WHETHER coincidence or timely precaution, the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recently issued a travel advisory for its citizens planning to travel to India. They were informed that the inter-communal violence in Kokrajhar, Chirang and Dhubri districts of Assam had caused a number of deaths, injuries, displacements and disruptions in transport services. It cautioned that curfew had been imposed and further violence could occur.
Any Australian visiting India was told to exercise extreme caution if there were plans to go to India’s North-east. The advisory warned of armed robbery, kidnapping, extortion and terrorism-related incidents. “Insurgent groups have attacked civilians and bombed buildings in rural areas of these states with the increasing risk of terrorist attack in any public place, anytime at the heart of the metropolitans such as Delhi and Mumbai.” It asked its citizens to take note of the major secular and religious holidays that could provide terrorists an opportunity or pretext to stage an attack and not to step out or make such plans for those days.
Such advice and precaution, specifically from foreign countries, seem hardly relevant as far as North-east India is concerned, given that the region is infamously a conflict zone, where interstate communal and ethnic violence heads the list. This image of the North-east is, unfortunately, a cruel picture of the victimised region being given out to the world. While the advisory’s assumption could be brushed aside as a mere precautionary guide for tourists, yet it would make sense if one takes it seriously, given the region’s apprehension about “alien” visitors. The student movement in the districts of Assam and Manipur primarily emphasise the “go back foreigners” protest. In the recent Assam violence, All Assam Students’ Union advisor Samujjal Bhattacharyya said, “The international border should have been sealed a long back to prevent intruders. It is because of this that we are facing the music.” Such movements were also directed against mainlanders (Chinese), who have flooded the province in terms of the business, labour and service sectors.
One such case involved violence, arguments and analysis that were either diplomatically or otherwise woven around ethnic clashes – with subsequent development focused on relief packages and compensation. At the end of the day, a generalised and simplistic rationale produced the concluding remark that the problems of the North-east were “complex”.
As the situation evolved, then Union home minister P Chidambaram, right after visiting the violence-hit districts of Assam, was no longer holding his portfolio. Will all his “promises, statements and announcements” be reinforced by the high command? And by whom, his successor, Sushilkumar Shinde? One thing is quite evident — inhabitants displaced from their homeland must prepare to remain in relief camps for a considerable span. Indeed, what everyone is aware of is that recurring violence is not the first of its kind, either in Assam or other North-eastern states.
Meanwhile, Manipur’s civil society has once again upped its demand for implementation of the Inner Line Permit – whereby restrictions are applied to Indian states, apart from the seven sisters of North-east, although the Centre has made it clear that the ILP is just not a state subject. To cut a long story short, locals are insecure. Development or progress is equated with an open market and a widening of North-east horizons so as to remove the shackles of isolation and keep pace with the outside world.
The need of the hour, therefore, is to restore peace and order.
It is important that the Centre not only “pays attention to the east” but keenly intervenes in matters that concern not only poverty and special packages but acts to put the region on a par with the other states and reinvent its image so as to attract tourists who would contribute to its economy.
The writer is a Delhi-based freelance contributor
The Statesman Northeast Page
How North-east women cope with the big city. By ninglun hanghal
‘Girl from Manipur molested, allegedly by Gurgaon neighbour”; “Northeast girls molested by Air India staff”; “Dana Sangma suicide: Amity denies discrimination”… Of late, the media have been full of reports on the insecure lives of thousands of young women who come to the Capital from India’s northeastern states to study or seek gainful employment.
According to the ‘North East Migration and Challenges in National Capital Cities 2011’, a study by the North East Support Centre & Helpline, over 314,850 people had migrated from the Northeast to Delhi and other cities between 2005 and 2009. Delhi, of course, has emerged as one of the most popular destinations – the University of Delhi is a magnet for those interested in higher studies, while the sparkling lights of the retail and BPO sectors in the National Capital Region (NCR) beckon unemployed youth.
But these opportunities apart, life in the NCR is far from salubrious, particularly for women. It is now an established fact that both men and women from the Northeast are subject to racial discrimination, even violence. Incidents of physical violence, rape and even murder are not uncommon experiences. The reasons for such bestial acts are varied. For instance, women could find themselves under attack in the patriarchal milieu of north India, because they look different, or appear “modern” and “free”.
