India's northeast is often out of the subconscious when it comes to ‘Indian culture’. Featured here are people across the NE spectrum who feel as Indian as anyone else until mainland dwellers make their otherness a talking point.
John M Sohtun, Meghalaya
What's Meghalaya for the rest of the country is ‘Meiglya’ for most of its inhabitants. You can perhaps attribute it to pronouncing a Hindi or Sanskritised name given to the state when it was carved out of Assam in 1972.
But few feel the name is an imposition in a state that would have struggled to come up with a localised alternative acceptable to its three matrilineal tribes – Garo, Jaintia and Khasi – after they sought not to be a part of the Assamese-dominated polity.
The average person in the Abode of Clouds, though, is an Indian at heart. Until Indians elsewhere hurt their Indianness.
“I do take myself as an Indian first but frankly speaking even doubts do creep into my thoughts, particularly when my fellow citizens from the mainland consider me a foreigner.
"I suppose it’s because of our different physical characteristics and different cultural practices. But Indianness is not only restricted to race and culture but to an ideology rooted in mutual acceptance of our diversity,” says John M Sohtun, a writer-musician-thinker from Shillong.
Sohtun generally feels comfortable among his own, the reasons being similarities in physical characteristics, culture and maybe similar socio-economic status ‘when considered broadly’. Superiority complex is certainly not a factor, he says.
“Superior in what sense? There are many facets to this term. But I suppose we are superior in our acceptance for change in mindset. In other words, we are superior in absorbing the goodness from other cultures and imbibing into ours thereby making us more tolerant towards people from different places,” Sohtun, a biochemist who writes operas for theatrical dramas, says.
“We will always see differences until and unless we consider ourselves to be above race and culture and have a common ideology,” he adds.
Dahey Sangno, Arunachal Pradesh
In India's Land of the Rising Sun, the fear of a Chinese eclipse is often in the subconscious. It almost happened 51 years ago, making many wonder if Mandarin or Cantonese would replace Hindi as the lingua franca of some 140 tribes and sub-tribes in Arunachal Pradesh.
Arunachal Pradesh was too remote to merit adequate military set-up prior to the 1962 Chinese aggression. Most locals, scattered across virtually inaccessible mountain slopes, didn’t know a world called India existed beyond the boundaries of their villages. Yet Hindi unwittingly bound them to Bharat.
Beijing’s taking of Tawang in 1962 changed all that, and the Arunachalee brand of patriotism was the most intense in the Northeast. Gradually, though, locals began asking if the rest of India cared for them beyond the rhetoric.
“I am an Indian first – this no one can change. Perhaps, I am a better Indian than most of the non-Hindi speaking Indians of the mainland.
Like all other Indians, I grew up singing old Hindi patriotic songs, swearing Daily Pledge in school and making a lot of friends from the mainland. Hindi as a lingua franca bridged the great regional divide at that point of time.
Today, ironically, my ability to speak Hindi stands against me. I am branded as a daju or kanchha (terms to mean Nepali) outside my state,” says Itanagar-based Dahey Sangno, an Arunachal Pradesh Civil Service officer belonging to the Nyishi tribe.
Sangno, 35, has never faced discomfort in mingling with people outside his ethnic background; hardly anyone in the multi-ethnic state with age-old socio-economic ties with Assam does. But at the same time, he finds it is easier to connect with people of his own community.
“Trust is the factor. If I go outside the Northeast, say New Delhi, I would trust a Naga, a Mizo or an Assamese more than a Delhiite no matter how sober that Delhiite may appear. Our first impression about this mainland people is that they are cunning, deceitful, untrustworthy and timid by birth. That’s why I feel we are morally stronger and mentally tougher — in other word superior – than them,” Sangno says.
The daily instances of discrimination against people of Northeast India in metros also hurt him a lot. “It is accentuated when they ask, ‘Where is Arunachal Pradesh?’, as if we are non-existent. It takes a Chinese claim on Aruanchal to remind the mainland about our existence. Our only links to the mainland appear to be the Central grants-in-aid, colleges and three MPs representing the state,” Sangno adds.
Rina Jamir, Nagaland
A country is nothing but the last word in your address, wrote Hiren Bhattacharyya, the pithiest of Assamese poets who conveyed an epic in his two-line rhymes.
In the Northeast, there are few takers of his idea of a global citizen. Fewer still in Nagaland, witness to a violent insurrection for sovereignty since the 1950s. But anyone familiar with the frontier state’s history would be aware of the Naga pride, each tribe fiercely protective of its territory or area of dominance and reluctant to be ruled by the other.
It is thus not unusual for Nagas on social networking sites or using other forms of communication to end their postal addresses with Nagaland. That, however, doesn’t make a Naga alien to the idea of India, often wielded as a politically-loaded word to mean ‘a government with colonial attitude’.
The Nagas’ best ‘Indian’ connection is perhaps Nagamese, their lingua franca that is an Assamese-Hindi hybrid. Their acceptance of a mainland moniker to generalise more than 50 ethnic groups across Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Myanmar is also a case in point.
But, as Kohima-based executive Rina Jamir says, it is not so much a case of Nagas aligning psychological with the mainstream as Indians elsewhere accepting the Naga way of life as ‘Bharatiya sanskriti’.
“I have travelled widely, and I consider myself as an Indian. But at times I do feel alienated when people go by our looks (call us chinkies) or dresses or what they call exotic food habits,” says Jamir, 45.
Exotic, many in Nagaland feel, works both ways. To a Naga, the way northern India dresses or eats is exotic too. It is a case of respecting the difference in each other’s cultures and finding a common thread, they say, adding even the 15 Naga tribes of Nagaland are different from each other and do not speak the same tongue.
“I am comfortable in my state and with people from my own ethnic backyard,” Jamir says. She is a tad more at home among the Aos, the Naga tribe she belongs to. But, she adds, that does not mean her state or her community is superior or inferior to any other community or state.
“Each has its own uniqueness and reason for existence on earth,” she says.
Manik Barman, Assam
Ever since he stepped out of his western Assam village after dropping out of high school, Manik Barman has had to be specific when asked about his ethnic identity.
“Initially I would parrot one of my Hindi teachers to say ‘India mein raheta hoon, Indian hoon’. But people are not satisfied, and I have to say either Assamese or Bengali. If they are still not satisfied, I say I am a Koch-Rajbongshi.
Nowadays, I don’t beat about the bush,” says Manik, 26, who travelled 220 km west to Guwahati after stepping into his teens to work at a construction site before graduating to be a cab driver.
Manik has heard elders say how the medieval Koch-Rajbongshis ruled much of present-day Assam, West Bengal and Bangladesh. He is also aware of community leaders fighting for Schedule Tribe status and seeking a Kamtapur state straddling western Assam and northern Bengal.
The map of Kamtapur covers Bodoland, specific to the Bodo tribe that is demanding an upgrade to statehood. And this is causing friction between the Bodos and Koch-Rajbongshis who are almost equal numerically.
Manik’s village Bamnigaon was in Kokrajhar district of Assam. But since 2003, it has come under the administration of Bodoland Territorial Council to make a huge difference.
“But you can feel the divide only in towns where the educated and powerful people stay. Our village has some 500 Koch-Rajbongshi households but we have Bodo, Muslim and Assamese neighbours and we have had no reasons to distrust or hate each other. We know we are inter-dependent,” Manik says.
In the urban areas, he has learnt a big lesson – coexistence depends on what others think of you. “You have to be wary. And as a villager used to trusting his neighbours, it doesn’t come easily. But I hope ours is a safer place so that I can go home as often as I like to, not wait for this bandh or blockage to get over,” he says.