Saturday, July 16, 2011

Benign indifference

I was in Sikkim for a couple of months earlier this year. While the entire experience was interesting, one thing stood out for me: it was how different the place was from everywhere else in India. Every state I've been to in India has given me a unique experience, but I never doubted any state's compatibility, its place in the Indian Union - however different it was from my own state - because there was a definite Indianness about each of those places. But Sikkim was different. The people looked different, their language was different, their culture was different, and more importantly they seemed distant somehow, almost self-sufficient. Not self-sufficient in the material sense - obviously, given that they are dependent on the road connecting them to Siliguri for most of their basic needs - but in an emotional sense: I did not sense that attachment that Indians have to the idea of India, not to the same extent that it exists elsewhere in any case.

Now, Sikkim interacts heavily with West Bengal economically. So I got to thinking, if Sikkim, with its constant interaction with Bengal (and increasing tourist movement), has so little emotional attachment to India, then what is the case with the rest of the North-East? For the most part only Assam interacts with the rest of India directly, the other North-Eastern states interact with Assam. And that has been the case for over sixty years. Before Independence, movement was much easier, but after East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh) came into existence, only a narrow stretch of land connects the North-East to the rest of India, and even that route is not always usable, given the regular landslides that block it. So movement is minimal: I can honestly say that before Sikkim I had never interacted with a person from the North-East.

A recent article on the hunger strike being carried out by Irom Sharmila for over ten years now against human rights abuses in Manipur showcases my point: I didn't know who she was before. No wonder the North-East is emotionally distant, the rest of India isn't that attached to them either, apart from that feeling of possessiveness that overtakes us whenever talk of separation or terrorism arises. India hasn't invested much in the North-East emotionally or financially (the Government has, perhaps, but only for security, given that they  are border states).

Given that the inclusion of this region in the Indian Union was problematic in the first place (Nagaland primarily), and how much trouble it has with some of the states still, I am surprised that the Government hasn't been more proactive in promoting interaction between the North-East and the rest of India. Easier communication makes for easier trade, and trade is the best ice breaker. In any case, the North-East needs to move from the periphery to the mainstream of the Indian consciousness if it is to genuinely feel like a part of India, rather than only in name. Whether it is the Government that does it, or the people of the North-East, or those of the rest of India, it is better if it is done while we still have the chance.  

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