The illusion of shared nationhood

Updated: Feb 07, 2014, 10:31 IST |

The North-East of India has been thrust into the glare of conflict once again, with increasing attacks on people from the region. This extract from former civil servant C Balagopal’s book ‘On A Clear Day You Can See India’, touches on the possible reasons for the dissonance

The Jain Book Store was a more staid establishment which mostly dealt in textbooks for schools and colleges. [...] As usual, when he saw my jeep, Mr Jain would come over to the street to welcome me in. Although onlookers would attribute that deference to the large sign on the bumper of the vehicle which proclaimed ‘SDO, IMPHAL WEST’, it was more due to the fact that Mr Jain put me in the select category of those who truly appreciated books.

Students and supporters hold placards and candles during a protest in New Delhi against student Nido Taniam’s death. Pic/AFP
Students and supporters hold placards and candles during a protest in New Delhi against student Nido Taniam’s death. Pic/AFP

On one such visit, his brow furrowed as he escorted me into the shop and led the way to the rear where the shelves that interested me stood. ‘I’m afraid the Koestler you asked for has not arrived I am not able to understand the delay. I have sent a reminder and hope it will come within a week,' he added apologetically. Brightening up as he spotted another book, he reached up. ‘However, I have another book that I recall you mentioning some time back.'

Nido Taniam was beaten by local men in Delhi after they teased him about his hairstyle and his looks. Pic/AFP
Nido Taniam was beaten by local men in Delhi after they teased him about his hairstyle and his looks. Pic/AFP

He held it out with a smile, and I was glad when I saw that it was The Ochre Robe by Leopold Fisher, aka Agehananda Bharati. I liked the hard cover it came with, and noting the price, said I would take it. The tinkling of the little bell over the entrance announced another arrival, and he went off to attend to the other customer. I idly leafed through the book, pausing to read a passage in some detail.

Naga Students Unions protest against the racial and sexual molestation problems faced by North-East students, at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi. Pic/Imtiyaz Khan
Naga Students Unions protest against the racial and sexual molestation problems faced by North-East students, at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi. Pic/Imtiyaz Khan

‘His description of the meeting with the Sankaracharya of Kanchi is interesting, in the sense it gives you a flavour of the kind of man Fisher was, as well as a peep into the mind of one of the remarkable minds of our time.’ This was spoken in a quiet voice, with excellent English diction. I turned to look at the speaker and saw a trim, youngish chap about the same age as me, with a studious, almost scholarly, expression on his bespectacled, cleanshaven face.

On A Clear Day You Can See India by C Balagopal is published by Harper Collins and is available for Rs 299 in major bookstores and online
On A Clear Day You Can See India by C Balagopal is published by Harper Collins and is available for Rs 299 in major bookstores and online

Bookshop dialogue
‘I have heard about this book, and also about Fisher, and that is the reason for taking it. However, I hope I learn something about the man and that it is not too much about Vedic Hinduism,’ I responded. ‘Aren’t you interested in Vedic Hinduism?’ enquired the stranger.

‘Personally, I find it interesting, especially when it is treated in relation to the society of the time and not uprooted from its social and historical context. When that happens, it becomes just another scholarly work with dense passages of incomprehensible syllogisms and mental acrobatics that leave my head spinning,’ he added with a grin.

‘Have you read Autobiography of a Yogi?’ I asked. He nodded by way of reply. ‘What did you think about that book?’ I continued. ‘Yogananda Paramahamsa takes one through a remarkable personal journey which I for one believe we must take seriously if one is to get an inside view of his mind. If one applies rational criteria to what he describes, and views them in a phenomenological sense, then they are too fantastic to be taken seriously, figments of the writer’s imagination, creations of either a demented or a hallucinating mind.

And that is how I see that book. And that is why I consider him on the same plane as that other remarkable explorer of the human mind, Aurobindo, who intuitively mapped out man’s inner space in a more comprehensive and fascinating way than anyone has ever attempted before or since.’

Our conversation ebbed and fl owed and continued pleasantly, and it was only when Mr Jain politely coughed to draw our attention to the fact that it was almost closing time that we realized how time had fl own. Turning to take leave of my new friend, I introduced myself. ‘I know you. Your jeep says it all,’ he replied, and stepped out into the night.

Interesting and enigmatic
In the days and weeks that followed, my visits to Mr Jain’s bookshop were enlivened by the discussions with this interesting and enigmatic young man on books, and through them, many and varied fields of human endeavour. We were very different — in our outlook, our beliefs, our backgrounds — but in a curious way, quite similar.

