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The North-East: A Rather Troubled And A Much Forgotten Part Of India [Part 2]

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By Karmanye Thadani:

Economics is unfortunately not my cup of tea (indeed a severe handicap for someone who writes on socio-political developments!) and therefore, I shall not engage in an in-depth economic analysis of the north-eastern secessionist question. On the economic front, I would, however, like to say in this article that India has had a rather skewed economic development story in terms of balancing out legitimate regional aspirations, owing to vote-bank politics, aside from redundant forest laws that isolated tribals from their life-base, by not allowing tribal communities to extract forest produce in the name of environmental conservation (though their traditional knowledge would come in the way of destroying the forests, on which they depend for their sustenance, the shifting cultivation practiced by some nomadic tribes being an aberration), in spite of the government engaging in extensive deforestation for ‘development’ projects across the country.

However, even more strangely, the Indian Forest Act classifies bamboo, botanically considered a grass, as a tree, and prevents its felling, though it is extremely renewable and new bamboo plants grow again in a very short span of time, and so, the felling of bamboo is not really a cause of environmental degradation so long as the forest land is not encroached upon. Bamboo is extensively found across the north-east and with many tribal economies being heavily dependent on bamboo products, this legislation has indeed had a very adverse effect on their economy (in Mizoram, this had a direct relation with the separatist insurgency), and though now the introduction of the Forest Rights Act has changed for the better, its implementation seems problematic and deserves attention (for more on this from a pan-India perspective with a focus on bamboo, you can read the following short article by me:  A Bamboo Controversy Yet Again

However, when many well-intentioned people project the north-eastern issue as a purely or primarily economic one, my objection to this line of thinking is that it would be worth pondering over why economic backwardness in tribal belts in Odisha, Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh manifests itself in the form of a militant movement that claims to be Marxist by character but with a pan-India appeal (Naxalism), rather than one with separatist convictions, though this is not to say that everyone even in the regions with the strongest secessionist aspirations has the most extreme mentality viz-a-viz the issue.

To quote the renowned female Naga novelist Easterine Kire Iralu — “I don’t believe people from my generation or my children’s generation will ever feel that they’re Indian. We will always feel we’re Nagas. There’s a huge cultural difference. But we are able to embrace India, understand Indian culture…only if you’re a Naga, you will understand. You have a sense of belonging to a smaller degree to India. Your identity is always as a Naga…you can have a sense of belonging to India. But you know that because of the history and culture, you’ll never really be Indian. You’ll always be fully Naga in your mentality…we should actually build up on that – the levels of belonging, the levels of Indian-ness.”

This concern necessitates the need to understand that while holistic economic development can solve a major part of this problem (and much of the sense of identification people from these regions do have for India is owing to their perception that they would be economically much worse off as independent entities, as a friend of mine from Meghalaya told me once very candidly), it by itself cannot make for a complete solution (the racism they are subjected to can be seen from the fact that someone has posted a rather insensitive online comment on that interview of the Naga novelist that big Indian publishing houses know that it’s pointless selling stories of the north-east, implying they are of little value).

To explore this in a little more depth, we might examine the underlying basis of the unity in diversity in India that we boast of, to a fair degree legitimately. After a series of events that exposed intolerance in the West, I wrote a short piece on Facebook in March this year on how we, Indians, are much more pluralistic (united in our diversity) than the inhabitants of European nation-states are. And in the debate that took place in the comments, I underlined the reasons for the same, also acknowledging the very same factors that bind most of India together for being the reasons for the exclusion of the north-east, a classic case of exceptions only proving the rule.

Fundamentally, I argued that different religions have been absorbed and assimilated by this grand Vedic culture (with diverse languages emanating from or being strongly influenced by Sanskrit), which is exemplified by saints like Kabir, Nanak and Shirdi Sai Baba rejecting any religious label or Malayali Muslims and Christians too preparing the traditional feast on the harvest festival of Onam, in spite of it also carrying a significant Hindu religious connotation, and the modern constitutional setup suits this arrangement of tolerance with secularism and a form of federalism giving recognition to different linguistic clusters, but the Christian-majority areas in the north-east, which historically followed their own animist faiths, didn’t fall within the cultural zone of Bharatvarsh or Hindustan in ancient or mediaeval times and hence, the cultural gap still persists.

