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Mainstream, VOL LII No 9, February 22, 2014

Who is an Indian?

Saturday 22 February 2014

by Biswajit Roy

Nido Tania reminds me of Bir Nilmani Singh

I did not know Nido, the teenaged student from Arunachal Pradesh in Delhi who died following a racist, parochial attack by some locals, presumably, north Indian men. He paid the price for protesting their taunts about his ‘mongoloid’ look and punk hairstyle. I met Singh, a Meitei elder from Manipur who had joined the Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose in his youth. Both are from the country’s North-East region, one of the volatile margins of the ‘nation’ other than Kashmir. Young Tania’s death once again exposed the hollowness of the inclusive nationalism of official, mainland India and betrayal of faith and hopes that Singh and his generation had reposed in the Indian Tricolour and the nationalist imagination of postcolonial Indian identity. Today their Indianness is being questioned at every other corner of the National Capital Region. Police callousness and insensitivity in dealing with the hate crimes only reflect the general psyche. On the other hand, mainlanders are considered ‘outsiders’ and called ‘Indians’ in some parts of the North-East. Public adulation for one Mary Kom cannot overcome the mutual mistrust and alienation.

I met the INA veteran as a journalist at Moirang in Manipur close to the Indo-Myanmar border two decades back. The occasion was an assembly of INA veterans who had come to pay respect to Bose, their former supreme commander, at the INA memorial there. In 1944, the INA along with the Japanese forces breached the British defence line and unfurled the national tricolour at Moirang on their way to Imphal. An imposing statue of Bose stands in front of the memorial museum. But the irony of history struck me when I noticed the heavily armed column of the Indian Army that had been deployed opposite the memorial to protect the statue and the museum from the attacks of militant secessionist groups. Extra precaution was taken because Bose’s statue had been defaced before the function.

Tragedy of the Tricolour

As the INA veterans from all over the world saluted the iconic statue and relived the history with choked voices, tears rolled down the wrinkled cheeks of Singh. Speaking to the frail-bodied man, I felt like facing the epitome of tragedy of the tricolour which he and many of his Meitei, Naga and Kuki friends had held high in their youth but which was now hated or ignored by a good section of their children or grandchildren. “Don’t ask me why our children now hate to be called Indians or consider the tricolour as the symbol of their subjugation. Ask the leaders who rule from Delhi,’’ the Meitei elder told me. The anguish in his voice was unmistakable.

Recalling his fond memories of Bengali delicacies during his fugitive years as an Indian freedom fighter in the then French enclave of Chandannagore, he took me to his ancestral home where the INA was said to have founded its brigade headquarters. In his accented Bengali, he insisted that Bose himself had come to his place. He reminded that the father of later-day Naga separatism, A.Z. Phizo, was also an INA veteran. Singh himself later became a convert to the cause of the legendary Manipuri Communist leader, Hijam Irabot Singh, who dreamt of an independent republic of Manipur within an USSR-type India.

I came across the further disjunction between the Indian mainstream nationalism and the ‘sub-nationalisms’ or regionalism at its periphery when I visited the Kangla palace at the heart of Manipur’s capital town, Imphal. The palace not only represents the history and culture of the Meiteis, their links with the land of Mahabharata but also clashes with the children of the Kauravas and Pandavas to this day. Bhavrubahana, the offspring of the romance between the Manipuri princess Chitrangada and Arjuna, the wandering third Pandava of the epic Mahabharata, is believed to be the mythological progenitor of the Meitai royal family. The cultural meaning of the romance between the Centre and the margin of ancient Indian civilisations, immortalised by Tagore in his dance-drama, Chitrangada, may be explained in terms of ‘Sanskritisation’ of North-East India. The process of Hinduisation became more popular after the royal family converted to the Vaisnavism of Sri Chaitanya in Bengal and Bangla became the court script.

But Kangla, having a major Meitei religious shrine inside it as well as the abode of the royal family that fought against Burmese and British aggressions, has been central to the Meitei history, both spiritual and temporal and ethnic identity. Social historians and culture theorists have underlined the political significance of the mythologies, metaphors and memories—the role of the past in the making of the present ‘self’, both collective and individual. Kangla is one of its best reminders in postcolonial India. The palace has been wedded to the history of Indian as well as Manipuri freedom struggle against the colonial and postcolonial regimes in Delhi. Manipuri prince Bir Tikendrajit Singh and his Minister, General Thangal, went to the gallows in front of the palace after their forces killed the British officials who had led the raid of Manipur by the Silchar-based Assam Rifles contigents. The colonial Army captured Kangla after a gory battle and turned it into a strategic garrison of the Assam Rifles.

