The Frayed Pallu of Mother India’s Sari
By Deepshikha Boro
The arrest of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Student’s Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition became a major controversy in India. The meta-narrative of ‘nationalism’ once again gained momentum after Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) witnessed a series of events that raised questions about the im/possibility of dissent and discussion in India. Disgruntled Hindu extremists and their allies in the Indian government, the Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP, are trying to bully those who dare to question their ideological writ and are attacking universities, especially defaming JNU: a university that has fostered free thought, discussions, and debates. Prof. Harbans Mukhia, a renowned Indian historian, reminisced during his lecture on ‘The Nation and History: Then and Now’ delivered in the company of Prof. Romila Thapar, another distinguished historian, at the Azadi square on 6th March, 2016, that even though he has been teaching history for 33 years in JNU he prepared for his last lecture for 3 hours before delivering it in the class because the students here raised questions. As a rector of JNU, he explained that JNU was meant to be a different university. It was meant to question received wisdom and established truths. Questioning nationalism, he opines, does not mean becoming anti-national but is an attempt to understand nationalism, which is not a unitary phenomenon but a diverse one.
Today, what the nation is witnessing is a chest-thumping version of nationalism of the BJP, a party that brooks no dissent and is trying to repress intellectual freedom in the country. They did not leave any stones unturned to galvanize the situation in JNU and mislead people. They have created a sort of mental disparity among people by branding those who support JNU students’ movement as anti-national and those who are against it as true patriots and nationalists. These attempts to define nationalism through the creation of the ‘other’ are certainly not a healthy nationalism. In her lecture on nationalism, Prof. Thapar argued that nationalism has to do with understanding one’s society and finding one’s identity as a member of that society. The question of identity is in fact very important. Nationalism should emerge as a concept that recognizes identities and binds people together. At a time when we talk about identity, it is interesting to hear from the Northeast of India, which has always and inevitably been an excluded identity. The learned Indian society treats the Northeast as a disconnected branch of India and belittles their scholarship.
In the cartographic representation of our nation, the geographical identity of the Northeast is seen as formed from the waving pallu of our Bharat Mata or Mother India’s sari, with Jammu and Kashmir forming her head, and Coromandel and Malabar Coast her two legs. The geo-body of our nation objectified as the figure of an idolized goddess is treated as an expression of power and knowledge. But what is idealized as strength has today emerged as weakness. This piece of fabric has been ripped apart and teased many times by both internal and external factors, first, by the British imperialists and then, by the Indian expansionists who merged the entire area with the Republic of India post-1947. Today, Northeast India comprises of eight states i.e. Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Just like the pallu, which is the most ornamental part of the sari, Northeast is also ornamental with rich natural resources like oil, gas, tea, and coal. Her resources, however, attracted her predators. Today, the fabric is torn down by Indian politicians who lack sensitivity in dealing with the socio-political and economic issues faced by ethnic groups, issues that are vastly different from that of the mainland. New Delhi looks upon this geographical space as mere political units while subduing the needs and aspirations of its people.
Ignorance about Northeast has led to a devious construction of the region and its people as the ‘Others.’ The learned Indian society lacks a sophisticated understanding of the region and views it as a homogenous entity. The people from the Northeast are treated with suspicion and fear. Till date, they are addressed as ‘tribals’ and ‘forest dwellers;’ a colonial hangover that still persists. The ignorance continues because the Indian state has criminally neglected the inclusion of Northeastern studies in the curriculum of schools and universities in India. Prof. Thapar pointed out in her lecture that history is essential to national ideology but it has to be a shared history that binds people together. History has to be the bond. In the case of Northeast, the history of this region has been marginalized. The nationalist historiography too had suppressed the patriotic valor of our unmatched heroes in the sub-continent’s struggle against colonialism. Our present and future generations will never be acquainted with the battle cry of Paona Brajabashi from Manipur, Tirot Sing Sylem from Meghalaya, even the female freedom fighters like Rani Gaidinliu from Manipur, Kanaklata Barua from Assam and Thengphakhri Tehsildar, a Bodo female freedom fighter from Assam. Despite such contributions and devotion during freedom struggle our own countrymen continue to ridicule us as ‘outsiders,’ ‘foreigners’ and even ‘Chinese’.
