I am from the North-East — a paradise unexplored as those grandiose “Incredible India” campaigns would spell. I belong to the land of the rhino, the national parks and the dances. But I also belong to the land which is on the wrong side of the “looks” discourse. Where I come from people don’t have long noses and sharp big eyes; we have flat noses and small eyes. Colloquially, my brethren from my home are lumped together as one big racial group, “chinkis.”
We, the people of India, have never had problems with sweeping generalisations such as the loud Jats and Punjabis or the silent Tamilians, good or bad generalisations adorn our social discourse. Yet, never are they so vivid and as socially offending as with the “chinkis” and very often it spills over to those who don’t have the “chinki looks.” I must admit that never in my life have I been referred to as an exotic breed unlike my friends — that is because I share a more “mainlander” look. So the question is: why this necessity for a mainlander look to be called an Indian?
Recently, a close friend visited the Taj Mahal. He wanted to see the beauty that made India a global tourist hotspot. He had his Afghan friend along with him. They had a minor altercation with the security guards over entry for the Afghan student. Soon, the guards demanded identification proof of my friend. When he showed them his identity card, they did the unimaginable! They asked him to take a foreigner’s pass. Imagine the surprise and disgust of my friend. He had studied in Delhi almost all his college life and now he had to get a foreigner’s ticket because someone decided that he was not Indian enough to be Indian; or, perhaps, he was on the wrong side of the country.
This is not just one story. We hear thousands like this everyday. We hear of Bodo students being harassed during the Tibetan monk protests (since they looked Mongoloid). If you are a Mongoloid and girl, Delhi suddenly turns dangerous for you because there is a popular discourse that “NE girls are cheap.” This negative perception is endorsed by even neighbourhood aunties who argue that these “thin girls with short clothes” are always on the lookout for “easy money.” Sometimes, I wonder if this is really concern or disgust or merely jealousy since most of the aunties got the wrong part of the deal in the weight debate! Yet, the question remains: what does this mean for my friend and many others like him who face harassment everyday? It seems the idea of “India” still does not include them or others like them.
On the other hand, there is no denying the discrimination that runs counter in the North-East. The recent declaration of a bandh in Meghalaya against a “non-tribal” getting the Speaker’s post in the Assembly points to the bias that exists in the “egalitarian” tribal milieu. If anything, tribal society today is not egalitarian — it is mostly an exclusivist society where anything non-tribal (non-Mongoloid) is seen with suspicion and contempt.
So the story of India is one of conjoining these two systems (mainland and NE) — one which thrives on discrimination and an idea of India which is either speaking in Hindi or a south Indian techie, and the other which is inherently distrustful and exclusivist in character.
When one looks at the root of the problem, it is not the clash of these two systems but one which has a “trust deficit” in essence. The problem is both sides have not been able to bridge the trust gap.
The solution will be found when someone from Uttar Pradesh/Bihar/Tamil Nadu stands up for my friend the next time he or she is stopped at the Taj Mahal and called non-Indian. The solution will be found when a non-tribal is declared Speaker of a tribal State the people rejoice. This is very much our India, an India of a thousand dreams they may come in all shapes and sizes but one whose destiny is shared.
(The author is working with the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank based in Delhi looking into multilateral policy of objectives. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)