Who needs those minimum rights anyway?
Bijoy Sankar Saikia
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y heart goes out to the people of Assam,” Thus spoke Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a speech on All India Radio during the Sino-Indian war of 1962. The speech, we won’t know what the tone was, even today reverberates with mainland India’s utter lack of concern for its own people on the eastern frontier and the resolve to stand by them when the Chinese had overrun the Indian forces.
At the height of the insurgency wave that swept the region till about a decade back, you would invariably come across a reference or two to these words of Nehru in speeches and newspaper articles that talked of neglect and isolation of the region and rooted for the idea of self-determination for various ethnic groups in the Northeast.Fifty-two years later, when Nehru’s grandson Rahul Gandhi says, “The Centre is working towards giving certain minimum rights and security to the people of the region who are now settled all over India,” it sounds like having a similar tenor.
Trying to interpret Nehru’s words, historian Ramachandra Guha once said: “One might also see it as an expression of concern, behind which lay affection and even love. His heart went out to the Assamese, because with the flight of the Indian Army, they were at the mercy of an unknown and most likely unforgiving enemy.”
Guha goes on to say, “In any case, it is 45 years since Nehru made those remarks. Even if his words were carelessly chosen, must we still be stuck with them?”
We mustn’t. Northeast should forget that.
But unfortunately, political leaders of mainland India won’t allow you to. The question is why do the people of Northeast need any special “right”, minimum or maximum, to roam around or live anywhere in their own country? What are these minimum rights anyway? If Northeast people need any minimum right to live in Delhi or Bangalore, would people from those cities and states also require similar “minimum rights” to come to Northeast?
Let’s admit it, the rest of India has a mindset problem when it comes to dealing with the Northeast. The reverse is true too, but mainly in the spheres of livelihood, cultural identity and land. But when it comes to our politicians, bureaucrats and policy planners, their attitude gives you a sense as if mainland India’s linkages with the Seven Sisters is some sort of a stop-gap arrangement, never destined to be permanent.
The Nido Tanias of our times are victims of this mindset, irrespective of which committee and which enquiry said or found what. You can’t develop fellow feeling and brotherhood but breed jealousy and enmity as long as the nation’s policies and policymakers keep treating the Northeast as a special case. That’s the first point.
Secondly, Northeast people have over the years developed a habit of claiming victimhood far too often. It is a fact that they tend to follow a ghetto culture when outside, refusing to assimilate easily, thus leaving themselves isolated in the crowd, a symptom again born out of years of mollycoddling they have received at the hands of mainland India.
Third, the unrestrictive culture and westernised habits that peoples of the Northeast have grown up with and follow make them a subject of envy in the stratified, conservative and sexually-repressed societies of the rest of India. It’s important that Northeast people become sensitive towards the peoples of the places they come to live in, much like they expect people from the rest of India to respect their ethos and cultures when they go over.
Fourth, the affront or hostility that students and youth from the Northeast are facing in other parts of India has a lot to do with their success in grabbing those opportunities in new-economy industries. Their informal approach, lack of inhibition, missionary school education and, more importantly, the urge to experiment with new things make them the first choice in vocations like hospitality and travel. Employment opportunity is a sensitive issue, not a problem specific to the Northeast people alone. Australians feel insecured when Indians go and grab their jobs; Obama administration plans visa curbs to stall immigrants stealing theirs; MNS threatens to chase away North Indians distributing tiffin boxes and selling pan masala on Mumbai roadsides and Biharis get beaten up in Guwahati and Kohima when they set up tea stalls and have their businesses going. People of the Northeast require that extra smartness to not just succeed but also survive. A law or policy guaranteeing the so-called “minimum rights” may ensure you a job, but not peace of mind.
Fifth, distance is an issue that leaves Northeast folks living elsewhere in India at the mercy of the locals. In times of airline connectivity and mobile phones, this distance is largely of mind rather than being physical. To make the rest of India feel closer, the Northeast needs to be seen and felt more and more in those cities and towns culturally, ethnically and etymologically. A Bangalorean or a Delhiite will love Northeast people more and more if he discovers a musician, a momo shop or a travel spot there that he can grow fond of or relate to.
Last but not the least, the rest of India has no reason to feel any belongingness for the region as long as they know it would mean little or nothing for them if this area didn’t exist. Policymakers breaking their brains to frame those policies guaranteeing “minimum rights” to the Northeast people would do well to try and help the region contribute economically to the nation by being a doorway to the boundless opportunities in East Asia and by converting it into a tourist paradise like Kashmir, so much so that your heart will ache even in Chennai when an enemy dares ogling at the scenic Seven Sisters.