In New York two weeks back, a woman claiming to be globetrotter asked a fellow journalist which country was he from. India was not the answer she was expecting.
“But you have Mongoloid features?” she sounded puzzled. “I am from Ladakh. They have people like me up there,” he replied flatly.
The conversation veered to where Ladakh was and led to the question if it was near Goa. “There is not much to say. The queries are the same. Here or back home,” the journalist told me once the lady moved on.
It is hard to explain India’s diversity to foreigners, even if they are from a multi-ethnic hub like New York. Unlike the United States’, India’s multi-ethnicity is indigenous, although we do have a fair number of immigrants living here for generations.
But why grudge a foreigner for her lack of knowledge about India when so many of our own are quick to dub fellow Indians ‘foreigners’ just because some of us look ‘different’?
If you are from the Northeast or Ladakh, you could face stupid questions like ‘are you a Chinese/Japanese’? Or ‘do you need a passport to get there’? But it causes alienation when workmates, landlords and neighbours show intolerance towards one’s dietary and socialising habits.
More extreme manifestation of such discrimination results in hate crime that claims victims like Nido Tania. A minor tiff turned into a murderous assault because the Arunachali youth did not look like his attackers and talked differently.
A survey about the perception of the Northeast among the people in the rest of India conducted by the North East India Image Managers (NEIim) two years ago found that for 52% of the respondents the immediate association with the region was of “people with Mongoloid features and weird food habits and an alien culture”.
Over 400 communications and service industry professionals from Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore participated in the survey. They did not know that the current UPA government had ministers from the Northeast. They refused to believe that three Northeast states had per capita income higher than the national average. Nearly one-third said they would never work in the Northeast even if it offered better prospects.
But can we blame the masses of the “mainland India” for not knowing enough about the rest of the country? When was the last time we got real exposure to the Northeast, except the stereotypical stock shots of men and women in tribal gear performing bamboo dance on Doordarshan, and the Republic Day parades, as part of some national integration campaign?
Even after several changes in the syllabus to make textbooks more relevant and inclusive, the books prescribed under the national curriculum in schools across India are silent on the Northeastern states.
Geography lessons mention the landscape in passing. All that a student gets to know is that Cheerapunji is one of the wettest place in India and Arunachal Pradesh the most thinly populated state. But forget their ancient and medieval histories, even contemporary politics and cultural movements do not find a mention even at the university level.
Except for reports on the insurgency, there is not much in print and visual media either. Yes, there are occasional reports on Assam’s rhinos and Manipur’s Mary Kom.B ut when was the last time we heard the people from the Northeast doing something other than protesting, being arrested or explaining how they deal with recurrent embargos?
The law and order machinery has no excuse for buying into racial stereotypes and must watch out for hate crimes in Delhi. But to really appreciate one another, we, as Indians, need to know one another better. Only then, we may understand the differences a matriarchal society makes to gender equations or the different cultural mores that influence food habits, taste for music and even social behaviour.
Integration begins with exposure, and it is a lot more than dressing styles.