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Why Are People From Northeast Feeling Alienated?

The lack of seriousness in dealing with ethnic hostility has made matters worse

The recent incidents of ethnic hostility against people from the Northeast have once again exposed the glaring misunderstanding and prejudice of the mainlanders towards people from the region. In Bengaluru, three men attacked a Manipuri student because he did not speak in Kannada, while a mob racially abused and assaulted two Naga boys in Gurgaon for refusing to drink with them.

The lack of seriousness in dealing with social issues that have a bearing on ethnic hostilities is yet another factor that needs focused attention. Tackling these sensitive issues in an ad hoc manner or taking a fire-fighting approach alone often contributes to further alienation.

Shaken by the violent incidents, the Bangalore University has set up a separate hostel for students from the Northeast. “We will build a hostel with CCTV cameras and security arrangements,” said the vice-chancellor. “That is how we can protect the safety and interests of students from the Northeast.”

But do these responses help in dealing with the challenge of how to make students from the Northeast mingle and integrate with the rest of the country?

In the context of the Northeast, ethnic hostility is not only a threat to social inclusion but also a serious threat to national security. Such hostility leads to psychological isolation of the people and negates all efforts to integrate them socially, economically and politically.

Because I had stayed for 17 years in the Northeast, I thought it is prudent to discuss some of the factors contributing to these hostilities and misunderstandings.

The Northeast comprises the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura, popularly known as the Seven Sisters. It is a mosaic of cultures of more than 200 tribes and sub-tribes with distinct dialects as well as customary and traditional practices. About 68 percent of the 40 million people in the Northeast live in Assam. Even within Assam, the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys have the highest density of population; the hill areas are sparsely populated. The difficult terrain and lack of connectivity stood in the way of rapid industrialization of the area, slowing down its growth and development, resulting in unemployment.

The Centre’s efforts towards national integration and democratic consolidation did not help much in reducing the hostilities between the people of the Northeast and those from the rest of India. This is mainly due to the perception of people from the Northeast about the people from the mainland and the latter’s intentions/sincerity on the development of the Northeast on one hand, and the perception of people from the rest of India about the people of the Northeast regarding their attitude and loyalty.

The people of the Northeast have a perception that New Delhi looks at the region through the prism of territorial security rather than socio-economic development. The fear of China’s growing influence and cross-border terrorism along the Myanmar and Bangladesh borders are the main factors driving New Delhi’s attention towards the region.

The development models given to them lack integrated vision as they sometimes contradict the local customs and traditional practices and fail to address their perceived fears. Moreover, they fail to provide linkages between the people’s institutions and governance. There is a disconnect between the policymakers and the ground realities as the policymakers lack proper understanding of the society, culture and polity of the Northeast.

The significant remarks made by the National Commission for SCs/STs remain relevant even today. It observed that the welfare approach exercised through the development schemes under the Five- Year Plans, the concept of community development and democratic decentralization through Panchayati Raj failed to alleviate the socio-economic and political problems of the tribals and hill people of the Northeast. The hill people are not really interested so much in the Five-Year Plans, community development and Panchayati Raj as solutions to their problems relating to their rights on land and forests, and for doing away with the exploitation by moneylenders.

The main problem perceived by the northeastern states is their psychological fear of losing their identity due to immigration. After witnessing the demographic changes in Assam due the influx of refugees from Bangladesh, the other states of the Northeast have become highly sensitive to not only the immigration of refugees from neighboring countries but also the influx of outsiders from other parts of India. Even some of the highly educated tribal leaders and thinkers do not support rapid industrialization as they fear that it will bring outsiders into their states, which will disturb their social structures and cultural practices.

Another aspect that has a bearing on the economic development of the region is the severance of natural markets along the borders. Before Independence, the Northeast had natural markets with adjoining Bangladesh and Myanmar. After Independence, the natural markets disappeared and border trade became restricted with bureaucratic procedures. In place of border markets, smuggling with associated corruption came in. At last, these aspects have been realized by the policymakers and hence now they are actively encouraging the policy of ‘Look East’ for the region’s economic development.

Due to prolonged agitations and insurgencies, the Centre initiated a number of measures for the integrated development of the Northeast. In 2001, the Department of Development of North Eastern Region was established; three years later, it was upgraded to a full-fledged ministry. For the 11th Five- Year Plan (2007-12), the ‘North Eastern Region Vision 2020’ document projected the investment requirement as 2.11 lakh crore and the actual outlay worked out to be 1.84 lakh crore. Funding is required but that alone cannot bring development. Development schemes will be successful only if they can address the core concerns and appeal to the aspirations of the people of the Northeast.

Coming to perceptions, mainlanders believe that people from the Northeast are lazy. There is a fundamental difference in their attitude towards life and work culture. People from the Northeast are frank in their views and contented in their outlook. If a person has a house to live in, he will not struggle to build more houses for his children and grandchildren. They are content with what they have today rather than worrying about the future.

Another perception is that they are not respectful and indifferent. This perception is due to the fact that people from the mainland try to compare with what they consider is respectful as per their social norms with the practices in the Northeast. In the rest of India, the normal form of greeting is saying “namaste” with folded hands or bow down a few times and touching the feet. In some areas, the number of times one bends is directly proportional to the quantum of respect one wants to display. This type of overt gestures of showing respect is totally, probably rightly, absent among the people of the Northeast. There, the usual form of greeting is a smile or a handshake. Their social structure does not have a rigid caste system and the society runs on true democratic lines and without any feudalistic tinge.

I recall one instance in which I attended the birthday party of my constable’s son in Tura, the headquarters of West Garo Hills district in Meghalaya. The constable belonged to the clan of the then chief minister. When I arrived at his modest residence, the chief minister and some of his Cabinet members were also present. I was surprised to see that there was no separate place, special crockery or special food for the ministers. We all ate from the same table. This is the kind of social structure, with a strong sense of equality, where the people of the Northeast live in. Because of their Mongoloid proto-Austroloid and Tibeto-Burmese features, they may look different, but their literacy and civic sense are admirable.

All these wrong perceptions from both sides can be addressed if there is sustained social policy research. There is an institute in New Delhi that carries out policy research on the Northeast but not social policy research. Once such research is done, it will enable social scientists to apply research work for solving contemporary social problems.

Social researchers and investigators can conduct applied research to gain understanding of human behavior and social life which, in turn, will help in enhancing the better relationship and understanding of the people in the Northeast by the mainlanders.

*The opinion is written by KC Reddy.

*The writer is former Chief Security Advisor, UN

*Comments can be sent to letters@tehelka.com

*The article was earlier published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 44, Dated 1 November 2014.

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