northeast: ties that bind
Yes, the Northeast-‘mainland’ experience is a chequered one. That’s not all it is though.
- Ratan Thiyam: Manipuri thespian
- Atsu Sekhose: fashion designer
- Rudy Wallang and Tipriti ‘Tips’ Kharbangar: of band Soul Mate
- Mary Kom: Olympian boxer
- Baichung Bhutia: football icon
- Mamang Dai: writer, Padma Shri
- Renedy Singh: vice-captain of the Indian football team
- P.A. Sangma: ex-Speaker, Lok Sabha
- Somdev Devvarman: Tennis player
- Norden Wangdi: fashion designer
***The deaths of Dana Sangma in the capital and Richard Loitam in Bangalore have put the harassment of people from the Northeast back on our front pages. Although a racial motive has not been attributed to either death as yet, it reminded everyone about the persistent challenge of bridging the disconnect between the Northeast and the rest of India.
In extreme instances, as with Loitam and Sangma, the harassment escalates until it comes to a tragic head. For many others, it is a recurring reality imposed on them because of their ethnicity. C.P. Singh, a Manipuri scientist with the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Delhi, is one such victim. Singh has filed a police complaint, alleging that his colleagues regularly call him “chinkie” and have thrown mud at his car and house. He also alleges that he has not been promoted because he is from the Northeast. But for every cautionary tale, there are the success stories—not as well spotlit. As many victims there are of prejudice, there are those who have overcome it.
But it’s not all divisions. There are deep linkages in the experience as well. There are individuals who have establish themselves and even carve out a niche for themselves in the metros. Like Atsu Sekhose, a Delhi-based Naga fashion designer who has exhibited at India Fashion Week events. Rebecca Alemla Changkija, a Naga based in Mumbai, is another who overcame the travails of big city life to become a successful film producer. Having lived in the city for six years, she suffered through a regimen of harassment and eve-teasing, including one night when she and her sister found themselves up against three bike-loads of “lecherous men” surrounding, heckling and making sexual advances at them. “We should learn to fight back and speak up. If not, there will be more cases like Sangma and Loitam,” Rebecca says. Besides well-known successes in the fields of sport and entertainment, there are the smaller, less visible connections formed in less overt spaces: whether it’s synergic collaborations and friendships forged on college campuses or even in the personal sense. Marriage between Northeasterners and ‘mainland’ Indians is rare, but not unheard of. It’s just that the connections are often overshadowed by the breakages.
When Ananta Dey, a local Bengali businessman, dared to challenge this blatant racism and went ahead to file his nomination in 2000, he was gunned down by suspected militants opposed to non-locals. “What if a Naga or a Manipuri, despite having lived in Delhi for 20 years, is denied the right to vote or contest an election? Imagine the ruckus it would cause, but the same thing goes unquestioned when perpetrated in the Northeast,” says Gajendra Upadhyay, an IT professional who was born in Shillong and lived there until he was 22.
But there are encouraging signs that these walls are gradually crumbling and spaces, isolated for so long, are becoming more diverse. There was the memorable scene of a Mizo girl, decked in a puanchei, leading in the Indian contingent at the opening of the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Delhi and Bangalore have had recent openings of Northeastern restaurants like Nagaland Kitchen, North East Diner and Zingron. And the latest breach comes from the Shillong Chamber Choir, who have travelled all the way south to sing for forthcoming Malayalam film Goodbye December. They will sing in Malayalam.
By Amba Batra Bakshi and Debarshi Dasgupta