A Nation Confused

As the Indo-China Summit has recently been concluded in the coastal town of Mamallapuram, roughly one hour from Chennai, there is one key takeaway that the larger Indian public are most likely not aware or concerned of. The visit of the Chinese Premier Xi Xinping had solicited protests by a handful of Tibetans in a few places in Chennai for which measures were being taken by the Police to thwart them. In the process, many North Easterners apparently mistaken as Tibetans were taken along into preventive custody and detained by the Chennai Police.

The only possible excuse for those detentions being, sure enough, that they look like Tibetans and by extension, Chinese in their physical appearances. In another word, the people detained did not look ‘Indian’ even though they reportedly carry Indian IDs and were eagerly showing them to the Police. The irony being that the Police had reportedly warned the Northeast Welfare Association (NEWA) to take caution and instruct its members to carry their ID as a preventive measure prior to the visit which they did. Yet, it didn’t prevent them from being targeted and detained. Casting aside the fact that the instruction had to be even made in the first place, the ‘mistake’ of arresting your own citizens purely based on their resemblance to a group of foreigners is at best bizarre and at worst symptomatic of a deeper underlying issue.

Another incident of a similar nature comes to mind during the previous occasion of the Chinese Prime Minister’s visit in 2014. At the time, the Gujarat Cops reportedly warned North Easterners and Tibetans to stay away from the venue of the meeting to avoid confusion between the two by the police and to save the Premier from any possible ‘embarrassment’. How does one respond in such a situation? Are these supposedly pre-emptive actions justified and can be even trivialised as a mere temporary solution for a temporary situation? The problem is that these kind of incidents are not only repetitive but are related to a more complex issue of historical mistrust and suspicion that has defined India’s general outlook towards its Northeast and the people.

For the average ‘mainland’ Indian, a Mongoloid looking person from the Northeast is still almost always viewed first as a ‘foreigner’ and the latter would have to clarify his citizenship status more often than not. Much of the doubt or confusion, or even the impression, comes from assumptions made at face-value and unless proved otherwise, provides room for prejudice, harassment, mockery and/or blatant discrimination. For instance, a northeast person travelling abroad will at times have to do some explaining to the immigration officer.

A student studying in Delhi or Mumbai and a person looking for jobs coming to India’s metropolitan cities for the first time will each face the challenge of asserting their ‘Indianness’- although at varying degrees depending on the situation- so as to avoid being treated differently or to appear less vulnerable. This is not about making a distinction per se between the Tibetans and people from the Northeast especially since the former have been residing in India as refugees for decades, and hence are well-versed in the unwritten ‘social protocols’ of being an Indian citizen.

But the utter inability of the Indian State and rather the general Indian populace to positively recognise fellow Indians based on at least some basic features about them even in 2019 points to a sad and disappointing reality. When it involves State machinery such as the Police and Security Forces, it reeks of profiling and defeats the very purpose of national integration which has been the objective of Post-Colonial India’s nation-building project in its dealing with the Northeast.

It is understandable that a country of 1.3 billion population spread across a vast expanse of geographies will indeed take much longer than smaller nations to learn about each and every one of its tribe, caste and ethnic groups. However, in a stark contrast to the much hyped ‘Unity in Diversity’ narrative, the India as we know it, as the world knows it continues to be more or less the Indo-Aryan and Indo-Dravidian India with its Indic cultures, languages and religion.

The world does not yet know about Mongoloid India or the indigenous tribes in the Northeast who physically resemble Southeast Asians and East Asians even as a large part of the ‘mainland’ India still struggles to acknowledge them as ‘full-fledged Indians’. And because it is unreasonable to expect everyone to carry ID proof of their citizenship at all times, the average person naturally relies on facial recognition to identify someone as either a fellow citizen or not. It is quite clear that the idea of a mongoloid person as an ‘Indian’ doesn’t yet sinks in.

This has guided most of the communications and interactions between citizens of different races and creates virtual hierarchies of citizenships, making some people appear more ‘Indians’ than others who would have to try harder to be seen and treated on an equal footing. The raging social media and widespread use of internet along with increased tourism may have closed the gap but not nearly enough. As often suggested by many, it seems a more fundamental, revolutionary change needs to be introduced such as featuring northeastern states’ cultures, histories and traditions in the school syllabuses of the larger ‘mainland’ states. But will that be enough to remedy the decades-long sense of alienation felt by the people of the Northeast? Probably not. But it’s nonetheless a good and essential step that needs to be taken.

To simply ask “Are you from China?” to a northeastern person simply because he doesn’t fit in to the standard Indo-Aryan-Dravidian image may be ignorant but harmless. But to be mistaken as either a Chinese or a Tibetan and to go to ‘jail’ for it or to be suspected of your loyalty to the nation and be judged for the different traits and perspectives that you bring to the table can no longer be condoned or justified. It has only contributed in creating a deeper emotional chasm that results in the strong ‘us’ versus ‘them’ thinking and practices. The way forward would be for every right thinking Indian to reassess and reflect upon the markers of nationality that we tend to employ either consciously or subconsciously on a regular basis and whether or not these are toxic and harmful in their manifestation or implementation. That should be the key takeaway.


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C.V. Lalmalsawmi Written by:

PhD Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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