STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND: NE PEOPLE IN INDIAN METROPOLIS
by Professor Lal DenaThis article was originally published by Huieyen Lanpao on 9 June 2012
Mizoram's Chief Minister, Lalthanhawla went to Singapore to attend one conference and was quoted to have said: "I feel more at home here than in India". This is also the feeling of other north eastern people staying in mainland India. Today quite a good number of them have been working or studying in Indian metropolitan cities. Majority of them are semi-educated who are in search of greener pastures in the hope of making a living in those places by working in call centers.
But the question is: are they well-treated or accepted as part of those places where they work or study? We read almost every day news of incidents of unpalatable remarks or insults heaped upon them simply because they happen to belong to Mongoloid race. In some cases, molestations, rapes and even murders are common occurrences. These are not simply racial discriminations. They are the outcomes of the inner contradictions which are deeply rooted in pre-colonial and colonial Indian society.
The India we know during pre-colonial and colonial periods is what is known as "Aryavarta" encompassing mainly the Indo-Gangestic plains which may be also called 'mainland' India. Somewhere I took up this issue and I have reproduced some of what I had written. Social formation in mainland India took the form of a caste structure. People in mainland India evolved pan-Indian homogeneities and Hindu ethos in social formation all through historical period.
As a result, they were unified culturally and politically even before the coming of British in India. This unity was further strengthened by British colonial rule which later on incorporated the Brahmaputra valley also. This made the people see Indian history as their common past, their subordination to the colonial rule as their common lot and its final overthrow as their common destination.
At the same time, the colonial policy secluded the North Eastern hills which retarded the smooth penetration of Indian nationalism among the peripheral communities. In their dealings with the so-called frontier peoples, the colonial authorities took up a policy of segregating the hills and plains people. The inner line regulation passed in 1873 established a virtual boundary along the foothills and any British subject or other person "who goes beyond the inner-line...without a pass shall be liable, on conviction before the magistrate, to a fine...Beyond the inner-line, the tribes are left to manage their own affairs with only such interference on the part of the officers in their political capacity as may be considered advisable with a view to establishing a personal influence for good among the chiefs and tribes".
Later on, the inner line covered almost all the eastern hills and surprisingly enough this system is still continuing in some hill states. Simultaneously, the colonial officials also passed an act which envisaged the creation of scheduled districts for the administration of certain areas that might be declared 'backward tracts'. Though Assam formed an integral part of British India, no act would come into force in the backward tracts unless expressly extended to them under the scheduled district act.
Nor did the British Indian legislative reforms cover these eastern regions. When the federal scheme under the government of India act of 1935 was introduced, the eastern regions with the exception of Assam were placed either under 'excluded areas' or 'partially excluded areas'. Excluded areas covered exclusively tribal inhabited areas while partially excluded areas had mixed populations, tribals and non-tribals. Both areas were excluded from the competence of the provincial and federal legislature.
The argument put forward by the colonial academies was that these regions were so backward that no sophisticated concept of representative institutions could be transplanted. Only the concerned provincial governor in his own discretionary could interfere in the day-to-day administration of these areas. In this way, the people in the region felt the impact of colonial domination rather indirectly and this is one of the fundamental factors which is responsible for the slow emergence of political consciousness among them.
Racial factor as the politicization of ethnicity is equally important. As a matter of fact, Northeast India is an extension of Southeast Asia in terms of ethnicity and culture. For instance, the Meiteis of Manipur valley and the Ahoms of Brahmaputra valley have close cultural and ethnic linkages with the Shans of upper Myanmar and the Thais of Thailand. The Nagas of Manipur and Nagaland have their kith and kin across the border in Myanmar, the Chin hills in Myanmar but also trace their origin from central China. The Singphos of Arunachal Pradesh have in the Kachin of the Kachin state of upper Myanmar their relations. The Khasis and Jaintias of Meghalaya have similarities in language and culture with the Mon-Khmers of Cambodia, Thailand and eastern Myanmar. D.R. Sardesai even goes to the extend of saying that the Khmers in Cambodia migrated along with their cousins, the Mons either from Southwest China or from the Khasis hills in Northeast India .
Linguistically too, all the ethnic groups in Northeast speak languages belonging to the Tibeto-Chinese family which may further be divided into Tibeto-Burman and Siamese-Chinese sub-families. Well aware of the complexities of inter-ethnic connections between Southeast Asia and North East India, the colonial rulers deliberately demarcated artificial boundaries dividing even same ethnic groups of the two neighbouring countries to suit their imperial interests.
As a matter of fact, at the super-structure level, the colonial rule served as a sort of link between mainland India and North East India; but at the bottom level, it acted as a wall of barrier which prevented cross socio-cultural and political interactions between the two regions during the whole colonial period. As a result, there was no common national ideology which could bridge the gap between the two regions.
Even when the nationalist freedom struggle reached its climax under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhiji, the waves of Indian nationalism never crossed beyond the Brahmaputra valley. Summing up the whole situation, H.K. Sareen has observed thus, "Those in the leadership of the national movement paid scant attention to the masses of the people in the hills and valleys of North East India. That is why they did not or could not devise any ethos of breaking the barrier created by the imperialist rulers and drawing the masses into the struggle for independence. This remained one of the weaknesses of our national movement".
Where need for common national ideology was obvious and where no core nationalism was readily available, the search for identity led to more familiar identities like ethnicity and language. Therefore, ethnic self-consciousness and its assertion along the lines of ethnicity or language was increasingly manifested in the eastern region as a whole.
Another factor, perhaps more crucial, was the uneven development of the colonial economy which greatly retarded the uniform growth and maturity of Indian nationalism among the different ethnic groups of the country. Due to this unequal economic development, national consciousness also developed unevenly. This is so because the entry of British capitalism in colonial form took place at different times in different regions with varying intensity producing dissimilar effects.
In fact, at the time of its penetration into various regions of the sub-continent, it was at different stages of advancement. The Indo-Gangestic plains were the fore-most British business centers; and the center of capital investment and infrastructural development took place faster in these areas. Thus, colonial India experienced two streams of coeval processes as far as its nationality formation was concerned. The first was based on its pan-Indian identity and the second one on its regional ethnic identity.
What had actually emerged in course of time were two types of nationalities: consolidated nationalities and marginal nationalities. The consolidated nationalities already evolved common social structure, common religion and common culture. In short, they shared common historical experiences both in pre-colonial and during colonial period.
Therefore, the transformation of these consolidated nationalities into the core nationalism (Indian nationalism) was automatic and spontaneous. On the other hand, there are marginal nationalities covering the hill tribes whose integration with the Indian state structure took place only towards the end of the colonial rule.
The emerging situation was something like internal colonialism, real or imaginary. Where people in the periphery were made to develop more sophisticated needs only through consumption stimuli and where no infra-structural development was encouraged, those people were bound to be perpetually dependent on the more advanced metropolitan states and then finally became a parasite economically.
More damaging in the process is the long-term psychological impact on the people: people in the peripheries tending to develop slavish mentality and people in the metropolis colonial mentality. The sooner this uneven development is removed, the better for national reconstruction.
* Prof Lal Dena wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
This article was posted on June 09, 2012 .