The train that passes across the frame in the opening scene of Meghe Dhaka Tara, a masterpiece by Ritwik Ghatak was a reminder of the colossal violence that marked the genocide and uprooting of millions who had become the “other” in South Asia as the region gave birth to two newly independent states of India and Pakistan in mid 20th century. For the part of the world which has come to be called “India’s Northeast”, the train may not have been such a symbol. But the last week exodus of the “north-easterners” from various parts of the country, particularly from Southern India, in the specially arranged trains underscores their “other-ness” in this country. And the pictures of these “other” people scrambling to get into the trains remind us of the violence that can be befallen on them in a country which is not alien to genocide and communal/group violence of the most abominable kinds.
Ironically, as the Indian Railways re-enacts its historical exploits of transporting the “others” to safety, albeit not always successful, as it had done during the Partition, the spectacle of the exodus last week forces the railways, which is otherwise considered to be the life-line that connects various peoples and places in this part of the world, to speak of a “disconnect” between the “northeast” and the rest of the country.
Indeed, when was the last time that India has seen such an exodus of people? When was it that such a “retaliatory” threat, rumoured or otherwise, towards a group of people has been expressed or felt beyond the boundary of a state where the initial violence took place?
The “Northeast Other”
It has been noted that despite the assurances given by the authorities that the people from the “northeast’ are safe in the rest of the country, the people still decided to leave speaks of the lack of trust that the people of the region have on the (Indian) State. This lack of trust is an issue which is worth the acknowledgment and deliberate upon as well. Only then, will one find the historical and present reasons/factors behind that lack of trust. However, one must also realize that it is not the state per se but society as such within which certain experiences of being marked out and discriminated that people do experience that matter to this lack of trust.
Take for instance the present case. The retaliatory threats, in whichever form, is in relation to a violence between the Bodos and the Muslims (while the Bodos have different sections who follow different religions but presumably there is no Muslims amongst them) in Assam. That this clash has been translated into retaliatory threats against the people of the “Northeast” as a whole and beyond the specific state within which the initial violence took place speaks of what “Northeast” is to the rest of the country.
Indeed, the “northeast” is not a category that is familiar to the framing of the “other’ in Indian “communal politics”. Communal violence is fundamentally based on predominantly religion and to some extent caste and language. In terms of religion, the “northeast” has populations of various faiths or religious persuasions. There are Hindus (the majority), Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and other faiths. And yet, the “Muslims” in the rest of country was reacting or rumoured to react against the people of the “northeast” following a clash between an indigenous community called the Bodos and certain sections of the Muslim population in the “northeast”.
It is this fact that reveals the fact that the “northeast” has been marked out in a specific sense and form from the rest of the country. And that specificity has lots to do with some geographical sense which has been informed by different racial, civilizational, historical and political category considerations is that which has been revealed by this development once more.Indeed,
To say the least, it is this different and specific marker that informs the general prejudices against the people from the “northeast” that one can sense in society as well as the responses of the state towards this region. Therein lies the fear that drives the people of the “northeast” to flee the rest of the country for they know it is not their experiences with “Muslims” per se but that of the larger society and the (Indian) state.
Sinister and Patronizing Tone
Indeed, the fact that it has happened in Southern India, which is supposed to be less “communal” than the “Northern India”, and that too in a city (Bangalore) which has prided itself of its “cosmopolitan” character speaks volumes of this truth. To think of it, it is in this city that the debate of “racial discrimination” against the people of the “northeast” became visible in an unprecedented scale and awareness in the recent times with the case of Richard Loitam. And that the counter against that visibility comes in the form of the (rumoured) threat and the subsequent exodus in the same city is telling.
If one may add, therefore, one cannot rule out a scheming, inspite and despite of the reported mischief played by Pakistan, of a sinister politics to use the people of the “northeast” as a bait in a communal politics that seeks to corner a religious community while simultaneously trying to teach the people of the “northeast’, who had become visible with their voice against injustices, a lesson by putting them in their “proper place”.
While such a possible politics is sinister in character, the expression of “love” and concern for the region with the revealing oxymoron “India for Northeast” comes as the patronizing other side of the same coin that marks the “northeast” as the “other”. Indeed, one must think as to why one still talks of “we” (the so-called ‘mainstream”) must welcome “them” (the “northeast”) and their history and other information must be included in the school curriculum as the country turns 65! And correspondingly, one must also reflect as to why a champion like Mary Kom still feels the need to say “I am also Indian and my heart is full of India” while none of the champions from the so-called “mainstream” feels to that need to express such an apologia.
In any case, the exodus must tell us something about ourselves. And realize, at the end of the day, that rumour or otherwise, it is time to get real with our situation. Indian State is neither the Mauryan nor the Mughal Empire; as a political formation, India has that which has been called now “Indian’s Northeast” as a possession or a part of that postcolonial self. And therefore, tensions, confrontations, adjustments etc are bound to happen and it shall reveal and shape the self as well as the hitherto invisible selves in the process. How one consciously and judiciously comes to terms with the same will determine how well one is able to live with dignity and well-being.