The lesson from the exodus is that people do not trust the state to protect them
“We are going home,” anxious workers and students from northeast India said to television cameras and mediapersons at crowded train stations in Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. The exodus, from metropolitan cities across India, has brought up issues about the dangers of social media, how rumours create turmoil and panic, and the continuous discussions about “giving confidence” to the people from the northeast.
Political parties and administrators underlined the ideals of citizenship, equality, and security to remind those packing their bags to reconsider their decision. But the exodus reveals how people are often weary of citizenship ideals and do not trust the state with their lives. The moral of the story: there are multiple visions of Indian citizenship, and the state’s promises to protect and secure citizens have remained an illusion for the majority of the people who are often swept under the grand narrative of citizenship and equality. Perhaps it was the objective thing to board the trains and go back to the northeast for several thousand workers and students — objectivity here understood as the ability to experience the world through one’s specific embodiment and situated knowledge.
The photographic images of northeast India as a land of festivals, dances, and culture are mythical visions of a political landscape where the state has a terrible record of governance and has not taken responsibility for the existing militarisation of the region.
Northeast India has increasingly become the alluring and charming face of the diversity of modern India, but a closer look reveals the paradox of how it has produced discrimination and racism at the same time.
The majority of those who left for northeast India are, along with other similar migrants, the invisible face of global India: cooks in ethnic restaurants that can whip up cuisine from every corner of country, security guards who protect ATM machines, corporate offices, or industries that push India as a global power, drivers who chauffeur cosmopolitan citizens and corporate executives, or waiters who wear ethnic costumes so that customers can absorb the aura of India. The exodus of these workers from Indian cities reveals their insecurities about being “confident citizens,” and their position as vulnerable workers with minimum rights in global India.
A majority of those who left told reporters they were going back “home” as they boarded overcrowded trains. Invoking home means several things that range from one’s home country to the intimate personal places of security. But the “home” in northeast India they return to, seeking protection and security, has never been a safe place. It is a region poisoned with extra constitutional laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958) that has spawned a cosmology that thrives on the by-product of violence, bloodshed and disorder.
Displacement and introspection
This was not the first time — and unfortunately, it will not be the last — India has witnessed an exodus of ethnic and religious groups within the country. The internal displacement of thousands is a yearly occurrence in the region. These events should make us realise that the tapestry of Indian citizenship is woven from the lived realities of its citizens, who inhabit the intimate spaces of servants quarters, security booths, and factory lines, and not only by the poster boys of political parties and the liberals wearing starched cotton outfits who sit and spin the ideals of good citizenship and human rights.
The increasing exhortation to northeasterners to become “confident citizens” is like asking a chained person to run a marathon. Repressive laws, legal impunity to state agents, and the armed conflict have produced a particular image of the state that is bereft of rights and guarantees. Generally, notions of rights, as enshrined within constitutional provisions or international instruments correspond with some forms of justice mechanisms. The citizens from northeast India, including those thousands who left the beautiful cosmopolitan cities overnight, have long erased from their minds the illusion that all Indian citizens are equal before the law and are therefore guaranteed equal rights. Instead, they seek to understand how such inequalities have been sustained, validated and legitimised by the Indian state for more than half a century.
(Dolly Kikon is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Anthropology, Stanford University.)