My mother is from Madhya Pradesh. So, as a child, most of my vacations were spent in this historically famous state in central India. Of all the things that I remember from my visits, the questions my cousins asked me, remain intact in my memory. I remember I had to tell them if I had a television in my house or not. Did Zee TV air on that television? Once, I had to even prove that I did not live in a forest surrounded by animals on all sides! Indeed, my relatives and friends from other parts of the country knew very little about Assam, my beautiful state which is in the north-east of India. Unfortunately, things haven’t changed much.
As I grew older and made friends with people from different states, questions like, “Does it snow in Assam?” were asked to me. Later during a group discussion at a prestigious media school in India, where students discussed Anna Hazare and his fast against corruption, my statement regarding Irom Sharmila, was addressed with a blank stare. I didn’t know if this was because of insensitivity or unawareness. All I knew was that I felt bad.
I still remember my first day at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus in 2012. I remember the day not only because I was nervous to attend my first day as a college student, but also because something happened that changed the way I understood my country. Professor Leo entered the class and introduced himself. He said he was from Nagaland, and that he was pursuing his PhD from India. I was baffled! I insisted on knowing the college, to which he said, “TISS Mumbai.” I couldn’t fathom what he meant. I kept thinking. Isn’t Nagaland a part of our country? Aren’t we all members of the same family called India? On the second day, I came to know that professor Leo’s cousin Stephen was in my class. So, I decided to ask him. Stephen was shy, silent and had a smiling face. When I asked him why Professor Leo said what he did, he replied, “Yes. We don’t consider ourselves Indians. We are Nagas. India doesn’t care for us, why should we tag her name with our identity?” As a first year student, just out of school, his words made little or no sense to me. I was surprised but had no knowledge whatsoever to support or counter his statement.
Three years at TISS and all my questions were answered. Students who had joined my college from other states had a new name for my college. ‘Tribal Institute of Social Sciences’. As we have a certain percentage of reserved seats for students from the north-east, there were many students from the sibling states, especially from Nagaland and Manipur. It was strange for me to notice how students from Arunachal, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Manipur would stick to each other and not talk to the others. It took me a year to realise that it was also the other way round. Students from other states also befriended students from every part of the country but the north-east. Assam was an exception. A classmate of mine, once commented that we look more ‘Indian’ if we aren’t ‘Ahom’. As someone who can’t stop talking, I always initiated a conversation with ‘them’. Mostly to be greeted with awkward silences or short conversations that only revolved around the class we just had. I hated how half my class had become ‘them’ or ‘us’. And there was a clear divide. Hence, by the end of the first year, I decided to start ‘Speakers Society’ to make everyone talk, debate or just be there. On the first day of the society’s meeting, a dozen students turned up, but not ‘them’, none of them. I was disappointed.
In the second year, I started sitting with Stephen and John from Manipur. They had no choice but to talk to me. I would simply go and sit with Varun who was also from Manipur and start talking. One day Varun brought with him the skull of a monkey. I was stupefied. Everyone else was scared and by now my group of friends who were from Kanpur, Jodhpur, Jamshedpur, Kolkata, Bihar, Assam, had started talking to ‘them’ too. All of us were stunned to see the monkey skull and very sheepishly, one of us asked who killed the monkey. Varun replied that they had eaten the monkey the other night and kept the skull. I was disgusted and started my lecture on animal rights being as important as human rights and how unjust this act of theirs was. I judged all of them in a minute especially when they told me that they ate dogs too. And Varun just raised his voice and said, “Shristi, if need be, I can eat a human too, or for that matter, you too, stop your lecture.” And I stopped and kept staring at him. Then he told me something that till date stays with me. He told me how his uncles and grandfathers had to fight the army who wanted to kill them during the insurgency. They had to hide in jungles and couldn’t go home for years. And in the jungle, they had to eat whatever they could, even monkeys. The immature person that I was, I asked him, “Yes, but why did they have to fight the army that protects us?” He looked straight into my eyes and said, “To protect our identity.” I kept quiet.
By now Julia, who is half Mizo and half Manipuri became a good friend. So, I invited her to my ‘Speaker’s Society’ meeting and she came. I was happy beyond words to see her and Reea in the meeting. Even though she didn’t say anything during the meeting, after it got over, Julia decided to stay and talk to me. She revealed to me how it’s not that people from the north-east purposely don’t talk. They are scared to talk. They’ve always seen their parents scared too. Even their parents grew up in conditions where talking could mean danger. Childhood for their parents was mostly about seeing the men in their family die or women get raped. Hence, they grew up like that, which made their children (Julia’s generation) the same too. It took me some time to gulp that in.
