Politics of identity and location

The people from India’s northeast face severe discrimination in Delhi and elsewhere. But how does the northeast treat the ‘outsiders’?

Updated - November 16, 2021 06:36 pm IST

Published - April 26, 2014 12:11 am IST

Every now and again we hear of a person from one or the other of the north-eastern States of India being harassed, sexually molested or beaten up by irate landlords, mostly in Delhi. If we go by statistics then it appears that people from Manipur are most discriminated against in Delhi. But it is also true that every second north-easterner in Delhi, working in malls and retail outlets or the hospitality services is from Manipur. The protracted militancy and complete failure of the Manipur government to create meaningful employment for its youth have pushed them to a desperate edge from where the only escape route is a ticket to Delhi to find some job; any job to keep body and soul together.

The last horrific crime against a person of north-eastern origin happened on January 29 this year when Nido Tania, a 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, was beaten black and blue because he protested against being ridiculed for his hairstyle. Nido succumbed to his injuries. Following this incident, a beleaguered UPA government set up a committee to inquire into this incident and suggest measures to prevent similar outrageous acts against people from the eight north-eastern States working and studying in Delhi. Funnily, the committee consists of retired bureaucrats, many of whom don’t have any inkling about what it is to be a woman travelling through the dark lanes of Delhi’s non-Lutyens’ areas.

For the first time a television channel labelled the Nido Tania episode a racial crime. After that the word “racism” gained currency in the media. And that is not far from the truth. The people of the northeast are racially different. They look different; they have different eating habits and cuisines that can be scrumptious for some and repulsive to others. Their dances are myriad and their socialisation processes are different too. They choose their own life partners and dowry is unknown. Racially there are the Tibeto-Burman groups such as the Nagas, Mizos, Bodos, Garos, etc, and the Mon-Khmer group (Khasis and Jaintias). This is the reason why India is called a diverse country. But while it is easy to use jargon like “celebrating diversity,” or to term northeast a “rainbow country” it is much more difficult to assimilate and appreciate these diverse cultures and not to be disdainful of the cultural mores of people from this region.

The plight of ‘outsiders’

But people of the eight north-eastern States are themselves ethnically divided. There are major tribes and minor tribes. The so-called major tribes such as the Nyishis of Arunachal Pradesh or the Ao and Angami tribes of Nagaland lord it over the smaller tribes who live on the peripheries of development because even development is skewed and happens along these ethno-centric fault-lines. It would be erroneous to assume that the people of the eight States are socially homogenous and that they coexist happily with each other. Within the States there are ferments for greater autonomy. For instance, Meghalaya has three major tribes — the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo. The first two are of Mon-Khmer origin and the last a part of the Tibeto-Burman race. The Garos have always felt neglected and have now demanded a separate State. These demands for greater autonomy are not always peaceful. In fact the idiom of engagement with the state has always been violent and insurrectionary because the insurgents claim that the state does not understand the language and metaphor of non-violent assertions.

And in this horrifyingly complex situation we have the non-tribals who have lived in the region for three to four generations and have contributed their mite to the local economy. In Meghalaya, in the late 1970s, the Khasi Students Union — a body that is anything but student-like and has in its fold members who have either dropped out of school or are too long in the tooth to be considered students — launched an insidious attack on the Bengalis living in Shillong. Their reason for doing so is simplistic — the non-tribals are responsible for all the ills that afflict Khasi society. So attractive was the slogan “Khasi by birth, Indian by accident” that the words were splattered across public walls in the city. Claiming to be the vanguard of Khasi society, the KSU then went on a rampage, pulling non-tribals out of buses and lynching them. A pregnant woman, Gouri Dey was lynched in public but no one was nabbed and the case died a natural death since no one would give evidence. The next phase of communal violence saw a new set of victims — the Nepali settlers who have also lived in the State since it was a part of Assam, and the Biharis who kept cows and supplied milk to the residents. Another time, a number of Bihari families were burnt alive in the dead of night. The culprits were never caught and no one has been indicted in any of the acts of communal carnage that happened in Meghalaya.

The rise of civil society

The KSU is avowedly political, having spawned a political party — the Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM). The acronym actually means an arrow and the expanded term means the “awakening of the children of the seven huts.” The Khasis believe they used to move freely between heaven and earth over a divine umbilical cord, until one day sin entered the world and the cord was snapped. Of the 16 families that were originally a part of the whole, seven families remained on earth and nine families continued to live in the sinless world. The word “Hynniewtrep” is a much-used jargon by politicians and all sorts of self-appointed guardians of Khasi society. It’s a word that ignites jingoistic feelings and motivates young people to commit excesses against “others” who don’t belong to the Hynniewtrep fold.

The KSU stance against non-tribals had to have an alibi. The alibi is simplistic. Raucous public meetings where the non-tribals are accused of taking away all “our” jobs, “our” land and “our” women became the order of the day. A non-tribal seen with a Khasi woman is taboo. Such a person would be beaten up immediately. At one point the KSU warned Khasi women not to wear the “salwar kameez.” Those who wore them were stopped and their clothes torn. This was in the early 1990s. Thankfully at the time, a leading women’s organisation, Synjuk Kynthei challenged this diktat by the KSU and warned it not to lay its hands on any Khasi girl. It was the first time that anyone had stood up to what the media terms as the “powerful students union.” But it worked and the KSU has since then not dared to tread into the domain of setting a dress code for women.

Ironically, the Synjuk Kynthei comprising some renowned women leaders, who have made a mark for themselves, did not assert itself when the violence was directed at non-tribals although they discussed the matter in their meetings and condemned the violence. By the mid-1990s, some radical members of the KSU left to form a militant organisation called the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC). For over a decade the HNLC intimidated, extorted and eliminated non-tribal business persons in broad daylight. The only civil society group that stood up and condemned the militant violence and extortion upfront was “Shillong We Care (SWC).” Shillong was then very tense and fear and violence was palpable. Members of SWC engaged with the police and pushed them to create an anonymous helpline so that people who were threatened and extorted could call for help. SWC also provided a public platform where people could speak up and share their concerns. Many who were extorted could not sum up enough courage to speak. But SWC persisted and also enlisted many young people to stage street shows to demonstrate the diminishing returns of militancy.

It was only when the Khasi business community also began getting extortion notices and some Khasi business persons were kidnapped and killed that society began to speak up and condemn the HNLC rampage. Seeing that the civil society movement had gained momentum, the Shillong police came down hard on the HNLC and filed FIRs against businessmen suspected to be paying the outfit. This gave a handle to the business community to refuse to pay the HNLC. Many took anticipatory bail. A number of the HNLC militants surrendered. Its chairman Julius Dorphang also surrendered and is now an MLA.

Life without the rights

But the non-tribals continue to remain insecure and vulnerable. In the latest round of violence when several pressure groups demanded the imposition of an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to enter Meghalaya, along the lines of Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, at least two non-tribals were burnt to death. The police have arrested some pro-ILP activists but the case seems weak and the suspects are out on bail. Non-tribals have lost the right to speak up and dissent. They live like third class citizens. Those who survive to do business do so by paying protection money to these different pressure groups. Non-tribals are debarred form buying land in tribal areas after the Land Transfer Act was passed in 1978. Those with self-respect have left Shillong and other parts of Meghalaya to settle elsewhere. Others continue to live here but with almost no rights. At least in Delhi, north-easterners have the freedom to protest the government’s acts. Nido Tania’s killers are in jail. What about the many deaths of non-tribals in Meghalaya since 1979? Will the family members of the deceased ever get justice?

(Patricia Mukhim is the editor of The Shillong Times, Meghalaya’s largest circulating English daily.)

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