As the mystery around the allegedly heinous murder of Sheena Bohra apparently unfolds, many other important issues seem to be overlooked. Farmers committing suicide in Marathwada in Maharashtra don’t tell as compelling a story, nor do the floods in Assam or the current turmoil in Manipur. No, I am not a left-leaning person, for I believe in private entrepreneurship without regulatory bottlenecks, and I consider absolute state control over the economy to be a recipe for disaster. Also, I don’t believe in exaggerating minority victimhood, and I am a concerned Indian, a nationalist if you like. However, nationalism, for me, is more about our own citizens of all regions, religions, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds moving forward with a sense of national unity on the path of development than being fundamentally based on antipathy to some entity, and nationalism for me is certainly not about considering the morality of the government of my country in the realm of foreign policy or engagement with secessionist forces to be axiomatic, with only its naivete or passivity being something worthy of complaining about, and my nationalism is not about believing that everything good and great has emerged only from my civilization, which must be assumed to be flawless, either. Nation-states are an inevitable reality, and so is nationalism, but no nationalist project can succeed to its optimum if it is fails to be inclusive enough of large sections of the population, with internal strife putting a strain on resources, though exclusion of tiny sections of the population, even if without causing any visible strife, is also obviously completely unfair and unacceptable. I know that this write-up may not hit new ground, but I hope it can provoke some into thinking on the subject of India’s northeast if they haven’t already, and it can serve as a grim reminder to others.
I do have great regard for our men in uniform ready to sacrifice their lives for national security (but for the rogues among them who engage in corruption and human rights violations like rapes and fake encounters of innocents, other than unnecessarily exhibiting authoritarian high-handedness, and these have been major issues in the northeast as well as in Kashmir), but the truth is that while there were many of us who celebrated our supposed military operation in Myanmar to fight Manipuri militants, more like clapping for the side one supports in a WWE match, but to whom, otherwise, Manipur means little. As BJP leader Tarun Vijay rightly points out, as have many others, what do many of us know of the culture of Manipur, its politics, its geography? Or for that matter, the same with respect to Nagaland, Mizoram or Meghalaya? Not to forget the very real racism many of our fellow Indians from the northeast face, and this is obviously not to deny, overlook, condone or justify the racism exhibited by some of them against other Indians, and I have discussed the many forms of racism in India in some detail in this other piece on this very portal, in which I have pointed to the lack of understanding of the northeast even from a nationalist leader like Sardar Patel, who is supposed to epitomize national unity, and how some of us have even subjected our countrymen from the northeast very dutifully serving in our army to racial slurs! Also, while there is no denying that secessionist insurgencies in Tripura and Nagaland and to an extent, even Manipur have strains of Christian fanaticism, excessively exaggerating that dimension (not even present among say, Bodo or non-Bodo Assamese separatists, or even among Manipuri Hindu separatists), overlooking the economic neglect and cultural alienation, would only amount to deluding oneself. And indeed, even as Modi (of whom I am otherwise an ardent critic) has indeed very rightly emphasized on more than one occasion, we need to be united as a nation, cutting across religious lines, and so, making sweeping negative generalizations about any religious grouping is unacceptable, especially when we wouldn’t like our co-religionists elsewhere to be meted out such treatment. That would, in any case, indeed be totally counterproductive to fighting fanaticism under any banner.
When Kashmir was flooded last year, the media rightly focused on that, but the floods in Assam and Meghalaya shortly after that hardly got any attention. Likewise, in 2011, spot fixing by Pakistani cricketers got more attention than a blockade for about a hundred days by Kuki groups in Manipur wanting a separate district for a Kuki-majority area in a Naga-majority district.
Similarly, when we were mourning the deaths of innocent children in Peshawar and Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris, in our own country, Bodo secessionist terrorists had attacked innocent non-Bodo Assamese villagers (mostly not Muslims, leave alone being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though this is not to condone hate crimes against anyone), leading to the displacement of thousands. In fact, the Bodo strife, other than its very unfortunate human cost, should have given the Indian intelligentsia an opportunity to examine whether the Indian government (especially the UPA) had been playing the same good terrorist-bad terrorist game, and giving terrorists a legitimate voice in the administrative discourse that we very rightly have accused the Pakistani government of doing, but overlooking our government doing so is sheer hypocrisy.
I do not support the secessionist movements in the northeast. Indeed, if anyone supports self-determination to the extent of secession as an absolute right in all contexts, which is to say that any part of any country should be unilaterally allowed to secede at will, would they support any household declaring itself as a separate country and not paying taxes, desiring to have diplomatic relations with their country, or any district of the newly formed hypothetical independent they envisage to secede at will? Separatist militants themselves have issued diktats on the people, and killed non-combatant civilians on ethnic lines or owing to a different political opinion, and the competing territorial claims among norrtheasterners themselves are very problematic.
