You’re Not From Around Here...

Northeastern Indians living away from home are tested in an environment where bigotry often overpowers education and understanding

Samar Delhi 

The recent deaths of Northeastern students Dana Sangma and Loitam Richard in two distant, geographically and culturally separate parts of India have been embellished with many adjectives of differing connotations. Savage, discriminatory, accidental, and unsurprising are some of them. 

There are bound to be conflicting opinions when elements like anger, outrage and loss stew in the same pot as issues of public image and bureaucracy. What, however, is unquestionable is the fact that these two "cases", regardless of the empirical realities, causes, and motivations, have again carted into the limelight the circumstances of Northeastern Indians living away from home. 

Dana, 21, from Meghalaya, an MBA student in her first year at Amity University, Manesar (Haryana), was found hanging from the ceiling fan in her hostel room on April 24. She had been earlier accused of cheating in an exam, using her mobile phone. When she protested, she was allegedly humiliated by the invigilator and her answer sheet torn up. Her uncle, Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, cried foul and urged a CBI probe. A case was registered under Section 306 (abetment of suicide) against the Amity University authorities after Dana’s family filed an FIR. The city police also registered a case under the SC/ST Act against the Amity management. 

Amity University authorities denied the allegations of discrimination and hinted at personal reasons as a probable cause of suicide. They claimed that Dana had been using her phone continuously for a few days and had been spotted crying in the hallway. Massive protests and public outrage demanding justice erupted in different parts of the country.

Richard, 19, was a Manipuri student in his second semester at Acharya NRV School of Architecture, Bengaluru. On the afternoon of April 18, he was found dead on his hostel bed. The post-mortem suggested physical assault. Richard’s family and friends alleged that he had been beaten to death. S Sudhakar, the warden, has filed an FIR with the local police. The police later registered a case of murder under Section 174(c) under the CrPc (unnatural death).  

Richard had allegedly had an argument with his roommate, Vishal Banerjee, over watching an IPL match. Another student, Sayed Afzal Ali, reportedly intervened and pounded Loitam on the head and face. Following this, Richard returned to his room and was found dead the following day. 

According to the Bangalore Superintendent of Police (Rural), there were 11 injuries to the head. Five were old wounds. The college authorities tried to divert the issue, painting Richard as a drug addict.

 

Not all investigations have been completed, so there is too much grey area to condemn with certainty or display righteous anger. At the very least, these incidents can be instrumental in cultivating social awareness about the lives of Northeastern Indians who find themselves a small minority when they go to other cities for work or studies. It is obvious that, regardless of whether there were sectarian overtones to the aforementioned cases, there are serious issues to be addressed. 

Surprisingly, few people in Delhi, have good friends from the Northeast. There are enough people hailing from the Northeast living in the city for many to be acquainted with at least a few of them; but there is a deficit of interest and effort to integrate in the fast-paced, judgemental, and suspicion-filled metropolis. 

Not all Northeastern people migrate by choice, either. Nobokishore Urikhimbam is the general secretary of United NGO Mission, Manipur (UNMM), based in Imphal. His organisation works for peace-building between various ethnic groups in Manipur. He explained why Northeastern Indians regularly feel the need to leave home: “Due to the lack of institutions, limited employment opportunities, rampant ethnic conflict, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), many young people are left with no choice but to get away,” he told Hardnews

'Life can get challenging here if you’re young, female and from the Northeast. People use racist language. I have been called a ‘chinky’, a ‘Nepali’. People can assume that you’re a prostitute if you’re on the streets at night, at bars or nightclubs'

The Additional Director General of Police, Assam, R Chandranathan, based in Guwahati, spoke to Hardnews on phone. “The police are not particularly sensitised to their problems. Northeastern women are frequently objectified because of their sense of dress. Some find it difficult to adjust to the cultural imbalances regarding things like food and language,” he said. 

Language is a major factor in this larger alienation. None of the languages prevalent in our better developed cities are first languages for Northeastern Indians. This barrier causes problems and misunderstandings, especially for recent arrivals. In Delhi, both their Hindi and English accents are often ridiculed. The ones not entirely comfortable with Hindi or English can come across as elementary or immature in speech or sense of humour, which is only natural, given that it is not their mother tongue. It takes considerable time to pick up the nuances. Imagine a person from Kashmir going for the first time to Chennai to study and expected to be fluent in Tamil! 

A Northeastern undergraduate student had disturbing experiences to relate about in Delhi University’s North Campus and her life around the city. “Life can get challenging here if you’re young, female and from the Northeast. People use racist language at times. I have been called a ‘chinky’, a ‘Nepali’, and even a ‘kancho’, whatever that is. People can assume without reason that you’re a prostitute if you’re on the streets at night, or at bars or nightclubs. I am not comfortable alone. They also see no distinction between the different states and cultures of the Northeast region. We are all the same to them.” 

Not everybody has such a negative assessment of the scenario. Rinku Pegu teaches at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) in New Delhi. She came from Assam in 1995 to study at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “The fact that I was Assamese was never really an issue as far as my life in Delhi is concerned. Assam is highly Sanskritised. It is tuned into mainstream culture,” she said. 

However, as far as the Northeast is concerned, people love clichés. They hold them, caress them, defend them, take them out on dates, get drunk and make love to them. They fall prey to this immortal tool of conversational convenience. Why not? It is a big saver. It saves time, responsibility, and above all, it saves the effort to truly understand complexities.

The drugs, guitars, football, are, of course, actualities. The westernised fashion sense, skimpy dresses, music festivals, the Northeastern momo-point owner in Vasant Kunj in South Delhi are actualities. They do have a remarkable subculture within their, for lack of a better word, diaspora. However, as any cliché will eventually tell you, not everybody and perhaps not even most people, fall under it. In fact, most don’t. It is hard, though, to move beyond the stereotypes when there exists such a dysfunctional mutual understanding.

There is also an acute lack of curiosity. The locals, and the people from other parts of the country mingle only rarely and inconsistently with their subculture and heritage. This has led to estrangement, distances, and has bred ignorance. Northeast Indian youth engage in all the normal activities that others do. They have their own drinking scenes, their own football games. Surely, due to alienation, they usually remain inclusive; their social circle stays dangerously homogenous.  And, naturally, to an extent, so does everyone else’s. 

At a time when we boast of a fast-expanding national consciousness and use phrases like "heartbeat of a billion people", we should perhaps attempt to lend some credibility to such claims. The issues of Northeast people should be endorsed on an everyday basis, and not just when it appears fashionable to do so. The distance, the poor political representation, the sexist climate, the easy typecasting can be overcome. What cannot be undone is the fact that, when authentic change does occur, Dana and Richard will not be around to witness it. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2012