Stereotypes About the Northeast Are Losing Grip, but New Challenges Emerge

The scale and speed of the change astounds those who served in the region before the 1990s and, in fact, even more recent visitors like this author.

The following is an excerpt from Vikas Kumar’s Waiting For a Christmas Gift: Essays on Politics, Elections and Media in Nagaland. Republished with permission from Heritage Publishing House.

The colonial administration placed tribes on a lower civilisational pedestal, which complemented the post-colonial leadership’s understanding of tribes shaped by their experience of caste. This perhaps explains why New Delhi was surprised when it received submissions in English on nationhood and international law written by first-generation literates among the hill tribes of the North East. These were readily attributed to foreign hands and missionaries as they defied the received wisdom about the close correlation between the ability to use English and social hierarchy in the “mainland.”

Vikas Kumar
Waiting For a Christmas Gift: Essays on Politics, Elections and Media in Nagaland
Heritage Publishing House, 2023

The understanding gap persisted and the people of the North East paid a heavy price for decision-making driven by stereotypes. Even as late as the year 2000, there were very few books on the region rendered inaccessible by conflicts and entry barriers. The colonial-era literature still towered above whatever was written later, except for writings of a few bureaucrats and journalists. There were hardly any, say, Nagas writing fiction or even non-fiction. Very few “outsider” academics had worked on the region. This changed dramatically around 2010. The old stereotypes began to lose grip, if not recede, even as they shaped newer stereotypes. Sanjoy Hazarika’s twin books Strangers of the Mist (1994) and Strangers No More (2018) aptly capture the complex nature of this change whose outcome is still uncertain.

A few key aspects of this ongoing change stand out. First, the North East is no longer limited to Assam. Lovlina Borgohain has to compete with Mirabai Chanu for attention. Himanta Biswa Sarma has to contend with Kiren Rijiju in the power corridors. Rijiju is way ahead of Sarma in the social media, with a fan base more than twice Arunachal’s population. 

Second, the encounter between the North East and the mainland is no longer limited to a few individuals such as Bob Khating, T. Ao, Bhupen Hazarika, SC Jamir, Jahnu Barua, PA Sangma and Danny Denzongpa. Today there are literally a million flowers blooming. Tetseo Sisters’ rendering of Dil Diyan Gallan, Lalremsiami’s dribbling, Sunil Chhetri’s goals, Asa Kazingmei’s leather jackets, Deepa Karmakar’s vaults, Robin Hibu’s social engagement, Adil Hussain’s stellar cinematic performances, Easterine Kire’s A Terrible Matriarchy, Kiren Rijiju’s fitness challenges. The list is endless.

Third, unlike the earlier generations that met in a few formal settings, the youth from the North East and other states are now meeting in art galleries, sports grounds, music festivals, kitchens, car rallies, field internships, newsrooms, fashion shows, literature festivals, classrooms, construction sites and sites of protest against the excesses of the state. Social media encounters are mixed, mostly negative but there are positives as well. Students in Bengaluru collected funds on social media for flood relief in the North East, while Temsutula Imsong cleaned up the ghats of Varanasi.

Fourth, the next Sachin Deb Burman will not be mistaken as a Bengali. In another age Dipa Karmakar may have quietly merged with her Bengali cousins rather than foreground her Tripura background. The new generation proudly and effortlessly wears its identity on its sleeves. It no longer heaves a sigh of relief when it is lost in the metropolitan crowd.

Fifth, the North East is now producing leaders in various fields. Mary Kom is peerless in the ring. Lt. Gen. (retd) K. Himalay Singh commanded the Indian Army in the most difficult theatres. Conrad Sangma has stitched together a national political party even as some of the older national parties are struggling to maintain their status. Late Neil Nongkynrih’s Shillong Chamber Choir is known for its excellence in the field of music.

M.C. Mary Kom. Photo: Twitter@MangteC

Last but not the least, the North East is no longer viewed as overflowing with problems waiting for solutions forged elsewhere. Initiatives in the region such as Village Development Boards, Boat Clinics and Hornbill festival are seen as role models. Manipur’s shoestring sports ecosystem is awe inspiring. Mizoram has been quite successful in nurturing tribal language publications. Nagaland’s experiments in village governance and community forest management are noteworthy. Some of these states are leading the way in the field of green economy and organic farming. Political scientists, development theorists, and environmental scientists feel their work cannot be complete without engaging the North East. The region is no longer merely written about, but it writes and reflects on its own stories. Moreover, outstanding scholars from the region have offered some of the most insightful commentaries on issues such as federalism, human rights and ecological crisis.

The scale and speed of the change astounds those who served in the region before the 1990s and, in fact, even more recent visitors like this author.

The region also faces newer environmental, economic and cultural challenges even as it is more politically differentiated today that makes collective action difficult. Assam is stuck with a flawed NRC. Manipur’s communal harmony has been strained by Naga irredentism and Meitei linguistic revisionism. “Greater Nagaland” is battling “lesser” Nagalands amidst the degeneration of organisations that once held the Naga family together. Meghalaya and Nagaland are yet to figure out a way to both benefit and tolerate the cosmopolitanism of Shillong and Dimapur. Tripura’s Bengali majority has wasted the window of opportunity to address the genuine concerns of the indigenous communities. Mizoram has failed to build an inclusive society despite three-and-a-half decades of peace.

Intra- and inter-state connectivity continues to be work-in-progress. Most states depend on Assam for internal and external connectivity but are locked in bloody border disputes over small pieces of land. The revenue deficit region is yet to discover the elusive balance between the protection of environment, indigenous land rights and culture, on the one hand, and economic development, on the other.

Gridlocked peace processes, however, pose the most serious challenge. Octogenarian leaders and risk-averse retired bureaucrats are negotiating the future of teenagers. The leaders are bargaining for a solution that their generation wanted, not the one that the youth might want to live. They are unable to think beyond village gates and hard borders. It is perhaps difficult for them to understand how else their land, cuisine, shawls and music can be preserved. They want to give inner line guarantees to youth who are impatient to explore the vast world outside their hilly abodes and fight it out in the crowded metropolitans rather than take positions behind the village gate. The leaders are worried about extinction of their culture even as the smells of the Naga kitchen now permeate chic restaurants, Naga models and designers walk fashion ramps across the globe. While the peace processes drag, common people suffer due to draconian laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), rampant extortion, and disarray in overstaffed and corrupt civilian administration. The tragic loss of civilian lives in Nagaland’s Oting is yet another reminder of the grave consequences of the rudderless peace processes.

The northeastern leaders and their interlocuters in New Delhi are alike puzzled when their children jointly protest human rights violations, expose the abuse of state power in the “periphery” and call for rethinking federalism. Having spent a lifetime fearing assimilation and secessionism, respectively, they are unable to see all these as part of the larger struggle for a better shared future. Leaders on both sides are afraid of the million mutinies around them and have barricaded themselves in camps and cantonments instead of joining the experiments unfolding in front of them.

Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.