Utpal Borpujari

November 12, 2013

NEthing, NEwhere….. AAP in Delhi is a reason for Déjà vu

Filed under: Assam,Eastern Chronicle,Indian Politics,Media,Politics — Utpal Borpujari @ 6:06 pm
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(Published in Eastern Chronicle, http://www.easternchronicle.net, on 27-10-2013)

By Utpal Borpujari

The same day that newspapers carried the information that 11 political parties from Northeast India had joined hands to form a regional grouping called the North-East Regional Political Front at the initiative of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), my neighbourhood in Delhi saw a public meeting by renowned social scientist and now Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav. Yadav was addressing a motley crowd about how the usual political parties like Congress and BJP had failed the people and how AAP was the best and only option to set things right. In fact, the refrain of civil servant-turned-Magsaysay Award-winning social activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP has been that the ‘usual’ political parties are all irreversibly corrupt and only a new idea like AAP can turn the tide in favour of the common man.

Hearing the AAP refrain, and reading about the formation of the North East Progressive Alliance at the same time, gives quite a sense of déjà vu to someone like me, who grew up in Assam during the tumultuous years of early 1980s. If Delhiites are witnessing the birth of a new political party led by men of impeccably clean credentials such as Kejriwal, Yadav and Prashant Bhushan (no matter even if they got separated from others like Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi who did not agree with the idea of converting the now-famous-but-dead people’s movement led by Hazare into a political formation), we, as young, impressionable minds, had seen not only the birth but also an unprecedented straight-from-university-hostels-to-the-State-Assembly march of a young brigade who had captured the imagination of Assam’s people like never before.

AAP is surely not going to achieve success of the scale that the Prafulla Mahanta-Bhrigu Phukan-led AGP had done in 1985. It at best will, going by the present pre-poll surveys, will emerge as a strong third force in Delhi Assembly elections, and play a major spoil sport to both Congress and BJP. Of course, the growth in fortunes of AAP, going by opinion polls held in August and October, if extrapolated, could show that AAP’s rise can even surprise the political pundits by the time the poll results come in on December 8. But then, given that AAP is going to emerge as an important player in its very first election itself, its leaders can have a look at how AGP squandered the immense goodwill of people, and how many of its leaders got mired in one allegation of corruption after another, before it went into oblivion within less than 30 years of its birth.

The formation of AAP is quite similar to that of AGP in that both parties got formed after huge public upheavals (the AASU-Asom Gana Sangram Parishad-led anti-illegal immigration movement was of course a much bigger people’s movement than the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement has been in terms of mass participation, though the latter got immense visibility thanks to the numerous television channels that exist today) over highly-important issues. It is now a historical fact that AGP not only failed in its avowed goal of freeing Assam from illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but its leaders lost all goodwill of the people – one just has to check the election results of recent years, including the recent Guwahati Municipal Corporation elections in which it could win just one ward, to visualize its downward spiral – through their various alleged acts of omissions and commissions. And in recent years, quite a few of its younger leaders have joined other parties, ostensibly disillusioned with the way the party was functioning.

AAP, whether or not it wins the majority in the Delhi elections as it is claiming it will, now has an image that the pre-1985 election AGP had – a pro-people party led by those who had the vision to change the society and whom people believed in. I am pretty sure – you may call it cynical – a few years down the line, once AAP tastes fruits of election results, the party will face the predicament of how its ‘clean’ MLAs (presuming it will win quite a few seats as is being predicted) have turned ‘unclean’, at least some of them. One hopes for the sake of those who will vote for the party’s candidates that it won’t happen, but the history of Indian political firmament shows that there is no party that has not got some of its members embroiled in cases of financial and/or moral corruption. Those who had voted for AGP (I too had as a first-time voter) in 1985 would tell you from experience that the Assamese adage “Lanka loi jieyi jai xiyei Ravan hoi” (whoever goes to Lanka becomes a Ravan) holds quite true when comes to politics. Or else, how would one explain that the student leaders, many of them from poor background, suddenly acquired immense wealth despite having no other sources of income, soon after they became ministers. Of course, now they are reaping as they sowed, having lost all goodwill of the people and ceding much of its space to BJP, which is led in the state by former AGP leader Sarbananda Sonowal.

Of course, given the predictions that AAP will at best emerge as a strong opposition, it faces less of this danger because opposition MLAs have less scope of turning corrupt! And that probably could be the solace for both the party and its supporters. One hopes that having been in the wilderness for so long, AGP’s leadership would turn a new leaf too with the formation of the regional front. It’s now a given fact that in Assam’s politics, AGP is not even among the top three, though political parties with a regional bent of politics are still strongly relevant in many parts of the country. The Northeast needs powerful political parties that can keep the ruling parties on their toes as far as developmental issues are concerned, and that they can do only if they are at least a strong opposition. Perhaps, just like AAP needs to draw a lesson from AGP’s rise and fall, AGP itself needs to do the same at a moment when it’s aspiring to unite the regional forces on Northeast. If you ask me frankly though, I would say fortunes are not going to be on the upswing for AGP unless they first change their fundamental flaws, which need not be elaborated here again. Its regional front leadership notwithstanding. Meanwhile, only time will tell if AAP will be an exception or if it will go the AGP way!

(http://www.easternchronicle.net/index.php?archive=27.10.2013&city=2 – once the page opens, go to Page 7)

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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