The national outrage over the death of 19-year-old Nido Taniam in a suspected racial attack brings back memories of the discrimination I suffered. Twenty-five years ago, as a young journalist, I wrote an article in a Delhi-based daily, Patriot, to highlight the issue of psychological alienation that divides the so-called mainland Indians and the Northeasterners. Today, I wonder if we have made any progress in bridging the gap. The following is an abridged version of the original article:
“Er… in which country would Imphal be?”
The disarming ignorance with which my history professor asked me to clarify my nationality, floored me — that was in 1979, the first day in my college at Chandigarh.
“I am sure he is a Nepali”, a smart alec chipped in, before I could regain my composure.
It hurt me bad, real bad. And brought back scenes of the recent past — my mother crying her heart out for her son going to a “foreign land”, my father’s concern, apprehensive as he was of the unknown awaiting me.
Ten years rolled by, and I have learned to breathe normally in the polluted city. I have learned to pick my way in the maze of building, traffic and people. I have learned to appreciate what the metropolis has to offer — but I haven’t yet learned to project myself as unmistakably Indian. I don’t know what an Indian looks like.
Perhaps my Manipuri brethren and I, who have crossed the nine ranges of hills, travelled 2,000 km and more to the Capital or other states for higher studies, are the ‘sensitive kind’, a volatile indignant lot. Out of the cocoon, perhaps we are edgy, ready to take offence at the first provocation. But I insist too, that if the reaction be sharp to the slightest touch, the touch is on a festering wound.
Back home all those with sharp features, pointed nose, big eyes, hairy arms — are addressed as ‘Mayang’. The term though meaning ‘outsider’, is used in a different connotation, often with the undertone of ‘alien’. And I admit, I crossed the border with much apprehension.
I remember the first three months of my hostel life in Chandigarh — cornered and sneered at by my ‘big-bully brothers’ in the very first week. I remember too, how humiliating it was when they wanted to know if my ‘Nepali’ sister was a prostitute.
How often I’ve had to declare that I am an Indian from the state of Manipur, only to hear them say with disdain: “Junglees!” And it hurt too, to be grouped with other foreigners, in spite of my vehement protests that I was an Indian. The head clerk in college was adamant that ‘chinkies’ were found only in Nepal and Thailand!
Perhaps I felt the discrimination more because of my acute sense of insecurity then. For some years I could never lightly brush off a query like, “Is head-hunting still prevalent in your state?” or, “Heard that your gals are good and sex is free”. With time though, I have come to tolerate them, believing, that along with the coat and tie, we have inherited the contempt for what is native from the British.
It is not without reason that people from Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur feel a strong alienation. Those who reach these states are only businessmen, the poverty-stricken, or officers on deputation. One set is busy exploiting the gullible, one is a recluse earning his daily bread, and the third set grumbles its way through the ‘exile’!
Manipur, literally meaning the ‘land of jewels’, was described as the ‘Switzerland of India’ by Lord Irwin and as the ‘Jewel of India’ by Jawaharlal Nehru. But to many fellow Indians it is a ‘God-forsaken’ place inhabited by hostile tribes with bizarre customs and habits.
Ostensibly innocent queries like “Do you eat snakes and cockroaches?”, with expressions ready to explode into an “Ughh!” expose the prejudice, the real contempt behind the façade of curiosity.
Alright, the head clerk who confuses Manipur with Thailand, the jawan who had a tough time in the jungles of Manipur, the retired couple who wanted to employ me as a cook; let’s say they can be excused for being ignorant of what was ‘not worth knowing for them’. We’ll bear and grin.
But we, people who live in our economically backward states, we hold a grudge against the ‘enlightened’ lot. We admit our states are enfeebled, but we refuse to be treated as ‘handicapped’, an attitude which has turned all the investments of the Centre into an economic-crutch and nothing more.
Notwithstanding the deplorable failure of these state governments, the people of these isolated states continue to look up to the Centre for the fulfilment of their aspirations. They blame the Indian government for its failure to bridge the many gaps. It is this feeling of being left out from the national mainstream that is the single most important factor for the insurgent uprisings in the North-East.
We have to clear up this distrust and contempt for each other — my fear that you scheme to rape the virgin, not win her love. Your prejudice that hostile spears lurk in jungles, supposedly forbidden.
Forget the hostile spears, free-sex, hedonism and cockroaches. They are figments of a prejudiced imagination. We are a hospitable lot. Love is sacred, women are respected and we kill cockroaches for the same reasons you do.
What we wish for is your interest in the rich mosaic of tradition and the cultural patterns of my state, for you to accept the variety with pride--- perhaps even a sense of belonging.
Isn’t it interesting that the Indian National Army of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose first hoisted the national tri-colour on Indian territory — in Manipur? Close to that sacred spot is the beautiful Loktak Lake (the largest fresh-water lake in the North-East), where fishermen live in huts built on floating marshes.
And I am sure the epic of Khamba and Thoibi, all our folklore, literature and history of the days of kings and demigods, will enthral you. You can also witness a game of polo played at its birthplace, Manipur. Or shop for exquisite handloom and handicrafts in Khwairamband market, the largest exclusively women’s market in the country.
And while you appreciate the exotic landscape of Manipur, we can talk of many things of import and pride.
And as you and I begin to understand and share our treasures, you will also appreciate why the people of these isolated states are crying to be recognized as the proud keepers of distinct, rare and beautiful treasures — an important part of the wonderful Indian tapestry.
The writer is currently a Senior Editor with Open magazine