had the good luck of being able to mingle with people from all religions and all communities. Not just that, I lived in the north-east, and we have family friends from the region. However this subject of them feeling different, or alienated from the rest of India never came up. I don’t know why…
But lately I have been thinking more about this. It was the news report about a booklet suggesting a code of conduct for students and visitors from the northeast published by Delhi police that made me almost write a post on it. There were a lot of protests from students about this booklet which basically asked north-easterners to ‘behave differently’…more in keeping with Delhi norms…in terms of dress, attitude, food etc. Something on the lines of do in Rome what the Romans do. This was indeed a strange suggestion because it was treating the north-easterners as if they were foreign visitors. You cannot ask people to change their culture in their own country.
This incident simply underlined the divide between north easterners and the ‘mainlanders’ as many call us.
But what really shocked me was this this post. It talks of widespread discrimination against people of north eastern origin in Delhi. There are certain commercial establishments which don’t let them in! This is what the writer says:
Everyone from the region has his or her own stories and experiences, which have been rather silently buried. I know such vocal attacks have, on many occasions, resulted in violent anger, arguments and fights between the so-called “mainstream” people and the people from the North East.
What this post said was disturbing:
They (north-eastern girls) are seen as ‘fast’ or ‘of easy virtue’. This perception exposes girls from the Northeast to the worst sorts of sexual harassment, both within campuses and without. Diana, a Mizo student at Indraprastha college, said, “Delhi men believe that north-eastern girls are easily available. They look at us with only one thing in mind: sex. If we protest, they warn us to clam up, because we are alone and there is no one we can turn to for protection.”
I want to believe that the rest of India is not like this, that this is simply a Delhi phenomena, but I don’t know. I talked to some college students here in Mumbai and they said they don’t discriminate against north-easterners…but don’t mix with them either. There is a language barrier they insist and the north-easterners also tend to keep to themselves. None of them could deny that north-easterners are considered ‘different.’
The question is: Why do the majority of Indians think of north-easterners as ‘different’?
Is it because they look different?
Is it a language barrier?
Is it because they are geographically far far east?
Is it because their regions are economically not as vibrant as the rest of India?
Is it because they are culturally different?
Is it because they themselves feel different and keep away?
I’ll try to answer these questions.
If we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that even though in India all of us different kinds of people live together, not many of us actually MIX with each other at a deeper level. How often will you find a traditional Gujarati girl hanging out with a traditional Tamilian? Or a religious Hindu boy hanging out with a religious Muslim boy? Or a a conservative Sindhi family going on a holiday with a family of Kashmiris? Or a group of traditional Sikhs who are best friends with a group of say….Assamese….or another group of north-easterners…?
In all these cases I have used words like traditional, conservative and religious…because I believe the modern Indian is different. Specially the young modern Indian. So, if there is some sort of mixing with the ‘other’ it happens more with the younger generation. Those who have some sort of pan Indian identity. Naturally we are talking only urban here…but even the modern Indian discriminates. People who are westernized and speak English fluently do not like to hang around with those whom they call ‘vernacs’ or ‘behenjis’ or ‘ghatis’ and it is the other way round too. The ‘ghati’ crowd looks down on the westernized crowd, thinking of them as somehow immoral and un-Indian. So if a north-easterner (or in fact any other Indian) is not as fluent in English or well up on the western music scene, books or films, he is unlikely to have anything in common with this group.
But I have deviated from my point about racism. Other groups may not suffer the same sort of treatment that north-easterners do. Why? Is it simply because they can merge with the mainstream because of their looks? There are people who call north-easterners Chinki and this is offensive to them. Its become a derogatory term. Can I dare suggest that north-easterners should instead wear it as a badge of pride? What is wrong in being Chinki? I think north-easterners are beautiful – slim, agile and delicate looking. But ofcourse if this term refers to them as Chinese, its wrong and can be offensive as it implies that they are foreigners.
Then there is the cultural difference…but this should not be the basis of any discrimination on any significant level as all Indians are culturally different from each other. North-easterners couldn’t be discriminated against solely because of the language problem either because there are plenty of Indians good at neither Hindi or English.
It can’t be westernization at any significant level because every community in India has westernized people. People who are racist towards north-easterners will not reject those from their own community who are westernized.
Besides, the Parsis as a community are westernized but they are accepted better. If anything, the Parsees themselves were known to to keep a distance from the rest of India, and tried their best to marry only amongst their own community. Yet this attitude that they had towards the rest of India did not go against them, if anything it made them more respected. Was it their white skin? Was it the fact that they were economically a very successful community? True, the Parsees did adopt Gujarati as their mother-tongue but that was because they had no home land. They had come from Iran and they never wanted to go back.
The north-easterners have a home…in India. They cannot be expected to change their language or their habits to suit some group in India! That’s ludicrous.
I wish I had the answers to this mess…but I really don’t. Basically I feel that the discrimination is due to a little of all the reasons mentioned above. There are probably more reasons which I have not outlined and I will be glad if a reader provides insight into this problem.
But I don’t feel the situation is hopeless. The north-easterners can be brought into the mainstream. I feel India needs to starts more industries there, and open up the more of the best educational institutions in that part of the country. They have to feel that they belong…
Update: I would like to bring everyone’s attention to the fact that there is an ongoing controversy in Tripura over the language issue. Their native language is Kok Borok but as the Left Front govt. is ruling, they have imposed the Bengali script on them! Kok Borok apparently did have it’s own script once but it’s dead. Today they do not have their own script but sadly, this is the third time the script has been changed!! Whenever the local parties come to power they change the script to Roman (the way English is written). As a result the school kids suffer. On TV I heard that the local govt. is promising that if they come back to power, they will get the Roman script back. Another change for the kids.
For more information on Tripura’s language issue, the following links can be accessed.
For Articles on the North-East click here.