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Home > General > India and its Northeast: A new politics of race

India and its Northeast: A new politics of race

by Sanjib Baruah, 4 September 2008

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IIC Quarterly (New Delhi: India International Centre)
Vol. 32 (2& 3) Winter, 2005, pp. 165-76

There was a time when peoples of Northeast India were described as belonging to the Mongoloid race 1. Today Mongoloid and other racial categories such as Negroid or Caucasoid — and indeed, the very idea of race as a biological category — have no standing in scientific circles. For there is more diversity of gene types within what was once thought of as a single ‘race’ than between ‘races.’

But while race may no longer be accepted as a scientific category, it does not mean that human beings would stop making distinctions based on stereotypical phenotypes or skin colour. Arunachalis, Assamese, Garos, Khasis, Manipuris, Mizos, Nagas and Tripuris may indeed have some phenotypical similarities related to genetics. Thus one may be able to say that someone is from Northeast India based on looks, though he or she may not always get it right. For “human populations . . . possess a wide genetic potential which increases in variation through chance mutations or new generic combinations in each generation. . . . Completely stabilized breeding isolates. . . are exceedingly rare” (Bowles 1977, cited in Keyes, 2002: 1166). And of course, most of us realise that what we think of as the ‘Northeastern looks’ are not unique to peoples from the region. For instance, peoples from the western Himalayas — those from Nepal or the Uttaranchal — might share features similar to those found among peoples in the eastern Himalayas.

Race as a social category is the product of practices. There are visual regimes of labeling, and individuals encountering those labels from childhood may internalise characteristics associated with those labels and learn to adapt to the socially constructed racial order.