India attained freedom but Kangla continued to be the garrison of the same Assam Rifles for long. The Government of India refused to demilitarise Kangla till a few years back despite popular demands on the ground of its strategic importance for the armed forces in their fight against assorted insurgents who want secession from India on the ground of princely Manipur’s nominal independence under British suzerainty. The Central Government officials rejected the local sentiments and movement to restore Kangla to the community describing the demand as ultra-instigated.

But this rejection only helped the advocates of Manipur’s independence who turned it into the rallying point for the campaign against the Indian state and military. Kangla became the ‘epitome of Manipuri subjugation and Indian imperialism’ for new generations of Meitei youth who have been easily drawn to the movement for ethnic revivalism and political separation from India. “How would Bengalis have felt had the Jorasanko Thakurbari been turned into a garrison by the British and continued to be so under the new rulers in Delhi?”—a Manipur university student leader had asked me referring to Tagore’s ancestral home in north Kolkata.

The much-delayed demilitarisation of Kangla could not heal the wound. Instead, the continued army-paramilitary atrocities under the Armed Forces Special Power Act that virtually gives licence to kill and rape with immunity from prosecution have only deepened and festered it. New Delhi neither listened to the moral voice of Irom Sharmila Chanu’s decade-long Gandhian fast against the AFSPA or the cry of naked Meitei mothers who had bared their bodies in public to protest the rape and murder of Thang-sam Monorama. Prime Minister Manmohon Singh, the most high profile among the north Indian carpetbaggers who entered Upper House of Parliament as the North-Eastern represen-tatives, has reneged on his promise to loosen the noose even after a government-appointed committee had recommended so.

After Nido’s death, which was not a one-off incident of hate crimes against the North-Easterners, Singh’s ruling Congress and the main Opposition party, the BJP, joined in condem-nation in the Lok Sabha. Both the Congress’ de facto prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi and his BJP challanger Narendra Modi have made politically correct noises against racism in the run-up to the election. Prodded by Rahul, the Union Home Ministry, has promised some remedial measures that include a separate monitoring cell, sensitisation of the police and the mainlanders’ familiarisation with the North-Eastern people and their culture. Nevertheless, the fact the remains that Delhi’s dealings with the North-East for the last six decades is much to be blamed for the increasing racial attacks on the Capital’s streets.

Idea of India: Rhetoric and Reality

The ‘idea of India’, best expressed in the Nehruvian expression—unity in diversity— despite being superficial in practice, at least resonated the sentiments of the freedom struggle in which peoples from all corners of the subcontinent had participated. The slogan has never been so distant from everyday ethno-religious prejudices, stereotypes and ghettoisation in the Indian cities as it is today. Paradoxically, racial/parochial intolerance and hate crimes are more rampant in cosmopolitan metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. In Delhi, which is also the centre of the Hindi heartland, most intimidated are the ethnic North-Easterners, particularly those with their ‘chipta nak’ (flat nose), narrow eyes and other East Asian physical features, languages and cultural attributes which are different from the heartland hoi polloi and elites. Many of them are Christians by faith enjoying foods that are taboo to both Hindus and Muslims and follow Westernised lifestyle and demeanour.

Often they are mistaken as Nepalese, Chinese and Japanese et al. Treated as foreigners, they are subjected to racial profiling, jokes and taunts, hostility and harassment as well as sexual attacks on the girls who are considered easy prey. The anti-Chinese hatred and suspicion since the 1962 border war, that still feeds on the big media-touted Sinophobia, is likely to be a reason for persecution of their ‘look-alikes’. Despite the fact that people of the eight States of the North-East are hugely heterogeneous in their ethnic origins that include Indo-Burman and Indo-Tibetian races as well as multiplicity of their social-cultural-linguistic and religious traditions, the rest of the country hardly makes any difference among them. The ignorance and indifference is not North-East-specific. Most people in the Hindi heartland and beyond still fail to distinguish among people from the different southern States too.

Despite increasing interactions among Indians from all corners due to internal migrations, rapid urbanisation and better communication, the quintessential Indian profile is still dominated by the image of the upper-caste Hindu males in the Hindi heartland. With their occasional Caucasian features and strong, tall built that remind one of their watered-down ‘Aryan’ bloodline, they consider themselves racially superior than the other Indians and inheritors of the Indo-Aryan civilisation since the days of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. No wonder, they call the heartland as Aryabarta, eulogise caste hierarchy and the purity of Hinduism in the greater Gangetic basin and harp on the region as the social-spiritual as well as historical-temporal centre of the subcontinent. Thanks to the hegemony of Bollywood in popular imagination and cultural mapping, any dissimilarity to the essentially heartland macho man, his language and other cultural attributes has been caricatured in numerous Hindi films.

