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Mainstream, VOL L, No 38, September 8, 2012

Exodus of the North-East People: Do our Cities Alienate them?

Thursday 13 September 2012, by Ambrose Pinto


Thousands of people from the North-East fleeing our cities in the southern part of India—Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai and other metros, which till recently were considered as very tolerant—with fear and panic, as reported by the mainstream media, raises a number of questions about the lack of tolerance in the cosmopolitanism of our cities. All these cities in the last two decades have acquired the reputation of being global cities with people from across the globe coming here to establish their business or people coming from other parts of the globe for education, tourism and other services. What was appalling was that in spite of assurances of all protection and security by the representatives of the state and civil society, asking them not to leave and stay on in the cities, the people of the North-East quit the places with fear, anxiety and anguish.

However, there has not been much discussion and thought on why they did leave in the public space. If they fled our cities in spite of all promises of security by the state, civil society and non-governmental organisations, there must be reasons. One of the prime reasons perhaps may be that Indian democracy is not multicultural and does not provide space for people to live with their uniqueness and differences. The people of the North-East are unique and different and they need to be treated differently if they have to be integrated into the nation.

Uniform Laws

Any democracy that imposes uniform laws, regulations and culture alienates people who are different. India makes a claim of being multicultural. And yet the decision-makers hardly have respect for multiculturalism. Citizens are asked to follow uniform laws and regulations. The state has imposed a national culture on the people without providing a space for people who are different. The so-called national or state culture is a culture of the dominant groups in the country that excludes the North-East totally and the marginalised communities in the country. Otherwise, how would one explain the passing of the Anti-Cow Slaughter Bill in some of the Indian States while beef is one of the important items on the menu of the people of the North-East? It is equally important that more than 75 per cent of the people of the country—the tribals, the Dalits—along with some minority and discriminated communities, eat beef in this country. One would not be wrong to state that these groups constitute a majority in the country and yet they are subordinated by laws which are against their culture by a dominant minority. While such laws may be looked upon as politically expedient by some political parties, these sound irrational for the people of the North-East who are mostly meatarians, rather than vegetarians.

In fact, some house owners, who had let out their homes to the students of the North-East who had left the place in the recent crisis due to the panic in the city, have said to the newspapers that they would not like to provide accommodation to the students in their premises on their return if they are beef or pork-eaters and they would not like them to cook these food products in their kitchens. What does this mean? Unless and until people from the North-East decide to subordinate themselves to the culture of the households where they live, considered as a part of the national culture, they won’t be provided with accommodation. What sense does this make in a country that professes diversity and pluralism?

Similarly, the debate over the uniform civil code, personal laws of religious communities are sought to be replaced on the lines of the Hindu Code Bill. But all these Bills ignore the differences among communities. Far from being Hindus, the people of the North-East are tribals, different from the mainstream way of life in the country. If there is no tolerance for their ways of life, would they feel that they are a part of the country?

Culturally Different

The culture, the ways of life, the food preferences and norms of life of the North-East people are very different. Though they are citizens of the country, the moment we conceptualise them as Indian citizens with the dominant parameters, we are likely to alienate them. In spite of the slogan of “unity in diversity” what we have attempted to do time and again for the people of different communities is to make them live by the dominant culture to create a state “with unity in uniformity”.
In culturally plural societies not treating all people in a uniform way is to impose the culture of the dominant on them and thus make them internalise that culture. Though India is a multi-cultural state with socially and culturally different communities living here, the law and practice of the country reflect the cultural bias of the majority. The media unfortunately serves the dominant culture and provides legitimacy. While there is a wide coverage to cultural programmes and celebrations of dominant groups in the media, there is hardly any reporting of the celebrations of the seven sisters of the North-East in our national media. Because they are different, they do not exist for the mainstream India. How can otherwise one explain such apathy and indifference?

Right to Property

Take the other example of the right to property. For the tribals of the North-East where the property is common, the insistence on private property is alien. They do not have private property to enjoy the right to property. Unlike in the rest of India, they do not buy and sell land. Land is not a commercial commodity for them. Instead, it is a source of livelihood. Without land, there is no tribal life or tribal culture. On the land they live, they celebrate, they bury their dead, they search for their herbs and roots when they are sick and find their employment there. Precisely due to this, they live and work as members of one community in their fields, not as individuals but as a community. It is a socialist life for each of those tribes there with hardly any beggars on the streets of Kohima, Aizal, Shillong or other cities where the tribals inhabit the place. If there are any beggars in that part of India, they are mostly those who have come there from other parts of the country.
In spite of the richness of that communitarian life, India has not celebrated that culture of community living and sharing. Private property continues to be a valued right in the Constitution while the tribal self-rule law is a recent reluctant amendment to the Constitution. Instead of highlighting a life centred on community with the values of sharing, caring and living, the obsession is to project the values of capitalism, individualism and consumerism for the national media.

Indian versus Tribal

Will the Indian state consider a North-East tribal as an Indian? By features, they are Mongoloids, not Aryans or Dravidians. By food, they are meatarians and not vegetarians. Their dress style is more Western than Indian. As people of different tribes with different dialects, it is English more than Hindi that unites them. As lovers of music, their love is for Western music than Indian. When they sing in different voices, it comes naturally to them and the crowd that listens to them gets into ecstasy. Their dances are different. They bury, not burn, their dead. Their fields are their source of life and living and they do not work in industries and polluted corporations. They are honest and transparent with no desire to rob and steal. One can keep one’s house without lock and yet one is unlikely to have any robbery in the house.

