Often referred to as the “eight sisters”, the North-east is blissfully endowed with diverse cultures and traditions, and home to beautiful people belonging to different tribes and communities. If Shillong reminded the British of Scotland, who called the place “Scotland of the East”, the beauty of Manipur charmed Jawaharlal Nehru so much that he named it “The Jewel of India”.
The location of North-east India is strategically very important. We have the Himalayas as our first barrier and the Indian Army stationed at the North-eastern borders as the second and final line of defence. But to think that China could intrude as far as Tezpur in Assam in 1962 shows the capability of our neighbour and the threat posed by them. The Doklam standoff not too long ago is a gentle reminder about the importance of our strength and position in the North-east.
There are myriads of wrong notions harboured towards the North-east and its denizens. During the pandemic, people from the region have been discriminated against for being “carriers of the novel coronavirus” because of their unique physical features compared to mainland Indians. It has been said that Hindus are minorities in the North-east and often “subjugated”. People from the region also have similar food habits and languages with China that render them “Chinese sympathisers” with snakes and bats being “common delicacies”.
Such myths and misconceptions about North-eastern people further strengthen the false notion of foreignness. Systemic negligence of the region since the colonial days has been uncorrected and in fact, many believe that successive governments after Independence have followed suit, further alienating the North-east.
On any platform where development issues of the North-east are discussed, one of the main concerns that naturally crops up is militancy. For many years, armed revolutions have indeed been a stumbling block for development to make its successful inroads. A lot has changed in the last couple of decades, however, with several armed groups in the North-east re-joining the mainstream by signing ceasefire agreements with the government.
Its outcome is the much-needed germination of unhindered development activities, in addition to the prevalence of a much-improved law and order situation. Assam is one such example. It has fared remarkably well on the development front after the state government’s initiative of resolving the militancy issue. Still, insurgency is prevalent in the North-east.
Another pressing concern that hampers development activities is connectivity woes. The tough physical terrain causes untold hardships to the people, rendering them helpless in transporting farm produce, commuting and attending to the sick, and making communication systems, like the Internet and mobile networks, sporadic.
The unique physical features of people from the North-east have attracted unsolicited remarks and unwarranted racial slurs. There are hundreds of sad stories of how they have been subjected to racial discrimination and abused verbally and physically outside the region.
Racial discrimination against North-easterners can be broadly classified as unintentional and intentional. A lot of instances have occurred wherein people from the region are treated as foreigners in their own country because of the complete absence of knowledge about the fact that an Indian can look the way people from the region do. I remember one incident where a few kids asked me to teach them Kungfu as they assumed that I was Chinese.
Experiences such as that don’t hurt as I only feel pity for our education system. But there are many other instances when people from the region are called “foreigners”, “Chinese”, “momo”, and recently “corona”. In a few cases, they are physically and sexually assaulted or even killed.
A couple of weeks ago, the hashtag #NorthEastMatters was trending on Twitter to highlight the need to educate people and spread awareness about North-east India. It was an initiative by a group of organisations from the region after a YouTuber from Punjab called a sitting legislator of Arunachal Pradesh “Chinese”. The intention of the organisations spearheading #NorthEastMatters was to include, among other things, a chapter on North-east India in the National Council of Educational Research and Training curriculum. A separate hashtag #AChapterForNE was also introduced.
The initiative caught the attention of people including journalists, celebrities and politicians. Former Union minister and present Member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor wrote on Twitter, “There is absolutely no doubt that the #NorthEastMatters. It’s essential that a chapter on the North-east is included in the NCERT syllabus.”
The way forward
Considering the long negligence of the region and realising its undeniable strategic importance, matters related to and the concerns of North-east India should be given special focus for an “Equal India”. The militancy issue should be resolved at the earliest by bringing all rebels to the table for talks. In the 21st century and after 75 years of Independence, militancy should not exist as an excuse for underdevelopment. Improving the business infrastructure will undoubtedly go a long way towards ensuring the progress of the region. It is the government’s task to give an impetus to business.
On the other hand, the issue of racial discrimination against North-eastern people needs a holistic approach — it is a virus that needs not just one but a combination of multiple effective medicines. Our education curricula, which has hitherto failed to sensitise people about the basic demography of India, needs a chapter on North-east India to start with.
The idea of a nation should be viewed as one resembling a beautiful rainbow with different colours — it is the dissimilarity that makes it look breathtakingly beautiful. The same religion, dress code, language, food habits and physical appearances should not define our unity as citizens of India. The idea of one India as envisioned by our founding fathers is not about similarity but celebrating the beauty of diversity.
In line with that ethos, it is time we acknowledged that the North-eastern people, however different they may look, are no less Indian than those from the mainland and their concerns should be recognised and addressed, both in letter and spirit.
The writer is a freelance contributor and author. He is a former development professional and has served as a consultant in the ministry of rural development, Government of India.