The Bollywood stereotypes of ‘Madrasis’, ‘Bangalis’, ‘Sardarjis’, ‘Gujubhais’ and Muslims are galore. In contrast, the North-East’s ethnic diversity does not exist in the mental map of Bollywood and its captive audience. Except in the context of the half-a-century old India-China war in the eastern sector and China’s continued demand on former NEFA and now Arunachal Pradesh, the North-East is hardly included in the Bollywood panorama of the Indian people. The only prominent North-Eastern Bollywood actor was yesteryear’s villain, Danny Dangzoppa, from Sikkim.

The Congress’ rhetorical faith in unity in diversity notwithstanding, its long rule has effectively denied the subcontinent’s myriad multiplicities that differ from many other postcolonial nation-states and thus misfits the straitjacket nationalism and unitary state. The Centre’s language and other policies, manipulative as well as coercive practices aimed at suppressing regional identities and aspirations, economic and social-cultural traditions only strengthened the north Indian popular mindset and stereo-types about rest of their compatriots. Also, the Congress-influenced historical narrative of Indian nationalism hardly recognised the contribution of the people and leaders from the nation’s territorial as well as ideological ‘margins’ during the freedom struggle. Today, the government promises to include the contribution of the North-East in the freedom struggle in school textbooks and familiarise mainland students with the culture and people of that region. But that can’t hide the perennial exclusion or indifference.

Hindi-Hindu Heartland = India?

Forget about the rustic rural heartland and larger mainland, how many of educated middle class Indians like us have heard of anti-colonial martyrs and heroes, both men and women, tribals and non-tribals from Assam—Maniram Dewan, Piyoli Baruah, Kushal Kanwar, Laxmi-nath Bezbaruah, Chandraprava Saikiani, Puspalata Das, Rawta Bodo, Kamala Mising, Rupali Aideu et al.? What about Manipuri rebels like Bir Tikendrajit Singh, General Thangal and Paonam Naol Singh and the later generation of H. Irabot Singh? The Naga heroes, Haipou Jadonang, his cousin Rani Guidalu as well as Tirot Singh, Khiang Nag Bah and other tribal leaders from today’s Meghalaya? Did we know Mizo chief Mora and his family and Mismi rebel Tazi Midereu from today’s Arunachal Pradesh? They are among the unsung heroes of the Indian freedom struggle.

Unlike the linear and narrow history of the Congress variety, these local struggles were both aimed at resisting the colonial expansion as well as the preservation of ethno-cultural and political identities depending on the degree of indigenous state-formation and forced inclusion in British India. Naturally they became double-edged swords in the postcolonial scenario when New Delhi imposed its version of nationalism and co-opted some of these local icons like Rani Guidalu but shunned others like the recalcitrant Phizo. On the other hand, increasing groups of secessionists, both armed and non-armed, contested this assimilation in order to fortify their version of history and legitimise their claim-making.

We saw the same contests and selective use of history, myth and memory in adding political spin-fuelled religious and linguistic riots and pogroms in the mainland umpteen times. Hindus and Sikhs shared their angst and agonies against the Muslims in the backdrop of the partition horrors. The crucial and high-profile role of Sikhs in the Indian polity, particularly Army, their contribution in successive Indo-Pak wars have made them epitomes of patriotism and martial valour. But the same Sikhs were vilified across the Hindi heartland in the wake of the Khalistan movement in the 1980s. ‘Operation Bluestar’ at the Golden Temple and the anti-
Sikh riots in 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and killings of Hindu minorities in Punjab increased the Hindu-Sikh fissures. Bigoted history became handy to inflame majoritarian hatred against the Sikhs. So much so that Hindu mobs in UP and Delhi reminded their victims about their forefathers’ ‘betrayal’ of the mutineers in 1857, an allusion to the role of Sikh soldiers and nobles during the first struggle for independence.

Khalistani historians and politicians, on the other hand, insisted on an exclusivist trajectory of Sikh history since the Mughal empire and portrayed leaders of the freedom struggle and their successors as betrayers to Sikh indepen-dence. But at the hindsight, it only highlights the tragedy of the tricolour and the blame mainly goes to the obsessive control freaks at the Centre who feed and, in turn, are fed by the heartland myopia and narcissism.

The Sangh Parivar-led Rightwing Hinduvta forces in the Hindi heartland have vitiated the situation much more since the late eighties. The saffron project, which has been in vogue since L.K. Advani’s rath yatra and the Babri mosque demolition and the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat under Modi, is aimed at essentialising the Indian profile with the Hindu-Hindi identity. It has no room for the North-East with sizable Christian, Buddhist and animist population. Sprinkling of regional icons like Sri Chaitanya and Tagore in Bengal and Shankaradeva and Lachit Barphukan in Assam in pre-poll speeches by Modi is simply electoral populism. The BJP rule in Karnataka has facilitated the proliferation of Hindu chauvinists in the country’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru, while the frenzy of Marathi Hindu bigots from the Shiv Sena stable in the country’s commercial capital, Mumbai, continues. The AAP Law Minister’s recent racist profiling of African women and the party’s refusal to endorse the censure by one of its founding member, Madhu Bhaduri, revealed the rot even among the proponents of radical democracy.

