The Alienated “Seven Sisters”

I will not feel even a bit surprised if many Indians while reading this article will not understand the significance of its title, because even those, who pose to be “all-knowing”, become blank-faced when it comes to being aware of the condition of the north-eastern states of India. Most of them cannot even recall the names of those seven states of the Northeast along with their capitals. So this article is aimed at shaking up their memories and also diverting their minds, for a few minutes, from the age-old Kashmir issue to many more equally serious and burning problems that have been posing numerous threats to the integrity of the Indian nation.

This sobriquet – the Land of Seven Sisters, was originally coined by Jyoti Prasad Saikia, a journalist, in course of a radio talk in Tripura, coinciding with the inauguration of the new states in January, 1972. Later, Saikia also compiled a book- “Land of Seven Sisters” on the interdependence and commonness of these Seven Sister States. It was primarily because of the publication of his book that this sobriquet caught on.

The states of Arunachal Pradesh (capital – Itanagar), Assam (capital – Dispur), Manipur (capital – Imphal), Meghalaya (capital – Shillong), Mizoram (capital – Aizawl), Nagaland (capital – Kohima) and Tripura (capital – Agartala) together are referred to as the Seven Sister States.

When India achieved its independence, only three states covered the area of the Northeast. Manipur and Tripura were still princely states, whereas a much larger Assam (capital – Dispur) Province was under the direct rule of the British. Later, four new states were carved out of the original territory of Assam as the Indian government was on line to reorganize the states along ethnic and linguistic lines. Accordingly, Nagaland also became a separate state in 1963, followed by Meghalaya in 1972. In the same year, Mizoram became a Union Territory, and later, achieved its statehood along with Arunachal Pradesh in 1987.

Today, these states cover an area of about 250,000 sq. km. – about 7 percent of India’s total area and also account for about 4 percent of India’s total population.

There’s a lot in common amongst these seven states. For example, except for the states of Assam and Tripura where the major languages are Assamese and Bangla, respectively, the region has a predominantly tribal population speaking various Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic languages. Here, Meitei – a Tibeto-Burman language is the third most spoken language. Here, Hinduism and Christianity are the two predominant religions. The large and populous states of Assam, Tripura and Manipur are predominantly Hindu, with a sizeable Muslim minority too in the state of Assam. Through an applaud-able service of Christian missionaries, Christianity became the major religion in the states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. Buddhism is another important religion in this region.

These states are an integral part of the Indian nation. But today, there’s no doubt in the fact that they are being alienated by the mainstream population of the country and even the government of India itself is very negligent and many times, completely ignorant towards their condition. To a reasonable extent, the geographical location of these states can be blamed for it. Covering mostly the forest-covered areas and hilly terrains, these seven states are practically landlocked in the Northeastern region of the country. Their geographical and practical needs of development underscore their need to thrive and work together. They are isolated from the rest of India except through the Siliguri Corridor (West Bengal) – a slender and vulnerable corridor which is flanked by many alien territories. This difficult accessibility to this region has been responsible for acting as a hurdle in its development. For many decades, people in many areas of this region were mainly tribal. They were far from being educated and civilized.

The Northeast has always been very rich in natural resources and full of opportunities too. Therefore, soon after it became a little accessible, many Marwari merchants and traders, who were good at minting silver and making quick money, went there for the purpose of trading and establishing their business. But for making huge profits, they thoughtlessly exploited even the innocent natives of the region as they were uneducated. But times changed and so did the scenario which turned the wheel of fortune the other way round. With sincere efforts of many Christian missionaries in the Northeast, awareness was spread among the people and they were made aware of their rights. They were educated so that they could be prevented from any sort of exploitation at the hands of any “outsiders”. And ever since then, people from the rest of India were taken as “outsiders” by them. Many of them still have the urge to mingle with the mainstream population but have difficulty in accessing the rest of India. The acute consciousness of being persons of a different ethnicity, their Mundari culture and of course, nonetheless, the neighboring states of India do not allow them to do so with such an ease.

All this breeds a feeling of separatism in the people of the Northeast. The treatment meted out to them is like the one which is given to step children. Many of them are eligible for getting reservations in educational institutions in India, and in the public sector which is meant for scheduled tribes, but their ignorance, regarding their constitutional rights and the policy of protective discrimination of the Indian government, proves to be a hurdle.

Not just that, there is absolutely no reference to any of the states of the Northeast even in the National Anthem of India. Were the then Bengalis trying to maintain a supremacy over the other Indians that the composer completely forgot to mention about many other states of India in it? When our tradition teaches us inclusiveness, our philosophy preaches us tolerance and our Constitution practices indiscrimination, then how can we let all this get diluted so easily?

How many people know who Rani Gaidinliu was? She was no less brave than any other freedom fighter of India as she led a prominent freedom movement in Manipur just at the age of 13 and was imprisoned for the same at the age of 16. Unlike Begum Hazrat Mahal and Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, who were fighting against the British due to their own vested interests of saving their kingdoms from getting annexed, this Rani was fighting for the national cause.

