Understanding the North-East Conflict [Interview]
Skimming through newspapers these days is an exercise in proving your moksha – ignore all the troubles of the world and continue living your life in bliss. Rapes, molestation? Nah, I’m more concerned about The Dark Knight Rises. Scams, corruption, inefficiencies? But wait – did you see Rahul’s latest pictures of his trip to Bhutan?
Today was a little different. Something cracked. I couldn’t continue. Headlines screamed that a massive exodus was taking place. Thousands of Indians from the North-Eastern region were travelling back to their hometown. Somewhere in between the milieu was the mention of a conflict, banned SMSes, even doctored tapes by Pakistan.
Why? It just didn’t make sense.
So … why?
To get a broader understanding of what’s going on, I had an extremely-early-morning chat with Maitryee, a twenty-something from Assam. She’s had her share of Delhi and Bangalore, and is now based in Guwahati: just too much for me to not pounce on her with questions!
So, without any further aloo, let’s jump right in:
Me: Alooo! Could you pyaaz tell me why we’re doing this so early in the morning?
M: First of all, your jokes are horrible. Horr-eee-baall. And I also get up early. So. Yah.
Me: Why thank you! I hate my jokes as well. Anyways, let’s hop right into our first question. I understand that the conflict most publicized these days is between the Bodo and Bangla-Muslim communities. But I’ve heard of a tumultuous past amongst other communities as well: could you give me a history lesson on this?
M: Sure sure. At the time of Independence, Assam covered the entire North-Eastern region that we know of today, but consisted of various tribes with different languages and cultures. Over a period of time they all split geographically to form the states we have today.
Me: The Seven Sisters?
M: Yup! The thing is that most of these tribes are linguistically and culturally very different. My father is Assamese and my mother is Mizo, and you can see a big difference in their spoken language! It’s not like, say, Punjabi-speaking and Hindu-speaking people who at least share some common words.
These states were setup to favour their native population. Some states, like Meghalaya, don’t even allow outsiders to purchase land!
In this entire region there is a fight for economic resources.
Me: Really? Why would they do that?
M: Basically, in this entire region there is a fight for economic resources. Land, food, many things are scarce. The problem becomes worse when there’s a huge influx of Bangladeshi immigrants.
Me: Bangladesh? Wow, I didn’t see that coming!
M: It’s true! The Indo-Bangladeshi border is one of the most porous international borders, and there’s a huge influx of illegal immigrants coming into the North-East region.
And you know what? The government hasn’t done anything about it. Look at the India-Pakistan border at Kashmir, why can’t they do the same here? It’s like the government just continues to turn a blind eye to this issue.
Me: I can imagine that the population in these states has shot up in the past few decades. Right? Add to that scarce resources and you’re just scratching the surface of the underlying tensions.
M: Exactly! For example, some three weeks ago, a church on GH Road in Guwahati approached the police to get a Wine & Beer shop (located opposite them) closed down.The owner approached the High Court saying that there are so many other Wine & Beer shops near schools, hospitals, etc. (There’s a law stating that such shops can’t be within 500 meters of schools.)
In the current stalemate, all these liquor shops have been shut for three weeks. That includes all bars, pubs, everything!
This is horrible, this is torture! You must fight this! Poor you, poor you!
But you know there’s a lot of politics as well. Some troublemakers can come and start fighting, exploiting the underlying tensions. In the end, it’s always the poor man who pays.
Me: Sad, really sad. There’s one thing that’s perplexed me most. There may be underlying tensions in the Seven Sisters, but why has it spread across the country? Why are tensions flaring in Bangalore, Pune and other cities?
M: Apart from rumour-mongering by some troublemakers, I think a lot of it has to do with a sense of alienation. I’m sad to say this but discrimination is rampant. I remember when I was in Delhi and had to find a place to stay for six months. It was painful. I was even asked questions like “So how many people will you bring to stay here?” It got so bad that we had to ask a family friend, a Sardar, to talk to brokers on my behalf!
The state doesn’t care about us.
M: Also, we’ve lost confidence in the state. I mean, look at the case of Tenzin Dhargiyial, who was stabbed in Mysore. Fine, people protested, but as it dies down you’ll notice that no progress has been made on that case. Why?
All these assurances put out by politicians fall flat. They’re hollow. The fact is that the state doesn’t care about us.
Me: And they’re not helping build any confidence by banning bulk SMSes.
You know, looking at the current status from 10,000 feet in the air, it seems as if there is no simple solution to all this.
But Maitryee, thanks for all your time. You’ve really helped me get a background on this conflict and I just hope that we, along with the government and everyone involved, take the right steps to tackle it.
M: Thank you!
So .. The Next Steps?
Many in the North Eastern states face a harsh life everyday. Politicians have failed them. The government has failed them. Rising tensions have left scars that can’t easily be forgotten.
There are multiple issues to be tackled here: illegal immigration, ethnic tensions, lack of development, alienation, rampant discrimination; and this is just scratching the surface.
We need the support, leadership and political will to bring positive change.
We need to stop this from happening:
In my opinion, apart from solving those social and political issues, we need a resurgence in Indian nationalism.
We need to remind ourselves that we’re together for a reason.