Thursday, March 20, 2014

India’s North East Needs a Vision Printer-friendly version

K G Suresh, 
Senior Fellow & Editor, VIF

Background

At the recently concluded World Book Fair in Delhi, the National Book Trust (NBT) organized a ‘North East Quiz’ among the school children visiting the annual exhibition. According to Mr Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, former Director of NBT, none could qualify and win the four books on Arunachal Pradesh which were kept as prizes.

The students from the so-called mainland just did not have any idea about the North East. They were confused about the state capitals of the eight sister states and were unaware of many aspects of the sensitive states bordering China, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The episode came close on the heels of the brutal and fatal attack on Nido Tania, a young boy from Arunachal Pradesh, by a mob in a busy New Delhi market on January 29.

Unfortunately, instead of applying a soothing balm on the sentiments of thousands of North Eastern students based in the capital, the civil society and the media outdid each other in projecting the assault as one related to racism without realizing which races they were talking about.

In the 60s and 70s, in Delhi and other parts of northern India, any person coming from South of the Vindhyas was called a ‘Madrasi’,. But people from Andhra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu detested this description which they felt, and justifiably so, was derogatory as they had their own distinct culture and language. How would a Punjabi feel if he is called a Bihari, they would ask. With the passage of time, increased interaction between the north and south and the south’s growing clout in sectors ranging from politics and economy to entertainment and education, the equations have changed considerably. Bengaluru has become the hub for IT professionals from across the country while Manipal attracts students.

It is true that even 66 years after independence, people from the North East, continue to be clubbed together and singled out and that too for their facial features. Often, they are mistaken to be Chinese, Nepalese or from South East Asia and referred to even by the educated as ‘Chinkies’ not only because of their Mongoloid features but the apparent cultural differences such as attire and language. Forced to migrate from their idyllic but underdeveloped states for even basic education and job opportunities, these people, mostly women and youngsters, are not only discriminated against but also have often been victims of eve teasing, molestation and rape. What’s more, they also find themselves at the receiving end of the utterly insensitive law enforcement agencies because of communication problems.

However, in the case of Nido, neither the assailants nor the victim were aware of their own respective races. There was no conflict of interests. Even in North Eastern states, people from the ‘mainland’ are often termed as ‘Indians’ or ‘outsiders’ by many locals and are held responsible for the problems in their respective states. There have been several instances when Hindi speaking people have been attacked and killed brutally by North Eastern insurgents. Yet, there has been no retaliatory attacks.

Moreover, racial attacks, as in the West necessarily involves two races – of the culprit and of the victim. Ku Klux Klan, Dot Busters and the recent attackers on Indians in Australia, Sikhs in the United States etc are motivated by racial superiority and a growing insecurity that the ‘other races’ are usurping their rights in their own country, which is not the case here.

People with Mongoloid features including from Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have never been discriminated against in the past as they had been part and parcel of the North Indian mileu for long. As against this, the people from the North East are comparatively new migrants and are yet to become familiar to people from other parts of the country.

Hence, it would be unfair to treat such attacks as racial, as is sought to be projected by many including some sections of the media. As an observer aptly put it, it may be facial but certainly not racial. It is lack of awareness about the North East and the people there which has led to such incidents.

Nevertheless, the problems confronting the sensitive North East are far more deep rooted than a law and order incident in Delhi. The sense of alienation in the region cannot be traced to some stray incident in Delhi or other metros but to the exclusion of the region from the national consciousness and developmental priorities.

The North Eastern states require an altogether different model of development keeping in view its multifarious problems including infrastructure, agriculture, industry, ethnic divergence and socio-cultural and economic dimensions.

Developmental Issues

During a recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh, one found that even the major roads in the state capital Itanagar were worse off than roads in some far flung districts of Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh. There were roads in holes rather than the other way round.

One was shocked to learn that there is not a single direct flight from either Delhi or any other nearby airport to this sensitive border state, which in its entirety is being claimed by neighbouring China. The only way to reach Itanagar is either by a weather dependent chopper service provided by Pawan Hans or by an eight hour long drive from Guwahati. Even to reach key strategic locations in the state such as Bomdila and Tawang, one has to take a detour via Tezpur in Assam.

Work on some railway project is on but it appears to be a tardy and tedious exercise. There cannot be anything more ironic in the backdrop of all tall talks about building infrastructure to match the Chinese and what not.

Corruption and maladministration have become hallmarks of governance in most of the states. For the record, successive Central Governments have pumped in crores of rupees for the development of the region and the state level leaders are often blamed for misappropriation of funds but interactions with state bureaucrats reveal how Central Government officials take their ‘cuts’ even for release of funds and during monitoring of projects. Funds allocated for many schemes get lapsed as the state is unable to garner resources to contribute its mandated contribution.

