OUTSIDERS AT HOME
by Pradip Phanjoubam
This article was originally published by the Times of India, Crest Edition on May 12 2012 at http://www.timescrest.com/opinion/outsiders-at-home-7894
Dana M Sangma, a 21-year old management student from Meghalaya at Amity University, Gurgaon, committed suicide on April 24. This came 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. Dana was apparently humiliated in an examination hall for allegedly cheating, while Richard was beaten up by fellow students for toggling TV channels during an IPL match.
Dana turned out to be the niece of Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma, which has turned the case into a high profile one. These turns notwithstanding, it is the spontaneous sense of widespread outrage amongst students from the North-East studying and living outside the region which should be a cause for concern. Dozens probably die in similar circumstances each year, so why all the fuss over these two cases? Are people from the North-East discriminated in the rest of India or is the North-East being overly sensitive? It's probably a bit of both both, each feeding on the other, each perpetuating this ugly cycle.
Yet, such discrimination would not necessarily be overt. It would be more about a cultural milieu which nurtures the popular image of the Indian in which the ethnic profile of the North-East still remains an uneasy fit.
For most 'North-Easterners', the existential question, 'who am I' has always had to be renegotiated the day they 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 North-East to subcontinental India.
Manipur's case, though understandably peculiar to the state in many ways, should be illustrative of this alienation. For many middle class young men and women there, especially among the Hindu Meiteis - most of whom grow up in devout Vaishnava surroundings - this question, of 'who I am', begins to get troubling only in their late teens. This is about the time parents send these kids away to college in other Indian states, where better political and academic climes prevail. 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 cheer for the Indian hockey and football teams without reservation, for instance. Cricket, though, is still a little alien, but its fan following is now growing. They'd also celebrate Holi and Durga Puja and thus share a sense of loose community with the largely-Hindu ethos of 'mainland' India. But when they discover there is more to this Indian identity than they believed to be the case, their feeling of being 'letdown' is often acutely felt. Many end up embittered.
And for many North-East Christian communities the sense of affiliation to the idea of India is a substantially different equation. For India, although politically secular, is still predominantly the land of the Hindus in terms of a shared culture. Even today, a majority of Nagas in Nagaland would say they are not Indians. But there is a fine distinction here. The 'Indian' that the Naga says he is not, is an imagined ethnic category and not always about 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 to be 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 caveats like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act he is subjected to in some places. 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. To be Indian, he has to be born one. The trouble is, a good part of the North-East is outside this cultural womb. This also explains why travellers from the North-East are often called upon to qualify their claims of being Indians every time they hold out their Indian passports overseas.
To invoke Benedict Anderson, between the reality of the Indian State and the 'imagining' that gives it its national character, there still falls a shadow. It is a cruel vindication of Anderson again that Richard Loitam was assaulted for disrespecting cricket, a widely shared ritual of this 'imagined community'.
This incongruity may be just another unfortunate fact the North-Eastern man has to get used to and not be too sensitive about, but he cannot also be faulted for the hardening of a deep sense that he is a different Indian, and thus prone to being pulled, or pushed as the case may be, into a North-East ghetto when in 'mainland' India.
The writer is a fellow at IIAS, Shimla, and editor, Imphal Free Press