No Regional Identity is Conflict-free

But the North Indian self is not at all homo-geneous or conflict-free. Biharis, despite being the second largest Hindi-speaking people, have been sneered at and denigrated everyday in Delhi and the larger heartland. The word ‘Bihari’ itself has become byword for stupidity and idiocy in mass parlance. Uttarakhand, Chhattisgrah and Jharkhand were born dividing UP, MP and Bihar respectively to satisfy the long-held regional, caste and tribal dissatisfaction. The age-old Hindu upper caste domination has been challenged by politically and socially assertive Dalits and other Scheduled Castes as well as the Other Backward Castes. Old and new political parties have co-opted political and social icons of these lower/backward castes which, in turn, have broadened the Indian identity and profile to some extent. The process has a longer history in the south and parts of west India, particularly Maharastra.

But the pioneers of these social-political churning in the mainland had left the North-East from their vision and imagination mainly because of racial, religious as well as geographical and administrative alienation of this vast hilly and forested region. Most part of it had been beyond the control of ancient Hindu, Sultani and Mughal empires of the mainland. British colonialism succeeded to subdue the region but chose not to include the hill areas in British India while ruling the tribals through semi-autonomous dispensations. Christian missionaries were encouraged to go full steam on evangelical missions the among the hill tribals.

But the North-Eastern identity is also full of ruptures. Intra- and inter-tribal clashes as well as inter-State feuds among the North-East States, most of which have been carved out of Assam, have a long history. These often lead to fratricidal bloodbaths and longstanding hatred even today particularly when demands of independence, Statehood or autonomy in a particular zone overlap with the projected homelands of other contending tribes and communities. The politics of ethnic cleansing of internal and external ‘enemies’ have kept the North-Eastern cauldron boiling. The externals are the ‘Indians’ or the mainlanders, mostly migrant labourers from the Hindi heartland, Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as businessmen, mostly Marwaris, and middle class professionals from Bengal and other States. The rising Assamese middle class first resented the hegemony of the Bengali bhadrolok who, being the first clone of the English rulers, had been the mainstay of lower-rung colonial bureaucracy in the region. Bengali peasants, both Hindu and Muslim, had settled in the fertile Bramhaputra and Barak valley and elsewhere in undivided Assam for centuries.

The colonial and postcolonial demographic politics, horrors of partition, growing tensions among communities over scarce land and jobs, the new generation ‘infiltration’ from Bangladesh and increasing communalisation of the issue turned the ageold neighbours into enemies. The Assam movement could not solve the issues it raised but opened the Pandora’s box more across the region. The underground ULFA, which is fighting for an independent Assam, and likeminded militant groups in the rest of the region mounted hate-campaigns against migrants from the mainland. Myriad votaries of indigenous protectionism, who claimed to be under siege by ‘outsiders’, have been terrorising and attacking the migrants, almost mirroring racial and religious profiling by the north Indians in Delhi. Massacres of poor migrant labourers are not uncommon in Assam, Meghalaya and other States of the North-East in the gory game of renewing or protecting the different ethnic self at the expense of the perceived or real ‘others’.

It is yet to be ascertained whether hate-killing or attacks in both the regions have any connections. The media, sociologists and rights activists in both regions should investigate into the factors behind such violence before another Nido or a nameless migrant labour dies. In the recent past, the Bodo-Muslim riots in lower Assam had triggered Muslim protests in Mumbai and had cascading effects in anti-North-Eastern hate campaigns in Bangaluru and some other parts of south India that led to a massive exodus of the region’s residents to the home States. In the age of social media and internet, bigotry at one corner of the land, indeed the world, spreads the inferno to the other end at the click of a mouse.

The alarming situation puts the onus on sane voices in the mainland as well as in the North-East who care for resolution of conflicts among the hapless people of the land and who are the victims of the horrendous partition and convoluted colonial and post-colonial statecraft. They should condemn the racial/parochial violence both in the mainland and at the ‘margins’ in unequivocal terms and unite in action to prevent such crimes. The larger issues of conflicts over demography, land and job, preservation of regional and tribal identities cannot and should not be wished away. But surely killings of migrants or neighbouring tribes in the North-East are not going to stop Indian expansionism. Rather, it legitimises Army and paramilitary repression and creates public opinion in the mainland for Delhi’s dirty games in the volatile region. Identity politics, despite its historical roots, is not the panacea for the North-East’s ills. On the other hand, varieties of narrow nationalism of the Hindutva hawks and diffident doves of the Congress stock must be opposed on the streets of the heartland since they represent the recipe for the unmaking of India.

The author is a Kolkata-based journalist.