A Twitter war is currently raging on why a region with seven vibrant states each with its rich cultural heritage, a landscape to die for and inhabited by tribes that speak about 238 languages at last count, is being paid scant attention to by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). The NCERT prescribes text books for schools following the Central Board for School Examination (CBSE) pattern.
The genesis for the Twitter war is a comment from a YouTuber, Paras Singh, who termed the former MP and now MLA of Arunachal Pradesh as ‘Chinese’, and even dared to question whether people with ‘Chinese-like’ features and living in close proximity to the Chinese would ever be ‘loyal’ to India.
This bare-faced ignorance by many Indians about their own part of the country is not new. It is a continuing legacy and is exacerbated by the fact that the NCERT also treats the seven states of the far eastern part of the country and the people as an uncomfortable appendage.
In 2017, the NCERT brought out a book – ‘North East India: People, History and Culture’ — but this book is just a supplementary that was probably put together just to appease some hurt sentiments. This supplementary text book is prescribed for Classes 9 to 12, but we all know that when the syllabus is already so heavy and the marking for this supplementary text is inconsequential, many students will skip reading the book.
Why Homogenise the 7 Northeastern States When Each Is Unique?
The people of the seven states have often objected to being clubbed together as ‘Northeast’ because each state is has its own language groups, culture and traditions, and some states have as many as 16 language groups. What happens, for instance, if Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh are all clubbed as ‘North India’ and Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh as ‘Central India’ or Bihar and Bengal as called ‘East India’? And how about Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, being called ‘South India’ and not by their respective names? Would they accept it?
Similarly, why are the states of the far eastern region of the country called ‘North Eastern’ states, thereby homogenising a very heterogeneous group of seven states?
Lack of Representation
Needless to say, the NCERT suffers from an insularity which people living in Delhi have a natural proclivity for. From Delhi, the far eastern periphery of the country seems insignificant, any which way they look at it. But a person looking at Delhi from Shillong or Guwahati finds it an insignificant dot on the map.
The problem is that the seven states hardly have any representation in these important educational bodies and even if they do, they don’t assert themselves sufficiently.
Having been a member of some of these national bodies one finds that fellow-members only respect you if you assert yourself and do not act like a victim needing to be patronised.
Sensitisation Seminars on Northeast India
It is precisely because there is so much ignorance about the seven states in the rest of the country that the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, (C-NES) New Delhi, currently headed by Mr GK Pillai, former Home Secretary, and guided by its founder member and trustee, Sanjoy Hazarika, decided to hold a series of seminars in different metros of the country. This writer was also part of this educational entourage.
We organised these sensitisation seminars in Delhi, Mumbai, Bhopal, Pune et al – with one virtuous intention, and that is to help people in the rest of India understand the rich cultural traditions and the histories of the people of the seven states of this country lumped as ‘Northeast India’.
C-NES later associated itself with the Jamia Millia Islamia for creating a North East study centre there. Since then, many scholars have exhibited a keen desire to understand a part of their country which is omitted, intentionally or otherwise, from mainstream discourses and from the media too.
Why Are Seven States in Northeast Ignored By Media? Do We Even Know They Are Under the Draconian AFSPA?
People in the seven states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram Nagaland, and Tripura — have often felt royally ignored by the mainstream media which pays undue attention to India’s western states, particularly Kashmir. What happens in Kashmir always manages to send jitters down India’s spine, but the seven states are engaged intermittently when the militant outfits in any one state get belligerent and there is need to quash the violence.
The Centre has used the military in Nagaland, Mizoram Manipur, Tripura and Assam in counter-insurgency warfare. In fact, these states have a strong military presence and continue to be under the influence of black laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), where the military and para-military are given free rein to shoot and kill a person on suspicion of him being a militant.
AFSPA gives the military blanket powers to kill with impunity. The AFSPA is modelled on the Rowlatt Act of 1919 passed by the British to contain any rebellion by Indians against British rule. The Rowlatt Act empowered the State to arrest any person without trial and to try them without a jury. The seven states have made common cause and moved the Centre several times to seek revocation of the AFSPA but to no avail. So, the seven states and Kashmir are the only ones that continue to live under AFSPA. Perhaps, many Indians are not aware of this.
How People from 7 Northeast States Are Made to Feel Guilty For Not Looking ‘Indian Enough’
The people of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura and the first settlers of Assam — the Bodos — are of Tibeto-Burman origin, hence, their facial features. The Ahoms who came in from Siam, now called Thailand, occupied Assam. The Khasis and Jaintias of Meghalaya are known to have migrated from Cambodia, while the Garos — also of Meghalaya — are also Tibeto-Burmans. The Khasi, Jaintia and Garo people practise a matrilineal form of descent and inheritance. This in itself is a rich legacy that needs a lot of study and research as to how matriliny continues to survive despite being surrounded by patriarchal societies.
While a few Indians are broad-minded enough to accept that there is a part of their country that is bordered by China and whose population have racial features that are not classically Indian, many take broad swipes that are intended to make the people of the seven states feel apologetic for not looking ‘Indian’ or mainstream enough.
It is in this context that recently an ignorant crank Paras Singh, mentioned at the beginning, called the MLA and former MP from Arunachal Pradesh, Ninong Ering, ‘Chinese’ — and even questioned if Arunachal Pradesh was a part of India.
Thankfully, the loudmouth was arrested by the Ludhiana Police and brought to Arunachal Pradesh for questioning. In July 2020, Hema Choudhury, a Mumbai-based animal rights activist, made racial slurs on the Nagas for eating dog meat. She was arrested and brought to Nagaland for questioning and was later very repentant about her choice of words.
The Seven Sister States of Northeast Must Be Treated the Same as a Punjab or a Rajasthan
Funnily the only time that the seven states or one of them gets any attention is when someone brings home an Olympics medal just as Mary Kom, the boxer, has done or when Hima Das, the sprinter, breaks records, and Dipa Karmakar gymnasts her way to victory.
But this is hardly enough to bring this obscure region into the limelight. Its denizens studying and working outside this region continue to be bullied and cat-called for looking the way they do.
Should we be apologetic about this? No, we need to press on and write more for the ‘mainstream’ media and make our voices heard.
The NCERT cannot treat the seven states as a supplement to the map of India. The seven states matter — and the NCERT has to give that same space to Meghalaya or Nagaland that it gives to Punjab or Rajasthan. Period.
(The writer is the Editor of The Shillong Times and former member of NSAB. She can be reached @meipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)