*Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment*
There is a paradox when it comes to how North-Easterners are perceived in the media. Call it a lack of knowledge, exposure, or just genuine, virtuous ineptitude that there is no space for a true, proper representation of the North-East in mainstream India’s popular culture.
Be it be Priyanka Chopra portraying Mary Kom in the highly acclaimed 2014 feature or news channels struggling to put faces to names of North-Eastern political leaders.
Mirabai Chanu’s feat at the recently held Olympics happens to be one such “paradoxical” moment. The nation came together to congratulate the 27-year-old from Manipur after she heavy lifted her way to get the country a silver medal. Twitter buzzed with the hashtag #BharatMatakiJai, Instagram stories lit up with the Chanu’s orange leotard silhouette and everyone started showering praises on the Bharat Maa Ki Beti.
A few days later, Assam’s Lovlina Borgohain bought laurel for the nation in boxing. However, the clamour around Borgohain was not as high as that of Chanu. Perhaps it was the effect of her lesser-known personal life or maybe just the usual waning off of social media favouritism.
Whatever the case may be, it is impossible to ignore that these two ladies have brought the kind of spotlight in the easternmost part of the Indian conglomerate, which is a rarity in most cases.
The worst of civil clashes, cross-border terrorism events, issues of protecting state rights and individuality are gone for a toss on a normal day. But thanks to Chanu and Borgohain, it is reassuring to see mainstream media and popular culture think of the two as being a part of India too.
Ideally, that would not be the case and a stark irony is an incident in Delhi’s Hauz Khas area. Just 3 days shy of Chanu’s win, four girls from North-East were molested by a group of men in the national capital who asked them, “Rate kya hai? (What is your rate?).” suggesting sexual services.
Incidences like these do not come as a surprise. In June 2021, Rosy and Samuel Sangma from Nagaland and residents in Haryana’s Gurugram were found dead under suspicious circumstances.
Rosy, an air hostess by profession, apparently was brought unconscious in Sector 10’s Alpha hospital and was “fed ice cream” despite suffering from fever, leading to her untimely death, as alleged by Samuel, her nephew.
Samuel, who released a live Facebook video asking the hospital staff for answers, was assaulted as he was filming. On 25 June, Samuel was found hanging inside his hotel room with clear signs of struggle on his body.
Commotion followed in some states of the North-East and social media, enough for media outlets to release a few investigative reports on the case. But still, it was not enough to generate a 9 p.m. debate feature, protesters to clamour in the streets or for arrests to be made in the case, even after a month passed.
Now, imagine the same scenario in a North Indian state. It wouldn’t take a day for the matter to reach the corridors of Delhi and become a national issue. And if dragged on, it might even go on to become fodder for elections.
It is early to call Chanu and Borgohain’s win a landmark change in the perception of the North-East being accepted into the concept of mainland India.
This is not the first time the North-East has produced highly efficient personalities that bought honour to the country. But has that changed the way North-East is perceived beyond its territorial area? I think we all get our answers in the “Rate kya hai?”.
The fact that this argument has to be brought up repeatedly indicates that we are far from setting things straight. For North-East’s residents to be accepted and regarded as any other member of India, which they rightfully are, will take more than applause over the medals they bring. It will need a sound understanding of culture, sensitivity and more than anything, awareness.
The girls winning the Olympics medals is a collective win of the nation as a victory. Let us wait and see when it will be a win for the dawn-lit region.