Contrary to all expectations, the fantasy factory called Bollywood sometimes provides profound gems of rare insight. One such moment happened in the much acclaimed movie, “Chak De India,” when two women of mongoloid features and light skin were greeted by their hosts, “Welcome to India.” Their reply “We are from India,” left the hosts gaping and speechless. It probably was a strange experience to the field hockey hosts, but for the girls from Mizoram and Manipur, it was once again a reminder of their outsider status in their own country.
Even though various groups in India mentally and physically spin in their own orbits, they manage to become part of a nebulous pan Indian identity and find a place in the dominant narrative. But for the over 40 million of our visibly different countrymen from the 7 states of the North East, it is an everyday struggle bordering on nightmare to pierce the barriers and find a welcome mat.
The litany of troubles run the gamut from verbal abuse on the streets, overcharging of fares by shopkeepers and landlords, snide remarks from teachers or friends to severe physical and sexual assault and murders. The invisible wounds from the unacknowledged racism fester and erupt into poisonous pus forcing many to give up and go back home.
Ningreichon Tungshang, a member of the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights says that if women from the Northeast follow the mainstream women and look trendy, they invite more unwanted attention. “If you’re walking on the streets, eve teasers will shout out, “Chinky bahadur” I can understand if it’s the uneducated, but no these are men who drive BMW’s,” she adds. Sad but true, in today’s India where money is valued over knowledge, it comes as no surprise.
Architect Reshmi Jyrwa from Shillong recounts the tale of a friend who was denied accommodation in the hostel in a reputed management college because she was from the North East. She had to live outside which made her a de-facto outsider and treated like one. Eventually, she had to leave Delhi. “I know of many other people from my hometown, Shillong, who had to throw away their futures only because of people who refused to see beyond stereotypes,” she added. It’s strange that as long as a North Eastern woman is mistaken for a foreigner, she gets a free pass across any place, especially nightclubs. But as soon as she admits that she is from a state of India, there is a visible change bordering on hostility. This is what happened to an acquaintance of Jwrwa who was denied entry into a nightclub as she did not fit the profile but her profile was fine as long as she fit the label of an expat.
“It’s the “You People” attitude that makes a North Eastern woman feel permanently like an outsider if she doesn’t find the right crowd for herself,” says Thingngamchon, a music teacher and media professional who came to Delhi from Manipur. She expressed concern for the girls who come here seeking employment and to escape the violence in their state. “They are soft natured and polite… not aggressive enough. They work in the services sector such as hospitality, retail or BPO—life is a struggle for them because they don’t earn enough and some of them are exploited by their employers. I know one girl, who wasn’t even paid her salary when she took leave on account of her father’s death.”
Going to the cops makes matters worse, as Ningreichon found out. Even though they are the victims, they end up being grilled on why they dress the way they do and keep late nights. “There are so many dos and don’ts for them: don’t create a ruckus, don’t cook anything smelly. Moral issues are raised when relatives of the opposite sex stay together for purposes of affordability.”
On April 17, 2012, 19 year old Richard Loitam from Manipur was murdered. Authorities have still not brought the culprits to justice. On April 24, 2012, Dana Sangma’s death was ruled as a suicide. Nobody in her family believes it to be true and have requested an independent agency to inquire into the case. Dana hails from Meghalaya, one of the vibrant states in the remote North East. On October 2009, 19 year old Ramchanphy Hongray, from Nagaland was raped and burnt alive by an IIT- PhD student. The common thread linking the murders is they are all from the Northeast.
The biggest culprit in all this is the monumental ignorance of the North East in the rest of India. Sure, the cultures are different. Traditional, patriarchal, caste-based mainstream India contrasts sharply with the free spirited, tribal culture of the colorful North East, especially in the status of women and its strong martial traditions. Women not only have a better status but the literacy rate is also higher than mainstream Indian women. They have greater freedom of mobility, economic autonomy, and control over their labor. Besides it is not a crime for a woman to drink or eat meat or for that matter resort to arms to defend herself and her family. Many tribes in Meghalaya are matriarchal and women head the family. It is not unusual for a North Eastern woman to travel alone for several miles to visit her parents in another village. Now transplant this open culture into the macho infested cities of India, and even a dummy can envision clashes that seed injustice and crisis. According to the North East Support Center and Helpline (NESC & H), 86% of North Easterners have been victims of discrimination in the nation’s capital.
Unfortunately, our education system which produces academic robots, rarely encourages any broadening of outlook, or supports learning about anything that doesn’t immediately spell “Money”. Therefore, subjects like Geography, Anthropology or History, critical subjects which could help to fill the knowledge gap about the North East, are not considered worth pursuing. The media maintains a haunting silence on the region. The people see the “differently dressed women”, drinking, eating meat and they conclude that the open life style is polluting the “pure” society. Moreover, the mongoloid features add to the poisonous cocktail of xenophobia and intolerance.
History has spoken many a time that the menacing ignorance of the mainstream can lead to alienation and secession. It is no secret that Nagaland openly wants to secede from India. Goaded by China, the others may be more willing to join the Chinese who have no complaints regarding their mongoloid features. Unless India opens its mental borders and includes a mandatory chapter in every textbook in schools and colleges regarding the unique North East and its right to equality, the fissures will grow into huge political chasms. The police, media, colleges, schools, courts, and other democratic institutions must be sensitized to the fact that the people of the North East are Indian citizens and have a right to live and work in any Indian city without being harassed or intimidated. It is a shame that in the largest democracy, educated citizens do not even know the names of the 7 states of the North East. It is a shame that their narrow minded ideas of traditional purity are causing distress to several millions of our citizens. And it is a shame that we will pay such a hefty price for a self-centered population unwilling to extend themselves for the greater good.
All it takes to build bridges with the North East is a little understanding, a little empathy and a golden rule − look at people without judging them by their appearance. We now have a choice, either we reset our thinking to keep the dialogue flowing, or else be prepared to douse secessionist fires. That choice may not last long as it is an irrefutable fact that physical borders eventually follow mental borders.