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INDIA: Quest for an Identity

Written by Tahera Sajid  •  Features  •  December 2011 PDF Print E-mail
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Living in a melting pot of race, religions and cultures, the inhabitants of Northeast India continue to struggle with an identity crisis while battling decades of ethnic conflict. Such discriminatory behavior often fuels anger and a sense of deprivation in the inhabitants of this region and contributes to socio-political unrest and communal violence.

Northeast India consists of the seven sister states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, as well as parts of North Bengal. This diverse region has strong ethnic and cultural ties with Southeast and East Asia while officially being a part of India since 1947. The major religions practiced here include Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. 

Northeast India has seen a steady flow of immigrants throughout history, which accounts for its ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. As Subir Bhaumik points out in ‘Ethnicity, Ideology and Religion: Separatist Movements in India’s Northeast,’ Bengali and Assamese speakers dominate the region. Statistics show that linguistic majority has also been influenced by political affiliations. For example, in Assam the migrant Muslims of Bengali origin registered as Assamese speakers between 1947 and 1982 in order to assimilate into the larger community. However, following the 1983 riots, many of these Muslims began to register as Bengali speakers thus changing the statistics on the number of Assamese speakers in the 1991 and 2001 Census.

There are three main groups inhabiting the Northeast region that have constantly been at odds with each other: the Assamese, the Bengalis and the tribal communities. Historically, migration towards the region was directed from East Asian countries like Tibet, Burma and Thailand. The 1947 Partition led to an influx of Bengali Hindu and Muslim refugees. Demographic change and the tipping of ethnic balance when accelerated by political maneuvering led to a feeling of discrimination and deprivation that slowly established itself, leading to decade long ethnic violence thus uprooting families and claiming lives.

Over the years, this discrimination has immensely aggravated and has led to accusations of changed political loyalties of the Assamese towards the Indian government. An attitude of distrust has sustained in the minds of some politicians and policymakers and has prevented implementation of policies for social uplifting and effective conflict management. Conveniently ignored by politicians is the fact that historical differences and the resulting conflict originated from Colonial era discriminatory treatment of Assamese; a practice that has continued due to mismanagement by the government and exploitation by political leaders. 

3_2Economists and policymakers highlight several reasons to be the cause of conflict in this region. One of them is the region’s geographical location as a poorly integrated remote corner of the country. Assam is landlocked by Bangladesh, Bhutan and Tibet and connected to India through a narrow corridor in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Economic and political policies of the Indian government have also been blamed in suppressing conflict rather than controlling and understanding it.  Dr. Shakuntala Bora of Gauhati University identifies the reasons for the identity crisis of ethnic groups in Assam that include awareness of being different from the majority group, a sense of being discriminated against and a strong desire for a significant share in political power – all of which are legitimate concerns for self-assertion. Dov Ronen, affiliated with Harvard University’s Centre for International Affairs, also suggests that ethnic nationalism is just an expression of self determination and “ethnicity is politicized into the ethnic factor when an ethnic group is in conflict with the political elite over such issues as the use of limited resources or the allocation of benefits.”

The Northeasterners also suffer discrimination due to their physical appearance. Racially, considered to be closer to Southeast Asia they have trouble fitting in and being accepted by the larger Indian population. This discrimination has resulted in a steady increase of trafficking and sexual exploitation of women. A 2011 study conducted by Madhu Chandra of North-East Support Center and Helpline (NESCH) describes this trend as “a reflection of India’s caste practices and social system as the majority of North-East Indians come from Scheduled Castes and Tribes and ethnically Mongoloid race, which falls out of caste hierarchy.”

Though the Indian constitution protects rights of minorities, there has been little protection from hate crimes and sexual exploitation. Northeasterners working or studying in Delhi have complained of having little support from the police or legal system. Hence, most cases go unreported. Even when reported, such cases are often denied FIRs or are delayed by the police and courts. According to the NESCH, of the cases studied less than half were taken up by the police, out of which only 1% actually made it to court. Derogatory terms are also in common use for referring to Northeastern men and women. To add to their misery, Northeast Indians face identity crisis not only in their own country but also in Bhutan, Nepal, China and Myanmar where they are frowned upon due to their appearance and Indian passports. Such discriminatory behavior often fuels anger and a sense of deprivation in the inhabitants of this region and contributes to socio-political unrest and communal violence. It is no wonder then that the Northeast has been India’s most insurgency-affected region.

A crisis in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies may result from suppression or exploitation of any group. To prevent it from blowing into a full-fledged conflict, we need policies that prevent polarization and encourage integration. Politicization of ethnicity rapidly transforms into ethnic conflict. Without effective solution the situation can only lead to insurgency and militancy as observed in Northeast India for the last many decades.  

Tahera Sajid is a freelance journalist and lives in Massachusetts, USA.  She is a community builder and an active advocate for interfaith relations. 

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