Like him, I too valued the Marxian approach as one of the few truly scientific ways to approach the study of man in history, in society, and in economic relationships; I too abhorred injustice in any form, and never tried to defend the indefensible, regardless of the impact of such a stand on things I valued; I too, being young, was optimistic that the golden age of man lay in the future, not in some imaginary past, that it would be built by the endeavour of humanity as a whole. In short, we were young, and full of hope, despite the dispiriting things we saw every day around us, and it was only in the unimportant things that we differed.

One day, while I was collecting my copy of The Resistance, my bookstore friend said, ‘I am curious to see that you read this magazine. Why do you read it?’ I replied that I honestly felt it was the only intelligent piece of writing that I had come across on matters concerning the north-east in general, and Manipur in particular. I liked the sophistication and honesty of the analysis, and the willingness to face up to facts even when they were inconvenient. He smiled and nodded that he understood very well what I meant.

People who’ve never actually been here and seen things the way they are? As if they sat in their hotel rooms in Calcutta and wrote the story? Or, if they did actually travel to Imphal or Kohima or Aizawl, they interviewed an official in his office and headed straight back? Journalists are supposed to be curious ‘Don’t you get the impression that the stories about the northeast filed by journalists in the mainland dailies appear to be about what lies below the surface, keen on ferreting out facts, smelling out leads and assiduously following them. Here, they seem either disinterested or afraid to go after the real story.’ We stood engrossed in our discussion while the street outside rapidly emptied itself as darkness fell.

Tinted lenses
I found myself thinking about my companion’s words and realized that the stories carried by the mainland dailies had a curious sameness to them, despite the differences in editorial outlook of at least a couple of them. But when it came to the stories of his region, something seemed to eliminate differences in viewpoints, imposing a uniformity that seemed to derive from looking through the same tinted lenses.

I suggested that it was perhaps due to the restrictions on travel in the region imposed by the authorities, or the disturbed conditions, or the perceived hostility towards outsiders, or the difficulties in travelling from point to point, or maybe just a combination of all these that persuaded otherwise diligent journalists to be content with an interview or official press release. But I wondered why the editors of these newspapers were satisfied with these stories when it was clear that they did not reflect the ground realities.

My companion’s take was interesting. ‘Perhaps it is because the north-east is like a foreign country. Look at the stories filed from places like Washington, London, Moscow or Tokyo in Indian newspapers. Most are of course from news agencies. But even those that appear to be filed by correspondents ... do you get the sense that those who filed them wore their shoes out tramping the backstreets of those cities trying to get the real story behind the “official” one?

Don’t you see a young man or woman trying to justify the expense of their assignment or stick to the commitment of filing a story every week, milking the same source every time, usually over dinner or a drink, trying to stay authentic while imparting something different to this week’s dispatch? Being in a foreign country has something special to it, which makes one behave differently.

This probably affects journalists too.’ I pondered over this and tried to remember my only trip abroad, to Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo the previous year. The sense of being an alien shocked me, despite my extensive reading about those places. The differences manifest everywhere reinforced this sense of alienness — in the appearance of the people, the language they spoke, the food they ate, the way they dressed.

I realized that these factors were active in the case of a mainlander visiting the north-east, where everything he saw looked diff erent. The visitor could very well have been in Burma or Laos for all the identifi cation he would make with what he saw and heard and experienced. ‘Is it language that primarily separates people?’ I asked. ‘What really makes a person feel alien somewhere?’

Language factor
‘Language probably contributes much. But it does not work alone. Other factors have to come into play. For instance, if you were in Orissa and don’t speak a word of Oriya I’m sure you will still not feel an alien, because a person from Kerala looks much like one from Orissa, especially in the towns and cities.

When there are other significant differences in the way people look or dress, language completes the sense of being different, introducing a barrier that prevents genuine intercourse.

Even where you find someone who speaks your language but not as a native speaker, the lack of proper non-verbal communication makes it that much more difficult to pick up nuances and subtle but important diff erences in meaning and emphasis.

It will be curiously like listening to a memorized speech, where you get the strong impression that these are not the speaker’s words! That’s probably the role language plays in exaggerating differences. And that could be one reason why dividing India on linguistic lines after 1956 seems to have been a logical step.’

I was struck by something he said and replied: ‘Language appears to be more important than we imagine. It enables us to go behind the façade and touch the person we are speaking with. Communication is established once the language barrier is breached through any means.

But, when language is merely one of a set of several barriers such as colour, appearance, dress, custom, food, even climate, the feeling of alienness is complete. I recall going to a village in western UP as part of the training at Mussoorie, and the sense of being an alien that I felt in the house of a Jat farmer as I sat on a stool with all these tall, swarthy, tanned men lounging around in their kurta-pyjamas, speaking in a dialect I could not understand. It was the first time I personally experienced the bonds of nationhood being tested.’