African American intellectuals have long recognised the role of visuality in the politics of race. The writer bell hooks — even her way of writing her name without capital letters is an intervention in the regime of visuality — describes her project as one of ‘resisting representation’ and of constructing an ‘oppositional gaze.’ “We experience our collective crisis as African-American people,” she writes, “within the realm of the image” (hooks, 1992). The project of black liberation, for her, is thus a battle over images.
The Indian image of the troubled Northeast is increasingly mediated by a visual regime constructed by popular films, television, pictures in magazines and newspapers, and limited contacts with people from the region. Thanks to improved communications, Indians today are quite mobile, and Northeasterners travel to other parts of the country more than ever before. There are a large number of students from the region in Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata and other cities. They are now a ‘visible minority’ in a number of university campuses. A disturbingly large number of them tell stories about their experiences of being racially labeled as ‘Chapta’ (flat nosed), ‘Oriental’ or ‘Chinky’.
A large number of Northeast Indian young women are employed in upscale restaurants and shops in Delhi – their ‘Oriental’ looks and English language skills being considered desirable for those positions. Many of them live in ethnic ghettos, for instance, renting rooms and apartments in ‘lal dora’ areas: the urban villages of Delhi. Apart from rents being affordable, they feel physically safer than in upscale neighbourhoods. Compared to landlords in elite neighbourhoods, these landlords of more modest means are tolerant of Northeast Indian eating habits — fermented dry fish, beef chutney and pork — and less inclined to impose restrictions on the lifestyles of their tenants. However, racially marked niches in the labour market or in settlement patterns have the danger of reinforcing racial thinking. Incidents of violence against Northeast Indian women in the country’s capital may partly reflect the racialisation of the divide between the mainland and the Northeast.
While many Northeasterners travel to the mainland, thousands of Indian soldiers and members of the various paramilitary organisations make the reverse journey to the region to fight external threats as well as on counter-insurgency duties. In the streets and paddy fields of the region security forces stop and interrogate Northeasterners every day. The soldier himself faces an unenviable situation: the most peaceful of surroundings can quickly turn hostile and he has to be alert against possible offensives by militants. Some sort of racial profiling becomes inevitable under these conditions, especially since we have no laws prohibiting it. As Indian soldiers return home, their stories of ‘treacherous’ rebels hiding behind bamboo groves and jungles spread through friends and relatives. The shared visual regime provides ways of putting those stories and faces together.
Northeast India’s fractured relation with the mainland has been described as a cultural gap, an economic gap, a psychological gap and an emotional gap. The shared visual regime now carries the danger of this fault-line becoming racialised.
Mani Ratnam’s film of 1998 Dil Se is a love story between a woman militant from the Northeast and an All India Radio journalist. The male protagonist Amar, played by Shah Rukh Khan, travels to the Northeast to speak to fellow citizens for a radio programme to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence. He develops a relationship with a local woman Meghna, played by the Nepalese-born Manisha Koirala.
If Bollywood gossip is to be believed, Manisha Koirala was chosen for the role partly because of her ‘small eyes.’ Director Mani Ratnam, according to Aishwarya Rai, “definitely wanted a small-eyed girl in Dil Se. She had to have that kind of physical features as she was supposed to be from Assam” (Rai, 2000). The caste of Dil Se also included a number of Assamese actors, among them filmmaker Gautam Bora, who played the role of the chief of a militant group.
The film’s story 2 unfolds between the fiftieth anniversary in of Indian independence on August 15th 1997 and the Republic Day on January 26th. While All India Radio reporter Amar embodies the Indian nation, Meghna represents the horrors of life in the Northeast torn apart by insurgencies and counter-insurgency operations. Amar defends the nation against rebels bent on tearing it apart.
The Northeast of Dil Se is a dangerous place where women are raped and families are destroyed. Life in Delhi could not be more different: the film portrays it as a middle class city where tranquil family life and traditional family values prevail. Meghna in the nation’s capital is a danger to both nation and family. She is on a suicide mission to blow herself up at the Republic day parade. As a guest at Amar’s home she is an awkward presence at a time when the family prepares for his arranged marriage. "Had it not been for the army, the nation would have been torn to shreds," says Amar to Meghna. It is “your nation, not mine,” says Meghna in defiance.
Am I making too much out of a film? Perhaps. But what if we are beginning to look at people from the Northeast through the prism of a visual regime exemplified by films like Dil Se? What if after nearly half a century of counter-insurgency, the counter-insurgent gaze is framing our way of seeing peoples from the Northeast?
Films like Dil Se and pictures in newspapers and magazines enable people to put together a mental picture of the Northeast and its people. The gaze of the Indian army patrol, reinforced by films like Dil Se, gives meaning to what is fast becoming a racial divide.
There are signs that we are slowly beginning to recognise this new politics of race, though we seem to be as yet unsure whether to use the ‘r’ word. A Manipuri journalist wrote in a national daily that, “physically the people of the North-east are closer to Southeast Asia and China.” However, “this racial divide,” he said, is not appreciated “in a sensitive manner” (Singh, 2004). The journalist told me that the ‘r’ word was edited out at one place in the printed version. He had actually written, “racially the people of the Northeast are closer to South-east Asia and China.” Apparently the editors substituted the term ‘physical’ for ‘racial.’ However, his second usage of the ‘r’ word — in racial divide – remained in the published text.
Let me turn to a small sample of writings by Northeasterners who have been students in mainland India, recalling their experience of being seen as different and encountering racial labels. “I did my schooling in a boarding school in India,” recalls a Manipuri living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He was the only student from the Northeast in that school. He posted the following on an email discussion group:
Being the only minority I was subjected to many racist comments . . . The one that I still remember clearly was my being called "Chapta" (flat nose - for those fortunate ones that never heard the term) by my Hindi teacher. The word "chinki" . . . is peddled around with not even a little thought of whether the term could offend someone, by even my closest friends. I came in contact with some Mayangs (the Manipuri term for other Indians) here and it shocked me that despite my being there amongst them they refer to the other Asians as chaptas still with no consideration that I could find it offensive. Even on my bringing up the issue they just laughed it off saying they saw nothing offensive in it. So I have now resorted to referring them as "Pakis" and that really seems to anger them. For those who don’t know about it, "Pakis" is a racist term used in Britain to refer to people with the sub continent features (Pakistan, Indian, Srilankan etc.) So the next time you hear any mayang using the word chinki or chapta, call them a "Paki". I think once this word gets common usage as a term to refer to them by all the people of the north east they will finally realize what it is like to be referred by a racist term (Manipur Diaspora, 2004; cited in Ray 2005).
In Kuala Lumpur, he wrote, because of his features he had a hard time convincing people that he was an Indian. He got tired of explaining that he was from India since he “didn’t look like the Indians they knew.” On the other hand, he said, he was “able to melt into the crowd and it was easier making friends with the Chinese and Malays” (Manipur Diaspora, 2004; cited in Ray 2005).