Forget about Anna Hazare’s and Baba Ramdev’s hunger strikes for a moment! How many people know about Erome Sharmila at all? She is another brave lady from the state of Manipur who has been struggling on HUNGER STRIKE since last 10 years without even taking a single drop of water, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) after the Indian Army massacred ten civilians in Manipur. She cleans her teeth with cotton, does not comb her hair and maintains her body by doing yoga. For her dear friends, she is a yoga enthusiast with a “never-say-die spirit” ingrained in her since childhood; for litterateurs of Manipur, she is a budding poetess who has written hundreds of poems but till date, only one of her collections – “Imadi Khongdai Setlaroi” has been published; and for the vast majority of Manipur, she is not just Erome Sharmila but the “Iron Lady of Manipur” who has heroically challenged a callous and apathetic government and its regime of draconian law in her unique style.

The state proudly maintains a history of many more exemplary women like never before. Even in Mahabharata, there is a reference to the heroic princess of Manipu r- Chitrangada, who marries Arjuna and gives birth to the heir of Manipur- Babruvahana, and rules the state as per the matrilineal customs of her people.

Manipur has greatly contributed in the field of art too. The Manipuri dance, performed by dancers dressed as Radha and Krishna, is one of the eight classical dances of India. But of late, it has been seen that due to the advent of Christianity in this state, Hinduism is not a prominent religion anymore – an important link which could greatly help Manipur in keeping a connection with the other states of India. Besides, Maoists have also been keeping the flames of militancy burning in Manipur.

Hindus are mostly stereotyped as idol-worshippers by the people of other religions but still, very few Indians are aware of the fact that the state of Tripura derived its name from the Hindu Goddess – Tripura Sundari – the beautiful Goddess of three cities. Still, despite of such a profound history of this state, Tripuris are visibly one of the most under-privileged people in the country. Presently, the separatist movement of Tripura is a major concern for the country. The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT, 1989) and the All Tripura Tiger Force are the two organizations that claim to represent the Tripuri people as an economically disadvantaged community aiming for independence for Tripura. The NLFT is currently being proscribed as a terrorist organization by India.

The condition of the other Northeastern states is no better. Although, the people of Arunachal Pradesh are fond of watching Indian cinema unlike their neighboring states, but still, a separatist movement led by the Arunachal Dragon Force (ADF), also known as the East India Liberation Front, is violently functioning there. The ADF also seeks to create an independent state resembling the pre-British Teola Country consisting of an area currently in Arunachal Pradesh as well as neighboring Assam. The state of Arunachal Pradesh is not even represented as a part of India in the international maps all over the world as China claims its rights over the state. Important ministers of Arunachal Pradesh are also invited to China in many of their national conferences.

Even the small state of Nagaland does not lag behind when it comes to such separatist movements. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN – a Naga Nationalist militant group)  factions and Naga National Council have been fighting for a greater Nagalim, which constitutes the states of present day Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Myanmar. The NSCN aims to establish a Christian socialist state based on Mao Tse Tung’s ideology in the areas inhabited by the Naga people in Northeast India and Myanmar. But such an organization does no good even to the natives of the state as it is believed that it primarily raises funds through trafficking drugs from Myanmar and selling smuggled weapons to other insurgent groups in the region.

The most infamous of such separatist movements is the Bodo Movement of Assam. Bomb-blasts on every second day in Assam are the result of the rising separatism in the state. The National Democratic Front of Bodoland, NDFB or the Bodo Security Force, is the separatist movement which is predominantly Christian and seeks to obtain a sovereign Bodoland for the Bodo people in Assam – an area located in the north bank of Brahmaputra river in Assam in the Northeast, by the foothills of Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh which is inhabited mainly by Bodo language speaking ethnic group. The hypothetical map of the so-called Bodoland includes the Bodoland Territorial Areas District (BTAD) administered by the non-autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) is another such separatist group in the Northeast which aims to build-up a greater state of independent Assam. In 1990, the group was banned and also classified as a terrorist organization.

In Meghalaya, the fights between the major tribes Khasi and Garo are mainly responsible for such separatist movements in the state. Their everyday gun battles and gang wars create much havoc in the state.

Even a state like Mizoram with a literacy rate of 92 percent – one of the highest in the country, has a vast population which breathes separatism. The Mizo National Front (MNF) is the most prominent separatist group of Mizoram.

The kind of military operations carried out in the Northeast as shown in the movie – Tango Charlie (starring Bobby Deol and Ajay Devgn) were as realistic and frightful as the ones that the Indian soldiers face in the Northeast almost every day.

In fact, the state of Sikkim, which was included as a part of the Indian nation during the tenure of our Late Prime Minister Mrs. India Gandhi, has seen more peaceful times despite of being a disputed territory in the Northeast just as well. Once, it was also claimed by China and was not represented as a part of India in the international maps all over the world. But still, it is a famous tourist spot not only for the people of West Bengal or the Northeast but also for people from all over the country.