Even as a North Easterner, I wasn’t aware of the wide range of diversity in the eight states. By interacting with Anne, I learned how there were so many different tribes within one state and every tribe had a different language, completely different from the other. I befriended Raman from Tripura and realised how he grew up in an orphanage which made him the silent, yet the jovial person that he is. Before that, I assumed he, just like the others, wanted to not talk to ‘us’. Somehow, by the beginning of my final year of college, this ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide started to fade out. Most of us visited the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland and were more than in love with the state and its people.
But the good days weren’t here to last. Soon the result of our TISS Mumbai entrances was out and students who scored very less, but belonged to the Schedule Tribe category got through and most of us having scored higher didn’t manage to clear it. The anger was evident and the divide stronger than before. Reservations brought back the gap that had taken two years to fill. There were debates and discussions. But every cloud has a silver lining, and so did this incident. It was the first time the students who were for so long considered the ‘other’, for not speaking out, united and spoke together. They brought in front of us the issues they’ve always faced and the poverty and negligence that they’ve experienced. They told us how different their conditions were from us and that doesn’t allow us to make statements against their right to reservations. Julia, who scored really well in the entrance, later made me understand how where we come from plays an important role in what we do in life. She said that it’s true some take advantage of reservations, but most don’t. They’ve not had the schooling I’ve had or teachers, I’ve studied under, which changed the way they grew up. This was also a reason why none of ‘them’ ever asked any questions during group discussions in the three years that we were at TISS. Later, I apologised for being mean and selfish, only to be hugged in return.
Having studied Human Rights as my major, I was well acquainted with AFSPA, Manorama Devi, the Meira Paibi Movement, Irom Sharmila, etc. But more than the notes and readings, it was the lectures from the professors coming from Nagaland and Manipur, or movies like Amar Kanwar’s “The Lightning Testimonies” that made me see India in a new light as a whole. Also, a conversation with John made me see what I couldn’t see on my first day at TISS. John said, “Shristi, others won’t understand. We’ve seen our aunts get raped or our uncles killed for no reason; Justice is the last thing served to us. We know how we feel.” To which, Stephen added, “We don’t feel like a part of India.” To me and for most students from my batch, it wasn’t the ‘Tribal Institute of Social Sciences’ anymore. It was a positive change.
It was September 2014, when floods hit Meghalaya and Assam. During flood relief, I kept wondering, when will the news channels show the plight of the people here. When will the nation come to our help? But the nation didn’t come, nor did the help. I couldn’t understand what the nation really wanted to know! Every time someone makes fun of how North Easterners stay with each other, I wonder if they ask themselves why they aren’t going ahead and talking to them personally, instead of waiting for them to make the first move. Never did I think that history plays a role in our present life, but it does. In the north-east, the region excluded by the National Anthem, yet expected to feel ‘nationalistic’ about the nation, history plays a major role!
I’ve met friends who’ve made fun of how people from the north-east know little about ‘mainland’ India. I don’t even know what this ‘mainland’ is. But now, I or anyone who has studied at TISS would answer back asking what they know about the north-east. Even though Assamese people mostly don’t face racism, it is also not a part of the unknown ‘mainland’. As Assam isn’t just a land of the Assamese; Bodo, Rabha, etc., are just two of the many tribes residing within Assam, and who feel left out. My perception towards India as a North Easterner changed in the three years of my education at TISS. I was no longer the proud Indian, blinded by nationalism. I was an aware citizen, who knew how her state and her neighbours are neglected by the rest of the country. All of these states have border conflicts, internal issues, enmity, etc., within them too. But mostly they share a common sadness towards the way they’re treated by the rest of the county and ignored by the national media.
As the final week of my third year approached, we had a session where we had to write letters to someone from the class and read it out in front of everyone. Three letters were for me. John, who by now had become an inseparable part of my life at TISS, Tina, who would share her stories from Shillong and her love for Korea and Raman, who would talk of his life at the orphanage, wrote letters for me. I won’t go into the details of the letters, but three of them wrote about my ‘Speakers Society’ and how if they could reverse time, they’d go back to the end of our first year and come for the first meeting. Tina spoke in extempore (for the first time) and said with tears in her eyes that it was because of me that she felt confident enough to talk. And by now everyone present in the class was in tears. I didn’t know what I had done. All I knew was, I wanted to strike a conversation and bring the seven sisters and their brother closer to the rest of their family.
(Names have been changed to keep confidentiality.)