Shift in looking at Mainland India

NORTH-EAST Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail by  Duncan McDuie-Ra (Published  by Amsterdam University Press ) is an ethnographic study of people from the North-east living and working in Delhi.  Its in-depth research brings out a range of interlinked context and an insight into the delicate, complicated and complex web of the frontier region and mainland India. It sensitively captures the everyday life of North-east population in the capital, a disturbing one perhaps, and offers an alternative view of contemporary India
The author talks to ninglun hanghal. Excerpts:
Comparatively, from 2000 there has been a rise in the number of people leaving the North-east and there was a marked change in their class profile. Does this mean that it is no longer insurgency or conflict that prompted them to leave but more of an economic migration vis-a-vis the emergence of global cities like Delhi ?
In post-Independent India, a small group of N-E elites left their homes to join the civil services, they are well connected and better off than others. In the case of conflict or violence-induced migration, the movement is not very far, for instance people from Nagaland may move to Dibrugarh, or from Mizoram to Silchar. Everything changed from around 2000 and after. There are many reasons and these differ from state to state, district to district. The tendency of migration is general – of course, violence and conflict are the main reason. But today many people from even a peaceful background (Arunachal or  Mizoram) and less privileged groups leave their home states, mainly for jobs and better incomes, which the home states do not offer, especially for women. Another reason is aspirations and the evolving economy of Indian cities. Thus the profile of the migrants has changed.

Delhi,  as an  emerging global city, is a  preferred destinations for N-E people. It provides jobs for them in retail shops, malls, restaurants and BPOs. This is further facilitated by the space you called “un-Indian”  where the N-E people fit in. Do you mean to say this affirms an “un-Indianess” of people from the N-E, or in other words, N-E people are un-Indian? Further, does this mean that India too has the desire for un-Indian spaces?  
Yes, the N-E people are “un-Indian” even if they try to integrate. Many North-east people told me “I don’t want to be this (an Indian)”, some  do not identify themselves. And there are many who have come to Delhi and say they have a place. But as one Arunachalese said, “At home we are very much Indian (cebrating Republic Day, singing the National Anthem) but they call me chinky here (in Delhi). I don’t want to be Indian anymore.” There is a mixed reaction too, a lot of N-E people I had interacted say it is a little hard! I can imagine and understand that their parents fought against India and here they are trying hard to be Indian.  
The mainland Indian middle class crave for “exotic” spaces, which I call an “un-Indian”space which is a global space. This space elevates their “status” and this requires labour forces. This is where N-E people fit in. This is a niche that didn’t exist 10 years ago for the mainland Indian middle class and this fascinates them.
Any studies or matters related to the N-E always have terms like “backward”, “head-hunter” and “sexy”. Do you see any contradictory/contrasting terms — on one hand it is backward and on the other you see a sexy (urbane) modern N-E?
 I find it bizarre! N-E people were asked in Delhi if they were head-hunters, how they live and what they eat at home. N-E people are seen in two ways, one backward and the other sexy. One of the reasons is tourism – the imaginary where the N-E is seen in  traditional forms and presentations, such as half-naked. In the city they work and dress, they live “urbane”. The two co-exist in the city which is the contact point.

Why do you think the N-E people dislike and are so angry at being called chinky?
In the West “chinky’ is a derogatory word; it is used to address the Chinese. To call an Asian “chinky” has much more meaning. Why should the size of eyes matter? Whether the N-E thinks “Chinese” or not is a different matter. It is used as an excuse to abuse, to yell at people who look different.
 You find that in Delhi both N-E boys/men and girls/women tend to emphasise or enact much more gendered roles, not necessarily as in their home states. What are the key factors and context?
Gender roles are changing among N-E migrants. Men really struggle in Delhi and have anxiety of losing control over women. For women they enact roles that are required of them in their jobs. Whereas women get jobs easily  and most of them find their “independence” in the city, they mostly preferred to stay on.
But most N-E men want to go back home, probably where they can express and actively involve  themselves in work that is masculine or presumed to be for men, such as politics.

