Paying a High Price for Being From the North-East

If you are from the north-east and decide to visit a museum or a monument in mainstream India, it is likely that your citizenship will be questioned

nagaland-driving licenseSome might recall a news report on July 22 about a Naga student in Pune who visited a museum in the city only to be told that he would have to pay an entry fee reserved for foreigners. Like any Indian citizen would do in such a situation, our young friend from Paren in Nagaland flashed a document issued by a government authority – his driving license – at the ticket counter to prove he was an Indian citizen. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

The problem was in the eyes of the beholder, namely the person at the ticket counter who saw the Naga youth as a foreigner. The eyes of the student, on the other hand, mirrored a touching faith – some would say naivety – that a driving licence would suffice for him to enter a museum as an Indian at the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum. It must have been his first time at a museum or a monument in ‘mainland’ India, else he would have known better.

Experience teaches most youngsters from the north-east that their driving licenses – unlike those of their counterparts from elsewhere in India – have a slim chance of facilitating their entry as Indians even in presumably better managed places like the Taj Mahal. Simply because those manning the gates have decided that Indians can’t have small eyes, high cheek bones and tongues that provide a different texture to Hindi words when they roll consonants and vowels  – that is, unlike ‘mainstream’ India.

Why am I so sure of all this? Because, I’m speaking from experience. The first time, I was lucky. Two decades ago, a security guard at the entry gate of the Taj Mahal suddenly gripped my hand. He would not let me enter with a ticket that was rightfully meant for Indians. The gloating look on his face said it all – he had finally caught an errant foreigner denying India some precious dollars. It was quite a disappointment for him to learn that I was part of a national media team, the operative word being national. I let it pass, forgave him for his ignorance.

Two decades later – three months ago – I was jolted out of my comfort zone yet again when I was subjected to a similar situation, not once but twice. At Fatehpur Sikri I lashed out in Hindi at the ticket checker and demanded to meet his senior (by now I am an aggressive, car-honking Delhiite), expressed outrage and finally flashed my national press card.

I was allowed in but very reluctantly. It occurred to me that there has been no change in mindsets in the two decades that separate these harrowing incidents. This time I did offer the ticket checker some advice: “Zara apne desh ka naksha ek bar yaad kar lena. Is naukri me kaam aayega.” (Get a good look at the map of your country; it will help you in your job.)

Not schooled in diversity

But it is not just the ticket checker at a monument who requires such advice. So do the employees in places like Bangalore international airport. Here I was so confident that I had the necessary document – my passport – to silence all doubting Thomases about my so-called “un-Indian” looks. Even here I ran into an airline executive who kept insisting that I was required to fill an immigration form. Refusing point blank I asked her, “Do you want to see my passport?” She suddenly looked the other way, as if she had not heard me. I moved on.

And yet it is just not possible to ‘move on’.

The question is, how long can someone from the north-eastern region of India keep ‘moving on’ after facing such situations repeatedly? Witness the irony here: A young Indian from the north-east studying in another city, who wants to visit its cultural institutions in the area to explore the pulse of that region and culture, is actually exploring her sense of Indianness. But that simple desire can be converted by a guard or security personnel into a sharp probe questioning her very identity as an Indian! Airports that are supposed to represent modern impulses are equally open to becoming sites of prejudice.

The one response that all of us have in such situations is to question our education system and how it fails to enable a child to know the people of her country, the places they hail from, and the confluences and diversities in the ways of living that they exemplify. Or to inculcate zero tolerance for prejudice of any kind, for prejudice has a long shelf life indeed.

Nevertheless, there are other steps too that can and should be taken on an immediate basis, among them the all-important one of ensuring that the training of personnel working in public places – especially those dealing with the public – must be such that they are aware, and respectful, of the extent and diversity of this country. Be it cultural institutions and monuments or airports, all of them are seen to represent the ‘face’ of the nation as it were, so all the more reason to introduce some correctives.

On the face of it, being routinely mistaken for foreigners may seem a minor issue to many. But look at it another way: How can a government win the confidence of the people from the north-east region if they are routinely made to feel like outsiders and aliens in the rest of India?

What remains to be done

In fact the M.P Bezbaruah committee—constituted in the wake of the killing of 19-year-old Nido Tania at a Delhi market in January 2014—made several recommendations, among which were suggestions to avoid such incidents in public places.

The 78-page report made specific suggestions how to  create awareness and promote understanding between people from the north-east and other parts of India. Though one of the suggestions specifically mentions the Delhi government—the Committee noted the highest number of cases of discrimination and attacks on people from the north-east happened in the Capital—it can actually be implemented in all states. The suggestion is that “It would go a long way if the Delhi Administration could examine the possibility of sensitising public service providers at the grassroots level, CISF personnel and other security personnel in Metro, etc. licensing authorities of various public services and so on.”

When Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced in January this year that his government would implement the Bezbaruah committee recommendations, he did refer to the need for advising universities and the NCERT to enhance the curriculum in a way that it educates students about the north-east and its history. It is an intervention that is needed to effect long-term change.

Singh also mentioned that the Culture, Tourism, and Information and Broadcasting ministries have been advised to conceptualise programmes toward the same end. Though the details of this suggestion indicate that his aim was to focus on immediate measures to create awareness about the region in the rest of India, it remained limited to steps such as organising festivals and film festivals around the theme of the north-east—something that governments in India normally fall back on without making much headway in bridging the gap. Instead, Singh could have focused on the need to train public service personnel.

Now the question is when will that suggestion travel from paper to the ground? Will it ever? Or is it time to issue a perpetual travel advisory to a north-easterner to carry a passport at all times when she moves out of Assam, Nagaland or any of the other five north-eastern states to other parts of India? If that’s the intention, it is time museums and monuments in the rest of India put up boards to that effect. It will save many north-easterners moments of embarrassment, shame and humiliation.