Quest for an Iden­tity

Liv­ing in a melt­ing pot of race, re­li­gions and cul­tures, the in­hab­i­tants of North­east In­dia con­tinue to strug­gle with an iden­tity cri­sis while bat­tling decades of eth­nic con­flict.

Southasia - - Ethnicity & discrimination - By Ta­hera Sa­jid

North­east In­dia con­sists of the seven sis­ter states of Arunachal Pradesh, As­sam, Megha­laya, Ma­nipur, Mi­zo­ram, Na­ga­land and Tripura, as well as parts of North Bengal. This di­verse re­gion has strong eth­nic and cul­tural ties with South­east and East Asia while of­fi­cially be­ing a part of In­dia since 1947. The ma­jor re­li­gions prac­ticed here in­clude Chris­tian­ity, Hin­duism and Is­lam.

North­east In­dia has seen a steady flow of im­mi­grants through­out his­tory, which ac­counts for its eth­nic, lin­guis­tic, cul­tural and re­li­gious di­ver­sity. As Su­bir Bhau­mik points out in ‘Eth­nic­ity, Ide­ol­ogy and Re­li­gion: Sep­a­ratist Move­ments in In­dia’s North­east,’ Ben­gali and As­samese speak­ers dom­i­nate the re­gion. Sta­tis­tics show that lin­guis­tic ma­jor­ity has also been in­flu­enced by po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions. For ex­am­ple, in As­sam the mi­grant Mus­lims of Ben­gali ori­gin reg­is­tered as As­samese speak­ers be­tween 1947 and 1982 in or­der to as­sim­i­late into the larger com­mu­nity. How­ever, fol­low­ing the 1983 ri­ots, many of these Mus­lims be­gan to reg­is­ter as Ben­gali speak­ers thus chang­ing the sta­tis­tics on the num­ber of As­samese speak­ers in the 1991 and 2001 Cen­sus.

There are three main groups in­hab­it­ing the North­east re­gion that have con­stantly been at odds with each other: the As­samese, the Ben­galis and the tribal com­mu­ni­ties. His­tor­i­cally, mi­gra­tion to­wards the re­gion was di­rected from East Asian coun­tries like Ti­bet, Burma and Thai­land. The 1947 Par­ti­tion led to an in­flux of Ben­gali Hindu and Mus­lim refugees. De­mo­graphic change and the tip­ping of eth­nic bal­ance when ac­cel­er­ated by po­lit­i­cal ma­neu­ver­ing led to a feel­ing of dis­crim­i­na­tion and de­pri­va­tion that slowly es­tab­lished it­self, lead­ing to decade long eth­nic vi­o­lence thus up­root­ing fam­i­lies and claim­ing lives.

Over the years, this dis­crim­i­na­tion has im­mensely ag­gra­vated and has led to ac­cu­sa­tions of changed po­lit­i­cal loy­al­ties of the As­samese to­wards the In­dian govern­ment. An at­ti­tude of dis­trust has sus­tained in the minds of some politi­cians and pol­i­cy­mak­ers and has pre­vented im­ple­men­ta­tion of poli­cies for so­cial up­lift­ing and ef­fec­tive con­flict man­age­ment. Con­ve­niently ig­nored by politi­cians is the fact that his­tor­i­cal dif­fer­ences and the re­sult­ing con­flict orig­i­nated from Colo­nial era dis­crim­i­na­tory treat­ment of As­samese; a prac­tice that has con­tin­ued due to mis­man­age­ment by the govern­ment and ex­ploita­tion by po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

