By Nitin Gokhale
New Delhi: For a couple of hours last week, Mizoram Chief Minister Lalthanhawla created a international flutter by supposedly telling an audience in Singapore that even he faced racism within India, giving us all in the media a subject to debate, discuss and deliberate at length.
As it turned out, Lalthanhawla, a veteran Congressman from the north-east, was explaining to the Singapore audience how vast a country India is and how people from diverse races, religions and ethnic backgrounds make up the Indian population! He then went on to relate how he and people like him (small eyes, high cheek bones, fair– of Mongoloid stock) often get mistaken for non-Indians outside the country’s north-east!
Lalthanhawla is bang on.
I remember him telling me, almost a decade ago, how a five-star hotel in Mumbai had asked him for a passport before checking him in. And that too when he was the chief minister! He was surely recalling that kind of treatment to the people from the north-east.
He is not alone of course.
Many north-easterners face similar situations in other parts of India.
Especially, students from the region, who now come out of the north-east in large numbers to study in cities like Delhi, Bangalore and Pune to name just three, often face harassment and in some case discrimination, even now.
The fact is: the rest of India does not care about the north-east region or its people. And the people in rest of the country make no attempt to understand or learn about the distant land.
The level of ignorance is something that needs to be experienced to be believed. In fact, I tell all my relations and friends back in Maharashtra that they know more about Houston or Boston than Kohima or Kokrajhar!
The region’s states which comprise eight per cent of India’s total area and just four per cent of its total population, have understandably remained on the periphery of mainstream India’s sub-conscious.
There’s another objection that I have about others dismissing seven (now eight) states of the region in a flourish by clubbing them together as “those north eastern states.” Anyone who has lived for some length of time in the region will know that each of the state here is different from one another. The problems are peculiar to each state, their strengths and weaknesses vary and yet, right from the MHA down to every two-penny scholar, clubs the states into one convenient zone.
As I see it, the region is trapped in a vicious circle which despite best attempts, no one has been able to break so far.
Let us go back to the partition/ and or Independence of this country. Northern India suffered heavily in terms of lives lost during the turbulent period of partition, but the east and the north-east took a body blow in terms of infrastructure and links to the mainland. In one stroke of his blue pencil, Sir Cyril Radcliffe isolated the region from the rest of India.
As a result, the region’s states are now connected to the main body through a 20km wide Chicken’s neck corridor running through North Bengal. In the days of pre-partition era, residents of Tripura could reach Calcutta overnight. Today it takes a minimum of 60 hours for that journey.
So the first problem is isolation.
Physical isolation aggravated the already existing mental distance. The British, as a deliberate policy followed the dictum of leave-them-alone in splendid segregation. The new rulers in post-independent India refined it further by applying the yardstick out-of-sight-out-of-mind.
The result: armed uprising in many parts of the north-east. The legendary Mizo leader Laldenga once told me in a moment of introspection: “You know if Shillong (which was the capital of composite Assam), had been little more informed and aware of the situation in Lushai hills during those fateful years, we probably would not have had to go into the jungles and taken up arms.”
Laldenga was referring to the famous famine in the Lushai Hills in the early 1960s which was brought about by flowering of the bamboos and the subsequent growth of rodents. The rulers in Shillong simply did not have a clue to the situation in those areas. Lack of attention by the administration forced Laldenga and his comrades in arms to rise in revolt. The point I am trying to make here is: except for the Naga revolt, most of other insurrections in the region, are direct fallout of this neglect of the area by the ruling class both in Delhi and in the region.
That’s the second problem in the north-east: Neglect.
The natural consequence of neglect has led to the third area of concern: insurgency.
Large-scale misuse of central funds has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots resulting in frustration among the youngsters. This frustration has often found expression in the swelling ranks of the militant organisation across the region.
The question is: Why has it happened? There are no clear-cut answers, but endemic corruption and poor management of funds are the two main reasons I can think of immediately. The funding pattern, evolved over the years has given rise to a nouveau riche class comprising mainly of the politicians, a section of bureaucrats and businessmen in the state.
Despite fairly rich natural resources Assam, the region’s biggest state, suffers from the underdevelopment syndrome of low and almost stagnant agricultural deficiency, low rate of capital formation and mounting unemployment. The general underdevelopment has provided the necessary breeding ground for social unrest. This social unrest in turn has translated into insurgency.
According to conservative estimates, there are 20 lakh educated unemployed youths in the region. So far the government has been the main employer. With time however, the jobs in the government are becoming few and far in between. Naturally, with hardly any jobs available outside the government, the youths do not need much encouragement to take to arms since it provides easy money when you have a gun in hand. Insurgency today therefore has become a big business. One educated estimate of the turnover in this ‘industry’ puts the figure at something like Rs. 250 crore annually!
The other big problem is of unabated influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh. A process that began during the British period has today become the biggest bane for the region. Not only have the migrants become economically powerful, they have also developed into a major political force. In the long-run in fact, these migrants, more than the insurgencies in the region, will pose a major security threat to the Indian nation.
In New Delhi’s corridors of power however, very few bother about the north-east and its people. And of course, we, as common citizens elsewhere in the country, continue to look at the north easterners through the prism of prejudice and ignorance, resulting in what Lalthanhwala referred to as “racism in another form.”