Not at home at home

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By Pradip Phanjoubam
(A slightly modified version of this article appeared in the opinion column of the Crest edition of The Times of India on Saturday, May 12.)

The suicide by 21 year old management student, Dana M Sangma from Meghalaya at Amity University, Punchgaon campus, Gurgaon, on April 24, close on the heels of the violent death of 19 year old architecture student Richard Loitam from Manipur at Acharya NRV School of Architecture, Bangalore, on April 18 have once again brought to the fore the vexed question whether the Northeast has emotionally integrated with the spirit of India, and more relevantly, whether the India that supposedly represents this spirit has accepted the Northeast.

Dana was apparently humiliated in the examination hall for allegedly cheating and Richard was beaten up by hostel mates for the frivolous reason of toggling TV channels during an IPL match.

That Dana turned out to be the niece of the chief minister of Meghalaya, Mukul Sangma, has made the case high profile, this notwithstanding, it is the spontaneous sense of widespread outrage amongst students from the Northeast studying and living outside the Northeast which should be a cause for concern. Probably dozens die in similar circumstance each year so why all the ado in these two cases?

Are people from the Northeast discriminated in the rest of India or is the Northeast being overly sensitive? Probably it is both, each feeding on the other, perpetuating the ugly cycle. The discrimination would not necessarily be overt. It would be more about a cultural milieu which nurtured the popular image of the Indian in which the ethnic profile of the Northeast is an uneasy fit.

For most Northeasterners, the existential question, “who am I?” has had to be renegotiated the day he stepped across the Siliguri corridor or Chicken’s Neck as it is also popularly known, the narrow strip of land wedged between Bangladesh and Bhutan, which connects the Northeast to sub-continental India.

Manipur’s case, though understandably peculiar to itself in many ways, should be illustrative of this alienation. For many middleclass young men and women here, especially among the Hindu Meiteis who have grown up in surroundings of devout Vaishnav culture, with the unwritten will of elders wanting their cremation ashes to be immersed in the holy waters of the Ganga or in the sea at Jaganath Puri, the question “who am I” begins to be troubling normally at college age, which is about the time their parents send them away from for higher studies in better political and academic climes of other Indian states. Till then, most would have had no real problem in believing themselves to be Indians without even the need to reflect on what it means to be Indian.

They would hence cheer for the Indian hockey and football teams without reservation. Cricket is still a little alien, although its fan following is now growing. They celebrate Holi and Durga Puja and other Hindu festivals, and thus share a sense of loose community with Hindu India. Their sense of a letdown when they discover there is more to the Indian identity than they believed it was is often acute. Many end up embittered.

For many Northeast Christian communities, the sense of affiliation to the idea of India is a substantially different equation, for India although politically secular, culturally is still predominantly the land of the Hindus. A good majority of the Nagas in Nagaland, for instance would even today say they are not Indians. But there is a finer distinction here. The “Indian” that the Naga say he is not, is an imagined ethnic category and not always a citizenship status. So when the average Naga says he is not Indian, he generally means he is not the non-Mongoloid, generally darker skinned plainsman that he considers is the ethnic profile of an Indian.

Is the North Easterner an Indian then? On the face of it, yes. He is a citizen of India. He fulfils all the obligations of being an Indian citizen and in turn enjoys all of the Republic’s guarantees, although with some terrible hiccups like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. But the trouble is, being an Indian does not end here. It begins at this point. Quite to the contrary of what the constitution defines, “Indianness” is often intuitively projected as a primordial state of belonging to a unique cultural phenomenon. Anybody therefore can become an Indian citizen but not an Indian. He has to be born one. The trouble is, a good part of the Northeast is outside this cultural phenomenon. This also explains why overseas travellers from the Northeast are often called upon to qualify their claims of being Indians every time they hold out their Indian passports.

To invoke Benedict Anderson, between the reality of the Indian State and the “imagining” that gives it its National character, still falls a shadow. It is a cruel vindication of Anderson again that Richard was assaulted for disrespecting cricket, a widely shared ritual of this “imagined community”.

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