At a seminar in Pune a Naga student joked that after coming to Pune he became “half Naga, and half Indian”, while he was “a complete Indian” before. He elaborated that in Pune, shopkeepers, doctors, teachers and government officials, everybody treated him as Japanese or Chinese because of his features. He was asked to show his passport when applying for admission to college (cited in Das, 2004). While doing fieldwork in Manipur, anthropologist Sohini Ray asked a young student about his first visit to Mumbai. He told her that “the first thing he and his companions found difficult was that every other person asked them where they were from, and stared at them.” When they said Manipur, people asked where it was and if it was really in India. To avoid such uncomfortable encounters after a few days they started saying that they were from Thailand, because “it was more convenient” (cited in Ray, 2005).

An Assamese woman describes her first year as a student in Delhi University (1996-97), as follows: “I didn’t look ‘Oriental’ – the politically correct term they’d devised in lieu of the derogatory sounding ‘chinky’. So I didn’t have to face some of the stupider questions. My friend from Mizoram was asked if she needed a passport to come to India.” The ‘Oriental’ looking among us,” did not have to go through hazing, she recalled since “Indians are always nice to foreigners” (Goswami, 2004).


The emergence of a racial label to include all ‘indigenous’ Northeasterners fits nicely with the category ‘the Northeast’ that since 1971, in the words of a retired senior civil servant who played a key role in designing this political order, has “emerged as a significant administrative concept . . . replacing the hitherto more familiar unit of public imagination, Assam” (Singh, 1987a: 8). In 1971 a number of the new states were created (though not all of them were states at the beginning), and another piece of legislation gave birth to the North Eastern Council (NEC). These two laws were ‘twins born out of a new vision for the Northeast’ (Singh, 1987a: 117).

Unlike the distinction between tribal and non-tribal that is an important part of our vocabulary in discussing the Northeast, the racial label has the advantage of including all those who belong to the troubled region, and, is perceived as being connected to the troubles. For instance, a majority of the plains people of Manipur and Assam are not “tribal” which, after all, is an arbitrary governmental category. However, the Assamese and Manipuri insurgencies are among the most potent in the region. Thus the distinction between tribal and non-tribal is not very useful when it comes to discussing insurgent Northeast India. Since tribal and non-tribal Northeasterners share certain stereotypical phenotypes in common, the racial label has become more functional.

The racial label incorporates meanings that predate the era of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Willem van Schendel, writing mainly with Bangladesh and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in mind, comments on the “remarkably stagnant view of the hill people” that has prevailed in South Asia. The classic nineteenth century Western assumptions about social evolution from a state of savagery to civilisation were superimposed on the ancient South Asian distinction between civilised society and nature. The later distinction, indicated in the categories grama (village) and aranya (forest), implies a relationship that is complementary but always unequal. These two traditions, writes van Schendel, combined to generate a dominant view that considers the tribal peoples as remnants of some “hoary past who have preserved their culture unchanged from time immemorial. Backward and childlike, they need to be protected, educated and disciplined by those who are more advanced socially” (van Schendel, 1995: 128). The visual label of race that transcends the colonial categories of tribal and non-tribal and reaches out to pre-colonial categories such as the Kirata people — used to describe the people of the periphery – may now give a new lease of life some old Indian prejudices.

Responsible Indian officials have from time to time used the metaphor of children to describe the peoples of Northeast India. In February 2004 the Mizoram Governor A.R. Kohli described the entire region as a spoilt child. Contrary to the charge that the Northeast is “the most neglected region,” he said it is “in fact, the most spoilt child in the country.” The central government, he said, “showers funds and other goodies” liberally on the region. But the funds are not properly utilized or they do not reach the intended beneficiaries. A news report paraphrased the Governor as comparing the region “to a petulant child who is showered with goodies but does not know what to do with them” (Telegraph 2004).

Such sentiments are also found in the language used by B.P. Singh – the former civil servant who played a key role in the creating the Northeast as an administrative category. In an article published in 1987, he concluded:

There is no tangible threat to the national integration ethos in the region despite the operation of certain disgruntled elements within the region and outside the country. But in the context of a history of limited socialization and ethnic conflicts, and rapid modernization after 1947 the unruly class-room scenario is likely to continue in the region for years to come (Singh, 1987b: 281-82).