This broadly sums up why the north-east isn’t as ‘integral’ to what we frequently call the “idea of India” (or our national imagination) and though since 2008, and more so since 2010, the question of Kashmir frequently figures in our nationalist discourse from the most leftist to the most rightist perspectives, the north-east gets pretty much pushed to the margin and hardly stirs up much of a debate, except on very sporadic occasions. Prominent personalities, Indian and foreign, who have written what are meant to be fairly holistic books on India (and those who became prominent precisely because of such books, like Edward Luce) have hardly given any premium on the issue of the north-east, which is rather unfortunate.

So, coming back to our analysis of why the north-east is so very neglected, I have cited the Christian-majority areas in the north-east as regards the issue of secession, though this has been a major issue even in Hindu-majority Assam (Kamrup in the Vedic literature, and today, that’s the name of one district in Assam), but it isn’t so much of that anymore, except with respect to the Bodos, all of whom also obviously don’t desire secession, and the Hindu-majority population of Arunachal Pradesh has never demanded secession and always stood up to assert its loyalty to India, as opposed to China which claims the territory they belong to as their own and even makes military incursions into the state. No, this is not to say that I am here to reinforce the rather lunatic Hindu right-wing notion that secessionist movements in Muslim-majority Kashmir or Christian-majority north-eastern regions tend to suggest that Muslims and Christians in general are not loyal citizens of India, but rather how our intelligentsia has failed to integrate these non-Vedic/non-Indo-Islamic/culturally non-Indo-Christian peoples in our national imagination, in spite of these regions also producing remarkable freedom fighters for liberating a united India from British colonial rule, like Rani Gaidinliu from Nagaland.

The alienation occurs because our NCERT history textbooks, even if authored by the most prominent of historians like Romila Thapar or the late Ram Sharan Sharma, nearly blank out their rich history. It’s because our language textbooks, more often than not, don’t tell us about their folk tales. It’s because we don’t celebrate their contributions to our Indian national mainstream, except occasionally of someone like Mary Kom. It’s because we have developed an absurd conception that mongoloid features are not quintessentially Indian and we have a fixed notion of characterizing mongoloids only with supposedly funny names or martial arts, to the extent of subconsciously ostracizing them or even openly ridiculing them which we are not willing to address (though a harsh law against racist slurs like ‘chink’ has been introduced for the better). As the prominent RSS and BJP intellectual Tarun Vijay captures beautifully in his article ‘Why should Manipur remain in India?’

How many Indians would be caring for Manipur or Arunachal or Nagaland, in spite of all those patriotic songs? How many of us would be able to tell what kind of name a Naga, a Mizo or a Manipuri love to wear? Or distinguish their faces and not to call them all as ‘chinkies’?”

The alienation occurs because our national media doesn’t think it expedient from the profitability point of view to highlight their stories and so, any amount of rallying against discrimination by them even in the national capital falls on deaf ears, and being outspoken in international human rights forums invites charges of sedition, which leads them to believe that an effort in the direction of integration isn’t worthwhile and secession is the only way ahead. All this would have to change rapidly and with a conscious focus, failing which economic development can only take us so far. If north-easterners can be made to feel like Indians, them attacking our security personnel or different secessionist forces in the north-east attacking each other owing to the variation in their respective territorial claims of countries-to-be based on ethnic differences (such as between the Nagas and Kukis in Manipur) can be put to rest and so can our security personnel retaliating by misusing special statutory immunities to kill and torture innocents or engage in rapes and forced disappearances, since the region would be demilitarized (though till then, the AFSPA must be repealed or at least amended). The task is difficult, and indeed needs sensitive handling and firm determination.
[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely’ Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’. He is currently working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a reputed Delhi-based public policy think-tank. The views expressed are personal.To read his other posts, click here.[/box]

 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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