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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  • Bappam

    you have no leg to stand on as far as corruption is concerned. the media is one of the most corrupt arms of Indian society. You guys carry on as if the Radia tapes episode never happened. In this electronic age, even if you try to kill a story, it never goes away. I can listen to the Radia tapes anytime I want to remind myself what frauds you all are. you just want the status quo to carry on as it is so you can keep talking about vote banks, voting percentages, caste configuration, Modi versus Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati as a Dalit champion etc. Maybe this is what you find fascinating but Indian politics is changing fast and governance issues are becoming paramount. As far as keriwal and kiran bedi are concerned, you really must be kidding. both belonged to two arms of government – the IRS and IPS were you can become multimillionaires with no questions asked. i know this for a fact because i come from a family of bureaucrats and i have seen the amount of wealth that IRS and IPS officers generate over a short period with no accountability. Neither kejriwal nor Bedi took advantage of this opportunity to enrich themselves through their service. The fact that you are equating political-bureaucratic corruption with a traffic constable’s petty corruption and kiran bedi travel bills tells me that you are wilfully trying to fool your readers. yes scale does matter when we are discussing corruption. when IRS and IPS officers take bribes it damages governance which is what is what is holding India back. the main reason they are taking bribes is that they are funneling that money to their political masters to get lucrative postings. Even your corporate paymasters are realizing that you cannot have a corrupt governance structure and keep claiming at Davos that you are a rising power.


  • Anonymous

    Now the question is “Is Sujata Anandan Corrupt?”.


  • Anonymous

    Finally you have realised that Rahul is all show, no substance but people in India suffer from lack of common sense. They never think or analyze because most of them are uneducated or semi-educated unable to understand diplomacy that these politicos indulge in while dealing with Aam Admi.


  • Abu Ahmed

    Casteism in India is spread and well-entrenched like TB – it will never be eradicated. What Congress has done is to exploit it in its fight against other Hindu parties. For any Hindu, what difference would it make if the Congress or the BJP or the BSP or the SP wins the election – apart from caste loyalties and personal gain? The BJP roots for the Banias, the SP for the OBCs and the BSP for the Dalits. Its only the Congress which can represent all Hindus – and the minorities – despite its myriad short-comings and soft Hindutva outlook. Only Mayawati could launch a very serious challenge to the Congress at the national level in the 2014 polls.


  • Mizohican Kima

    Whoooahhhh!!!!! Vir Sanghvi, I have been a loooooong time follower of your articles, both at HT blog and your site, agreeing to some of your opinions and disagreeing to some. But I never knew you went out once with a Mizo girl! :)

    The issues you have mentioned, trust me, are quite controversial. I have been trolled and abused online many times only for merely pointing out that Mizoram was bombed by the IAF which many Indians refused to believe and branded me a terrorist for saying that. I have blogged and written quite a lot of articles about Mizoram and the North East but to no avail. But a person of your reputation writing about this is HUGE for me and my fellow Mizos, so thank you sir :)

    You wanna see racial abuses? Check out the comments on my blog whenever I write things related to the North East. I don’t know why there is so much anger and hatred against people from the North East from so many fellow Indians. I won’t be surprised if there are racial abuses at this article too, but like I said before, it means a lot to us that you wrote about it. Cheers, sir.

    - Kima (A Mizo)


    AshishC Reply:

    Dear Kima,
    if it is any consolation, I was once dining at an eatery in Khan Market witha friend from Hong Kong (a Chinese) on a visit to Delhi. We were being served by a waiter who was obviously from North East. The moment my friend saw him, his eyes lit up; he beckoned him close and broke into Cantonese. The waiter’s face was quite a sight :)
    This anecdote apart, I applaud you for speaking out about the shameful behaviour of our fellow Indians. Someday, hopefully, we will grow up.


  • Sid sridhar

    Well said vir Sanghvi. I am a Canadian of Indian origin. There was a time in the Seventies, when Indians were not easily accepted and we had to try to pretend we were from Singapore or South Africa. The same happened to people from China, who pretended to be Japanese!The new successful India/China has changed all this. Inside India too, globalization is taking place and it is wonderful to see people from Manipur working in Chennai! India is changing fast and is coming to terms with its growth story. The buzz word is ‘inclusive growth’ and this will include people of the Northeast. Internet will make sure that Tamils visit beautiful parts of Shillong etal and the people there will not be able to stop it. Wake up India! You are being followed by other nations as a role model!!


