The Adopted Sisters

We all live with our families. We are a part of our family and have some responsibilities towards it. At the same time, we have certain expectations. But what happens when we feel that those expectations are not being met? What if we feel like an outsider and not loved? What if all these things are not a figment of our imagination, but actually the cold truth?

India is a large country. In this large country, there are some states which are called “north-eastern states”. They are Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Even though they are shown in our political map, do they really form a part of India?

These states comprise of 8% of total India’s size in terms of area. Over 4.5 crore people live in these states, which is 3.77% of India’s population. I used to think that these states are really inspirational as they tick most of the parameters used to judge development of a region. The average sex ratio (number of females per 1000 males) in this region is 950, more than the national average of 940. Literacy rate is 79.64% here, compared to the national average of 74.04%. In fact, Mizoram and Tripura almost top the charts with over 90% literacy rate. In these eight states, 84.08% males are literate, compared to 82.14% in India. At the same time, 74.93% females are literate in this region, compared to 65.46% in India. Even the Infant Mortality Rate is only 32.5, while the national average is 44. Most of these states have more than 60% of their area under forest cover. These states are very important for flora and fauna as extreme biodiversity is found here. There are 51 types of forests in this region alone! This region shares more than 4500 kilometres of international border with China in the north, Myanmar in the east, Bangladesh in the south-west and Bhutan to the north-west.  There are over 220 ethnic groups living here, speaking more than 250 languages. I don’t think you will find such diversity anywhere else in the entire world. These states have given us gems like Mary Kom, Baichung Bhutia, Arnab Goswami, Somdev Devvarman, Bhupen Hazarika, S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman and so on. This zone has vast reserves of natural resources as well. Sounds excellent, right?

I wish I could say it is so simple. These eight states are suffering due to inter-community, communal and inter-ethnic conflicts.  We never get the complete news about this region as there are gross misrepresentations and whatever news seeps out is only one side of the coin. Ethnically, linguistically and culturally, these states are very distinct from the other parts of the country. The lives of locals have been made hell and they are being exploited every day. This region has always been ignored, resulting in zero development in terms of infrastructure and communications. While the rest of India is slowly moving ahead, this region is only taking steps backwards.

The issue of insurgency is a major impediment for development in this region. NCLT, ULFA, NDFB, KLNLF, KLO, UNLF, NSCN, NLFT, ATTF, HALC (I am sure you are not even reading all these names!) etc are only a few of over 500 major insurgent groups active in these states. Most of these groups are armed and their supplies and finances are taken care of by none other than our super-friendly neighbours China, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc. The Naga insurgency, which started in 1950s, is called the mother of all north-eastern insurgencies and is one of the oldest unresolved armed conflicts in the world. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act complicates the matter further. It was applied in Nagaland on 18th August 1958 and later extended to all the other 6 states (other than Sikkim) in 1972. Since then, this region is covered under the act. The problems and conflicts are on the rise against the army and it is now considered an enemy by the locals. The lack of political will to resolve the issues is sandwiching the army which is now battling hard to do the impossible. There are many reports of gross human rights violations and both, the locals and the security forces, are bearing the brunt.

No investments are being made in the region due to the rising conflicts, isolation and militarisation. When I think about all this, I think of a great movie called “Blood Diamond” and realize how its theme is so relevant for this region. There is no social or economic development here, while natives are being oppressed and driven to join the armed struggle against the government.

One of the biggest reasons I think of this problem is generalisation. These eight states vary a lot in terms of language, race, tribes, castes, religions, customs, beliefs, traditions and regional heritage among themselves. To club them under the tag of “north-east” and treat them as one unit is disastrous. When a problem loses its identity, it cannot be solved.  Even the central government has constituted a “Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, North East India” for policy formulation and implementation without realizing that they are eight different states, with separate sets of problems and possible solutions.

What is happening now is that there is great anger among the people living in these areas. They are dissatisfied and feel alienated. The frustration is now visible and our neighbours are waiting to make full use of any opportunity to leave deep scars in the hearts of people. There are at least seven demands for formation of new states and some are even asking for separate nationhood. The Indian sovereignty is at stake and more importantly, our own people are causing this danger. The recent Bodo violence in Assam is only a sign of things to come. In this attack on Muslim and Christian “outsiders” by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songbijit (a group of insurgents from the Bodo community), 78 people were killed and over 350 are still missing and these are government figures. Mass illegal immigration from Bangladesh into Assam has made this region a centre of not only ethnic, but also communal violence.

Coming to the more central locations of India, the bias and hatred against North-eastern people is impossible to ignore. The racial discrimination against the people belonging to North-eastern states hit the headlines after the murder of Nido Tania in Delhi, but we are back to square one. The north-eastern people living in other parts of the country face prejudice, harassment and oppression at every nook and corner. The “problem” is that they are very different from the rest of us in terms of their food preferences, dressing style, lifestyle etc. So, they do not find it easy to mingle with the masses. They are considered “dangerous, ill-mannered, living in stone age era, with a loose character” etc and are made fun of by tags like “Chinese” or “chinkies” etc because of their Mongoloid looks. They face social exclusion and are made to feel like outsiders in their own country.

So, how can we improve this burning situation? I feel the prejudice and bias will go once we know a lot more about these states than we do now. The government should include lessons about these states, their culture, heritage, lifestyles etc in textbooks and more programs on TV should be aired on these topics. The government needs to invest heavily in the north-eastern states, developing them in terms of infrastructure, communications etc. More employment opportunities in the region itself will automatically resolve the insurgency issues as I have never seen an economically and socially settled armed-rebel in my life. Bringing these people in the mainstream should be government’s top priority. A strict anti-racism law might help as well. We, as Indians, must remove all the differentiating notions from our hearts and treat them as our own people, not outsiders. They are not our guests, but as much hosts as we are. They are not different than us. They are us and we are them. What is the point of asking outsiders to visit India by screaming “Padharo Mhare Desh” and “Incredible India” when you cannot welcome your own people?? Moreover, whenever we go out for a vacation, let’s explore the north-east. Going to places like the USA, Switzerland, Thailand etc is expensive and requires a lot of legal formalities. You will find a lot more beautiful and peaceful places to enjoy with your family at 1/10th of the cost in the north-east. There are no security concerns as the insurgents never attack tourists. You will find enchanting forests, hills, lakes, waterfalls, monasteries, different cultures to understand, different people to meet and a world of never ending possibilities. I promise you, you will be left mesmerized!

The North-East is a paradise. It is beautiful and full of wonders. But before anything else, it is India.

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