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The Danger of a Single Story: Northeast India

By Z.D. Lalhmangaihzauva

At home for Christmas, we decided to do some repairing works on the two family headstones located within our compound. Over the years, they have become discoloured and worn out, telling the story of how we the living are caught up in our own businesses. The smaller headstone with an uneven surface bears the inscription that my father’s great-grandfather had died in the year 1947. My sister casually remarked that he did not live to see the independence, meaning India’s independence in 1947. The word ‘independence’ continued to linger in my mind, how as Indians we are conditioned to think of the term and the year 1947 as a pivotal moment in our understanding of our history and identity. My memory and understanding of my nation’s history during my younger days, derived from the history text books in schools, convinced me of the atrocities committed by the British in India and that the independence brought an end to this ordeal. To this day, I do not contest this narrative of my nation’s history in its entirety, a notion which shaped the present India or Indianness to a large extent. But this narrative makes it so easy to assume that my father’s great-grandfather died in captivity, without getting to see the light of the independence. The reality was that this man and his generation lived their lives outside the confines of the grand narrative of Indian history that can be broadly categorised into pre-independence and post-independence. Secluded in the hilly region of what is now India’s northeast, they raised their families, toiled in their jhums, hunt in the jungles, wove their clothes, and sang their songs, oblivious to the concept of nationality, Indianness or independence.

The problem with Northeast India today is that it occupies a very small place in the national discourse, often being reduced to a single story that promotes stereotypes. If the present everyday life in the region is underrepresented in books and mainstream media, the histories of the diverse communities that inhabit the region are clearly much lesser known stories. I remember how our history lessons in school center on the Indian freedom struggle, going back as far as the Mughal dynasty and the Indus Valley Civilisation. My initial knowledge about my country taught me very little about the history of the people of the Northeast, or for that matter my own state, Mizoram. I take immense pride in learning about the great freedom fighters, and other significant historical developments which are crucial in shaping this nation as it is today, but school text books, history books, cinema, and even popular culture in India did very little when it comes to a better understanding of the Northeast region and the people. With the region almost entirely left out in the national discourse, and understood by the vast majority of people in ‘the mainland’ in generalised terms, this lack of knowledge often reduce the region and the people to a single story. For instance, the narrative of the Northeast as a place of conflict and violence is predominant in many peoples’ knowledge of the region. I do not contest this narrative and say that it is untrue. But it is also not the only story about the region and the people. In fact, it is only after I graduated that I understood that the Northeast is largely pictured as a place of violence by the majority of Indians in ‘the mainland’. This is because Mizoram, the state that I belong to had not witnessed violence on a large scale in the last thirty years or so, contrary to the generalised notion of the entire Northeast region as conflict-ridden. This simple example is perhaps indicative of the immense diversity and unsimilarity that exists within the region which is often imagined as a homogenous entity in the minds of the people in ‘the mainland’. Joy L.K Pachuau, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, is of the view that India’s engagements with its North-eastern region effectively otherize the people of the region. Drawing similarity with Edward Said’s exploration of the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’, Pachuau stated, “if Orientalism was a mode of representation which helped to create notions of the ‘other’ and, consequently, binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’, if it was an epistemology that was essentially created to dominate the ‘other’, then it is my hypothesis that similar forms of representation and assertions of cultural hegemony are exhibited in India’s own engagements with its Northeastern margins. In other words, ‘Orientalist’-type construction persists within India itself, despite its own subjection to them in the colonial period.”