“Unruly class-room” is a telling metaphor. In the Northeast, Singh seems to imply, what is needed is a paternalistic and disciplinarian teacher – someone who knows what is good for children and, occasionally uses the stick for their own good, the role that he probably sees the coercive apparatus of the Indian state playing in the region.

These passages smack of attitudes and habits of mind that long predate the politics of counter-insurgency. But while these prejudices are old, they have acquired new meaning in the context of India’s failed policies in the Northeast. While Singh’s metaphor of an “unruly class-room” rationalises the coercive response to insurgency, Kohli’s description of the region as a “spoilt child” expresses the frustration with the failures of a policy of nation-building through corruption or what Jairam Ramesh calls “using corruption as a mode of cohesion” (Ramesh, 2005: 18).
What are the some of the consequences of the racialisation of the divide between India and its Northeast?
1, Motivation for militancy: According to Manipuri intellectual and politician Gangmumei Kamei, a major motivation for joining insurgent groups in Manipur is the social discrimination that young Manipuris face in different parts of India because of their appearance (cited in Ray 2005). Race has been a factor in the Meitei religious revival movement of the 1940s as well. Some revivalists converted to the newly formed faith “only after returning from pilgrimages to Mathura and Brindavan, where their Southeast Asian features raised curiosity and animosity among the local population.” The racial divide, according to anthropologist Sohini Ray, is central to understanding the Meitei urge for constructing an alternative history. A constituency for an alternative geneology emerged when “the whole idea of sharing a common ancestry with the people who are hostile to them for their looks” became unacceptable (Ray 2005).
2. Perpetuating a divide: While official narratives about counter-insurgency view each Northeastern insurgency as distinct; the racial label disrupts this narrative. As a result the differences between political conditions in different parts of the Northeast have no effect on popular perceptions about the ‘disturbed’ region, since racial thinking do not allow for such distinctions. For instance, the Mizo insurgency that ended with a peace accord in 1986 is usually portrayed as a success story. Yet that does not mean that Mizo relations with mainland India are any different from that with other parts of the Northeast. Even today Mizos such as Laltluangliana Khiangte complain about mainstream India not understanding their culture and traditions, and about Mizos being mistaken as South-east Asian tourists in the national capital (cited in Singh, 2004). After nearly two decades of a peaceful Mizoram, as Manipuri journalist Khogen Singh puts it, Mizos “still don’t feel fully at home outside the North-east” (Singh, 2004).
3. Hijacking of counter-insurgency: There is evidence that the racial divide sometimes subverts counter-insurgency operations and they get hijacked for other purposes. For instance, it was reported that in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, Indian security forces, ostensibly there to deal with the security threat posed by insurgencies, became partisans in local land conflicts between tribal Karbi and Hindi-speaking settlers. The settlers whom Karbis refer to as Biharis had over time acquired informal control over what is formally designated as public lands and had consolidated a “considerable amount of economic and political power.” They now seek formal change in the status of those lands and formal land titles (MASS 2002, 11-13). In Karbi Anglong’s ethnic configuration and the growth of insurgency, the loss of land by Karbis to “Biharis” is a factor. Many Karbi young people have come under the influence of the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS). But in local armed land conflicts, because of racial solidarity, “Bihari” settlers have occasionally secured the informal backing of Indian security personnel stationed in the area to fight the UPDS (MASS, 2002: 21).
4. Facilitating militarisation: The racial divide facilitates the relentless militarisation of the region. Consider for instance, the recommendation to strengthen Indian military presence in Manipur made by E.N. Rammohan — a senior Indian police official, who was Advisor to the Governor of Manipur. In order to stop the penetration of the government departments by militants, Rammohan recommended that battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) should guard all government offices and the residential neighborhoods housing central and state government officials in the state. Furthermore, he recommended that ten battalions of the Central Para-Military Force (CPMF) be deployed in the Manipur Valley in a “counter-insurgency grid”, and six to eight battalions be deployed in each hills district, where roads are few, with “helicopter support to effectively dominate them” (Rammohan, 2002: 15). Were it not for the racial fault-line it is unlikely that such policy options would have been seriously considered.

