There’s a boy who makes tea for me in a shop near my place in Chennai, a Bengali named Manish. The shop is owned by a Malayali, as most tea shops down south are, but is almost exclusively staffed by North-easterners, all of them Bengalis. I was under the ignorant assumption that he was from West Bengal, when one morning, in between the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto, I peeked out from my book, and found him looking at me, in between expertly pouring tea into two glasses.
It was one of those beautiful moments India’s diversity provides us with. A boy from the French colonial town of Pondicherry, in the capital of Tamilnadu, in a Malayali tea shop, drinking tea made by a Bengali, reading a book on the Bombay of the 1940s, by an Urdu writer who was born an Indian but died a Pakistani, translated into English. Dwell on that a bit.
I asked him where exactly he was from.
The answer was prompt – Agartala, Tripura. I knew Tripura from memories of my Social Studies textbooks, but for the life of me could not remember where exactly it is on our country’s map. I came to office that day, and the first thing I did was Google ‘Political map + India’.
This is the problem we have on the ‘mainland’, as the North-easterners call all of us – we don’t know enough about our own countrymen from the hills and mountains of the East.
Or more possibly, and sadly, we just don’t care.
When Mary Kom fought valiantly for the Olympic medal and made us all pump our fists and swell our chests in joy, few knew where she was from. Manipur is so far away from our mainland imagination that it conjures up no images at all. Do the young people of our supposedly ‘vibrant, emerging nation’ know or care what makes up the lives of these people, our own people, who when they write down their addresses on letters, end with I-N-D-I-A, exactly as they do?
In August, there was a exodus of Northeastern migrants from the southern hubs of our country, most notably Bangalore, and it was one of the few times that we mainlanders have actually looked up from our self absorbed, Chetan Bhagat-reading, real estate-coveting, Shahrukh-gawking middle class lives to actually sit up and notice that there was something going on.
Most of us saw what was happening, we are a pretty intelligent lot – that there were elements trying to break up the fabric of our country, trying to seed fear in the minds of our less affluent countrymen – dedicated, hard working young people, who have to travel so far to find work so that they can feed their families back home. The Assam riots were just a trigger.
As I said, most of us noticed, but the overwhelming majority went back to what they did best – doing nothing. Only a few of us acted.
In the Bangalore railway station, students took it upon themselves to paint and display large hoardings in several north eastern languages, asking our countrymen to stay back, that this was their land as much as ours, that they will be protected, that they can live with dignity here. ‘This is our country. You are welcome here’, one said. Several rallies exalted the North-easterners’ contribution, and urged them to stay back.
I saw all this and did my bit. I went to the early morning parade of private security personnel at my IT park, almost all of them from the Northeast, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and asked to be given a chance to speak. I told them exactly what the students in Bangalore had said, that this was their country as much as mine, and a few miscreants should not make them doubt their own people.
They are welcome in Madras, in Bangalore, in Hyderabad, they are welcome anywhere in our great nation, and those who think otherwise can go fuck themselves.
India’s northeastern frontier is rife with problems, and the people have always been disillusioned with the Indian government, right from the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The old timers of Arunachal Pradesh still speak of the time when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (allegedly) left them all to die, when he ordered the then weak and almost amateur Indian Army, battered by the superior Chinese, to retreat from the hills, leaving the people defenseless. The truth was that our first Prime Minister had no other choice. Our ill equipped and untrained soldiers were being killed in the hundreds and thousands.
Times have changed now, but consequent Delhi governments, even after so many years, have done very less to improve this image. The Northeast has fewer colleges, fewer work opportunities (everything is concentrated on the mainland), hardly any significant foreign investment. The tourism industry, which should be booming, is hampered by the Maoist threat, which in itself has been so ineptly handled by Delhi. There’s so much more. Delhi, it seems, could hardly care less. The response to the present problem itself was a joke.
Why would they trust us? Why should they? Have we given them any reason to?
If there is no coherent and collaborative effort from the Centre to root out the problems that our Northeast faces, we may soon have no ‘Seven Sisters’ to celebrate. I’m under no illusion that this will be anywhere near easy. The situations are complicated, the ground reality very different from what you and I can read and decipher.
But small steps that we take can make a big difference in our countrymen’s lives. We must take them. The time is now.
What can we do, as regular citizens? Be aware, mostly. Read the journalism that talks about them, write to people who matter, talk about this to your friends.
Our biggest crime would be not caring.
And when one of your friends uses the word ‘Chinki’, don’t rebuke them, don’t tell them off, don’t give them a lecture.
Call him/her a traitor.
There are several reasons why, but I’ll give you just one reason, and I hope its reason enough.
Manish, the boy from Tripura who works in a tea shop in Chennai to support his family of five back home in Agartala on a salary of Rs 2000, who wakes up at 4 and sleeps at 12 every single day, who sleeps on the bare floor of the shop itself, who knows only that you work in ‘computer’, this boy was wearing an Indian flag on his torn tee-shirt on August 15th. I noticed.
He is an Indian. You, who call him ‘Chinki’, are most definitely not.