    Anonymous Reply:

    Agree. Also I studied in a Regional Engg College (now NITs) where we had a large number of students from the North-East and they were all universally loved. I guess the more people get to know each other the more the barriers fall. And the converse is also true


  • Fact

    A good article from Vir Singhvi. No pseudo secularism and Modi bashing too. Keep it up and we might accept you post Radia.


  • Ramesh

    We all are different, speak different languages, look different, profess different religions, dress differently, have different food habits and we are all proud of our cultures. This is what makes India fascinating!


  • Mizohican Kima

    Thanx for your replies Ashish, Ramesh, Raj, anon and Globe. I read them over the weekend but couldn’t reply from my phone. I have been brought up outside Mizoram from 3rd standard, so I know very well this is not the mentality and opinion shared by every Indian. I have a lot of non-Mizo friends from this side of India and cherish them. But there are also certain people who will always behave ignorant and obnoxious online, after all, it is the internet. That may still take time to change, but in the real world, I have indeed seen a lot of changes as I have been in mainland India almost my entire life, and articles like this by a prominent columnist really speed up the process :) Cheers to you all :)


  • Theyounghindu

    Dears, neither Assam nor Mizoram will never get separated from India, for the same reason that Tamil Nadu, Andhra or Kerala didnt get separated. Looking different or speaking a different language doesnt prevent India from giving you people up, thats the idea of India, the idea of democracy, secularism and diversity.I am sorry, ur dreams will remain in the pipe forever. Love India and all indians. Jai Hind


    Vanlalfaka Reply:

    No true Mizo loves to be Indian. They would be happy to die than be called Indian. Except for some worthless sycophants of course…

    You are just an RSS.


  • Vanlalfaka

    Division leads to weakness, for people of the same race. The case is entirely different for northeastern states. We belong to (an) entirely different race(s).

    India will not fall due to separation of northeastern states. And then these states will have a chance to struggle for survival in their own right.

    The idea of Mizoram (or for that matter, Nagaland etc.) being in India forever is the stupidest thing in the world.


  • ZHB

    I’m a late comer into the conversation and I enjoyed reading the comments. What struck me most was how gracious and polite the comments of the ‘wicked mainlanders’ were. Thank you. I am from the North-East and in the ten years that I spent in Delhi, I did receive a good share of racist taunts but I also made a great many friends who cared more about the jokes I told than about my ethnicity. This is one of the reasons why I’ll never pass a sweeping judgement on a people or a city. It’s also a pity that the many acts of great kindness that take place in Delhi go unreported. And we in the NE aren’t that innocent or spotless either. People coming from outside the region are often treated in a boorish manner; in the worst case, with undisguised disdain, and like in many parts of India white skin is respected and an African will be referred to as a negro. Well, as long as India has this colourful variety living together there will be problems but we have to find ways to live amicably together, and I believe this civilised and thoughtful discussion that’s carrying on is a good beginning…


  • gupta

    see we people has lost our culture ,moral values and respect. today everything in life is money.I am from uttar predesh the most corrupt state in india. I feel now indians has lost the feeling of respect. I have been many countries in world and seen how much respect they give to each other but i feel shame when i see how they treat north east people and i know north east people are very honest ,hard working .My two friends are married to the girls from Shilong and they are living a very happy life.The governemt has to take some action to maintain equality in country but the governement is busy in looting money .So now we have to be very cautious in our own land as there is no law and order in country. Ask all the north east people to unite where ever you stay and help each others. thanks.N.Gupta


  • Buni Kon

    I should say one of the best article.I feel proud to be an Indian, but the mainland people are treating us like we are foreigners. As you have said, sometimes we the people from North East also constantly felt that it would be better to be a part of greater China than to be a part of India because of all these constant nagging and hopefully, we could have stayed in peace with those Chinese who are having similar structure with us. But, the best thing would be, if we can live independently and, of course free from racism, discrimination, etc.