Shang and Renu, who have been living in Delhi for over two years, prefer however not to dwell on the “dangers” too much. Ever since the two friends, who are both in their early 20s, came to Delhi from Manipur, they have simply played it safe. They live in a relatively safe middle-class colony in south Delhi with their relatives, and work at a gift shop in a high-end mall located just a few kilometres away. For assisting shoppers and keeping a cheerful demeanour all day, they take home a modest monthly salary of any thing between Rs 10,000 and Rs 13,000 (US$1=Rs 55.4). “It’s nice working here,” says Shang, with a soft smile, adding, “You will find that most showrooms here have staffers from the Northeast.”
Shang is right. Just a few metres away, at a skin and body care products counter, Jolly and Margaret, also in their early 20s, are busy at work. Dressed in white coats and aprons, the two girls pleasantly explain the benefits of the range on offer to prospective customers. For their hard work – they are mostly on their feet and have to be patient with everyone who visits their kiosk – they earn Rs 20,000 every month. Both the girls live in rented accommodation. While Jolly stays with her brother, who works in a BPO, Margaret shares her home with a cousin, who works in a shopping complex.
Ask these young women about the hardships they endure in a city like Delhi and they remark that the harassment, discrimination and bad behaviour they encounter are so ubiquitous that such behaviour has almost become “normal and usual” for them. Street stalkers, misbehaving cabbies, random bystanders who keep staring, they encounter them every day. But they have learnt to deal with the “risks” by making sure that they travel in groups, and by bonding with colleagues and friends.
In fact, these are among the most common coping mechanisms reported. For instance, all the young women we spoke to told us that they invariably had a colleague, friend or relative from their home state at their workplace on whom they depended when things got tough or emotionally draining in a highly competitive office environment. Moreover, they make it a point to live with their siblings, relatives, or friends – cultural ties help to create a sense of security. There are spin-offs of such arrangements: Sharing a flat helps save money – and although earn enough to send money home on a regular basis, savings come in handy for gifts for festive occasions.
Most young northeastern women with a high school certificate or college degree prefer to work in malls and shopping complexes because they are better in terms of physical security and work timings. Most of them get off by 10 pm and can easily take an autorickshaw back home – cheaper than hiring a cab – since they are still plying on the roads at that hour. For those doing the graveyard shifts, like BPO employees, the risks are much higher. A major source of disquiet is the transportation arrangements made by BPO employers for those on night shifts.
Khanching from Manipur, who works in an UK-based outbound insurance telemarketing company in south Delhi, starts her shift at 3.30 in the afternoon and gets off past midnight. Although she has been doing this job since 2008, hardly a day goes by when she is not on her guard. Like the other women we talked to, Khanching, who earns around Rs 18,000 per month, also lives in a middle-class neighbourhood, with her younger brother, a college student.
The problem often is that the vehicle that drops women like Khanching home cannot access the narrow lanes of many residential colonies in Delhi. So they are dropped off on the main road and often have to make their way at that late hour past groups of young men, some of whom may be drunk. But Khanching has found a way out even in this challenging scenario, “Since my cab cannot come up at my doorstep, it’s my male colleagues – also from the Northeast – who drop me.” She also showed us a bottle of Spray COP alert, which can temporarily disable an assailant. Although she makes sure to carry it in her bag every day, she has fortunately never needed to use it she says.
Among the scores of young women working in the retail and BPO sectors, are several young women entrepreneurs, too. Take the five Mizo women who run a beauty parlour in south Delhi. Mazami, who manages the salon, came to the city in 2008 and her friends joined her later. Today, at their home-cum-salon, they pitch in and do everything together. They share the rent; they rustle up meals and, of course, work jointly. The parlour opens at 10 am, and the women work through the day, cutting hair or doing facials and the like until 8 pm. Sunday is an off day – they spend it by going to church and visiting relatives across the city.
In Delhi, the beauty business can sometimes mean big bucks. Mazami, who manages to make over Rs 20,000 a month, reveals that it is also a demanding line of work. “Sometimes I get very tense,” she says. The bulk of her customers are from the Northeast. “People from our region do not feel very comfortable going to other parlours because of the language barrier. They feel free and comfortable here,” says Mazami, who is undergoing training at Jawed Habib Hair & Beauty Ltd. She has big plans for the future. “I am looking forward to expanding my parlour,” she smiles.
Her words are a reminder of the inherent resilience and never-say-die spirit of these young women. Despite the shabby treatment meted out to them, they have kept themselves and their families going. While support structures are few, those that do exist are a great help in times of trouble. There are also groups working to change attitudes and build bridges between different communities. Some run helplines and websites to register complaints.
What’s interesting is that although every woman we talked to is aware of the dangers of living in a city like Delhi, none of them is fazed. They believe they have made the right decision by migrating to the big city and making the most of the opportunities that come their way.
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