National Interest: We, the ignorant
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The first two came as Hindi cinema responded joyfully to Manipuri boxer Mary Kom's success. No surprise that Shahid Kapoor, while hailing her as India's "million dollar baby" called her "Maricom" as if she was some latest internet-mobile phone product rhyming with telecom he is endorsing, and kept the twitterati amused and indignant for a day. Then someone much older, enormously better read and cerebral, Amitabh Bachchan, said she hailed from Assam, only to correct it later. And finally, a little exchange I had with a genuinely well-meaning former civil servant (with long and distinguished service in the Northeast) on a TV show on whether Mary Kom's success would change our perceptions of the Northeast. He wasn't happy that so many boys and girls from the Northeast, now spreading all over India, were mostly working in our service industries, from restaurants to airlines, to hospitals. Why aren't they doing more important jobs?
Each one underlines to us some aspect of the ignorance, insensitivity and patronising "mainstream" attitudes that we retain about the Northeast. You can understand Shahid Kapoor not being able to spell his favourite boxer's name. He probably has no time to read the sports pages in the newspapers, or go beyond the glamour supplements. Mary Kom, I'd suspect, can spell better than him, and definitely can teach him a real thing or two about boxing. But Senior Bachchan? You can understand someone of an older generation (including mine) confusing a Naga, Mizo, Khasi or Garo for being an Assamese — Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya were districts in old Assam. But Manipur?
It is one of the oldest and most distinct states in India and has never been part of any other state. Its demographics can, however, be confusing. Its largest and most distinct ethnic group are the Meiteis of the plains, most of whom are Vaishnavite Hindus and non-tribal. They have given us many stars in weightlifting (Kunjarani Devi), boxing (Dingko Singh, Suranjoy Singh, Devendro Singh), archery (Bombayla Devi) and, not to forget, hockey (Thoiba Singh). Manipur's hills are inhabited by diverse tribes and many of the conflicts that arise there, including the recent blockades, are because of inter-tribal tensions, compounded by lousy and corrupt governance. Even when I first went to Imphal as a reporter in January 1981, the state was often described as "Moneypour" for its leaky and corrupt government, large sections of which were hand-in-glove with one or the other of its many insurgent groups. Our northeastern state's demographics can fox anybody. For every tribe that inhabits Manipur's hills, Nagas, Mizos, Kukis and, of course, Mary Kom's Kom (a microscopic tribe of just over 20,000), for example, a larger number live in a neighbouring state or Myanmar. So you can understand the senior AB getting mixed up.
The most important of the three, however, was the civil servant's response — and not because it was lacking in empathy. Both in his lament that young northeasterners were coming to the mainland and finding jobs only (or mainly) in the services sector, and that more effort was needed to "integrate" the Northeast with the rest of India, he highlighted the fact that the establishment elite's view of that region has not essentially changed in the last many decades. It is still a distant and estranged region that needs to be somehow brought into the fold, "Indianised". That stars like Mary Kom would help "us" and "them" in that endeavour. And further, that, it can only change if somehow, people from that region, particularly those with distinctive northeastern features and therefore subjected to truly unfortunate and now criminally illegal racial taunts in our big cities (mainly Delhi), move into workplaces "more important" than the ones they are currently visible at.
It betrays, equally, a lack of understanding of economic mobility — people move into jobs and professions for which they have distinctive skill advantage. And also the added strength of work ethic, dignity of labour and casteless, classless social equality that our tribal societies mostly — and thankfully — still retain. I had my first exposure to this wonderful non-hierarchical view of life in my early travels to the Northeast when I found, to my total surprise, drivers, peons, police escorts all sitting down with the minister and his guests to eat at roadside dhabas. And then, at the Aizawl secretariat, a post-lunch table tennis game between my old friend Fanai Malsawma, then education minister, and his driver. As the driver thrashed Malsawma, he continued to remind him of how slow, lazy and leaden-footed he had become since he was made a minister. And others, mostly drivers and junior employees, sniggered and applauded. Show me a driver in the mainland who will thrash his minister at any game. Or, a minister who will take it in his stride.
It is because of this remarkable tribal approach to life, casteless egalitarianism, dignity of labour, that tens of thousands of our minutest minorities have discovered how indispensable they are to the booming services sector in our big cities. And they bring some of the most remarkably unique talents, besides, indeed, boxing, archery and weightlifting. A majority of singers and musicians at our restaurants and bars, even at Rashtrapati Bhavan at the banquet for Barack Obama, are boys and girls from the Northeast. You cannot go to a restaurant, bar, or spa, fly on an airplane or be laid up at a hospital without finding someone from the Northeast performing a key function. Should we look down on them patronisingly? Can we even afford to? Go ask the owners of these businesses, even security companies, who are now running around the platforms of Bangalore's railway station, pleading with their northeastern employees not to flee. These terrified young people represent the first generation of our northeastern compatriots to venture out, seeking a living and dignity in the mainland. We owe it to them — and to ourselves — to make them feel wanted, respected and secure.
Most of us do not even know how tiny these minorities are. There are just over a million and a half Nagas, less than a million of Mizos and all the tribes in Manipur do not add up to a million (7.4 lakh in the 2001 census). Add to that a million each of Khasis and Garos. Arunachal Pradesh has just about a million tribals. And the Bodos, much in the news for the wrong reasons lately? Just about 15 lakh, scattered over several districts of mostly lower and middle Assam.
Their rising presence and indispensability to our cities speak of their brilliant talent which, in turn, is only matched by our ignorance about them. That ignorance is responsible for our lack of respect for our most distant countrymen, as well as our failure to understand what makes them angry. The latest and the saddest example is our lazy view of the Bodo violence through the prism of our mainland's communal/ electoral politics. Identity, ethnicity, livelihood and survival in the Northeast, including Assam, are very complex issues, fuelled by native peculiarities rather than our classical Hindu-Muslim paradigm. Most Bodos are not even traditional Hindus. Many follow their own indigenous faith, and a sizeable number are now Christian. They are not attacking these settlers because they are Muslim. Nor were the Lalungs, or Tiwas as they are known today (it will be a stretch even now to describe them as Hindus), who killed more than 3,000 in four hours in Nellie in February 1983. It just so happens that the settlers (who the tribes see as alien infiltrators) are Muslim, and Bengali-speaking. But it is better to leave such grave and complex misconceptions about our northeastern citizens for another day. For now, we are struggling to spell their names right, to even figure out where they are coming from. Thirty-one years back, when Arun Shourie sent me to the Northeast as this newspaper's correspondent, the cashier had earnestly asked me in which currency he should be sending my salary. Events of the past 10 days would tell you that we haven't changed very much since.
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