Breaking the kaleidoscope
The glory of India lies in its multicoloured, multicultural approach, a tradition that must not be destroyed by the isolation of certain groups due to fear and hate
My link with the North-East has been both tenuous and firm. Depending on the occasion and the company present, I would either embrace the identity or distance myself from it. This dichotomy emanated from my mixed heritage. Born to parents from different parts of the subcontinent, I grew up in bits and pieces like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle fitting in at times and out of place sometimes.
Over the years, as I went through schools, college and university in different parts of the country, my identity never really bothered me. I was just another Nepali looking guy who spoke fluent Hindi and English, played football and carried his radio everywhere.
In 1989, I landed at Imphal Airport clutching a Government order saying that on completion of my phase one training at Mussoorie, I now have been handed over in one piece (supposedly) by LBSNAA to the Government of Manipur which would now be not only my cadre but also my home for the next 35 years or so. And so began a painful journey to self-discovery which also unveiled to me parts of my heritage which my subconscious mind had so successfully kept under wraps!
As I settled down uneasily in my new home, a place I had never visited before, the mists that roll over the green hills of Manipur slowly started unravelling more than just hills. One day I had a visitor. Around my age, he stood outside my door and said: "Siddharth Kaka, hi, I am Vijay, your nephew." It turned out he was the son of my cousin Shashadhar who had married into Manipuri Royalty and settled down in Manipur. I remembered Shashadhar Da as a jolly soul who could balance his whisky with his work better than most. Vijay had heard that I was in town and there he was. Soon other nephews, nieces and cousins emerged.
But this is not really about me or my journey of self-discovery. Or that I suddenly discovered that I could not speak my native tongue of Tripura or that my grandmother who spent many years living with us in Delhi before moving on to Vrindavan had Manipuri ancestry. It's about the pain I now share with my fellow denizens from the near east —the pain of being called 'Chini', of being seen as foreigners in our own country, the pain of facing racist remarks and abuse in our own cities.
COVID-19 has heaped upon the unfortunate citizens of this country, many tribulations. The loss of jobs and livelihoods, homes and dignity have visited the poor mostly though deaths and infections have been more democratic. But there is one indignity most Indians have not suffered in their own country — racial abuse and hostility which has come in quick succession for the gentle people of the North-East after COVID-19 and the border standoff with China.
I am part of an informal task force which has been helping people from the North-East, mostly young persons, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Initially, it was largely about sending emergency rations, helping out with difficult landlords and employers but there has been a more sinister pattern emerging of late. Messages of being racially abused, refusal to be considered for rented accommodation, being openly told to go back to China, stopped from entering shops, etc., have replaced the earlier calls for rations, help in payment of back wages, assistance to return to home states, carriage of mortal remains, admissions to hospitals etc.
Anyone who has visited or lived in the North-East will testify to the trusting and easy-going nature of the people. It's a community-based society without the 'Khap' like knee on the necks of its members. Like the rain and the hills, the people too are part of a bountiful nature which shares its fruits with them like one big family. Whether it's a morning visit to the Umananda Ghat to catch a ferry to the smallest river island in India, home to the Umananda Temple on the Brahmaputra or a trek to Siroy Hill of Ukhrul to catch a glimpse of the elusive Siroy Lily, nothing is hurried or tense. Yes, there are tribe loyalties, clan rivalries and localised fissures but co-existence is the underlying thread that runs through the larger fabric sewing together this 'coat of many colours' as the old song goes.
The region bore the brunt of the Axis Powers' attack on India during World War II and the war cemeteries in Kohima and Imphal are silent testimonies to the retreat of the invading forces. Somewhere on a hill near Agartala lies a stone engraved with the name of a relative who fought the Japanese, took home the Military Cross and never returned home. In recent times, young officers and soldiers from the region have made the supreme sacrifice for the nation shoulder to shoulder with other brave men. Away from the battlefields, men and women from the region have stood proudly on victory podiums as the Indian Tricolour rose high above others in sporting arenas around the world.
And yet, as we walk down the streets of India, we are called 'Chini', we are asked to go back to China, we are refused rented apartments, people wonder if we speak Chinese, our friendly nature is mistaken for familiarity, our eating habits are considered foreign and the list grows longer each day. I still remember Kunjarani Devi being called Indonesian by a Doordarshan commentator many years back!
And every time this is talked about, not too often, the same old cliché is repeated by friends, leaders and intelligentsia — India is a great country with a lot of diversity and we are so proud of this diversity and actually it's what we are all about. Indeed yes, the diversity is what makes India tick but ignorant and the not so ignorant abuse this very diversity by not being able to see Nagas, Mizos, Arunachalis, Sikkimese, Khasis, Jaintias, Garos, Tripuris, Meteis, Assamese and the hundreds of other ethnicities from the North East as fellow Indians. The region which gave us Bhupen Hazarika, Sachin Dev Burman and Rahul Dev Burman, Kunjarani Devi, Mary Kom, Dingko Singh, Baichung Bhutia, Maniram Dewan, Rani Gaidinliu, Bir Tikenderjit, Captain Kenguruse, Capt. Clifford Nongbrum to name but a few amongst so many, today finds itself being questioned by those who have not understood it or its history. Remember the kaleidoscope toy? As kids, we used to peer into and rotate it to see the tiny differently coloured and shaped bits and pieces move around making varied patterns. Each time you shook it or turned it the pattern would change as the pieces moved. But none of the pieces left the circle or fell out of it. No matter how many times you turned it or how hard you shook it the pieces moved but remained intact inside and continued to make beautiful patterns.
India is like a kaleidoscope toy. We are all in it as different parts, each beautiful in own way and contributing to the changing patterns. So my dear fellow Indians, keep rotating it and marvel at its beauty but do not shake it so hard that it breaks and one small part falls out, irreplaceably.
Views expressed are personal