An Assamese surname translates to a Hindi profanity. And for years, students from the north-eastern state, studying or working in Delhi, have been subject to ridicule, and even abuse, over this. So imagine the horrors an Assamese student faces when he arrives in Delhi with a surname Chutiya. The surname, however, is just one small part of the racism that northeasterners face in north India.
But then, this write-up is not about Assam or the northeast. But there is a connection.
The present story is essentially from that part of India beyond the Vindhyas and collectively — often derisively — referred to as South India. All the people in that part are South Indians. Many prefer the word Madrasis, a word which describes the residents of Madras, as Chennai was known as earlier.
Over the past couple of months, Tamil Nadu has dominated the headlines like no other state, starting with former chief minister Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation and death, the debate and controversy over the bull-taming sport Jallikattu and then the political battle between acting chief minister O Panneerselvam and AIADMK leader VK Sasikala.
Dravidian names, truth be told, is alien to most in the rest of the country. And it does not help that we have never tried to pronounce them correctly or even learn what they mean. So it is easy to compare a chief minister with a popular north Indian food and churn out jokes and memes on social media. The shares and retweets prove how clever and funny we can be. And when the sane voices point out that Panneerselvam means ‘rose water’, they are conveniently ignored. Cottage cheese is so much better.
Someone wrote an entire piece on the political crisis, using “South Indian dishes” as metaphors and descriptors. But she did not realise that the tiny, irritating bones of the Hilsa simply cannot be used to describe Mamata Banerjee. Tamils protested against the write-up and pointed out why she was wrong. In fact, they said, you north Indians are always wrong about us. A fellow-journalist, naturally angry, took on the expert.
The turmoil in Tamil Nadu has once again thrust the North-South divide into the spotlight. It’s an ugly debate but it is real, as pointed out by Telugu actor-turned politician Pawan Kalyan who said recently that Delhi-based politicians were unable to grasp the sentiments of the people in southern states.
Many see the Supreme Court ban on Jallikattu — which led to massive protests in Tamil Nadu — as an affront to the state’s culture and heritage and the judiciary’s failure to honour the sentiments of the people. It is the same anger directed at political leaders over alleged attempts to impose Hindi, a language seen as a symbol of North Indian dominance.
South India is angry. The Panneerselvam-Sasikala episode has only deepened it. And it is simply because of an overbearing and condescending attitude of the rest of the country, or a section of it.
It is the same anger many in the northeast have for North Indians, viewed by many as a land of boorish and snobbish people who allegedly look down on all those who are not native to this part of the country.
Names and surnames have a meaning and also a matter of pride for individuals. And TV anchors mess it up all when they cannot pronounce the name of Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal correctly.
By the way, the Hindi word for banana – kela – is an Assamese profanity. You see, it is all about languages. And not the people. Next time you hear Panneerselvam, imagine a rose. And watch this wonderful video.
(Opinions expressed are personal. The writer tweets as @asomputra)