A perennial among issues that echo through political and social life in Northeast India is the question of insiders and outsiders. It animates groups across the region and leads to occasional outbursts of violence, in a pattern that has remained largely unchanged for decades. The dividing line between the insider and the outsider is one that shifts from place to place and even from day to day. Its complexities are rarely remembered.
I was reminded of some of these complexities while editing a forthcoming book on the topic. My co-editor Preeti Gill and I wanted to give space to voices from different communities across divides so that they could tell their own stories from their varied positions and points of view. However, we immediately came up against difficulties in doing this. Northeast India is a region of vast diversity, with around 220 languages spoken, and adherents of every major religion in the world. There are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and animists of multiple sects. There are tribespeople, and plains people of many castes. There are men and women, rich and poor. Obviously, we would never fit all of this diversity into one book. It would take several volumes to cover the topic with any pretence of completeness.
We figured we would have to content our- selves with making a small start. Even this proved hard, because we then had to confront other practical difficulties. For example, we were talking about a book, and therefore needed good writers in English who could write with elegance and knowledge. This obviously narrowed the field greatly. The choices circled around to journalists and academics. We tried to broaden the field further by including some people who are from other fields, but in the end, some of those efforts did not bear fruit. Interestingly, we found that a large number of the pool of writers came from two places: Shillong and Guwahati. Moreover, even the ones from Guwahati turned out almost without exception to have had their school educations in Shillong. So, despite our attempts at diversity, all roads led to Shillong, and mainly, to Assamese and Bengalis from Shillong.
This was not a bad thing, we figured because the Assamese and Bengalis – who are both regarded as dkhars, meaning outsiders, in Shillong – are again at the centre of the latest episode in the long running saga of insider versus outsider in Northeast India. The National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Bill have reopened old rifts between the Bengali and Assamese communities in Assam. The insider/outsider issue is once again most sharply felt in that state, the most populous one in the region. We were therefore happy to have several excellent writers from the Bengali and Assamese communities with roots in the region writing on the theme of insider/outsider.
Yet, writers, if they are real writers, are not community representatives, and the stories we ended up with are not all written by people extolling the virtues of their own communities. Rabindranath Tagore may have been a Bengali, and an Indian, but his stories were written for a universal readership. So, too, for Shakespeare, and Saadat Manto, Agatha Christie and Haruki Murakami. Across genres, styles, ages, nationalities and languages, they were or are great writers because they wrote great human stories. The universal humanity to which art elevates us is perhaps something that in the case of Northeast India was only popularly experienced through the works of the great Bhupen Hazarika, and his friend Hemango Biswas.
Today there is no Bhupen Hazarika and no Hemango Biswas and we are left to consider the many complicated facets of identities that divide us from one another, particularly in Northeast India.
There is a tribal versus non tribal divide, but there are divides between and within tribes as well. There are many linguistic divides, several religious divides, class divides, and political divides. So, for instance, the Chakmas are a tribal group, as are the Tea Tribes, but their status in Northeast India is very different from other tribal groups. Similarly, the Meiteis of Manipur are a nontribal group, but their situation too is quite unique. The Bengalis are united by language and divided by religion. The Assamese and Bengali are, in many cases, united by religion and divided by language. The Nagas are divided by tribe but united by a sense of Naga identity. And so on.
The exploration of the idea of insider and outsider leads us eventually to ideas of how we bond with other humans and form groups. It is very natural for passengers sharing a train compartment, for example, to strike up conversations. If they get along with one another, they become, at least for the duration of the train journey, a group. Similarly, footballers and cricketers from different ethnic and social backgrounds form teams, and at least for the duration of the match, are insiders against their opponents from other teams. It is obvious that the construction of insider and outsider is actually a situational thing. It depends on place, time and circumstance.
Traditionally, people who lived in the same village would naturally over time come to share aspects of their common lives. People who worshipped the same gods or spoke the same language would have shared aspects of culture.
Those who lived in the same kingdom would have common aspects of belonging and identity. The question is, how closed were these categories to assimilation?
Religions sought converts by various means and grew by assimilation. Anyone could and still can go from one religion to another, and many people down the ages did. Linguistic communities, similarly, were open to assimilation. A person could and still can become the speaker of a language different from that of one’s ancestors. There are very good contemporary examples. For instance, the film star Rajinikanth’s real name is Shivajirao Gaekwad. He is of Marathi origin but is the greatest living Tamil superstar. As for places and kingdoms… well, people kept moving over the centuries, and the borders kept changing too. Those were days before birth certificates, PAN card and Aadhar – in fact even now a very significant part of the Indian population lacks these documents. But there was never anything closed or permanent about location or identity. The history of the world, including Northeast India, is a history of migration, conversion and change.
Even ethnic tribal identities were not closed to assimilation. For instance, the Khasi tribe has a ritual called the Tang Jied by which a new clan line was traditionally created to accommodate outsiders from other places and incorporate their descendants into the Khasi tribe. Many prominent Khasi clans have the word “khar” in their names, indicating a dkhar – meaning outsider – lineage. Indeed, Dkhar itself is a quite popular surname among Khasis.
It’s only with the coming of the printing press after the British began to rule these areas that languages became standardized and maps gradually became widely available, thus laying the foundations for future ethnic and linguistic clashes between groups. The Census put people into neat, fixed categories of language, religion and caste. With Partition in 1947, there was an attempt to translate the ideas of lines on maps into lines on the ground. The open lands and rivers across which people had moved back and forth for thousands of years would now have to be policed and fenced.
The task of recreating the world according to imaginations of insiders and outsiders with permanent addresses and identities is still incomplete. It is a project in painful progress, and now the might of the powerful Indian state and all its apparatuses is behind it.
For peoples who spill across borders, which is almost every major community in Northeast India where there are borders all around, the experience of divided lives is an inevitable reality. The Bengalis and Nepalis know it of course, but the Meiteis, Khasis and Garos of Bangladesh, like the Nagas and Chins of Myanmar, have also to reconcile to being ‘outsiders’ in one place as much as they are ‘insiders’ in another. As for the unfortunate Chakmas, they are left being outsiders in both Northeast India and Bangladesh.
The Northeast has yet to figure out the full ramifications of fixed, hard borders and identities by which it came to be bound in 1947.
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