Lin Laishram is a stunning supermodel from Manipur who smashed stereotypes on her way to fashion success and working with some of the best designers in the world. Yet in 2014, when she auditioned to play fellow Manipuri Mary Kom, she was turned down in one shot, ostensibly because she didn’t look Indian enough.
Teresa Rehman can relate. She won the Ramnath Goenka award for her journalism before moving back to Assam. Suddenly, she found no “national” publication was willing to accept her work. “I finally started sending pieces to the Himal, which published them. In a way, I got acceptance from another country,” she told the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday.
The two incidents underscored the difficulties and contradictions that emerge every time the “mainland” and the “northeast” engage, even raising questions about the category of the Northeast.
“The perception of who is the centre and who is at the margin is important. The region has seen unprecedented loot in the name of developmental funds and even subsidies,” says Assamese writer Dhrubajyoti Bora. He points out the in-migration and out-migration phenomena in the region that has seen thousands move to bigger cities for work. “The discrimination they face is real, it smacks of racism.”
Rehman agrees but refuses the gaze of pathos. “When I was denied publication, I started my webzine. The internet gave me power. I see the youth doing the same in many ways,” she says.
Writer and academic Sanjoy Hazarika wants to change the terms of the conversation. He says he has a problem with the lumping of all regions as “northeast” and says one has to acknowledge that a lot has changed in the past decade.
“The engagement is complex. But today, there are protests in Delhi. The Naga students association is four times its size. The football team is dominate by Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. We have shown the world that we will not take discrimination lying down.”
But he acknowledges that violence is more difficult to deal with when institutionalized. “Though insurgency has petered down, the Armed forced special powers act continues to be clamped on these regions,” Hazarika says.
But are there groups and communities that are marginal even within the margins? Take, for example, the Manipuri women who famously stripped in front of the army to protest against AFSPA. “These women came from a conservative society where even showing heels outside is forbidden. It wasn’t easy for them. One told me it felt like the last day of her life,” says Rehman, whose new book on these Manipuri women is out this year.
But through their resistance, the women challenged the discourse of violence in the region that was deeply masculine – about guns and statistics. “One protester cheerily talked about how she dyed her hair while another showed me her phone background that was a photo of her as an actor in her youth. ‘Look how beautiful I look’, she told me,” Rehman said.
The panelists couldn’t agree on a way forward – bureaucratic engagement or more people-to-people interaction. But Hazarika voiced a common dream. “Next JLF, let’s have a session with writers from all the regions, and not call it ‘the northeast’.”
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