That said, if we expect loyalty to India from our countrymen from the northeast, the least we can do is to treat them fairly, and it must be understood that theirs is not basically an economic problem (though economic neglect is a reality, but not the basis of the problem, for even many of the economically well-off folks from the northeast don’t fully identify with the national mainstream) as is the case with the Adivasis resorting to Naxalism, who are not secessionists. The secessionist aspirations of those in the northeast stem from culturally not being able to identify themselves as Indians. Only token gestures from the Indian state or society will not suffice. Our history and literature textbooks should have a lot more on the northeast (something a politician I admire and support, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, had rightly emphasized after Arunachali student Nido Taniam’s very unfortunate murder in broad daylight in Delhi), and even elementary textbooks enumerating freedom fighters should mention the likes of Mairembam Koireng from Manipur, who helped Netaji’s INA in the fight against British imperialism, and Rani Gaidinliu, a freedom fighter from Nagaland (who was rightly invoked by Modi after the signing of the Naga Peace Accord), who fought for the freedom of India as a whole. Often, the history we study in high school is forgotten, but what we grow up with in primary school remains etched in our memory, and so, knowledge of the northeast should be introduced at the primary level.
Currently, floods have ravaged Assam, but that has drawn very little media attention, with Modi not having even visited Assam or talked about it, while he is busy addressing election rallies in Bihar, as this cartoon strip points out (and I would utilize this opportunity to appeal to one and all to donate for the flood-affected in Assam, for which you can use this link – please do not be lazy and do so as soon as possible, before you forget), with the refugee crisis of Syrians getting more attention in the rest of India (not in any way to be insensitive to the pain of the Syrian refugees), as this post points out, and while the turmoil in Manipur, owing to legal propositions that apparently threaten the natural and cultural landscape of Manipur, is getting a fair share of media attention (though not even a fraction of what Kashmir got in 2010, and again, this is not in the least to undermine the importance of integrating in the national mainstream Kashmiri Muslims, who also do have certain genuine grievances, and I have attempted to deal with the issue of very many Kashmiri Muslims’ alienation from Indian nationalism in this piece addressed to Kashmiri separatists), but the current turmoil in Manipur is not something that makes for drawing room conversations in India outside the northeast. The future of Indian democracy lies, to a great extent, in the hands of the electorate. Blaming the political class and the media is easy, but we need to ask ourselves if we care, for politicians and journalists are indeed compelled to respond to that.
Speaking of the political class, while I am far from being an uncritical admirer of Modi or the BJP, as mentioned earlier, it has to be appreciated that this government seems more committed to the northeast than any previous one, the unpardonable neglect of the Assam floods notwithstanding. The Naga Peace Accord has been a major achievement (and Modi, quite unlike his usual boastful self, acknowledged the role of earlier Congress governments too in the peace process with the Nagas), his getting eight ministers to visit the northeast every fortnight does seem to be a step in the right direction, as also initiatives by the HRD Ministry like the Ishaan scheme, under which 2,000 students and 500 teachers from the northeast will be offered stay, food and travel, free of cost, by the Centre to find out career options or further studies in IITs, IIMs, all central universities and ISRO, as also the APJ Abdul Kalam Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan, involving setting up laboratories for school children to nurture scientific innovation, starting with the northeast. Also, given the large-scale neglect of the northeast by central governments over the decades, as a citizen, I also wholeheartedly welcome our MoS from Home Affairs, Kiren Rijuju, being from the northeast.
But the government can only do so much. We need to do more as citizens to make those of the northeast feel like fellow Indians (instances like a security guard in a museum in Pune asking a student from Nagaland to pay the entry fee for foreigners, in spite of the student’s showing his driving license issued by the Indian government, don’t help very much), not just fellow human beings from an alien land, the affairs of which we needn’t be ashamed of being oblivious to. I am glad that the Tagore International School in Delhi, run by my relatives, is running a campaign for awareness of the northeast this year, and I have also written an e-mail to those managing the Amar Chitra Katha comics at their address – firstname.lastname@example.org – to carry more titles on our national heroes and heroines from this beautiful region (https://www.facebook.com/notes/karmanye-thadani/i-sent-an-e-mail-to-amar-chitra-katha-and-would-urge-one-and-all-to-send-similar/10153306344698171?pnref=lhc), and would also urge the readers to send such mails to them too.
