In Bangalore, a Northeast Indian Community Struggles to Affirm Its Identity

Forced to cancel a major cultural event, the Thadou have been made to feel like outsiders in their own country.

On the evening of November 1, 2016, Michael Haokip, the president of the Thadou Students’ Association, Bengaluru (TSA-B), announced that celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the recognition of the Thadou tribe had been cancelled. Haokip had been pacing up and down the makeshift stage and trying to negotiate with local residents to allow the celebrations to go on.

The residents were opposed to the preparation of meat and pork at the venue, which was about 100 yards from a temple and had finally called the police which swiftly ordered the people to vacate the venue and take down all the arrangements including the stage and the food counters. Folk singers and dancers had been invited for the event and over Rs 30,000 had already been spent on food and logistics.

Haokip and other executive members of the TSA-B were visibly disappointed once the attendees had begun to leave. For several students and members of the organisation who were working in Karnataka, this event was an opportunity to meet their friends and family who had travelled from places as far as Manipur and Meghalaya. Besides being the Thadou recognition day, it was also time to relive the festivities of Chavang Kut – the post-harvest festival known for its cultural and sporting events. Back in their native villages, men, women and children would come together after months of doing hard labour on paddy fields to celebrate the cold months between autumn and spring by dining, drinking and dancing for weeks.

As the contractor’s men dismantled the stage, Haoneo Haokip, the secretary general of TSA-B, exclaimed in exasperation that months of preparations and money had all gone to waste. “We are also citizens of India and we were celebrating our festival peacefully. Now all is waste. There is politics here and they don’t want to allow us because we made non-vegetarian food. That is the main issue.”

Another gentleman dressed in a cotton shirt and trousers had approached Haokip and told him that the lack of permission was the main cause of the problem. Haokip, however, believed that it wasn’t the lack of permission to use the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) ground but rather the preparation of non-vegetarian food in the vicinity of the temple that had led to the event being cancelled. They had asked for permission five days before the event was scheduled and despite repeated assurances from the BBMP, the permission had not come through. Relying on oral assurances and considering the fact that the event was only for four hours from five to nine in the evening, they had gone ahead with the arrangements.

Thadou is one of the largest tribal communities in Northeast India spread across Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland. It was recognised as a Scheduled Tribe via a notification released on October 29, 1956, by the president of India.

The Thadou Students’ Association was formed in Manipur in 1995 with the stated objective of providing a community space to Thadou students studying in different parts of the country and abroad. It started its Bengaluru chapter (TSA-B) in 2013 to address the mass exodus of people from the Northeast due to the rising racial attacks in the city. Since then, they have also been instrumental in lobbying for the protection of students from the Northeast who are studying in Karnataka by constructively engaging with local politicians, bureaucrats and police officers. The TSA-B has also consistently been organising cultural and sports events and seminars and counselling sessions for students of the Thadou community spread across Bangalore, Mysore and Udupi.

About half a kilometre from the BBMP ground and down the Jogupalya road, a cavalcade of multi-coloured tableaux lazily drifted along one end of the Mahatma Gandhi Road. At the rear end of the procession, a stream of vehicles jostled to pass through the bottleneck that was created on the road and in the front, a barrage of horns seamlessly merged into a festive milieu of sounds and vibrant colours as bandsmen, folk dancers and singers performed in the narrow spaces that separated each tableau from the other.

Other than it being the Thadou recognition day, November 1, 2016, also marked the 60th anniversary of the formation of the state of Karnataka, a day colloquially known as Kannada Rajyotsava. Yellow and red flags flew atop most commercial and residential buildings. Autos, tempos and lorries were loudly playing Kannada songs and had a state flag affixed on the sides of the vehicles. A few days before the Rajyotsava, Kannada nationalists had called for a state-wide bandh against the sharing of the Cauvery river water with the southern state of Tamil Nadu and several Tamil auto, tempo and lorry drivers were rounded up and beaten and their vehicles were set on fire.

State police personnel were deployed on special duty to ensure that the procession went on smoothly. Subramanya, the station house officer at Ulsoor police station, along with constables, sub-inspectors and personnel from the Bengaluru Traffic Police, regulated the traffic even as it was stagnated on the route of the procession.

Haopu Lhovuum, the joint secretary of TSA-B, took an exception to this attitude of the police. It was difficult to understand the stand that was taken by the police by not allowing them to celebrate their festival while at the same time providing security for the Rajyotsava procession. Exasperated, he said, “this is not our native land. In Manipur, nobody would have stopped us.”

For devout Kannadigas, the day of Rajyotsava is one marked by prayers and fasting. The constables at the Ulsoor police station had said that they could not have allowed the Thadou event to have taken place on that day. One of them had even added that “If they would have celebrated it tomorrow or on any other day we would have given them protection. Why are they celebrating today? They know it is the state festival. If we allow them today, the people will turn against us.” Another one questioned the lack of permission for the use of the ground, “It’s a BBMP ground,” he said. “Where is the permission from BBMP?”

As dusk set in, the BBMP ground was deserted. Haokip, Haoneo, Lhovuum, along with their other friends and members, had begun to leave on their scooters and bikes. To Thadous, the chauvinism of the residents and the perverse attitude of the police had yet again made them feel like an outsider in their own country. For the police to not allow the Thadou celebrations to go on was a practical professional choice made keeping in mind the existing circumstances, especially the feelings of upper-caste residents of the Jogupalya neighbourhood.

TSA-B was disappointed, but not disheartened. After two weeks, on November 15, they celebrated Chavang Kut and the 60th anniversary of the tribe’s recognition at the State Youth Centre in Bengaluru. Prayers, songs, dances and a cake cutting ceremony were all reorganised albeit with fewer resources and even fewer people to partake in this small celebration of faith in the normative spirit of constitutions, in this case, the constitution of India.