Utpal Borpujari

September 20, 2017

Misinformed comments do Priyanka – and the NE – no good

By Utpal Borpujari


(Published in http://www.hindustantimes.com on Sept 14, 2017; http://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/priyanka-chopra-your-misinformed-comments-about-sikkim-did-a-huge-disservice-to-northeast/story-OdgSqJC3N93AD8FzwTEVJK.html)

Only a couple of days ago, the cleaning lady at one of my fellow Assamese friend’s music studio in Mumbai had asked him where Assam was. The lady is a Tamilian, who has lived in Mumbai for long, and has not gone to school beyond a few classes. My friend jokingly told her, in his Assamese-tinged Hindi, “Jaise aapka Tamil Nadu India ka niche hai, waise hi Assam India ka upar hai”, meaning just as Tamil Nadu is in the south, Assam is in the North – or the Northeast to be more precise.

It’s a fact that a huge number of people still have either no idea about the Northeast region or India, or just have a vague idea about it. And they include not only the unlettered or social-disadvantaged class, but also what we know as educated and socially-aware classes. As a Northeasterner living in Delhi since last 23 years, and having worked in the media all this time, I personally can vouch for the fact that even within the media, the awareness about the Northeast, and its complex issues, is hardly worth anything to write home about.

But it is also a fact that the visibility of and awareness about the region has improved to some extent now, as compared to even, say, ten years ago, thanks to the multitudes of Northeast cultural events, increasing population of people from the region in the NCR and other parts of the country, and also the increasing number of journalists from the region working in the media houses.

From the initial years of anger and outrage that I would feel when someone otherwise “informed” would make a silly observation on the region, now it’s the feeling of more of a pity on such people, as I increasingly feel that the fault lies more in the lack of virtually any information about the region in the primary, secondary and higher education curricula. If we people from the Northeast know about the Chola dynasty or Chhatrapati Shivaji, it’s because we had read about them in our school books, and if people elsewhere do not know about Lachit Barphukan or U Tirot Singh (to give two examples), it’s because they are absent from the school books elsewhere.

But even then, the misinformed comments on Sikkim by UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Assam Tourism Brand Ambassador and “Mary Kom” star Priyanka Chopra – in an interview given at the Toronto International Film Festival while talking about her production “Pahuna” – rankles. An unlettered cleaning lady in Mumbai not knowing about Assam is one thing, and a hugely-popular and talented star like Ms Chopra giving wrong information about a region that she is genuinely trying to connect with (if we go by the latest announcement that she is producing an Assamese film with legendary filmmaker Jahnu Barua, coupled with her production of Sikkimese film “Pahuna”) surely is another.

Ms Chopra is a known name now internationally, thanks to her appearances in television series “Quantico” and Hollywood movie “Baywatch”. She is, as we all know, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. And above all, she is the brand ambassador of one of the Northeastern states. Along with that, she is a top name of Indian cinema. So, anything she says, goes out to a huge audience, through conventional media as well as social media.

Therefore, when she says that Sikkim is an insurgency-hit state, and that “Pahuna” is the first feature film to come out of the state, it is quite natural that many would believe both the statements. The only problem is – as social media have already stated emphatically and angrily – that both statements are incorrect. Quite clearly, Ms Chopra is misinformed, or – as most people tend to do – paint the entire Northeastern region with one brush. It is a fact that for most Indians, the term “Northeast” is used to describe a region that has a history of insurgencies, is full of exotic tribes, and a region that lies beyond the mental boundaries of “mainland” India (though it is a dichotomy that the same “mainland” term is never in terms of India’s two island territories of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep). While it’s a popular coinage, it also works in a strangely negative way – by homogenizing the immense geo-political, social and cultural diversity of the region and its eight states.

But even if one considers this aspect, talking of Sikkim specifically as insurgency affected is far beyond being far fetched. In fact, if there is one state in the Northeast that has stayed free from any such trouble, it’s Sikkim. In fact, it’s one of the most-peaceful states all across India, with an absolutely low crime rate, leave aside insurgency or terrorism. Sikkim actually is mostly talked about for its positive aspects – such as having one of India’s highest per capita incomes, being among the leading states in literacy level, being one of India’s cleanest states, being the first Indian states to be declared Open Defecation Free way back in 2008, and being India’s first – and only one till now – fully organic state.

Sikkim is also a tourism-intensive state, and had led the country in introducing home stays and heli-tourism. A large number of domestic and international tourist visit the peaceful state every year, and Ms Chopra’s comments could hugely impact the tourist inflow as for any lay person, it’s easy to believe a Northeastern state to be insurgency impacted going by the image of the region, especially when it comes from a figure whose comments are quoted widely across media. No wonder, the Sikkim government, along with the people of the state and the region – as well as informed people from across India – has reacted with anger at the comment.

Ms Chopra’s other comment about “Pahuna” being the first film to come out of Sikkim, has also been ridiculed, and rightly so. Sikkim does not have a film industry per se, but films have been made in the state quite regularly. In fact, only this year, Sikkimese film “Ralang Road”, by director Karma Takapa, had its world premiere at the Competition Section of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one of the highly-respected film festivals of the world. The film will also be screened at the forthcoming edition of the MAMI Mumbai International Film Festival. “Acharya” and “Katha” by another young filmmaker, Prashant Rasaily, has also earned acclaim earlier. And these are just three examples from among the films that have been made in Sikkim over the years.

It’s laudable the way a top Bollywood actor like Priyanka Chopra has taken to producing cinema in various Indian languages, including those in languages from states that have very small domestic markets such as Sikkim and Assam, but her comments in the context of “Pahuna” have unnecessarily diminished that effort while belittling the works of the local filmmakers who make films with unimaginably-limited resources.

It’s quite befitting that the actor has tendered her apology to the Government of Sikkim for her comments regarding the state being insurgency affected. Perhaps, she could also issue one more to the filmmakers from Sikkim, whose works have got negated by that interview in Toronto.


May 18, 2012

NEthing, NEwhere: To be a Northeasterner (Part II)

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.

Educational tours

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)


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