I have been living away from home since 1998. I come from Lamka in Manipur. When I was in Manipur, the idea of being a Northeasterner as against being someone from mainland India was not so important; boundaries of different identities were not striking. But when I reached Bangalore in 2005, the situation shocked me. I never pictured situations where I would be made conscious of my identity, of being ‘different’ from the others. The difference was irrelevant to me, but that soon became the mark of my identity.
There were various personal incidents along the way, most of which ceased to matter to me at some point. What was important to me was not the overt ways people resorted to express their dislike towards Northeasterners, but the prejudices attached to people close to me. It is more complex than what would seem to a layman. Someone on the road jeering at me was never important, but what was important were the sly ways in which I had to prove to neighbours, colleagues and friends that I too am an Indian.
In 2012, when the rumours of a backlash against people from the Northeast sent many from the region back home, most of us could not figure out what had triggered the events that followed. Prior to that, there were the Richard Loitram case and the Dana Sangma case, which grabbed a lot of attention. Here were a bunch of minorities looking for jobs and education, posing no threat to anyone, but were made to leave the city they called home.
Many families never came back, and those who did had a hard time. The Alternate Law Forum and the Peace and Solidarity Forum formed by a few of us, set up helplines and worked with the police and lawyers to intervene when people were not given their jobs back.
More than the drama that unfolded, what was disturbing was that even people who were unrelated joined the drama. During those days, I was standing at a paan shop and a young kid came up to me to asked, “How dare you stand here? Aren’t you scared of us? They are sending you chinks away, don’t you know?” That was no miscreant up to some mischief, but an educated kid from the locality.
There was also another incident of a local druggie walking into a paying guest (PG) accommodation and assaulting the warden. And another when a man would stand outside my friend’s PG with his pants down. Then there were many times when my women friends were asked to get out of the auto they were travelling in, in the middle of the night at obscure locations, or asked to quietly pay up more.
I don’t speak Hindi, and I like to do things the way I want to. But, without being asked to, I am compelled to think before I say or do anything.
The pressing question is, whenever there are incidents like these, it throws up a chance for people to talk and analyse the problem. The Northeast is very much a part of the Indian imagination.
Sometimes, jumping to conclusions also dilutes an issue. Every issues is not one of racial discrimination. If an autorickshaw driver is overcharging you, he’s fleecing everyone else too. We must sit and talk; try and find out a solution. If the Arunachali guy was made fun of because of his dyed hair, a Punjabi or a Himachali too could suffer similar harassment.
The problem is in the assumption that yeh kya kar lega. It is in the food I cook, the clothes I wear and the lifestyle I lead. Everything is questioned, and I will be tagged as an outsider ever. If I dress in a certain way, I come with a baggage. But if a Marathi dresses in a particular way, he is just being weird. This systemic problem needs to be addressed.
Independent researcher in Delhi, formerly lecturer in St Joseph College of Arts and Science, Bangalore