By Utpal Borpujari
Recently, there was a three-day festival, the Northeast Junction, organised by web portal assamtimes.org at the capital’s Dilli Haat. Sometime back, the newly-formed Northeast cell of Hindu College had organised a Northeast cultural and food festival to encouraging response. A couple of years ago, the capital’s people got a sampling of Assam’s famed Bhramyoman theatres in the form of three nights of performance by Kohinoor Theatre, with many non-Assamese theatre enthusiasts in attendance. Screenings of films from the region attract a sizeable non-Northeastern crowd if the event is publicised well, as we had seen when the Assam Film (Finance & Development) Corporation had organised a festival of award-winning films from Assam a couple of years ago at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium. Jakoi in Assam Bhawan is one of the most written-about ethnic food restaurants in the capital, and others like Delicacy at Assam House, Nagaland’s Kitchen at Green Park Market, Bahi at Gurgaon, Kaziranga (for Assamese cuisine) and Bamboo Hut (Naga cuisine) in the Delhi University area in north Delhi are some of the outlets where people of Delhi are getting introduced to culinary delights from the Northeast, slowly but surely. This is apart from the state food stalls at Dilli Haat, which also offer reasonably good cuisine.
The point I am trying to make is that the best way to introduce a culture to another community is through its performing arts and food. Communities from the Northeast, and ministries like Doner and home should use their funds earmarked for such purposes in organising more and more events related to the Northeast in various parts of the country. This is an age where if anything is marketed well, it sells. So why not package the Northeast — as a geographic entity as well as individual states — in various formats and promote it aggressively in various parts of the country, not just in metros and big cities, but also in smaller towns? I am sure everyone will agree that this will help in integrating the Northeast with the rest of the country, more so when there is so much misconception about the region outside it.
Failure of politicians
More than blaming Delhi, as is the tendency amongst the media and various organisations in the Northeast, the major share of the blame for the region still being so unknown has to lie with our own political leaders over the years. If we know so much about a Kerala or a Rajasthan, it is because the political class, despite their usual politicking, has had the vision to develop policy that has made these states so visible internationally in various spheres. But when it comes to the Northeast, no one outside knows our history, culture, literary traditions, culinary delights…the list can go on and on. If our politicians had the foresight to do a little bit for the region, the Northeast surely would not have been the blind spot for others as it is now. Our politicians barely see the larger picture in this context, and are content with raising the pitch only when there are incidents like the recent ones.
This is one aspect that can supplement ideas explored in the education and advocacy heads mentioned before. Schools, colleges and universities across India can be encouraged, with the Central government coordinating on this with various states, to have educational tours to the region’s states on a regular basis. Village and home stays, meetings with our region’s writers, performing artistes, tours to places of historical and cultural interest, interactions with peer groups in local educational institutions can be part of this. Living with people and sharing one another’s experiences are the best process to develop understanding, and such an initiative can work wonders in the long run.
Before one thinks of trying to sensitise the common people about the Northeast, the focus should be on sensitising those in various government departments, particularly police personnel. We all know how during the recent BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) summit in Delhi, while in their effort to curtail protests by Tibetans against the Chinese President, Delhi Police had harassed a whole lot of Northeasterners just because of the way they look. Earlier, in 2007, Delhi Police had brought out an obnoxious advisory for Northeastern students, advising them not to eat ‘smelly’ food and avoid dressing in certain ways. I won’t doubt the positive intention of whoever had formulated that advisory, but the fact is that the way the whole thing was written was condescending towards the food and sartorial habits of peoples from the region. Certain food items — especially those fermented — do smell, but if one can have no problem with a smelly European cheese, then what’s the problem with Nagaland’s akhuni (fermented beans) or Manipur’s dry fish? India is a nation of a thousand cultures, and just because one section does not eat something or finds someone’s food smelly, it can never be a point of objection for the former if we really call ourselves a land of diversity. If one stops being oneself just to ‘fit into’ a milieu, as a bright, young politician from Assam had virtually suggested in a Facebook exchange of opinions with me following the NEIim survey, only the majoritarian views would persist and opinions and lifestyles of smaller communities would no longer matter. Bureaucrats and policemen, especially in metropolitan cities having sizeable Northeastern population, and armymen sent on postings to the Northeast must be given basic courses about the diversity and complexities of the region so that they have some understanding about why the people from the region feel alienated from the rest of the country. I am sure this will lead to much better handling of many situations.
These are but a few ideas that could work towards removing some of the misconceptions about the Northeast and its peoples in the rest of India. There could be many more if there is a serious brainstorming about long-term solutions to the issue. But while doing that, we the people of Northeast also have to look within. How much do we know about ourselves even after 65 years of independence? Does an Assamese know Manipur’s history or vice versa? Does the average Assamese, traditionally, not have a massive superiority complex over a Naga or an Arunachali? Do the media of our region not take a strong jingoistic stance when it comes to reporting inter-state border disputes? Aggressive and even provocative headlines are a common practice by the Assamese media following any development regarding disputed areas along the state’s borders with Nagaland or Arunachal Pradesh. How many of us visit one another’s states as tourists? Questions like these are uncomfortable, but important.
The NEIim study found that among the respondents, 87% working professionals cannot name all the states of the Northeast, but the fact is that most of them would not also be able to name all the states of India. Of those surveyed, 91% have no knowledge about the Northeast Industrial Policy, but I can bet they would be equally in the dark about industrial policies in most of the other states. So these, according to me, are not really important findings, and were only expected. What is more important is that 52% of the respondents have a negative perception about the region. Frankly speaking, if the figure had gone up as high as 90%, I would not have been surprised. But the fact that 48% of the respondents do not have a negative perception is really interesting, given the information gap relating to the region. It is important that we build upon this and change the image of the Northeast. For this, the governments of the region and the Centre, social organisations, community organisations both within and outside the region, and common people would have to work together, both at institutional and individual levels. Let’s do it. When boys and girls from the region are shining in the service, media and entertainment industries, apart from sports, let’s adopt an aggressive but positive strategy to tell the world that we look different, dress different and eat different, but we are no less Indian than anyone else. If we succeed in doing that, we won’t have Mizoram chief minister Lalthanhawla being asked to show his passport in a Mumbai hotel, or sometimes get ‘complimented’ — like I was by a journalist colleague in PTI in the mid-1990s, for “not looking like one from the Northeast”!
Meanwhile, we can hopefully chalk out and implement an action plan incorporating the above and other such interesting ideas to narrow the information gap vis-à-vis the Northeast. Let’s at least start off with a strong campaign — and I urge all the eight state governments of the region to unitedly make a pitch for this — to banish the derogatory term ‘chinki’, just as the words ‘chamar’ have been made unlawful in India and ‘negro’ in the United States.
(published in Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, 17-05-2012)