In one of your chapters you deal with “Place-making in the city” which has a lot to say about the locals, or the host population of the migrant communities which “allow”or provide such spaces/places to be created. Are such places a forceful or grabbing space? Does this relate to problems faced by the N-E, such as attacks?
The host population benefits from these spaces (created by the migrant) in terms of earning, such as rent for rooms. Yes, there is acceptance by the host population (or the locals) and there is successful space-creating by the N-E people, such as opening a shop (eg, in Munirka). But there are tensions between locals and N-E migrants and this is a reality. Definitely, to some extent the N-E people face problems once they become visible and have a space. Attacks on women take place when the locals know where to find a target.
 One disturbing fact is the brain drain that you have mentioned. How do you see this trend?
This is depressing to see bright N-E young people working in shops and BPOs in Delhi while they can do a lot more in their home states. Also the N-E people living in the cities themselves look down on their own people back home.
  All the bright, good students left their home states, even if you have a good university in the N-E.

You observed and found that North-easterners enact complex and multi-layered identities. Is this more of an “identity crisis” or confusion or transition ?
It is transition.The N-E and its people are cosmopolitan, while “mainland” India is insular. To many N-E people, being in Delhi helps ease some of the tensions back home. Today there is a positive element, such as the back and forth movement; a constant traffic between the N-E and mainland India. But many N-E people still don’t feel at home here, they are not part of the city, they are not members of the residents’ welfare associations. It will take a lot of time to be part of the city for N-E people.
 You concluded in your study that the N-E is in a mess. That the region and the people cannot be studied within a nation-state boundary and that the borders are unsettling. What and how do we read from this conclusion?
The trans-boundary is an important aspect. But there is a change; from not wanting to be an Indian, N-E people are now coming and living here in Delhi. This also tells us a lot about the city – how it accommodates them, such as the church, the pork shop. There are also elements that want the N-E out from Delhi, while some are paternal. But the N-E people handle things here (Delhi) very well. They are very impressive.
The N-E and its people are changing. There is a generational shift. Today parents want their children to venture out of their homes/ states. This indicates how people from the N-E view India. They are prepared to tolerate. Moreover, the city needs them, of course for labour. There is a changing scenario of trust. There are more and more encounters between the N-E frontier and mainland India.
Duncan McDuie-Ra is a senior lecturer in development studies at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
The interviewer is a Delhi-based freelance contributor
The Statesman - NE page , December 23,2012

Irom Sharmila's fast : After 12 years is it time for a strategic shift ?

It is over 12 years since Irom Sharmila went on a fast for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur – an unprecedented protest staged by a single individual anywhere in the world. Her symbolic resistance has brought people from all over the country together in the common cause of ending the writ of a draconian law. She has been awarded the Gwangju prize for Human Rights in 2007, a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission and the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize in 2010.

It all started on November 2, 2000. A group of people were waiting for a local bus in Malom, about five kilometres from Manipur’s capital, Imphal. They were mowed down by the Assam Rifles in retaliation to an ambush it had suffered at the hands of some underground groups. The incident created instant public outrage. It changed the lives of not just the 10 who were killed and their relatives, but that of a woman who was in her late 20s. Two days after that incident, Irom Sharmila took her decision to fast until the AFSPA was withdrawn from her state.

Her steely resolve did not immediately create ripples. In fact, her colleagues at Human Rights Alert, the organisation she was associated with then, ran from pillar to post to draw public attention to her call. Despite the lack of broad support, Sharmila persisted with the fast amidst concerted attempts by the state and central governments to force her to withdraw it.

In October 2006, during one of her periodic releases from jail, Sharmila came to Delhi to pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, her idol. At that point the local and mainstream media had almost forgotten her existence.

She went on to continue her fast at Delhi’s site of public protest, Jantar Mantar, and was immediately arrested by the Delhi Police. For months, she was confined to a hospital room at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in the Capital, under blanket security cover. In 2007, she was shifted to Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, where she has been ever since. While in Delhi she continued to garner media attention and support from civil society organisations. Booked under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 309, which pertains to “attempt to suicide”, Sharmila persisted with her struggle, even as an indifferent State turned a deaf ear to her call.