The spirit of community envelops the life of the people. They are egalitarians and are not governed by the norms of hierarchy. Given the fact that everything is so different from what takes place in the Indian mainstream, does India accept them as Indians? Can one be a Naga or a Manipuri or a Mizo and live that life in full in our cities and towns and still be considered an Indian? It is one thing to say that they are Indians but quite different to accept them as Indians. The mainstream Indian ‘psyche’ looks at them very differently. As long as the Indian psyche refuses to define what it means to be an Indian in a plural way and provides a space to every culture and community, the ethnically different groups of the North-East will experience problems when they come to live in our cities.

Why do they Live in Isolation?

When they come into our cities, they create their own ghettos simply because they feel they are different and they are aware they are perceived as different. There is nothing wrong being different. The issue is whether what is different can be accepted as a part of the nation? If we find them living in rented homes together in the cities, apart from the rest, it is because of the support they need as communitarians to feel secure as long as they do not find their security in the place where they have come in search of jobs, studies or business. As long as the local culture does not accept them, they cannot become part of it. With strong traditions and customs, they are unwilling to be assimilated.

In fact, they have not been able to make sense of the local traditions and practices. It makes no sense in their world view to consider a particular animal, bird or plant as sacred without attri-buting reasons. While some kind of meat is permitted to be consumed, the ban on other kinds in the name of religion does not carry any meaning to them. They may like to make sense out of it. But if there is no sense in it, how would they make sense? Their culture of life is more rational than superstitious, more communitarian than individual, more in tune with nature than away from nature.

Alien Culture

India’s mainstream culture is alien to them. Unable to relate to an unknown culture which is insensitive to theirs when they are threatened, they decide to flee. There are no other options. They are aware that they are a minority and perceived as the other by the mainstream. Cities have not understood them and they distrust them. These cities are so different from what they thought those were. They look at them as aliens and as outsiders. Nobody trusts or respects them. The auto rickshaw man charges them additional money because he or she is from the North-East. Those who provide them accommodation ask them to pay higher rentals if they agree to let out a room or two. In certain categories of the city, they are refused accommodation. They do not trust the police and much less the state.

Having been accustomed to failed states in their own regions with the thriving of the underground activities in nexus with the state and the high level of corruption there, they do not have very high regard for politicians and the state in their own places. How would they trust the police and the state here when they see, read and listen to the scams and scandals of the politicians day after day?

Those who live in Bangalore, where the largest exodus took place with more than 30,000 people of the North-East leaving the city, they have seen the police and politicians betraying their people, when innocent young boys and girls were attacked at pubs, birthday parties, parks and other public spaces with support from the state actors. With the alienation in the places they live and the lack of trust in the adminis-trators of the state in spite of promises, there was no way they could stay on in spite of the promises given by the state and civil society. This is really the cause behind their fleeing from the cities.

Lack of Integration

They have been unable to integrate. To integrate, the community must feel that they are accepted as a community and not merely as individuals. The students, professionals and others who are in our cities from the North-East cannot feel integrated into the country if democracy fails to respect diversity. Democracy values diversity unfortunately only at the level of the individual forgetting that all identities are formed in a cultural context. The cultural context of the tribals of the North-East is more communitarian than individual, more egalitarian than hierar-chical, more socialist than capitalist. Ignoring to appreciate or devalue that culture in relation to the national culture which is more hierarchical and individualistic is discriminatory. As long as people in the mainstream do not know how to respect and value diversity and are unable to make a distinction between a culture of individualism and that of a community, the people of the North-East may not feel included.

For years we assumed that equal political rights to citizens would counter the discri-mination people faced on account of differences on the ground of ethnicity. We may have to change our notions. There may be a need to introduce a set of new rights into the rights we already have—the right of people to live as a community with the right to food and culture even in our cities. Any city in India should be able to make provisions for students and people coming from communitarian backgrounds to live as a community with the rights for their food, music, entertainment and dress. At the level of profession, the Indian state may not have problems with rights of this kind. However, at the level of practice, there is no social acceptance. To make an objection to these customs and traditions is to deny the right to existence to these members of the community.

Citizens cannot enjoy rights independent of the context they hail from. With multi-culturalism, plurality, diversity and difference becoming significant terms for theorising citizenship, there is a need to unmask those differences that may have been considered irrelevant earlier. Cultural communities have a right to inherent rights and fair terms of inclusion in the social and political space of our cities. We need to look at our cities as hetero-geneous more than homogeneous and affirm the differences. Mere tolerance is not sufficient. A substantial notion of equality should incorporate a notion of difference. Not recognising the differences is to ignore diversity.

The problem with Indian democracy is that it evaluates and assimilates everyone keeping the culture of the privilege groups as a standard. Those who do not conform to this standard have to either lose their identity or get marked out as the other. To ignore the specificity of indigenous groups is to marginalise them. To include them into our culture what we need is an attitude of “care and nurture”—which people term as “feminist values”—that may have to be universalised.
While democracies are rightly concerned with equality, they may have to place procedures and mechanisms in place which recognise differences. A democratic polity should be representative of the diversity within it. When individuals and groups are included into the nation, not on the terms of the national elite but on the terms of individuals and communities, then there may be a better integration of the communities considered peripheral at the present times.

Dr Ambrose Pinto S.J. is with the St. Joseph’s College Institutions, Bangalore.

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