Economists and pol­i­cy­mak­ers high­light sev­eral rea­sons to be the cause of con­flict in this re­gion. One of them is the re­gion’s geo­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion as a poorly in­te­grated re­mote cor­ner of the coun­try. As­sam is land­locked by Bangladesh, Bhutan and Ti-

bet and con­nected to In­dia through a nar­row cor­ri­dor in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal poli­cies of the In­dian govern­ment have also been blamed in sup­press­ing con­flict rather than con­trol­ling and un­der­stand­ing it. Dr. Shakun­tala Bora of Gauhati Univer­sity iden­ti­fies the rea­sons for the iden­tity cri­sis of eth­nic groups in As­sam that in­clude aware­ness of be­ing dif­fer­ent from the ma­jor­ity group, a sense of be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against and a strong de­sire for a sig­nif­i­cant share in po­lit­i­cal power – all of which are le­git­i­mate con­cerns for self-as­ser­tion. Dov Ronen, af­fil­i­ated with Har­vard Univer­sity’s Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs, also sug­gests that eth­nic na­tion­al­ism is just an ex­pres­sion of self de­ter­mi­na­tion and “eth­nic­ity is politi­cized into the eth­nic fac­tor when an eth­nic group is in con­flict with the po­lit­i­cal elite over such is­sues as the use of lim­ited re­sources or the al­lo­ca­tion of ben­e­fits.”

The North­east­ern­ers also suf­fer dis­crim­i­na­tion due to their phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. Racially, con­sid­ered to be closer to South­east Asia they have trou­ble fit­ting in and be­ing ac­cepted by the larger In­dian pop­u­la­tion. This dis­crim­i­na­tion has re­sulted in a steady in­crease of traf­fick­ing and sex­ual ex­ploita­tion of women. A 2011 study con­ducted by Madhu Chan­dra of North-east Sup­port Cen­ter and Helpline (NESCH) de­scribes this trend as “a re­flec­tion of In­dia’s caste prac­tices and so­cial sys­tem as the ma­jor­ity of North-east In­di­ans come from Sched- uled Castes and Tribes and eth­ni­cally Mon­goloid race, which falls out of caste hi­er­ar­chy.”

Though the In­dian con­sti­tu­tion pro­tects rights of mi­nori­ties, there has been lit­tle pro­tec­tion from hate crimes and sex­ual ex­ploita­tion. North­east­ern­ers work­ing or study­ing in Delhi have com­plained of hav­ing lit­tle sup­port from the po­lice or le­gal sys­tem. Hence, most cases go un­re­ported. Even when re­ported, such cases are of­ten de­nied FIRS or are de­layed by the po­lice and courts. Ac­cord­ing to the NESCH, of the cases stud­ied less than half were taken up by the po­lice, out of which only 1% ac­tu­ally made it to court. Deroga­tory terms are also in com­mon use for re­fer­ring to North-

Such dis­crim­i­na­tory be­hav­ior of­ten fu­els anger and a sense of de­pri­va­tion in the in­hab­i­tants of this re­gion and con­trib­utes to so­cio-po­lit­i­cal un­rest and com­mu­nal vi­o­lence.

east­ern men and women. To add to their mis­ery, North­east In­di­ans face iden­tity cri­sis not only in their own coun­try but also in Bhutan, Nepal, China and Myan­mar where they are frowned upon due to their ap­pear­ance and In­dian pass­ports. Such dis­crim­i­na­tory be­hav­ior of­ten fu­els anger and a sense of de­pri­va­tion in the in­hab­i­tants of this re­gion and con­trib­utes to so­cio-po­lit­i­cal un­rest and com­mu­nal vi­o­lence. It is no won­der then that the North­east has been In­dia’s most in­sur­gency-af­fected re­gion.

A cri­sis in multi-cul­tural, mul­ti­eth­nic and multi-re­li­gious so­ci­eties may re­sult from sup­pres­sion or ex­ploita­tion of any group. To pre­vent it from blow­ing into a full-fledged con­flict, we need poli­cies that pre­vent po­lar­iza­tion and en­cour­age in­te­gra­tion. Politi­ciza­tion of eth­nic­ity rapidly trans­forms into eth­nic con­flict. With­out ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion the sit­u­a­tion can only lead to in­sur­gency and mil­i­tancy as ob­served in North­east In­dia for the last many decades.

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