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Highlighting commonalities, ignoring differences

Rangan Dutta | New Delhi |

Acclaimed Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila’s statement in New Delhi last week where she reportedly said that the “racial discrimination on our African brothers and sisters, studying here, face is also faced by the people from the Northeast” deserves serious thought.

Especially, in the background of the bold initiative under consideration of the department for development of the Northeast region.

It is looking to involve civil society organisations across the country to address the issue of the “alienation” of a section of the youth of the Northeast.

Since close to 25 per cent of the migrant workers and students from the Northeast are in Bangalore and other southern cities also host significant number of people from the region, civil society organisations there will have to play an important role in this effort.

At the outset, however, Irom Sharmila’s statement appears simplistic and I dare say even impressionistic because “Northeast” conceals the mind boggling ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of the region’s people, which renders its usefulness, as a generic term, problematic.

First, the Assamese presence in major cities has been long-standing and the prominent role Assamese leaders played in national politics and in other spheres accorded the community its due place everywhere.

Second, the ethnic Bengali, Nepali and the assorted groups of Hindi-speaking people of the Northeast, regardless of their faiths, do not seem to face any such “racism and discrimination” as they share the common identity of their larger ethno-linguistic groups — in a way this also applies to the large tea labour community of Assam.

Elsewhere in the region, about five million people, who long time settlers, are perceived as a part of the central Indian Adivasi people sharing the common Adivasi identity.

The ethnic Nepali people of the North-east have been long time settlers — they brought commercial cattle rearing and dairy farming to the region and formed the main plank of the security forces right from the British annexation of Assam in 1826.

The fact that Nepali is included in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution points to the importance of the ethnic Nepali in the national polity. These groups roughly constitute, as per the 2011 Census, about 70 per cent of the population of the Northeast.

Thus when Irom Sharmila talks about “North-east people” facing racial discrimination, she primarily had in mind the problems being faced by a section of the people mainly from Manipur, and other hill and plain tribes of the North-east states, which is no doubt very unfortunate.

This factual position naturally suggests a targeted approach to the problem though it is often projected as being common to all migrants from the region.

Once this fact is seen, its answer lies in its rational appreciation to address what is essentially a “mindset problem” in a multilingual, multiethnic and religious idea of Indian nationalism.

However, seen from the side of some of the Northeast tribes, it’s undeniable that their psyche of “otherness” has been largely the outcome of failed dreams and those of “insurgencies and phoney insurgencies”, usually resulting in extortion as its manifestation.

This fact led the erstwhile Planning Commission to view extortion as the “viable industry” in their state development reports prepared between 2001 and 2004 on the Northeast states.

A consequence of this identity politics is hostility to others, usually dubbed “outsiders” and their presence is perceived as inimical to the interest of the “indigenous or the local” people, which finds expression in recurring violence against them.

And not quite unnaturally, such sentiments are reciprocated and prejudices get built up — not as commonalities but visible differences in language and even the manner of speaking and hair styles, are deemed objectionable.

What Irom Sharmila called “racial discrimination” is thus the outcome of a complex set of circumstances obstructing national integration.

Therefore making stringent laws only will not address the core problem nor improve the internal environment, which creates conditions conducive to the growth of mutual animosity and mistrust. There is a definite role of the civil society in changing this environment.

First, one must avoid expressions such as mainstream, regional or remote in describing societies because India, as Rabindranath Tagore saw it, was a confluence of many races, faiths and languages, which created a syncretic civilisation. Professor Ravindra Kumar has thus argued that India is not just a nation state but rather a “civilisational state”.

It means that meaning that the country is founded on these civilisational values and hence stronger than the Western concept of nationalism which is an “imagined idea” only, as famously pointed out by Benedict Anderson. The task of nation building therefore boils down to strengthening these civilisational values and respecting all cultures.

It is a fact that as a people we lack a serious interest in cultures, arts, history and traditions of different regions of the country.

Time was when a good number of political leaders were multilingual but not anymore. Even in the Indian Administrative Services — the successor service to the Indian Civil Service — the tradition of a deep interest in local history, cultures and languages, as reflected in the pioneering work of 11 volumes of the Linguistic Survey of India compiled and edited by Sir GA Grierson, has not been kept alive as there is a feeling that only a smattering of local language would do.

This is part of a larger problem as evident from the extremely modest growth of “translation literature” in most Indian languages not only of foreign literary and philosophical works but also in other Indian languages.

And the fact that domestic tourism is a feature in the lives of only some linguistic groups speaks volumes about our lack of interest in cultures of our own country, which prepares the ground for developing a mindset willing to support a drive to “homogenisation”.

It ignores the reality that “unity in diversity” renders such an approach unpractical given the size and number of different ethno-linguistic groups and their geographical spread. Sadly this mindset creates indifference first and then, irreverence for other cultures.

Indeed, the “alienation” of a section of the Northeast’s youth today is the result of a complex process of what may even be called “respect and interest deficit in cultures” that exists in the country and points to certain weaknesses of the polity. In this environment, any talk of bringing the youth of the region to the “mainstream” would be deemed patronising and therefore, will not yield any beneficial result.

The need of the hour is strengthening institutional structures in art, literature and sports to create an interest in the societies and cultures of the North-east across the country and to develop a genuine respect for the region’s hill tribes for their amazing success in rapidly moving from the tribal world to modernity.

The point to stress is the common objects and values relevant to the 21st century and not the “differences”, which are being rapidly eroded by technology, innovation and common aspirations of the youth.

The civil society initiative would bear fruit if it could open such closed minds and bring tribal youth on a common national platform in order to know each other better.

The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India