By Waled Aadnan:
It has been a couple of weeks since north-east students Loitam Richard and Dana Sangma lost their lives due to alleged cases of racial discrimination. These deaths have sparked off major debates regarding the step-motherly attitude that North-eastern Indians have to face when they leave their region for other parts of their own country in search of better opportunities in education and work as well as a more peaceful and opulent environment to live in.
Facebook, that ever-handy tool of the social vigilante, provided the base for a massive movement. A group “Justice for Loitam Richard” already has more than 2 lakh members. Petitions have been signed in large numbers demanding unbiased investigations in the two cases. Protests have taken place in various cities of India and the world. The Indian media forever shy of covering events relating to the north-east, has pitched in too.
The broad debates that these issues have flared up have exposed the misunderstanding and ignorance that most mainland Indians breed towards those hailing from the North-east. Just a year back, a project report on ‘North East Migration and Challenges in National Capital: City’s silent Racial attack on its own countrymen’ released by the North East Support Centre and Helpline (NESCH) revealed that 78 per cent of the North-East population in Delhi, numbering nearly two lakh, is subjected to several kinds of humiliation because of their appearance. The situation isn’t drastically different in other parts of the country. So it was not surprising when the allegations of racial discrimination towards Richard and Dana were immediately brushed aside by college authorities and police as a result of persecution complex. It is indeed time for the nation to wake up to the presence of people from the north-east in “mainland India” and to make concerted efforts towards overcoming the racial and cultural divide that leads to prejudiced ideas regarding people from the region.
The reasons for this cultural divide are several and complex. Throughout most of history, the eastern extensions of the Himalayas and the Brahmaputra Valley remained independent of the rulers of north India and even cultural dissemination was limited. For this reason, the north-east finds little mention in history textbooks. The result is that Indian children grow up with little knowledge of the north-east, besides marking Kaziranga and the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills on a map.
This pained relationship is not even a surprise given that the imperialist manner of the north-east’s integration into the Indian Union after 1947. The case of Manipur is one worthy of note. Reconstituted as a constitutional monarchy by the Manipur Constitution Act 1947, the kingdom was forced to merge with India two years later. Mr V.P. Menon, the reputed civil servant invited the King of Manipur to a meeting in Shillong to discuss law and order in the region. Instead, the King was held in house arrest and forced to sign the merger agreement. The agreement was never ratified in the Manipur Legislative Assembly which was dissolved instead. As the sun set on the mighty British Empire, it rose on the Indian imperial powers over the people of the north-east.
For years thereafter, this imperialist relationship was on display on several occasions. On 4th-5th March 1966, the Air Force was deployed to bomb Aizawl to suppress the Mizo National Front uprising. This remains the only instance of the Air Force being used on its own civilian population by the Indian Government. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act continues to wreak havoc in the lives of ordinary people of the region. These wounds remain fresh and unhealed. No extent of vertical development and paternalism can obliterate the wrongs committed by India during a rule whose legitimacy cannot be judged by voter turnouts but by the abysmally low infrastructure indices of the seven states of the region and the mushrooming of secessionist terrorist groups.
It is true that the discrimination of north-easterners in India’s metropolitan cities is not unique, but neither is it a myth. Indeed, the inherent contradictions in Indian society lead to prejudices, biases and discrimination against everyone who looks different, lives differently or speaks a different language. Whether it be a ‘Bihari’ migrant worker in Maharashtra or a rich Marwari businessman in Kolkata or a student of Nagaland in Bangalore. What makes the case involving north-easterners one of grave concern is that in their case, all three of the above criteria are fulfilled.
On May 4th, the issue was discussed in Parliament. Replying to a calling attention notice by Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley in the Rajya Sabha, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram stated that the Centre accorded “highest importance to development of North Eastern region as well as prevention of atrocities against Schedule Tribe and will not countenance discrimination in any form.” However immediate justice would be done to both Loitam Richard as well as Dana Sangma if the investigations into their deaths are handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) with a mandate to speedily nail the culprits as well as look into the culpability of the two educational institutions in failing to prevent their deaths and then subverting the truth in attempting to save the culprits.
But as far as the larger picture is concerned, it is time that the north-east was treated with due respect for their individuality, cultures as well as their role in a wider Indian society that respects the inherent differences among people of different regions of the country so that “Unity in Diversity” does not become just a hollow slogan that we are made to chant in school classrooms. In this regard, it is important to note that although the imperative is on the Indian State to ensure the safety and dignity of north-easterners and on the Indian people to overcome their racial prejudices, efforts need to be made by the north-eastern community too to ensure that these incidents do not lead to a fear psychosis, mindless India-bashing and ghettoization of people from the region in India’s major cities. Ghettoization not only fails to bridge the cultural divide but leads to more prejudicial treatments from other communities. The road to a harmonious co-existence is a long and painful one, but a beginning in that direction is in order.