Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Forgotten Land

Before we kick off today's discussion, I would like to make one small request: please write down the names of any ten Indian states and then scroll down.

Now that that you have jotted down those names, please check whether Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland or Sikkim appear anywhere on your list.

You can now imagine just how far the north-east region slips below the radar in the Indian mainland. It is and has always been a forgotten part of India. People from that region are invariably 'Chinky' or 'Chinese' for most Indians.  The fact that they look different from the rest of us and that their culture is completely different from ours pretty much marks them as foreigners for most of us. Its not as if most Indians are prejudiced against people from the north east, the problem is that we do not realise that region even exists.

North East India: The Forgotten Region

Under normal circumstances, would you ever imagine a group of people fleeing their livelihoods based on mere rumours? The fact that mere rumours of people from the north-east being targeted for violence triggered off a mass exodus shows just how deep the sense of discrimination and alienation runs among them, a fact that's hardly surprising given the extent of ignorance about the north east prevailing in India. A recent study by the North East India Image Managers showed that out of 600 professionals polled (from Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore), a staggering 87% could not even name all the states from the north east region.

In all fairness, I would hardly blame the people of India for their ignorance regarding the north east region. For whatever reason, news from the north east never makes its way to the mainstream media in India. Even an episode as colossal as the blockade of Manipur last year, which paralysed normal life and sent prices shooting through the roof in that state for a staggering 121 days, hardly received any serious coverage in the media. Imagine the uproar had something like that happened in say UP or Punjab.

The media is hardly alone in this respect. The north east is prominently missing even in popular culture. Apart from Dil Se (1998) and Tango Charlie (2006), I do not recollect a single Hindi movie which even featured the north east, unless you retreat more than four decades into the past to include Jewel Thief (1967). Why, I do not even recollect that region being mentioned in my history/ geography textbooks in school. It's almost as if the entire country is in a conspiracy of silence regarding that region. Is it any wonder that seperatist sentiment exists there?

The only way greater integration of the north east region with the rest of India  can be achieved is through greater awareness. For starters, the north east deserves a far more substantial space in our school syllabus, especially in subjects like Geography and History- I can hardly recollect reading anything beyond a passing mention about the region in my school days. It may also not be a bad idea to include folk tales from that region in the education syllabus- by no means a difficult or politically sensitive proposition.

Another means by which it can be achieved is by devoting greater space to the north east in popular culture. Given the number of Hindi movies that are filmed abroad, I don't see why a few of them are not filmed in that region. Surely, the beauty of that region will make for magnificent backdrops for scenes/ songs. It will not only gave the north east greater visibility, but also give a significant boost to tourism in that region. Its hard to think of a better or easier way to overcome the ignorance that exists in respect of that region in mainland India.

There is a need for greater cultural awareness regarding the north east. While my own knowledge is next to nothing, I do know for a fact that culturally it is an incredibly diverse region. A person from Shillong and a resident of Agartala have as much in common as person from Delhi has with someone in Stockholm. What's even worse is that most Indians regard women from the north east as being promiscuous, not realising that their culture is far more liberal than the conservative (not to mention repressive) mainland. I admittedly have little idea as to how this can be achieved, but someone ought to make our people understand that being from a different cultural milieu does not imply by any means that the woman is easily available.

Most importantly, the Indian media needs to devote greater attention to the north east region.  If we Indians expect people from the north east to consider themselves as Indians, we also have a responsibility to make them feel as if this country is theirs. The Hindi speaking heartland is but a part of India, not India itself. It is both ignorant and unfair to expect the entire country to conform to the socio-cultural mores of central India. We, the residents of the mainland, have a responsibility to understand and respect the culture of that region.

Those 'chinkies' are as Indian as us. Its about time we realised it.

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