While much has been said and written about her case, it is her “love story” that has suddenly become the talking point. This, in turn, has proved very controversial with her supporters, especially those belonging to the Meitei community, reacting even violently to it. In September 2011, for instance, they protested against ‘The Telegraph’, for writing exclusively on the “romance”. The protestors demanded an “explanation” from the newspaper for its sensational reportage, even calling for a ban on its circulation in Manipur.

Deepti Priya Mehrotra, who wrote a biography of Irom Sharmila, ‘Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur’ in 2010, believes the stridency of the protest was because her supporters felt the media was focusing on personal matters unduly while putting her political struggle on the backburner. “Her supporters are being painted as if they want Sharmila to continue fast and to be in detention rather than have a personal life, which is far from the truth,” Mehrotra observes.

There could also be another factor – general disquiet over Sharmila’s relationship with a non-Manipuri, since the person in question is of Goan origin with a British citizenship. As Babloo Loitongbam, human rights activist and a close comrade of Sharmila, points out, a society like the Meiteis, where a lot of respect is traditionally paid to elders and customary ways of life, any deviation from the norm causes unease.

Assertions of this kind involve not just Sharmila, but women in general. Vigilante groups have from time to time issued diktats on how women should conduct themselves in terms of dress, marriage and general behaviour. In early 2012, for instance, student bodies in Manipur issued a dress code for girls, insisting that the traditional “phanek” should be their uniform.

Haripriya Soibam, a Delhi University scholar and Manipuri poet, believes that at least some of the anger over Sharmila’s reported ‘romance’ could well be because it indicated that a non-Manipuri journalist had direct access to her while most Manipuri journalists did not.

As for the issue of whether Sharmila should give up her fast or not, Loitongbam is categorical, “It is entirely up to her, whether she wants to continue with it or not. We will support her either way.” However, given the sensitivity of the central issue – the banning of people who are fighting for repeal of AFSPA and branding them anti-national – there is some speculation over the motives of the person who has declared his deep interest in Sharmila. He has also courted controversy by stating in letters to media houses and social networking sites that the local media and Sharmila’s supporters (including women groups) are “deadly against their relationship”. He has, in fact, also claimed for himself the status of being “the only approved spokesperson of Irom Sharmila”.

Anubha Bhonsle, senior journalist with CNN-IBN who had done television documentaries on Sharmila, believes “both sides will have to prove their true intent”. As she puts it, “No one can lay claim to Sharmila, including the man in question. She should be her own master.” Bhonsle also believes it is time that Sharmila herself issue a personal statement to dispel the confusion.

As things stand today, Iron Sharmila has been put on a pedestal and deemed a superhuman. Admits Soibam candidly, “Her iconification is a sad fact. But it is also perhaps inescapable. We have turned her into a universal ‘eche’ (elder sister).” This has its downside. Because she is cast in this superhuman role, her needs as a human being are overlooked. To say that Sharmila has become, more or less, public property would be too harsh, but it has shades of truth, according to Soibam.

Confined as she is to an isolated hospital room, Sharmila has little control over her life. She is dictated to at every turn; her every move is monitored by the State. At the same time, she is also at the command of supporters and human rights activists who have literally taken her cause to the nation and the world with their cry, “Support Sharmila’s fast against AFSPA!”

But some like Bhonsle believe that Sharmila has made enough of a personal sacrifice and people should not insist on her becoming a martyr to the cause. Bhonsle knows that this is easier said than done, “I understand her dilemma of not wanting to let go of the struggle and the fast. After all, she has given 12 good years of her life for it. But the campaign has hinged on Sharmila’s fast for far too long and has tended to focus on commemorating anniversaries.”

Today, according to her, the State and non-state actors want to keep her alive for their own reasons and the time has come for a change in attitude, not just at the civil society level but at the political level.

Should Sharmila then take up a different mode of protest rather than persist with her fast? Soibam believes she should. Mehrotra, not just her biographer but a friend, also feels Sharmila should end her fast and “come out to lead us in the struggle against AFSPA”, while Bhonsle wants her to make her life’s choices “without any guilt”. She believes that women’s groups, who have fought long and hard by her side, should now understand Sharmila’s predicament and rally by her side again – just as they did all those years ago when she first decided to go on fast.

—(Women's Feature Service) December 2012