5. Legitimisation of corruption: The leakage of funds allocated for Northeast India’s development can be best described as insurgency dividend. The figures are staggering. Jairam Ramesh estimates that the annual expenditure of the Government of India on the eight states of Northeast India, including Sikkim, is about 30, 000 crores a year. With the region’s population at about 32 million, he estimates that the Government annually spends about 10,000 rupees per person in the Northeast. This money is not going for development. In Ramesh’s words, it is going to

ensure cohesiveness of this society with the rest of India through a series of interlocutors who happen to be politicians, expatriate contractors, extortionists, anybody but people working to deliver benefits to the people for whom these expenditures are intended.

A surer way of improving the economic conditions of the intended beneficiaries, he suggests, might be for the Indian government to open bank accounts and deposit an annual cheque of Rs. 10,000 for every poor family in the Northeast (Ramesh, 2005: 18-19).

The racial divide facilitates the sharing of the insurgency dividend between local political and bureaucratic elites and outside contractors and suppliers. Not unlike western businessmen who justify bribing politicians and bureaucrats in the Third World in terms of local norms, the image of the Northeast and its people in this new visual regime is that of a modern frontier where corruption is just a part of the natural landscape. Even the “chinky” students from the Northeast in Delhi, after all, appear more “modern,” “westernized” and affluent than many of their mainland peers apparently confirming the corruption-friendly image of the region. It is hardly surprising that when it comes to doing business in the region ‘make a fast buck and run’ appears to have become accepted practice. Even today’s much-lowered levels of inhibition and moral compunctions do not apply to India’s modern but wild Northeast Frontier.
Things did not have to turn out this way. As an Arunachali minister once said at a meeting in Mumbai, “Why can’t you think that in a big country like ours a few people may even look Chinese? Come to Arunachal Pradesh, he said, people in areas bordering China will greet you by saying Jai Hind” (cited in Das, 2004).
In everyday conversations Northeasterners resist mainland India’s representation of the region. But intellectuals, artists and activists will have to develop what bell hooks calls an oppositional gaze. Khasi commentator Patricia Mukhim believes that because of its geographical location policy makers in Delhi think of the Northeast primarily in terms of its “strategic importance.” The region, she suggests, is treated as “enemy territory, which needs to be subdued by force.” But “you cannot buy allegiance with force,” she warns and calls for ‘an entirely new approach’ to the region (Mukhim, 2004).
A new approach must start with the domain of representation. Our policies have an impact on the way the Northeast and its people are represented. For instance, softening our international borders — opening up the region on the east and the north, and encouraging close cross-border interaction — can slowly change perceptions. The region seen as a gateway to a friendly transnational neighbourhood will evoke very different emotions than those of a frontier or an “enemy territory” — a danger zone where foreign and domestic enemies conspire against the Indian nation. Policies could transform the Southeast Asia within India into a dynamic gateway to the Southeast Asia of world political maps. This could be the foundation for a new social contract between India and its Northeast. This could radically change what it means to look Northeastern in India. The battle for the future of Northeast India is also a battle over images.


2 The term ‘Mongoloid’ is especially unfortunate because of the association of the term in medical science with mental retardation. When in 1866, John Langdon Down observed that a group of children with mental retardation (Down’s syndrome) shared certain appearances and characteristics he described them as “greatly resembling people of the ‘Mongoloid race.’” Down described one child as follows: "The boy’s aspect is such, that is difficult to realize that he is the child of Europeans; but so frequently are these characters presented, that there can be no doubt that these ethnic features are the result of degeneration." He could explain the so-called Mongoloid features of the retarded “Caucasoid” child only by a process of degeneration. Medical practitioners continued to use the terms "Mongolism" or "Mongoloid” well after biologists had abandoned racial categories. But in 1965 when the World Health Organization awarded a prize to the British geneticist Dr. L. S. Penrose for his contributions to the understanding of "mongolism," the delegation from Mongolia, that was now a member of the World Health Organization, quietly protested the use of the term. WHO then stopped using these terms (Leshin, 2003)

2. This and the following paragraph borrows a few ideas from the discussion of the film by Priya Joshi in the course material she provides for her course on ‘Nationalism & Popular Hindi Cinema’ at the University of California, Berkeley


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