By Pramit Bhattacharya
To put it rather simplistically, the absence of an engaged state in the early years of independence bred insurgents, and army excesses to quell them led to further disenchantment
The uproar over the death of 19-year old Richard Loitam under mysterious circumstances in Bangalore and the suicide of 21-year old Dana Sangma in Delhi has brought into sharp focus the Indian heartland’s strained relationship with the Northeast. Loitam hails from Manipur and Sangma is the niece of the Meghalaya chief minister, and many see both as victims of racial discrimination.
The campaign for justice that has found hundreds of thousands of followers on social networking sites seems to say as much about the strengths of India’s relationship with her frontier as about its weaknesses.
Loitam’s alleged murder has sparked greater outrage probably because of the gruesome circumstances of his death. Although investigations are still on and it is unclear to what extent race played a part, Loitam has come to symbolize the face of racism that many Northeasterners living away from home endure, and want to put an end to.
The ease with which the personal has turned into a social issue shows the extent of mistrust that still exists between the so-called mainland and the frontier. The outburst of anger seems to stem from two key and disparate sources. The first is the angst of a people that faces stereotyping and struggles to break a wall of ignorance. It is similar to the angst of any other minority in the country who find the inclusive idea of India violated in reality.The second reason behind the anger is more complex and rooted in the history of the troubled relations between the Northeast and the Indian state. To put it rather simplistically, the absence of an engaged state in the early years of independence bred insurgents, and army excesses to quell them led to further disenchantment.
Partly because of a shift in state policy over the past two decades and partly because of the widely apparent failings of the insurgents themselves, secessionism has lost appeal even though a lingering sense of alienation remains.
The absence of rhetoric in the current campaign is an affirmation of the strength of the ties between India and the frontier. In most cases, the criticisms against state institutions, mainlanders or the national media — long seen as the willing accomplice of the state in projecting official versions — have been measured. The campaign in fact rests its hopes of justice on these once-reviled institutions, and that alone suggests a sea-change in attitudes, at least among the elites.
While the importance of resolving the Loitam case speedily cannot be over-stressed, discrimination can’t end through state fiat. There have been well-meaning calls to bridge the ignorance gap by promoting Northeast history in schools and so on. There is no harm in trying although one doubts how effective such Soviet-era strategies are.
Perhaps it is only time and an emerging breed of artistes, sportsmen and writers who will succeed in establishing a glorious new identity for themselves and the region. The greatest bridge between the region and the mainland was after all just one man: Bhupen Hazarika.
The role of the state should be to act as it ought to, and remove any basis for alienation among the youth. A good place to begin will be to document the state-sponsored abuses so far and seek redresses. The second step might be to put an end to draconian laws such as the armed forces special powers act (AFSPA). If Northeasterners are to be made to feel as equal citizens, the process needs to start at home.