The North Eastern Identity – A Myth So Far

The North Eastern Identity – A Myth So Far

Silvester Phanbuh

Over the last few years, media houses across the country have spent more time focusing their spotlights on issues of the North Eastern region, issues negative and positive, political and apolitical alike. As a response, representatives of the region have also branded this group of eight states into a pan NorthEast identity. The question though remains, how deep is this identity, how far does it stretch beyond the confines of the English speaking cosmopolitan urban dweller, and does it really exist? Or maybe it is just a convenient grouping, one that the people of the region ironically accuse the rest of the country of.

The evidence around us points us to the latter. The pan regional identity comes across as convenient and easier to explain. It also makes a more convincing case when there are victims involved and helps in generalizing the already abhorrent regionalism of this country. As the train crosses west into Bengal, the million colors of the various tribes become one single shade, bound together possibly by the anxiety of being away from home. As the train crosses east into Assam however, the single shade bursts back into the multitude of identities, rivalries, bragging rights and insecurities that are the hallmark of smaller communities.

As scathing as the above statements may sound, a look at our daily regional headlines spell out division more than they do unity. Historically speaking, the tribes and communities of the region have evolved independently to an extent and often, at odds with each other. Conflicts have existed for a long time and violent incidents between communities are commonplace even today. Linguistically speaking there is very little common ground across the region and if we were to take Hindi, English and Assamese out of the picture, we would have a perfect tower of Babel scenario.

Religion, the good old opium like some brand it, has only added more grids to the already divided social landscape and in many cases, single tribes have now been functionally recategorized into further sections based on the faiths that exist within. On the other hand it has also united some tribes under a single umbrella but at the expense of some unique traditional traits.

So the question now is – what is this NorthEastern identity all about? Did we suddenly hold hands one day and proclaim brotherhood because some "uncouth North Indians" used the C-word on someone from our states? Did we suddenly decide that our perceived common tastes in music and fashion are criteria good enough to create this identity? Do we really know anything about each other beyond what we wear in our traditional festivals and how we like our food? And does being NorthEastern apply only to the indigenous tribes? Do we have a place in this NorthEastern identity for the Bengalis, Punjabis, Sindhis and scores of other communities who for generations have added value to the economic and educational development of the North Eastern states?

One can be in denial about these unanswered questions and be happy with the existing models of cultural showcasing. Across the nation we can stick to enjoying the Northeast centric events – the fashion shows, the concerts and the food festivals that dot our social calendar. But these are just a few evenings a year and stop right there.

The other option is, to use our ignorance of each other as an eye opener. Cultivating a new sense of identity lies in celebrating the relationships that the different communities share. A NorthEastern identity, in its most rigid sense is not what the people of the region need anymore. We do not need the N-term to describe us to the rest of the world, because it is just a simplification of many different and complicated identities. It is time that the states of the NE come out as individual gems rather than similar pearls on the same necklace. When we look at Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, we see three different pictures, not a single Western India mash-up. When we use the very general term "South India", we are actually referring to four huge states with a Diaspora of communities within. So after studying these two national examples, can we still fairly use the term "North Eastern" to accurately describe our various cultures.

It would be an incomplete view to ignore the plus points of this recently fabricated identity. It has helped in many ways to promote the region by giving it geographical weight. It has helped people understand the basic facts of the populations in the region and most importantly has helped group the common issues and problems of the region in the fields of governance and administration. But at the end of the day, it is a term rooted in geography and culture is more dynamic than landscape.

As a conclusion it can be said that a real pan regional identity that is constructive rather than insecure in nature can only be cultivated if we make a better effort to learn about each other, beyond face values. Only when we celebrate our relationships and forge new grounds as communities with no place for petty and undermining differences, can one truly say yes, the NorthEastern identity that we present to the rest of India makes sense in every way. As long as conflicts and ignorance exist this identity remains a flimsy definition that will not be able to breathe beyond the realms of magazine pages, defensive arguments, sporadic events and news sites.

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