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Finding home in India’s North-East

  • A timely anthology looks at burning questions of home and identity from India’s North-East
  • The collection addresses some of the recent debates over the Citizenship Amendment Bill

Manipuri activists demand the withdrawal of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Delhi.
Manipuri activists demand the withdrawal of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Delhi.

Icould sense, if only fleetingly, an unease in my home state, Assam, during a visit in January, days after the Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Among the “natives", especially Hindus, a conversation about the miyah, a local umbrella word for all Bangladeshi immigrants used with habitual denigration, usually centres on victimhood.

How can the miyahs take everything away from the people of the land? They are so powerful now that they will take over all the resources of the state. I haven’t often heard the elite Assamese talk about the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) in the North-East with such pessimism or disgruntlement. This time, the mood in the state capital was charged with a combined sense of triumph and foreboding.

The Bill, if passed by the Rajya Sabha, will redefine citizenship on the basis of religious identity; it would amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to make illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship.

Anybody who has lived in Assam in the 1980s knows—and the new anthology Insider Outsider reminds us—it doesn’t take much foolishness for communal or ethnic violence to erupt there and return to the bad old days that led to the gruesome Nellie massacre 35 years ago. Most North-Eastern states, including Nagaland and Tripura, and groups in Assam are opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill; the All Assam Students’ Union protested with black flags as Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled from the airport to Guwahati’s Raj Bhavan during his visit to the region on 8 February.

I started reading the anthology about the experience of belonging and unbelonging in the North-East around the same time. It is about the dhkar in Shillong, the bangal in Garo Hills, the mayang in Manipur, the vai in Mizoram, the miyah in Assam—immigrants who have lived in these states over generations, who still don’t know if they have found home.

Insider Outsider— Belonging And Unbelonging In North-East India: Edited by Preeti Gill and Samrat Choudhary, Amaryllis, 244 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>399.
Insider Outsider— Belonging And Unbelonging In North-East India: Edited by Preeti Gill and Samrat Choudhary, Amaryllis, 244 pages, 399.

Editors Preeti Gill and Samrat Choudhary bring together essays—personal and academic—as well as poetry. Journalist and human rights thinker Sanjoy Hazarika, novelist Anjum Hasan, artist Sonal Jain, human rights activist Suhas Chakma, Manipuri writer-activist Thounaojam Brinda and musician, novelist and former Megahalaya minister R.G. Lyngdoh are among those who chisel the history and experience of those who live as outsiders in the region.

Ever since the 1950s, the hills of the North-East have been marked along ethnic lines. As scholar Binayak Dutta says in his essay, multi-ethnicity has been viewed as a “transgression of community spaces" in the region, and violence viewed “as a legitimate means to homogenize geo-political and social spaces, in the name of protection of community interests". Most pieces in the anthology retain this historical fact as a chilling context.

In one of the most compelling essays, visual artist and musician Mahua Sen, having grown up as a Bengali in Shillong, writes about the shaping of an instinct that leads her to resist belonging to a place—“The element of mistrust in the surroundings and a sense of not belonging took hold slowly. We micro dosed fear and customised the irrationality of ‘something can go wrong anytime’."

She questions the failure of India’s intellectual class to engage with the realities of minority experiences in the North-East. Sen was born in Shillong, like her father. As a child growing up in the 1980s, she was exposed to violence on Bengalis by Khasis, though she didn’t experience it personally. Her idea of home is in a state of perpetual ruin.

Like Sen, writer and academic Shalim M. Hussain struggles with the idea of home, but he finds his outsider status liberating when he begins living outside Assam. He is a second-generation Bangladeshi immigrant who completed his education in the state. In his essay Growing Up Miyah, he quotes a “miyah poet", Abdur Rahim: “A couple of generations ago, when we were all illiterate and couldn’t speak Assamese, we were accused of clinging to our Bengali roots. Now that we have grown into and whole-heartedly accepted Assamese language and culture, we are accused of putting on a show."

This anthology is as much about melancholia and the beauty of in-between states of mind as it is about the need to reconsider the Bill. Will it again push thousands towards the unknown? The book reminds us why immigration is a critical human experience, essential for dialogue and revival.

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