Unknown realities
He smiled. ‘That’s exactly what I mean. If you were a journalist travelling in that part of UP and heard about an atrocity against a Harijan family in that village, would you be willing to or be able to ferret around in that village to discover what really happened?

There is an opacity to life in such places, and a peep behind this opaque veil is not vouchsafed to you or me who are not of that place and community, and so we will never really be able to apprehend the reality of what goes on there.

Can you imagine an American reporter succeeding in getting to the truth of an intercaste dispute in an interior village in Tamil Nadu, especially if he does not speak Tamil?’ It was only later that I saw what he meant and realized that, in the north-east, what really keeps us apart is the illusion of shared nationhood.

The embrace of ‘Mother India’ was probably too overwhelming. A measure of autonomy given to the local governments would probably have yielded a better harvest in terms of peace, economic development and a better life for the people.

Changing perceptions
C Balagopal was in the Indian Administrative Service from 1977 to 1983, when he voluntarily left to start a business making cutting-edge medical products. He provides some insight on the current conflict, from his perspective as a civil servant in the North-East

Why do you think there is so much ill feeling towards people of the North-East? Is it resentment or anger or hatred that people feel?
I do not think there is any general ill feeling against the people of the North-East. If the question relates to the recent horrific beating resulting in the death of a young person from Arunachal Pradesh, that seems to have been a wanton act by anti-social elements.

C Balagopal, author of the book
C Balagopal, author of the book

Having said that, I believe that there is antipathy towards all outsiders in certain parts of the country, resulting in hostile and rude behaviour. This must be addressed by the people of each region and locality as a slur on their culture and manners, and the law enforcement agencies must be actively involved in curbing such acts.

I do not believe there exists any basis for feelings of anger or hatred against the people of the North-East. Last year, there was the unfortunate case of social media being used to whip up hatred against people of the North-East and the hand of a certain communal organisation was seen to be behind that. All sections of society must condemn such actions aimed at fomenting hatred and ill feeling.

Often the attitude towards the North-East is as if it were a foreign place. Even after the advances of technology, bridging gaps all over the world and bringing people in touch with one another, why does this divide exist between the North-East and the “rest of India”?
There is very little communication between mainland India and the North-East region. With trade contacts being low, and no other contacts existing, there is widespread ignorance about the region, its people, their history and culture, etc; hence, for most people in India, the North-East is a “foreign” place, where the people look different, and are reported to be against the idea of being Indian. The people of the North-East mostly see India and Indians in the form of military and para-military forces sent there to quell disturbances.

There have been reports of excessive use of force and misuse of draconian powers conferred on the security forces. There have been few attempts to engage with the ordinary people of the region, and this mind space is therefore occupied by messages spread by the insurgent groups.

The only solution is to promote contacts between mainland India and the North East (NE), and tourism could be one way to do this, once peace returns to the area. Already many young people from the NE have found employment in the hospitality and travel industry due to their smart appearance and language skills.

Probably the most difficult thing to change is the mindset of people. What do you think can be done to improve the climate of suspicion and mistrust with regard to this region?
Contacts between people are the best way to change perceptions. If groups of young people travel from the rest of India to the NE and also in the reverse direction, there will be better understanding. Exchanges of culture, art, and dance will go a long way to promote better understanding. The excessive military force must be scaled down, and political solutions must be sought.

This will help lower the temperature in the region, and create the conditions necessary to improve trust and friendship. Above all, economic development opportunities must grow, creating openings for young people to get jobs closer home. Encouraging entrepreneurial opportunities through setting up business incubators with the support of business and industry from mainland India will go a long way to remove the mistrust.

- Vidya Heble

Targeting North-Eastern Indians

February 2014
A 32-year-old man was arrested for his involvement in the molestation and assault of two Manipuri women in Kotla Mubarakpur area in South Delhi on January 25. The women were attacked by a pet dog, after he was tied to one of the women's boots by the owner. When they kicked the dog away, the women were beaten by the men in the area, and they claimed that the men also made racist comments.

January 2014
On January 29, Nido Taniam, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, was beaten by shopkeepers in South Delhi's Lajpat Nagar market following a quarrel over his appearance and clothing. The 19-year-old died the next day. His death has been followed by strong protests from people as well as politicians, and has thrown the spotlight on inter-racial tensions.

May 2013
On May 29, 2013, A S Reingamphi from Choithar village, Ukhrul district of Manipur, was found dead in her rented accommodation in Chirag Dilli of South Delhi. There were signs of brutal assault on her nose, face and legs. So far no arrests have been made.

In August 2012, in separate incidents, several people from the North-East, many of them students, were assaulted in Pune. Some 11 people were arrested.

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