People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 13, 2012

North East and the

Cultural Dimensions of Discrimination


Archana Prasad


THE murder of Richard Loitam and the suicide of Dana Sangma have once again highlighted the social discrimination and profiling faced by residents of North Eastern origins in mega cities. The significance of the public outcry following these deaths has been exemplified in the light of the fact that more and more youths from North East are migrating to metropolitan cities in what they call the ‘Indian mainland’. A study of 2011 projected that 5,00,000 people were set to migrate from the North Eastern region for employment and education in the next five years. It also noted that the spate of this migration had increased in the first decade of the twenty first century and 78.16 per cent of those surveyed were migrating for educational purposes. Further, 86 per cent of those migrating to mega cities were facing some sort of discrimination on the basis of social profiling of the North Eastern communities. This context needs to be borne in mind while discussing the problems faced by North Eastern people outside their own region.




The historical discrimination of the North Eastern region and its people takes place at two different levels. First there is the discrimination against the region as a whole and this is reflected in the inadequate development of basic infrastructure development as well as the lack of educational and employment opportunities. Therefore the democratic movement has been demanding that such regional discrimination be addressed through a strategy for socially just and balanced development of North Eastern region through the intervention of the central government. It is also hoped that such development will stop the large scale migration from the region. However the problem of the North Eastern region and its relationship with the rest of India is only partly addressed by the problem of uneven economic development.


The second level of discrimination not addressed by this view concerns the way in which people of North Eastern origin are dealt with in the places where they migrate. Historically, the roots of this discrimination lie not only in the processes of uneven economic development but also in the way in which dominant ‘mainstream’ Indian society perceives the region. At the advent of Independence, the partition of the country placed the region in a unique geographical position. The region was politically cut off from East Bengal with which it was integrated socially and economically in the pre-partition period. The seemingly insurmountable difficulties of communication and geographical location were further translated into a social and cultural distance which articulated itself in uniquely political terms. Movements for separate states and autonomy reflected that the founders of the Indian nation had not incorporated the aspirations of the people of the region within the larger framework of nationhood. Images of the North East as projected in school textbooks and in popular culture also normalised the perception that the people of the region as unique and different. For example who can forget the stark scene from the popular film Chak De India where a Manipur player is welcomed into the hockey training camp saying “You are our guest. Welcome to the training camp”. The player’s reply is obvious “How can one be a guest in one’s own country.


This perception of North Eastern people as ‘foreigners’ is perhaps a result of larger processes that have resulted in the resistance of North Eastern communities to imposition of dominant cultural values of mainstream caste Hindu ruling classes. This situation is in stark contrast to the acceptance of the tribal people of Central and Eastern India whose dominant classes have largely accepted the superiority of dominant culture of caste Hindu societies. The integration of these tribal people as subordinates within the larger system is in sharp contrast to the tribal aristocracy of the North East which has been asserting both its cultural and its legitimate right to the natural resources of the region. Thus the reproduction of the images of the North Eastern cultures as foreign and outside the realm of the mainstream society is part of a larger process to deny the North Eastern people their due place within the power structures of the larger Indian nation.




Given this fact, racial and other forms of discrimination against people of North Eastern origin are seen both in everyday life and the insensitivity of state level institutions. A survey done by the North Eastern Helpline in January and February recorded that 58.33 per cent of the cases of discrimination were crimes against women. According to the recorded cases of the Delhi Police, approximately two-thirds of the crimes against women were targeted against women from the North Eastern region. In other cases it is commonplace to find that North Eastern students find it difficult to find rooms on rent in comparison with students from other places. This has prompted institutions like Delhi University to designate one whole hostel for girls from the North Eastern region. While the initiative to provide space to girls from the region is welcome, one wonders whether such a separate hostel will serve the purpose of forging a spirit of living together and cultural tolerance within the larger student community.


At the same time the indifference and insensitivity of the state administration towards cases of discrimination is glaringly evident. In 2007 the Delhi Police came out with a set of guidelines for people from the North East. These guidelines prescribed dress codes and behaviour rules to North Eastern communities. Though the resultant outrage forced the authorities to withdraw the guidelines they reflected the conservative mindset of the law enforcement agency. Refusal to file FIRs in cases of discrimination is common in at least half of the cases of discrimination. It is therefore not surprising that the home minister is able to state in parliament that only seven cases of discrimination have been recorded in this year. This gross underestimation of the problem arises from the fact that there was no FIR in at least 63 per cent of the cases of discrimination, despite the victim approaching the police.  Reluctance of law enforcing agencies is also seen from the fact that they themselves regard the people of North Eastern region as foreigners. This was reflected in the parliamentary debate in Rajya Sabha when a member from Assam reported that the Delhi Police was asking students and servicemen from the region for their passports and not identity cards or driving licenses during road checking. In this context it is not surprising that a maximum number of cases of discrimination are against people of Nagaland and Manipur: two states that are perceived as both rebellious and remote. Thus the home minister’s claim of zero tolerance of crime against people from the region seem hollow in the wake of the fact that the agencies responsible for dealing with cases of discrimination are themselves guilty of following social practices that target these communities.


In order to combat the problem of social profiling and discrimination, it is not only necessary to fight for the legitimate rights of the North Eastern region, but also have a larger movement to ensure the forging of a democratic and inclusive national culture. The assertion of dominant cultural values that subordinate the rights of ethnic minorities and the carriers of this culture should be combated at every level. While the democratic movement has been at the forefront of fighting for the legitimate economic and political rights of the North Eastern region, it needs to redouble its efforts to bring about a cultural and social movement that will challenge the deep rooted intolerance of culturally different people from this region. In meeting this challenge, the hegemonic role of education, films and media has to be recognised since they have acted as a tool of ruling classes' embodying conservative cultural values. Hence the progressive movements must initiate a militant campaign to combat such hegemonic influences. This will be the first step towards forging a truly composite and inclusive national culture.