Dip Kakati, a Guwahati-based graphic designer, would get cheesed off whenever his “fellow northeasterners” were greeted with “chini alaa re” on the JJ School of Art campus and beyond in Mumbai. “I was probably spared the taunts because of my near-Aryan features, but my accent would often invite a few quips,” says the 1986 JJ graduate.
Things are apparently better today. Monica Basumatary, a 23-year-old executive from western Assam’s Kokrajhar, says, “At least my friends and I did not come across anyone who called us names or gave us the looks.” But at times she did feel an invisible wall between “people who look like us” and “them”.
The wall does exist, says Shillong-based social activist Patricia Mukhim, but the feeling is mutual. For instance, non-Khasis are branded ‘dkhars’ (outsiders) in Meghalaya, non-Mizos are ‘vais’ in Mizoram, the Hindi-speaking often carry the “Dirty Harry” tag, and Bengalis are derided as Bongals in Assam. Worse, northeasterners who band together elsewhere in India often undermine each other back home. There is an Assamese propensity to prefix ‘naga’ to anything extreme — ‘naga jolokia’ for the hottest chili or ‘naga tenga’ for the sourest vegetable.
The Nagas of Nagaland refer to their tribespeople from Manipur as ‘kachcha Naga’ (of inferior descent). At the extreme there have been ethnic bloodbaths such as the Kuki-Naga clashes in Manipur in the 1990s and the Karbi-Dimasa animosity in Assam in 2005.
“We are racist across the country because of the ‘other’ factor, but it is more palpable between the Northeast and the mainland. Call it racism, negative stereotyping or whatever. Maybe it’s the seemingly incompatible cultures, or the inability to understand the minority, or our tendency to think we are always at the receiving end,” says Mukhim. “Being insular, various ethnic groups are suspicious of bigger cultures. It doesn’t help that the rest of India appears to tolerate us as a backward step-sister who needs condescension.”
Assamese scholar Hiren Gohain prefers the term ‘prejudice’ to ‘racism’, which he says is an inheritance from the British. “Leaders of the freedom struggle were more or less free of prejudices, and they assumed the common people to be alike. The educational and cultural media thereafter did not do much to erase this prejudice. The younger generation has learnt to rely more on these prejudices owing to economic pressures.”
Agrees Manas Chaudhuri, editor of The Shillong Times. “Socio-economic stress seems to have undone the racial repair job of not so long ago, and respect for cultures among the young adults is at a discount,” he says. There is also the tendency of dwelling on the Northeast’s negatives, and positives such as greater gender equality and casteless societies are often overlooked, he adds. But then, inter-tribal or tribal-non-tribal divide or animosity between ‘indigenous groups’ and ‘settler communities’ make up for the apparent absence of casteism. An example was the stripping of a 16-year-old Adivasi girl on the streets of Guwahati on November 24 last year.
Up in arms
To some extent, ethnic affinity dictates militancy in the Northeast. Apart from outfits such as Ulfa, most militant groups are tribe-specific. They often resort to ethnic cleansing to “create space” or ensure “larger homogenous population”. “For those adhering to the Northeast’s militant ideologies, an India dominated by Hindi speakers has replaced the colonial British after 1947,” says political analyst Noni Gopal Mahanta. Hence the reluctance of one race to be ruled by another.