If the northeasterners are an integral part of our nation, then the nation ought to feel their pain and cure it; else, this Indian nationalism is hypocritical. Also, while not in the least generalizing Indian Muslims, having some fully rational and impartial Indian Muslim friends and even having written a book aimed at addressing and dispelling anti-Muslim prejudices in the Indian context, I must say that those Indian Muslims who wish to demonstrate their “secularism” and “human rights activism” by idolizing anti-AFSPA Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila and wrongly generalizing the Indian security personnel as all being murderous, pervert rogues by pointing to their human rights violations in the northeast (and not only Muslim-majority Kashmir to showcase secularism), just like they keep harping on the problems of Dalits and Adivasis, or Christians targeted by Hindu extremists, ought to speak up more openly against their own riot-motivating politicians like Azam Khan (who hasn’t even been charge-sheeted for his alleged role in the riots in Muzaffarnagar and Sahranpur, unlike Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi, who were duly convicted and spent some years in jail, after which they were rightly or wrongly conferred bail, , and my point is not with respect to how much evidence is available in which case for what sentence, but whether the narrative of “Hindu riot-instigating politicians always go scot-free and Muslims are only victims, not perpetrators of riots” is true, and I believe that the issue should be “powerful vs. non-powerful”, “vote-bank politics vs. the spirit of democracy” and so on, rather than “Hindu oppressors vs. Muslim oppressed”, which would actually be half-true or even false in many contexts), those Muslims in Kashmir who drove out the Hindu minority of the valley (none of whom have been convicted, unlike hundreds rightly convicted in connection with the Gujarat riots for the massacres in the Best Bakery, Ode, Sardarpura and Naroda Patiya, and the Kashmiri Hindus, also known as Kashmiri Pandits, haven’t even been rehabilitated the way the Muslims driven out from the village of Atali have, and as for rebutting the conspiracy theories and rationalizations offered about the exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus from their homeland, have a look at this piece), anti-Jewish hatred within their community, Shia-Sunni violence (which does occur in India in places like Lucknow), the intolerance of Ahmedias who are socially boycotted and occasionally violently targeted in India by Muslim extremists in India and whose right to free speech and freedom of religion is to a great extent legally denied in Pakistan, refusal to accept progressive verdicts of the Supreme Court as in the Shah Bano case, curtailment of females’ rights in Muslim communities in India in different ways, like disallowing them from playing football or acting on stage in some cases, non-Muslims not being given equal rights in many Muslim-majority countries and being violently targeted in our neighbouring countries (if such Muslims can shout against injustices in Iraq and Gaza, they can certainly look at our immediate neighbourhood), blasphemy and apostasy laws in Muslim-majority countries and so on (and for those of you, Muslims, not genuinely caring about the rights of others, why do you expect others to care for the rights of Muslims?). Supporting northeasterners against what one perceives as a common foe with one’s Kashmiri co-religionists (the Indian Army), or riot-affected Christians against one’s common enemy (the Hindu communalists), or deriving cheap thrills by pretending to be concerned for Dalits with the objective of Hindu-bashing does not make one secular, impartial or someone who genuinely cares for universal human rights. The same holds true for left-liberal non-Muslims who try to showcase some intellectual elitism by selectively raising their voice usually against the wrongs of non-Muslim extremists or non-Muslim states.
The fundamental difference between Kashmir and many (not all) regions in the northeast, like Nagaland and Mizoram, is that while Kashmir may have its distinctive language, cuisine, architecture etc. as does, say Gujarat, it fits in well with the mainstream culture of North India (some parts of the northeast like Assam, which is Hindu-majority, also are culturally similar to North India, especially West Bengal, but that is largely not fully acknowledged, and even the current floods in Assam are not getting any attention). Kashmiri Muslims speak and understand Urdu as if it were their mother tongue as much as the Kashmiri language, many of them practise forms of Sufi Islam well understood in North India, and while many Kashmiris may look somewhat different from other North Indians, they are not as different in appearance as our mongoloid countrymen from the northeast.
Non-Kashmiri, non-northeastern Indians know of the militancy and separatism in Kashmir, but they also know of the ‘shikaras’, hill stations and Bollywood movies shot in the valley. They also at least know what the capital of J&K is, who the CM of J&K is, and the major political parties prevalent in J&K, but with the northeast, too many of them are largely ignorant of almost everything out there, and for some, the information vacuum is filled by half-truths from sections of the Hindu right that focus on Bangladeshi infiltration and Christian missionaries as the root of all problems.
Economics is important, but unlike Maoist belts where economic grievances have taken the form of ultra-leftist insurgency, in Kashmir and the northeast, the sentiment is one of separatism, rejecting the “idea of India”. In Kashmir, the basis of that has fundamentally been religion, while in the northeast, it has been cultural alienation.
Kashmiris don’t usually face the outright racism many northeasterners face, and places like Nagaland have seen military presence and suffered human rights violations since much before Kashmir. The national media gives them much less attention than Kashmiris too, as has been discussed. Nonetheless, most northeasterners are usually much more moderate and reasonable in their engagement and attitude than many Kashmiris are. It’s time we work to resolve conflicts and not just manage them.
(With inputs from my friend Akash Arora.)