Some years ago, on my way to visit a library at Osmania University in Hyderabad, a couple of girls in school uniforms shouted from across the road, “Which country are you from?” For a second or two, I was hesitant to tell them that I am from India because they were beaming with excitement thinking that they have spotted a foreigner. Later, during a local train ride, a bunch of grown men asked me the same question, to which I replied that I am an Indian. I gave up my effort to convince them after I told them that I am from the state of Mizoram in the Northeast and them asking me if that is in Nepal. Compared to several reports of racism, eve-teasing and discrimination faced by people from the Northeast, the two encounters I have mentioned are no more than plain ignorance. But behind this silly ignorance is the underlying assumption that all Indians look a certain way, and this assumption says a lot about the absence of a discourse on Indian identity that consistently includes the Northeast. The simple question that lingers in my mind is why can’t we have school text books that shed some light on the Northeast – the people, culture, and practices so that school students in a metropolitan city in India do not just jump to the conclusion that somebody must be a foreigner if he or she does not resemble them in physical features. My childhood memories of history lessons about India were mostly in the form of stories, and I used to wonder why people fight all the time. Names of places, dynasties, and kings were foreign and strange to us, and were often difficult to remember. But we learnt of them, remember their conquests and struggles not because of any contact between them and our ancestors, but simply because historical developments, posthumously, allocate us into one nation, and this history in a sense become our history. Learning and knowing about people, their history, culture, and literature often do away with a single story about them. It also sheds light on the fact that our commonalities are actually more than our differences. In Mizoram, some people who belong to the older generation have shared their observation that we, the younger generation have a much stronger affiliation with Indianness, and that we are at ease with our Indian identity. This is obviously because our generation did not get to see the clash between the Mizo National Front and the Indian government that spanned for two decades from the 1960s to 80s which generated a secessionist political climate among the Mizos, and a general sense of distrust for people from ‘the mainland’. But my generation’s comfort and even pride in identifying as an Indian came not only from the political stability that ensues. A lot has to do with our better understanding of the rest of the nation – its past, its present, and its immense diversity, which came from being educated about the rest of India. I believe that the same could be achieved by India when it comes to breaking ignorance about the Northeast, and it is my assumption that enough attempts have not been made at the national level to learn about the Northeast in order to do away with many of the present misconceptions, stereotypes, and ignorance about the region.

A lot of misunderstanding takes place between different groups of people because we fail to see other groups for who they are, but see them from who we are. Our visions of other cultures or ethnicities are often misconstrued, incomplete, or sometimes reductive. Stories are important and powerful ways of knowing about a people and attributing an identity to them. But there can never be one definitive story about a people because that single story reduces them to a stereotype. Stereotypes often continue to gain legitimacy because people who have the power to create as well as end that single narrative about a people fail to take positive steps. There have been several voices raised through literature as well as other medium towards narratives such as Mexicans as illegal migrants, Muslims as terrorists, black men as violent and so on across the world. The key to all this is knowing and understanding about a people, not just from popular media, but the myriad lived experiences about them.

The formation of identity in a state like Mizoram does not develop in relation to the larger Pan-Indian identity. Way before the formation of the Indian nation state, Christian missionaries came to the hills inhabited by the Mizos in 1894 bringing the new religion. When I was a child, my great grandmother used to tell us stories. The other place where we used to listen to stories was in church during the sermons. But the stories told were of two different kinds. My great grandmother’s stories consisted of folk tales, and we would listen to her narration with wonder. But the stories told in church always took place in England. At the time, I never really questioned why stories told by the preachers from the pulpit were always about the White men and women. It was just simply taken for granted that church stories have to be about a handsome young boy in England and so on. This happened despite the fact that most preachers do not have basic knowledge of the English language. As far as history was concerned, the rhetoric about pre-Christianity was always how our ancestors were illiterate, poor, and animists. Many years later, as an adult, I became very offended when a preacher in an attempt to exaggerate the blessings brought upon the land by the missionaries told the children that our ancestors were barbaric people. This is another example of the danger of a single story, and this shows how incomplete stories and stereotypes are often disseminated due to ignorance. I acknowledge the invaluable contribution of the Christian missionaries, and the impact that they have on the Mizo identity as it developed today perhaps surpasses other denominators of the Mizo identity. But I do not see the need to let this single story triumph over other stories because that creates a binary where enlightenment is associated with Christianity and positions the entire past as darkness and negativity. According to the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.” It is obvious that even within the Northeast, we need to look at our history and not simply begin from a certain point in time. Because most of our histories can only be traced back to orality, it becomes all the more important that we lend our ears to our folklores, myths and songs that tell stories.

So I told stories
As my racial responsibility
To instil in the young
The art of perpetuating
Existential history and essential tradition
To be passed on to the next generation. – Temsula Ao

Z.D. Lalhmangaihzauva is a young academician from Mizoram in Northeast India. He completed his M.A in English from North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong and got his Ph.D. from Mizoram University, Aizawl, India. His doctoral thesis deals with violence in the works of Chris Abani, a writer from Nigeria who had settled in the United States. Apart from writing and publishing academic papers, he also translates from Mizo into English. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Saiha College. He is also keenly interested in environmental protection and has been involved with child protection.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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