The people of North-East India have been, in numerous ways, paying the price for geopolitical remoteness. The reality that, after Partition, this region was tenuously connected to mainland India through a 20 km wide “chicken neck” had, of course, accentuated this sense of remoteness.
For instance, much of the ignorance of the rest of India about the people and cultures of the North-East is due to the peripheral nature of its role in mainstream polity both in the past as well as the post-independence phase. The common masses in many other parts of India even today do not know that the Mongoloid element constitutes an important component of the ethnic diversity of our nation.
Associating as they do Mongoloid features with people from China, Japan and other East Asian countries, little wonder that often individuals from the North-East, where Mongoloid-stock tribals constitute over 80 percent of the population, are mistaken to be foreigners by people in other parts of India!
The outcome is that people from this part of the country who had chosen to go out are often treated as aliens in their own land. For decades after Indian independence most indigenous folk of this region had tended to stay within a familiar milieu rather than go outside in search of economic sustenance. But, as economic challenges and pressures mounted due to the rise in population as well as lack of employment opportunities, some folks in these valleys and hills were coerced into venturing out.
This was also the result of a generation change as young people left the region, first for education and then for employment, inculcating within them a pan-Indian perspective. Today, we have bright individuals from the North-East gracing every profession in academics, journalism, the corporate sector and so on.
Such a shift was marked not only amongst the elitist section of the middle class in each community but other social segments as well. The more enterprising individuals from rural areas, either semi-skilled or unskilled, went out of this region to eke out a living.
Thus, today we have the presence of citizens from the North-East in almost every nook and corner of the nation. A bulk of these migrants are employed in low-paid jobs such as manual labourers, farm-hands, security guards, watchmen et al.
Unfortunately, in many parts of mainland India the local people were unable to come to terms with the ethnic and cultural differences embodied by migrants from the North-East, and the latter increasingly became the target of hate crimes. Ignorance not only breeds indifference but also bigotry; the free, fun-loving nature of the people of the North-East and the easy mixing of the sexes not prevalent, say in North India, seemed to be an ethos unacceptable to certain sections of mainland Indian society.
There was another reason for the antipathy displayed by some elements towards migrants from the North-East. Early enough, canny employers in other parts of the country had discovered the relative innocence and trustworthiness of people from this region, which made them a preferred choice of employee. In many cases it had roused the envy of the so-called local populace, who used the ‘alien’ dresses, customs and languages as an alibi for perpetrating hate crimes.
This resulted in the targeting of individuals from this region by hoodlums and predators --- things reached such a pass that in places like Delhi the administration had to set up help-lines in order to aid persons under assault.
The immensely adverse consequence of such bigotry born of ignorance dawned upon the nation in a dramatic fashion in 2012, when there were widespread attacks on people from this area, forcing thousands of them to leave their jobs and return home. Fed by rumour-mongering and propaganda through social networking, victims were identified and targeted, almost undoing the slowly enhancing empathy of the North-East with mainland India.
The travails of individuals from this region have increased dramatically after the Covid-19 pandemic spread in India. A study commissioned by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) on racial discrimination and hate crimes against people from the North-East States found that “North-East India seamlessly fits the Indian’s imagination of a Chinese person.”
The study found that 78% of the people from the region who were interviewed believed that physical appearance was the most important reason for prejudice against them. The study said that, amid the pandemic, people from the region “faced an increased number of acts of hate and prejudices against them.” A series of attacks were reported in various parts of the country where people from the region were “harassed, abused, and traumatized” and were disparagingly called ‘coronavirus,’ the study said.
As it is, the indigenous people from the North-East face enormous difficulties in securing accommodation in urban metropolises in metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai or Bengaluru, because house owners are suspicious of their origins. The pandemic made a bad situation even worse, and hundreds of tenants in different parts of the country, some of whom had lived for years in the same premises, were asked to vacate these. Often crowds had gathered to enforce their removal and some who resisted were beaten up!
The harassment and abuse confronted by individuals from the North-East has aroused the conscience of right-thinking people from other parts of India and many have appealed to the Union and State Governments as well as administrations to undertake rectification steps. Student organisations from this region have also stepped up their efforts to eradicate this blatant blot on India’s image of a unified nation where there is no discrimination based on one’s religion, race or colour.
For instance, a number of students organizations have placed a “joint petition” before the Union Minister of Education appealing to the Ministry “to add a mandatory chapter/section highlighting the culture, ethnicity, natural resources, history, people and society of Northeast India in NCERT to create awareness among students about NE India with the only motive of familiarising people with Northeast India to stop racial discrimination and identity issues that every Northeast Indian faces.”
Apart from other measures that may be contemplated, the above suggestion appears to be pragmatic and laudable. There can be little doubt that discrimination and prejudice confronted by the people of the North-East within other communities is the result of the latter’s ignorance. Familiarising them with the ethnic and cultural history of this region, as well as other relevant aspects, might be one way of combating the adverse wages of ignorance.
(Padma Shri Arup Kumar Dutta, a prominent social historian and writer based in Guwahati, is the author of some 35 books, among them The Kaziranga Trail and The Ahoms) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)