Many a scheme has guidelines which require certain number of people in villages to obtain the funds. With a small population, far lesser in density compared to many other states, most villages in Arunachal are unable to avail of the funds. But the mandarins in Delhi have neither the time nor the inclination to spare a thought for them.

In the land of the rising sun, it is totally dark by 5 pm, when people are still working in offices in the mainland. Yet, they have to follow the Indian Standard Time. Why is it that India can’t have different time zones suitable for specific regions of the country? Why is it that we are called foreigners by other Indians when we are ready to die for the country?, asks Nikam, an engineer by education and a social worker by choice.

There cannot be anything more unfortunate that such an approach is being adopted towards the people of a state, which is claimed by China as part of ‘South Tibet’ and whose youth have never taken even to the streets, forget taking up arms, unlike their counterparts in other north eastern states. In fact, with scores of tribes inhabiting the state, Hindi has emerged as the lingua franca of the people who still greet each other with the ‘Jai Hind’ slogan. Can there be a greater bulwark against Chinese expansionism? Can the Indian Army get a more supportive local populace in the event of any Chinese aggression?

Yet, mainland India has always ignored the North East contributing to a sense of alienation among these people, which has resulted in the growth of separatists and anti-national forces, aided and abetted by anti-India forces within and outside the country including some neighbouring countries. Large scale illegal migration from Bangladesh has not only led to demographic changes in some states but also added to socio-religious tensions as is evident from growing number of clashes between the local tribes and illegal migrants.

NGOs and religious groups are also adding to the problem by fishing in troubled waters by whipping up local sentiments and building up an environment against mainland India. In the absence of a vibrant local media and the national media ignoring the developments in the North East, the well oiled separatist propaganda machinery is successfully able to project the Armed forces as the worst human rights violators and put the blame on the doors of the Central Government for all the ills pervading the region, most of which are contrary to facts and the ground realities.

The vast hydropower, thorium and other natural resources as also tourism potential are not even being partially harnessed for the development of the region and the country as a whole.

Connectivity is another major issue causing immense hardship the economy of the region, which is totally dependent on the rest of the country for even its basic requirements. No worthwhile effort has been made in all these decades to improve rail, air and road connectivity and to make these far flung states self-sufficient in at least some respects.

Despite their sharing boundaries with China and other countries, no meaningful initiative has been taken so far to develop the infrastructure in these sensitive states. With countries such as China making massive investments in its territory and even making territorial claims on some of our areas, the threat assumes greater significance but the same are not being addressed adequately.

Further, notwithstanding its proximity to the South East Asian nations in terms of geography and ethnicity, no serious effort has been made to tap the region’s potential to emerge as a great trading hub in consonance with India’s ‘Look East Policy’.

Lack of Awareness

While sociologists, politicians and commentators have been attributing the sense of alienation in the region to factors including insensitivity and conservatism of the North to lack of infrastructure and employment opportunities as also massive corruption in the North East resulting in migration, the fact remains that the wide communication gap between the peoples of the region and the rest of India and ignorance about each other have significantly contributed to this crisis.

For instance, very few in the country have heard about U Kiang Nanbah, the legendary freedom fighter from Meghalaya, who was hanged by the British over 150 years back, thanks to a policy of sheer indifference successive Central Governments have adopted towards the history and culture of the people of the North-East,

The ignorance about other north eastern heroes and freedom fighters such as Lachit Borphukan, Rani ma Gaidinliu, Shaheed Kanaklata Barua, Bir Tikendrajit, to name a few, in the rest of India is a reflection on the Government’s education policy, which has totally neglected the history of the North-East. Forget Nanbah, most history textbooks prescribed by the Central Board of Secondary Education do not have any reference to the history, culture or traditions of the region. It seems as if their history begins with the British annexation of their territories.

Role of Media

The role of the otherwise vibrant and inclusive Indian mainstream media too has been found wanting when it comes to the North East.

Ahead of the recent Assembly elections, television viewers across the country were bombarded day in and day out with opinion polls, surveys et al predicting the outcome of the elections in the four crucial states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi.

Though elections were also held in the state of Mizoram as well, not many seem to be interested in it as it is in the remote north east and has least significance in terms of numbers which can determine Government formation at the Centre post the 2014 elections. (It is a refreshing change that the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate has twice toured the state already in the run up to the polls though the party does not have much stakes in the region and as a consequence his meetings have attracted media attention.)

