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Northeast India Matters: The need to know and understand

Binalakshmi Nepram

Updated: May 21, 2012, 5:18 PM IST
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What treaty that the whites have kept has the Red broken?/Not one./ What treaty that the white man ever made with us have they kept?/Not one.

- Native American Indian Chief, Hunkpapa of Lakota tribe, 1831-1890

I came across this quote a few summers back in the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The words came back to me as I started penning my thoughts for my maiden article for IBNLive. Writing at a time when the work and memories of massive protests following the events that rocked India after the wrongful deaths of two young people from India's northeast in Bangalore and in Gurgaon in April 2012 are still fresh, many a questions were asked to us as to why this happened and solutions searched for an equitable and just India. To dream of an India where people of northeast India are not looked down upon, attacked, molested, humiliated and killed for how they look and from where they come from. I tried to find reasons in reminding many of the articles in our Constitution that speak to us of an equal nation where no one is discriminated on the basis of race, cast, creed, religion or place of birth.

While the Constitution speaks of an equal nation, I and many others know that as long as there are wrongful deaths that happen within and outside northeast India, just like Native American Chief Hunkpapa felt that the whites had betrayed every treaty that they concluded with the Native Americans, I, as a Manipuri woman, feel that the what is happening in India today are a betrayal of what the nation and its Constitution stand for. It is a betrayal of the values we uphold and this needs to be acknowledged and addressed at the earliest rather than keeping it under the carpet. Even with the existence of a body like "National Integration Council" having 146 members led by Prime Minister, ministers and personalities like Shabana Azmi, Ratan Tata, N Ram, Karan Thapar, etc, we still have a nation which is yet to be one in the truest sense of the term.

Why should northeast India matter? In an emerging India where economic growth and having a seat at United Nations Security Council are main concerns, a nation which can pay $11 billion for greater voting share in the International Monetary Fund, why should our voices matter to the country's policy makers and its allies?

Northeast India should matter as the region is home to 40 million people belonging to over 272 ethnic communities. There are armed conflicts still going on in some parts of the region such as Manipur, Assam, Nagaland, parts of Tripura. While efforts on peaceful resolution of conflicts need to be continued, due to political unrest, in search for higher education, students move out of region. This is how the Richard Loitams and Dana Sangmas come out of the region to pursue higher education and their dreams, just the way I had come. How do we ensure India gives us a safe space?

A lot of people have asked me for solutions and I have no magic answers. However, what I do know is that there is complete lack of understanding of the region in many in India, including the policy makers. Northeast India is like a distant land, far away from ones consciousness and understanding. Many people from India go to Bangkok, which is about a four to five hour flight from Delhi. How many people think about taking a flight from Delhi to Imphal (Indigo is my favourite fuss free flight which flies twice a day to Imphal, capital of Manipur) which takes about 3 hours?A few years back, I assisted a senior Indian journalist based in Delhi to go to northeast India for the first time in his life on a working visit. He came back, loving the place, determined on taking his family there for a holiday. This is how the notion of a nation is built, not on mere songs espousing national integration but by visiting each other and experiencing each other's lands, food and cultures.

A survey conducted by The Northeast Today (TNT) magazine published from Shillong, found out that many of the people think that the Bhut Jhaloka, the world's hottest chilly found in Assam, is a "Haunted House" and that many still confuse Manipur with 'Manipal" University.

How does this lack of understanding happen? In my own humble understanding, I was surprised by what I found during the five years study of Indian history (3 years of graduation and two years of masters). While, we in northeast India read about the Rasktrakutas, the Upanishads and the Arthashastra, neither in NCERT books nor in five years of history that I did in Delhi University, there was a single chapter on India's northeast region. When I asked one of my university professors during my master's course as to why history of northeast India was not in our syllabus, I still remember the reply he gave me: "If you want to study history of northeast India, go back to the region." That was when I realised that something was wrong in the way things are done.

School and college prescribed books form the foundation of our learning in life. If India does not share the history of 40 million living in the northeast region spanning 8 states, 272 ethnic communities, how can nation building be complete? If one does not understand another group of people's history, culture, civilisation, how can one give them the respect and the recognition they deserve? This is the story of northeast India.

The recent April 2012 movement that erupted all across northeast India and other parts of India fuelled by initial registering of protests on social networking sites once again brought the focus back on the need for a proper understanding of issues that concern India's northeast both within and outside. While a need for change at the northeast regional level has to be carried out by our chief ministers and others who are leading policy change, there is also a need for a clear policy implementation that guarantees safety and security of people from northeast India that is making other parts of India their part-time home, either for studies or for finding a life.

Home Minister Chidambaram, in his 5 May 2012 speech, guaranteed a number of measures to ensure support. He announced the formation of the North East Connect Cell formed to serve as a coordination point with resident commissioners of 8 northeastern states as well as helpline numbers. At the time of submitting this article, none of the helplines were working. Hence, it now depends on continued mobilisation of civil society, both from northeast India and others who mean well for us to continue to raise important questions, seek accountability and ensure stringent follow up work. Do be a part of this new movement for an equal and just India. Join in.

First Published: May 21, 2012, 5:18 PM IST