The apparent murder in Bangalore of a boy from the Northeast and the suicide of a young lady from that corner of India has led to media introspection about the way people from the region fare in the rest of India. Because of their fluency in English and their cheery adaptability, young people from the Northeast are considered an asset at the workplace, especially in call centres or in service trades. In the past, all of the South was lumped into a single, undifferentiated mass whose inhabitants were known as “Madrasis”, sometimes pejoratively, those being times when Bihar was more economically and educationally advanced than what is now Tamil Nadu. These days, people from the Northeast get similarly lumped together, when in fact the region contains a medley of communities and practices. Gurgaon, which has become the high-tech zone of Delhi, is fortunate enough to have a growing population from the Northeast. Few outside the region are aware that the people of the Northeast are even more different from each other as Kannadigas are from Tamils.
Although the country finds itself in the 21st century, it does so with a governance structure that is still based on the needs and principles of the 19th century. While the rest of the population are increasingly aware that the only problem with India, one that is preventing the country from reaching anywhere close to its potential, is the system of government, those who are part of the official machinery still consider themselves the last word on any issue. Naturally, this means that rules and laws get created that ensure that they indeed become the last word. Despite the complete (and it may be added, seemingly deliberate) failure of the governance mechanism to deliver acceptable results, many in this country still view the government with awe, and are content to allow it to decide on their behalf. Such a mindset is alien to the Northeast. So rickety is the administration in those parts that the local population seeks to distance themselves from officials and officialdom as much as is practicable. In that sense, people from the region are far more “21st century relevant” than many of the rest of us.
Had any of the many dispensations in Delhi had a policy of seeking to leverage the synergies possible because of the location of the Northeast, by now there would have been a multi-lane highway linking India with Myanmar and the rest of ASEAN. Spurs would have reached into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. More skilful diplomacy with China may have led to conditions that permitted the opening of trade corridors between Yunnan and the Northeast, should Beijing finally accept that the retention of Arunachal Pradesh in India is as much a given as the continued Chinese hold over Tibet and Aksai Chin. Someday, such an interlinking of regional synergies may come about. Once it does, it will not be people from the Northeast migrating to other parts of India, but people from the rest of the country coming to take advantage of the economic boom that would accompany interlinkage between India, China, Myanmar, Thailand and the vicinity.
As a proportion of the population, there would be many more people in the Northeast who are “21st century friendly” than in many other parts of India. Perhaps this outreach towards modernity is what annoys some people about those coming from the Northeast. The perception is that they are “too modern”, that the women of the Northeast “like western-style clothes” rather than more domestic varieties. Given that India itself represents a fusion of peoples, lifestyles and cultures, such bigotry is what is truly “un-Indian”, rather than a choice of attire. Only those who seek to keep India in the 19th century will share the view of bigots about people from the Northeast. The rest would celebrate the presence within the national fabric of a group of people as vibrant, as current, as the people of the Northeast are.
Despite the prejudice they may be encountering from the diminishing number of Indian citizens who are still 19th century in mind and spirit, those from the Northeast need to know that the future is theirs. They are geographically next to the most dynamic corner of the globe, a region that will power growth in all of India once the present set of illogical policies get replaced with rational alternatives. The way a location treats people from the Northeast is an indication of whether that location is closer to the 19th century or to the 21st.