Why is it that our issues are not raised in the national media and discussed by the intelligentsia in Delhi is a common refrain in the north eastern states? Are we the children of a lesser God, they ask. Unfortunately, most of the North Eastern states, except for Assam to some extent, don’t even have a vibrant local media to highlight their problems.

The indifference of the national media towards elections in the north eastern state is not only indicative of the physical distance but also the psychological distance between the so-called mainstream and the North East.

Need for Concrete Steps

Successive Central Governments have looked at increased sops, freebies and funding as the only solution for the manifold problems facing the North East whereas the situation demands a holistic multi-pronged approach based on an understanding of the ground situation, the history, geography, socio-economic conditions et al. However, with the North East having little significance in terms of influencing politics at the Centre, the region has been left at the mercy of the mandarins/bureaucrats.

Among other things, the next Government at the Centre may also ponder over the following suggestions:
  1. Creation of a North East Finance and Development Corporation for providing loans and grants to students and entrepreneurs for generation of education and employment opportunities.
  2. Setting up a Task Force to facilitate the rise of the North East as an energy hub.
  3. Relaxation in inner line permit, wherever possible.
  4. Incentives including tax holidays for infrastructure and tourism development
  5. Further delimitation of Parliamentary constituencies for enhanced representation in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
  6. Setting up of special cell in the Ministry of External Affairs to coordinate with commerce and other related ministries to work out increased cooperation with South East Asian countries through the North East.
  7. Enhanced recruitment of personnel from the North East in CPMFs and police forces of major metros. An inclusive police force can not only instill a sense of security among all denizens but also inculcate better sensitization and acceptance of diversity within police forces.
  8. People with Mongoloid looks to feature prominently in social advertising so as to enable people from other regions to identify people from the region as Indians.
  9. Recruitment of people from North East faces in Central Government/All India services to increase their visibility across the country.
  10. Enhanced quota in educational institutions for students from North East.
While short term measures such as stringent action against culprits involved in violence against North East students and sensitization of police have to be taken up on a priority basis, it is important that in the long term, the Union Human Resources Development Ministry takes steps to revisit our history and other school text books to ensure that they reflect the cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity of the nation. This would ensure that the children grow up learning about each other and appreciating each other’s distinct identity. For example, the conservative North and South must know that women in the North East comparatively enjoy much more freedom and it reflects in their interactions with the opposite gender as well. Their morals should not be judged by their attire.

Citizens’ Initiatives

Not that have there not been efforts to build bridges of understanding between the North-East and the other parts of the country, but the attempts that have been made are few and far between. Few Gandhians, some Hindi activists, initiatives such as Ekal Vidyalaya, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Ramakrishna Mission, Global Foundation for Civilizational Harmony (India), My Home India have been contributing their bit in this direction.

Thanks to institutions such as Vivekananda Kendra, which run a network of about three dozen schools across states such as Arunachal Pradesh and inculcates patriotism and other traditional and cultural values among the students, the youth in Arunachal are not only literate but also nationalists to the core.

But there should be more civil society initiatives to bridge the ever widening chasm between the North East and the rest of the country. Our ‘friends’ on both sides of the border are always on the lookout for opportunities to fish in troubled waters.

Bollywood and television serial producers too can help in removing such stereotype images. After all, Danny Denzongpa, R D Burman, S D Burman, Bhupen Hazarika and among Gen Next Ria and Raima Sen nee Deb Barman (their father is from Tripura) have made immense contribution to the tinsel town since good old days.

On their part, the people from the North East would also do well not to remain isolated and ghettoized in their own small ethnic and provincial cocoons in large cities. They should shed any persecution complex and avoid labeling each and every law and order incident involving any one of them as an instance of racial discrimination. It has been proved time and against that cities like Delhi are unsafe for women from all regions and police are not friendly even towards the locals, unless they are rich or well-connected.

Conclusion

The need of the hour is a holistic approach to the manifold problems confronted by the North East rather than aggravating the sense of alienation by highlighting the alleged racial discrimination. The North East issue is inextricably linked to development of the region. Hence, a multi-pronged strategy has to be drawn up for the purpose. The North East needs a vision to be implemented in mission mode.

In the days to come, policies and programmes have to be taken up on war footing which would make North East India a Gateway to South East Asia, a leading global tourism destination and the country’s power house.


Political empowerment of the region, enhanced infrastructural development, improved connectivity with the rest of the country and increased awareness about the region through requisite changes in the curricula are among the priority area that beg urgent attention so that a peaceful and progressive North East emerges as India’s vanguard in the not too distant a future. The media too must play a constructive role towards this end.

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