From the north-east to the heart of India



From the time I was in my teens, I have always had a special affection for the north-east of India. In my case, my motives were entirely personal. I went out for several years with a girl from one of the north-eastern states.

In those days, it was rare to find people from the north-east in what they called the ‘mainland’ and what we call the rest of India. My own ignorance, as a teenager, was pretty shocking. I had heard of the Naga insurgency, of course. But the other states were a blur. I was vaguely aware of Manipur because two boys from that state were at school with me. But I had no idea where NEFA was – apart from some dimly-remembered facts about the 1962 war with China. At some stage, NEFA became Arunachal Pradesh but the events had passed me by.

As for the Mizos, I knew nothing. I had heard that there was some insurgency there in the 1970s. But I had no idea what the Mizos wanted. And I even wondered if Phizo, the noted rebel leader, was a Mizo. (He wasn’t. He was a Naga. It was not his fault that his name rhymed with Mizo.)

I am not proud of my ignorance. The truth is that I am still ashamed by how little I knew about the north-east. But of one thing I can be certain: no matter how limited my knowledge of the region, it was much greater than the knowledge of most other people on the so-called ‘mainland’.

You have to remember that, in that era, most people on the ‘mainland’ found it difficult to accept that a substantial part of our population had more in common – in terms of appearance – with people from Burma or Thailand than with Punjabis or Tamils. When north-easterners made it to the ‘mainland’, they were slightly surprised by how different they seemed from us. Some of them were good-natured about our ignorance and took what little advantage they could of it. For instance, nobody believed that my then-girlfriend was Indian. So, during dry days – when only foreigners were allowed to drink – her friends and she would go to bars and knock back beers, pretending to be Thai.

But one advantage of going out with a Mizo was that I learnt something about how they saw us. I learnt also how appallingly they had been treated. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the Mizo insurgency, there is no doubt that the Indian state behaved with savage brutality. I heard too many stories of torture, of entire villages being uprooted and ‘relocated’ to the sides of highways, of mass rape by paramilitary forces and of official high-handedness, for all of the stories to have been made up. Clearly, the Indian government behaved badly. And as clearly, this was because Indian forces did not see north-easterners as Indians. They saw them as the enemy and treated them with none of the deference or concern that Indian citizens are entitled to from our own forces.

Equally, I saw how difficult it was for many people in the north-east to regard themselves as Indian. The Naga and Mizo insurgencies were attempts to seek independence from India. As for Arunachal Pradesh, China claimed that it was a part of Greater China, not of India. The Sikkimese still resented their annexation and took time to get used to the idea that they were now Indians.

In the mid-90s, when I went back to the north-east, long after I had any personal relationship with any north-easterner, I wondered how things would pan out. An entire younger generation of north-easterners looked to Bangkok rather than Bombay for inspiration. Young people rejected Indian popular culture and tried to find a new identity in south-east Asia.

All that began to change in this century. At first, it was a trickle but I have seen figures suggesting that between 2005 and 2010, four and a half lakh people from the north-east came to the so-called ‘mainland’ in search of jobs. The days when north-easterners were seen as foreigners or as exotic people are now over. In many sectors – hospitality, beauty, etc. – north-easterners are the employees of choice. Ask any beauty salon who it would hire, all other things being equal, between an Andhra-ite and a Manipuri, and the chances are that nine times out of ten, the Manipuri will be preferred. So it is with restaurants and airlines. Most employers will take someone from the north-east over somebody from, say, Bihar.

What made the difference? Why do so many north-easterners leave their states and come to work in the ‘mainland’?

I have many theories. Partly it is that India is seen as prosperous and successful and, therefore, worth living in, even by those who once spoke disparagingly of the ‘mainland’. Partly it is satellite television that has made the difference. When I went to the north-east in the mid-90s, they all looked to MTV (they got the south-east Asia beam) for inspiration. Now, they watch Star Plus, Colors, Zee TV, NDTV Good Times and CNN-IBN, just like the rest of us. Television has made the Indian ‘mainland’ seem less like a strange and unfamiliar place. Partly it is demographics. The new generation of Nagas and Mizos have fewer memories of the insurgency or of the atrocities committed by Indian forces. (In Manipur, however, the issue of human rights abuses is still a live one.)

The process of adjustment has not been easy – on either side. There is little doubt that many north-easterners still face discrimination in the ‘mainland’. The men are called ‘Chinks’ and often treated with disdain. The women are dismissed as being loose or available and are often treated with little respect.

When north-easterners complain about how difficult it can be to settle in the ‘mainland’ – as they have been protesting over the last week – I can understand why they are so upset. But equally, I have to say that at some level, I am also relieved.

I think back to the 1980s. A family friend who was then working with the Planning Commission asked my then girlfriend about how Mizos would react to an extension of the railways into their state. Surely, they would be happy to be able to take a train to Aizawl or Lungleh rather than being forced to fly to Silchar and spend several hours on a bus home?

“Actually,” she said, “we will hate it. Our first thought will be, ‘More Indians will come’. We don’t want a way to allow vais (Indians) to come and disrupt our lives any more than you already have.”

I despaired when I heard those words. I went to Mizoram in 1986/87 when Laldenga, the great rebel leader, finally accepted Indian sovereignty and became chief minister. But even then, all that the Mizos wanted was that we left them alone. As for the Nagas, sparks of the old insurgency continued well into the beginning to this century: I covered the talks between A.B. Vajpayee and rebel Naga leaders a decade ago.

When I see young people from the north-east on news TV these days complaining about how they are treated as foreigners in Delhi or Bombay, I am strangely relieved. Of course their complaints are justified. But it is the sub-text that reassures me. They want to be seen as Indian.

A great barrier, erected over many decades of suspicion and hostility, has been broken. The people of the north-east have accepted that they want to be part of the ‘mainland’. Their problem is that the rest of India is unwilling to whole-heartedly accept them.

It seems a slightly harsh thing to say but I am sure that time will sort out their problem. In the 1960s, the DMK was still divided among those who wanted to secede from India or, at the very least, refuse to speak Hindi and those who favoured full-scale integration with the rest of India. Till very recently, many people in the north of India thought of all south Indians as ‘Madrasis’. Even a decade ago, I doubt if many Biharis could have named all the states of south India.

But that’s changed. It hasn’t been easy but time has healed the rift.

Something similar will happen with the north-east. I do not dispute that things are bad today. But they are far better than I dared hope in the 1970s. I condemn the way north-easterners are discriminated against in many parts of the ‘mainland’. But when I hear a Naga complaining that the rest of us are unwilling to treat her as an Indian, I feel a sense of vindication.

After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the Nagas themselves denied that they were Indians and went to war to prove their point.

Things are still far from perfect. And the process of integration needs to move faster. But one thing is clear: the idea of India has won this battle, too.

Now it is up to the rest of us on the ‘mainland’ to prove that we are worthy of the idea of India.

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