Sinlung /
10 February 2014

The ‘Foreign’ Indians

It was the rarest of spectacles, an alignment of political stars that no astrologer could have predicted: Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, all lending their support to a single agitation. Even more unexpectedly, the agitation in question was one being staged by students from India’s Northeast region.

For decades now, that region and the “mainland” of India (to which it is connected tenuously by a land corridor 22 kilometres wide at its narrowest point) have had a troubled relationship. Differences in culture, religion and food habits, and even in physical appearances, have deepened the sense of alienation felt by many from the region who made the journey to India’s bustling metropolises in search of education or jobs.

It was his appearance that sparked off the fight that seems to have led to the tragic death of Nido Tania, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. Police records and the testimony of his friends show that Tania was severely beaten up by a group of youth after he broke a shop’s display window. He had stopped to ask for directions, and been met with a racist taunt, which infuriated him.

Such taunts are “par for the course”, says Nicholas Kharkongor, a writer and director of mixed Naga and Khasi descent who lives in Delhi. He’s been in Delhi and Mumbai for 20 years now, and has learnt to blank out these taunts, he says. His forbearance has meant that he has not found himself in “any sort of extreme situation”.

“If in a place you have a singular exotica, a few people from elsewhere, you will be nice to them. If there are a lot, fascination will give way to xenophobia. Delhi has a huge Northeastern population,” he says.

The size of this population came into notice in 2012 after rumours circulating on SMS sparked off an exodus of people from the region who live and work in cities such as Delhi, Pune and Bengaluru. The incident drew the attention of Prof Sanjib Baruah, an authority on the region who teaches at Bard College in New York. In a paper for the January 2013 issue of Himal Southasian, Prof Baruah noted the presence of at least 2 lakh Northeasterners in Delhi.

In an email interview, he wrote that while he was very disturbed by the Tania incident, he saw a silver lining. “I am glad that Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi went to the protests. The political establishment appears to be taking this incident more seriously than previous racial incidents. I hope the discussion leads to the recognition of such crimes as hate crimes,” he wrote.

Watershed moment
These protests could prove to be a watershed moment given the recognition from all major political parties that there is racial discrimination being faced by some Indians in India, a fact that has long been ignored or denied. It is also a watershed moment in the very vocal identification by the protesters from the Northeast of themselves as Indians. The region has been home to numerous separatist insurgencies down the decades since 1947, and the Indian identity was not something everyone from the region sported easily.

Borkung Hrangkhawl, a rap musician from Tripura who lives in Delhi, is the son of a legendary insurgent leader from the state, Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl. His father gave up the gun after 10 years of armed struggle, in 1988, and took to politics. Asked whether he feels Indian, Borkung paused for a moment to say that it was a loaded question before answering “yes”.

“A lot of us don’t feel Indian,” says Kharkongor, but adds that he is not among those. “I feel very Indian,” he says.

Prof. Baruah, who authored a seminal text called India Against Itself on the politics of nationality, says, “Northeasterners are seeking integration as equal citizens, which is not the same as assimilation”.

The younger generation of writers, thinkers and musicians from the region seem to agree with this view.

Ankush Saikia, an author who divides his time between Tezpur and Shillong and lived in Delhi earlier, says “focusing on differences rather than factors that bring us together is harmful for everyone in the long run”.

He agrees that it is a difficult and complex matter, and says, “We need to look at the treatment of people from outside the Northeast in the Northeast itself, and the many opportunities available to and availed by people from the Northeast in the rest of India.”

Perhaps the worst sufferers of the periodic bouts of violence against “outsiders” have been the Bengali minority who scattered throughout the Northeast for generations.

Sonali Dutta, who now lives in the United Kingdom, recalls an incident from her college days in Shillong.

“It was during Durga Puja and I was walking back home from the pandal with my boyfriend just after dusk. As we approached a quiet, poorly lit stretch on the street leading down to my house, six Khasi boys surrounded us. One of them exposed a knife in his inner leather jacket pocket. While they were busy punching and kicking my boyfriend along with profuse racial verbal abuses, I managed to slip out of their circle to look for help. In the meantime, my boyfriend broke out of their loop, caught my hand and yelled, ‘run!’ I threw my handbag and we ran for our lives.”

There’s a sense of xenophobia in the Northeast, says Kharkongor. “It needs to go…I don’t know what can be done about it,” he says. The situation there is “more grim”, he adds.

“Bridges need to be built between this region and the rest of the country so that there can be understanding and interaction, and ultimately, mutual respect,” says Mitra Phukan, the Assam-based president of the Northeast Writers’ Forum.

Mary Therese Kurkalang, director of the Cultures of Peace Festival, is at the forefront of efforts to build such bridges. She left Shillong to live in Delhi in 1998 and has been there since. “I consciously choose to live in India’s capital that is not always known for being kind to women or minorities or to anyone at many and various levels,” she says, adding, “There is also much that this city offers. I came to this city with `5,000, a suitcase full of synthetic clothes, a Class 12 Pass certificate, and a great deal of hope! After 16 years, I can look back and say, ‘Delhi you didn’t let me down!’ I run a company of my own, know thousands of people (and not just on social media), I have a wonderful Punjabi landlady in whose flat I have lived for 11 years running! I celebrate Christmas, Id and Diwali with equal gusto. So every now and then, if someone asks me ‘aap kahaan se ho’, I patiently explain to them where Shillong is, starting from Kolkata, then to Assam and a 100 kilometres up to Shillong — the capital of Meghalaya ‘the abode of clouds’ where perhaps a bit of me always floats.”


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