Northeast has not received the scholarly attention that it deserves in India and beyond. This is partly because our writers choose to write about the Northeast, which is not considered marketable or popular among the metro-centric readers. In sum, we recognize that Northeast is separated from India not only in terms of socio-economic relations but also in pedagogical relations. This non-integration ideally encourages non-inclusiveness. Such illiteracy breeds obstruction in the reformulation of our social relations. There continues to be an imbalance in the performance of our students in classrooms. When a sixth standard student from Northeast can locate where Bhimbetka cave is on the Indian map, a North Indian student will find it hard to locate the capital of Manipur.
Time for change
The parochial vision of the people and their ignorance about the Northeast needs to be eradicated. Kanhaiya Kumar expressed this sentiment in his speech delivered in the JNU campus on 3rd March after he was released from Tihar jail. He said, “we want Azadi or freedom not from India but Azadi within India.” Here, Azadi is to be gained from social evils and discrimination against poor people, dalits, OBC, disabled, and other minority groups, including people of the Northeast.
JNU is a testimony of a space that has always safeguarded a tradition of embracing pluralism. Here, the country’s poorest and underprivileged become visible. Each year, thousands of students from Northeast leave their homeland in pursuit of higher and modern education and move to cities like Delhi and Bangalore. The university experiences of these students in these locations are not egalitarian but they feel safe in the JNU campus where differences of regionalism, features, food, and dress shrinks. Dinamoni Khanikor, a Northeastern student from the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance in JNU opines, “people here are open to accept your critical ideas. There is a good atmosphere of debate and discussion, which I missed in Delhi University (DU).” In agreement with Dinamoni, my experiences in DU as a Masters’ student also indicate non-flexibility in the culture of discussion in the DU campus on social or political issues. Moreover, there was acute negligence towards the Northeastern students. Our teachers never considered our questions in class ‘serious’ enough and we were stereotyped as intellectually backward and incapable students.
The classrooms in JNU, on the other hand, are eco-chambers, lingering with modern thoughts. The university was set up by the Indian National Congress government in 1969 to enshrine the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru who was an enigmatic figure. He was a gentleman, an English speaking elite, secular, amoral, western, irreligious and someone who smoked cigarettes but ended up being India’s first prime minister. Such a legacy was passed on to JNU. The campus is liberating, politically buzzing, and socially sensitive. A Northeastern PhD scholar from the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU points out, “here one can do anything that does not infringe upon the liberty of others and not be encountered with raised eyebrows or condescending looks. The space and personal freedom that it provides is especially significant in terms of its female residents. The campus is a safe haven for them in a city like Delhi, which has become infamous in present times as the rape capital of India.” She further adds, “inside the campus, much of the woman’s mental energy, which is otherwise spent (outside the campus) in dealing with the perils associated with her gender and sexuality can be directed to creative and constructive pursuits.”
The proto form of such interactive pursuits in JNU indeed takes place in the campus in classrooms, hostel rooms, canteens and dhabas. The lifestyle is mostly nocturnal, affirms another Northeastern student who is pursuing her Masters from the same centre. She says, “Yes, the various talks held after dinner regarding burning issues make a person aware of issues of national and international importance.” Northeastern students participate in an array of discussions on campus and tease out topics related to the Northeast too such as the problem of insurgency, ASFPA in Manipur, racial discrimination against Northeast people, and the contrasting position of women in Northeast and other parts of India. They are never negated in the discussions. The JNU teachers also welcome a flat and fluid social structure in the campus and share a degree of involvement with the Northeastern students, encouraging them to take up research on the Northeast.
Such is the cosmopolitan character of JNU that it respects the identity of the Northeast people without any stigmatization and we, the young learners, today have the right to question the political class as to what extent mechanisms for accepting pluralism has been nurtured in our nation? The parochial vision of our state today privileges only one majority religious community to promote nationalism. Such nationalism is certainly not accepted by the younger generations today. Today’s nationalism must embrace all sections of people and show empathy to poor and weaker sections of the society, including the Northeast, rather than merely sloganeering, “Bharat Mata ki Jai!”
Deepshikha Boro is a doctoral candidate at the Leiden University in the Institute for History since 2013. She received her M.A. from Delhi University in 2010 and M.Phil. from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2012.
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