The seven sister states are heavily forested and have plentiful rainfall. There are many beautiful wildlife sanctuaries, tea-estates and mighty rivers like Brahmaputra in the Northeast. The region is home to one-horned rhinoceros, elephants and several other endangered flora and fauna, but for security issues like inter-tribal tensions, widespread insurgencies, militancy and disputed borders with neighboring China, there are restrictions on foreigners visiting this area, which hamper the development of the potentially profitable tourism industry.

The country of Bhutan, which also has four disputed areas with China, is also located in the Northeast and is guarded by the Indian Defense Force. But despite being a neighboring foreign land, it sees much more peaceful times and is co-operative towards the Indian government in comparison to the Seven Sister states of India.

The regional parties of these seven sister states support the ideology of separatism among the natives whereas the national parties seem to be failing to win over the sentiments of the natives. Maybe, that’s why, the political successors of the politicians from the Northeast are not given as much importance and recognition as the politicians’ children from the rest of the country. Be it a not-so-good actor like Ritesh Deshmukh or even a wife-beating man like Rahul Mahajan openly flirting on a national television or the likes, who have nothing to do with politics, enjoy getting undue attention of media. Girls go crazy even at the thought of marrying them (the list is endless). That is why, not many people are familiar with the name – Agatha K. Sangma, the daughter of P. A. Sangma – a prominent Indian leader, politician and the former speaker of Lok Sabha. Agatha was first elected to the 14th Lok Sabha in a by-election in May 2008, after her father resigned from the seat to join state politics. Later, she was re-elected to 15th Lok Sabha where she is the youngest Indian MP. At the age of 29, she is the youngest minister in the council of ministers of the 15th Lok Sabha. Currently, she is the minister of state for rural development and has maintained a decent political career till date. She is also a lawyer, an environmentalist, an amateur photographer but still, not a youth icon.

Even in the Indian TV serials and cinemas, when a multi-cultural community is portrayed, there are actors representing all the cultures of India except those of the Northeast. This is a direct result of not being familiar with the people of our own land. I remember having watched “Chak De India” – one of the best Shahrukh Khan films. In the movie, two players of the Northeast states were shown as a part of the National Women’s Hockey team namely Mary Ralte (played by Kimi Laldawla) – as a substitute and penalty stroke specialist from Mizoram, and Molly Zimik (played by Masochon “Chon Chon” Zimik), from Manipur. Mary and Molly were from the Northeast and that’s why, they were initially treated as “foreigners” by their own teammates. Even the movie could showcase the true scenario which roots much more deeply in actual life. The terms – “chink”, “chinki”, “chinky” or “chinkie” used to describe the people of East Asian decent or China, are the racist remarks which the people of the Northeast often get to hear from other Indians – their fellow brethrens.

But this wide gap between the mainstream population of India and the Seven Sister states needs to be bridged.

More and more student-exchange programs should be encouraged between the students of the Northeast and between the rest of India. Writers and poets from the Northeast should be encouraged by giving a prestigious platform to express themselves in the rest of the country.

People must give up the habit of practicing discrimination against the people of the Northeast and must learn to treat them with due respect. They should refrain from their habit of using the words which address them in a derogatory manner.

Only youth can help in strengthening the ties of the Northeast with the rest of the country. Therefore more and more communication should be made with the people of the Northeast through internet for unblocking various doubts about them.

As per  international standards, not all popular stylists in India are as good as they should be in comparison to the people of the Northeast who possess a natural grace, beauty, elegance and charm in them. They seem to demonstrate an international style through their tastes and a praiseworthy personality due to their in-born inclination towards fashion and style. So many of them are themselves great style icons. That is why, our fashion industry also really needs some touch to it and people from the Northeast in the form of models, dress-designers, stylists, etc should be introduced in the world of glamour too.

The people of the Northeast should also refrain from the idea of separatism which is breathed into them by insidious foreign powers or the political parties which misguide people only for their own profit.

Music can also help in bringing the people of the Northeast close to the people of the rest of the country. People in the Northeast are extremely fond of western music, especially, punk and rock, and so the media should welcome them and also invite them to express themselves through their in-born talents. The FM channels of the plains should also take up some initiatives to open up their stations in the Northeast and thus, help in bridging the gap well. People must take interest in making and telecasting television shows which depict the culture and lifestyle of the people of the Northeast.

It’s not easy and affordable for all the eligible youth of the Northeast to come out and search for good job opportunities in the plains and so, major multi-national companies and BPO companies should take some initiatives to open up call-centers for them in the Northeast itself. The people in the Northeast are mostly well-educated, English-speaking and possess sharp minds which can be used for the betterment of that region as well as for the whole country.

The tourism departments of various states should hold exhibitions and cultural-exchange programs to promote the cottage industries of their states in the Northeast too and vice-versa.

Their interest in sports is also noteworthy. That is why, good sportspersons from the Northeast should be encouraged to look out for more opportunities in the plains in the rest of the country and thus, help in improving the standards of many other sports in the country, besides cricket. The government should also take up some serious initiatives in this direction.

More ways can be thought of and implemented to show some sense of belonging towards the Alienated Seven Sister States and their people. Remember, the situation is still under our control and we must help save it before it’s too late.

Aditi Swami