A few weeks ago, the hashtag #NorthEastMatters trended on Twitter to highlight the need for authorities concerned to educate people and spread awareness about Northeast India. The social media storm was an initiative of a group of organisations from the region, after a YouTuber from Punjab called a sitting legislator of Arunachal Pradesh Assembly “Chinese”. The intention of the organisations, among many others, was to include a chapter on the Northeast (NE). A separate hashtag #AChapterForNE was also introduced.
The initiative caught the attention of many people including journalists, celebrities and politicians. Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor tweeted: “There is absolutely no doubt that the #NorthEastMatters. It’s essential that a chapter on the Northeast is included in the NCERT syllabus.”
On the contrary, the mysterious deaths of Samuel Sangma and Rosy Sangma, both residents of Nagaland, in Gurgaon a few days ago raised a huge question mark on the effectiveness of our efforts to ensure the safety of Northeast Indians in their own country. Racial discrimination against the people of NE is a serious criminal and social issue, but it will be too narrow an approach if other prominent factors, that are interconnected, are ignored. It requires a comprehensive approach for an effective solution.
The peculiar physical features of NE people have attracted a series of unsolicited remarks and unwarranted racial slurs against them. There are hundreds of tales of how they have been abused verbally and physically. Racial discrimination can be broadly classified as unintentional and intentional.
A lot of instances have occurred wherein people from the region are treated as foreigners in their own country because of the complete absence of knowledge that an Indian could look the way people from the region physically appear. But there are many other instances when people from the region are called ‘foreigners’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Momo’, and recently ‘Corona’, just to rebuke them, knowing very well that they are Indians. In a few cases, they are physically and sexually assaulted and even killed.
Tales of misconceptions
There are myriad wrong notions about the NE and its people. Post-pandemic, people from the region are mistaken to be carriers of the novel coronavirus because of their physical affinities to the Chinese. Here are a few of the many myths: Hindus are minorities in NE and are often subjugated; people from the region have similar food habits and language as that of China that make them Chinese sympathisers; snakes and bats are common delicacies of the region. Such misconceptions further strengthen the notion of “foreignness” of Northeast people. The people from the region are of the opinion that systemic negligence of the region since the British days has been uncorrected and, in fact, replicated by successive governments, which have further alienated the place.
At any platform where development issues of NE are discussed, a main concern that naturally crops up is militancy. For several decades, armed revolutions have indeed been a stumbling block for development to make inroads into the region. However, a lot has changed in the past couple of decades; many armed groups have rejoined the mainstream by signing ceasefire agreements with the government. The outcome is the much-needed germination of unhindered development activities in the region, in addition to a much-improved law and order situation. Assam is one such example, that has fared remarkably well after the state government’s initiative to resolve militancy issues. Still, a lot needs to be done on this front.
Considering the systematic negligence of the region and realising its undeniable strategic importance, matters and concerns of Northeast India should be given special focus for an ‘equal India’. The issue of racial discrimination needs a holistic approach; it is a virus that needs not just one but a combination of multiple effective medicines. But yes, our education system, which has hitherto failed to sensitise people to the basic demography of India, needs a chapter on Northeast India to start with.
The idea of one nation should be viewed as one resembling a rainbow — the oneness of which is not hampered by the presence of different colours. Same religion, same dress code, same language, same food habits and same physical appearances should not define our oneness as citizens of India. In line with that beautiful ethos, it is time we realise that the people of Northeast, however different they may appear to us, are no less Indians and their concerns no less important.
(The writer is an author and freelance writer based in Mumbai)