Guest Post by Arjun Rajkhowa
I read with interest Lawrence Liang and Golan Nauluk’s piece in The Hindu (4 February 2014, ‘Cultural ignorance and prejudice’). They rightly point out the various gaps and fissures in our understanding of racism and its impact on those whose identities are often placed outside the “rubric of Indian nationhood”. They also suggest, insightfully, that the “complicated history of the northeast with its various self-determination movements and armed struggles requires a slightly different imagination of multicultural citizenship”.
Using this as a point of departure, I’d like to discuss another dimension of the “cultural difference” they foreground in their piece – the manner in which Indian nationhood is constructed in the northeast. Manifold exclusionary tendencies manifest themselves in northeastern politics and, for someone who is from the region, it is impossible to disentangle these from current discussions on racism. While it is important to interrogate the existence of prejudicial attitudes towards northeasterners in a city like Delhi, such questioning cannot be extricated from the larger context of the conceptualization of nationhood and identity within the northeast, for the two are closely imbricated issues.
If ‘Chinese’ is used pejoratively for northeasterners, ‘Indian’ is also used as a term of derogation in the northeast. It signifies a mainland culture that is derisible and unwanted; a relinquishing of common bonds. I have heard it used innumerable times to refer to shopkeepers and residents who have lived in the region all their lives – despite their established provenance and lifelong acculturation, they remain ‘outsiders’. Those who have lived in the northeast understand the implications.
Nor is this paradigm (of exclusion) merely discursive in scope and content. It has an active socio-political and economic component. I am not going to discuss the various (ongoing) movements for autonomy that mark the history and politics of the northeast. Instead, I am going to focus on a specific contemporary agitation that brings to light many of the issues that, I believe, are pertinent to our understanding of racism and race-based differentiation within the “rubric of Indian nationhood”.
Between September and December 2013, Meghalaya witnessed an agitation for the introduction of the ‘Inner Line Permit’ (ILP), a travel permit (conceived in colonial times) that all ‘outsiders’, i.e., residents of other states in the country, would need to enter Meghalaya. (The demands for the ILP are ongoing.) The agitation was led by ten pressure groups, including political parties and the powerful Khasi Students’ Union (KSU). Arunachal, Mizoram and Nagaland already have the ILP and various organizations in Manipur have been demanding it as well. The basis of these demands is the “menace of illegal influx”, according to Mukul Sangma, the chief minister of Meghalaya, whose opposition to the ILP galvanized pro-ILP groups and precipitated the recent agitation.
The agitation turned violent early on. In September, two clothes shops belonging to a family called Chokhani in Police Bazaar, in the heart of the city, were set ablaze. The owners of the shops lived one floor above; one man was beaten with a sharp weapon and a woman died from suffocation. In October, a man called Vikash Nandwal, the owner of a machineries store, was set ablaze. He was sitting at the counter of his shop when some miscreants entered, poured petrol over him and set him alight. He died of burn injuries in hospital a few weeks later. In November, tea-stall owner Bisheshwar Das was set on fire inside his store. Police made arrests relating to each of the cases but several demands were made for the release of those detained. Various cases of arson and torching of vehicles were reported during these months. Paramilitary patrol parties were attacked with bombs. At the crux of the violence was the question of the ‘outsider’.
In an interview with the Shillong Times, to a question about the unwillingness of the government to “curb [the] influx [of outsiders]”, Chief Minister Sangma responded:
“First of all there is no major influx of outsider Indians or foreigners into Meghalaya unlike in some other states of the region. In fact, even Indians from other parts of the country cannot come and settle in Meghalaya because of the existing Land Transfer Act which prohibits transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals. Non-tribals, and that too mostly indigenous ones, can purchase land only in very limited pockets in Shillong. Now my Government is also introducing the Tenancy Bill which will make even taking a house on rent by (undesirable) outsiders very strict.”
This is, in fact, true. The population of ‘non-tribals’ in Meghalaya has declined from 20% in 1971 to 13% in 2011. This institutionalized policy of exclusion, in ownership and tenancy, will only ensure further decline. Now not only are ‘outsiders’ prohibited from purchasing land or property, they are not even welcome to live in the city. Moreover, the term “undesirable outsiders” evinces a kind of pathological hatred. It falls squarely within the discursive domain of another term used in common parlance, “illegal influx”, which deems the movement of Indian citizens to this region even illegal. Few have questioned the legitimacy or desirability of this kind of institutionalized discrimination. Many in the mainland have missed its import. As a minister-member of the so-called ‘High Level Committee on Influx’ spelt out, it is only through the regulation of tenancy and ownership that the “problem of influx” can be solved.
However, this “problem” is not without its economic benefits. According to the Shillong Times, locals allotted stalls at places such as MUDA shopping complex for Rs 1,200 per month lease it out to “non-indigenous” people for Rs 12,000 or more.
These political developments have affected people’s lives in various ways. Someone who has friends or family living in Shillong would undoubtedly hear of the many ways in which ‘outsiders’ are targeted. I have heard from one professional in Shillong who described to me her sudden isolation at her place of work. Her parents were born in Delhi but lived all their lives in Shillong. She’s lived all her life in Shillong and has her work and family there. As the leader of her team at work, she has always enjoyed a warm and close relationship with her coworkers. But now, since the beginning of the agitation, she has experienced a great deal of hostility and antagonism and has overheard barely-concealed demands for the replacement of all senior-level ‘outsider’ employees by ‘locals’.
While we discuss the racism and violence that students from the northeast face in Delhi, let us not neglect to discuss the discrimination and violence that ‘outsiders’ face in the northeast. Not analyzing one end of this continuum of exclusionary politics only weakens what is clearly a contentious debate. Some would argue the opposite; that juxtaposing the two obfuscates the debate; that we ought to focus now on one form of racism and deal with the other separately. I do not agree. If we are indeed talking about questions of nationhood and belonging, let us deal with all its myriad elements exhaustively. Let us not pretend that some forms of discrimination and violence are somehow more ‘legitimate’ or ‘justified’, or that they may be dealt with at some indeterminate point in the future. Indeed, let us not ignore these phenomena just because they occur in, and concern, a ‘remote corner’ of the country. Some of the vitriolic invective underpinning these discourses of exclusion in the northeast has gone completely unquestioned. We need to examine all sides of the question (in this case, of belonging and identity) and challenge discrimination and violence everywhere – in Delhi or in the northeast.
Arjun Rajkhowa is a PhD scholar in Media Studies and Politics at La Trobe University, Australia