Know the 'Northeast People'

BY TERESA REHMAN| IN Media Practice | 20/08/2012
The national media's idea of the north-east is limited to qualifiers such as exotic, remote, unexplored, unknown.
TERESA REHMAN feels that journalists are yet to understand the ethos of the people of “other’’ India.
“They serve dishes in hotels, guard our offices and apartment complexes, clean your office cubicles, and give you a haircut in the saloons. Today, they feel threatened and want to go home.” This is how The Times of India describes the “exodus” of people from the northeast from Bangalore to their native places.
A sudden spurt in the “unexplored”, “exotic”, and “remote” northeast India has inspired journalists in the so-called national media to dish out intriguing stories that would “sell”. And this was one story which narrated sordid tales of two security guards from Assam who were working in Bangalore: how they were trying to make both ends meet and how they were apparently threatened and had to flee. But this apparently simple story was loaded with ignorance and apathy about the region. The stereotyping of the people from the region as surviving doing odd jobs and are easily distinguishable because of their mongoloid features is a disturbing trend. 
Well, the region has suddenly evoked interest in the “national media” and this has also led to the origin of a new term “Northeast People”, possibly coined by the media again. And for the uninitiated, the region is an enigma which paratroops into the national media radar often for the wrong reasons--violence and bloodshed. It is difficult for the journalists to distinguish the region as eight separate States having a distinct culture, dress and food habits, and identity. 
Another interesting analysis titled “N-E: The India we don't know” which appeared in The Times of India again starts with “Or is it the India we do not care to know? Unknown, remote, exotic... and half-naked tribals with feathers or with guns. That's the common baggage we carry about the “other” India. Why is the Land of the Seven Sisters perpetually on simmer? Sunday Times offers some answers. The north-east: Unknown, remote, exotic. And barbaric. Land of the dog-eating, half-naked, gun-toting tribal. Where promiscuity and drugs are as common as the housefly. And at best, a region to be regarded as a museum piece, a subject for anthropological study.
 When Kishore Seram from Manipur first came to Delhi many years ago, he was asked where Manipur was.
Now the ignorance may not be so blatant but people from the region are still bombarded with humiliating cliches: “Do you live in tree houses? Do you worship the same gods as us? Are your women promiscuous?”
 For all students coming to Delhi from the north-east, the branding is automatic: “Chinks who booze, play the guitar, do drugs.”  
Seram's favourite story is about a jawan on his way back from a posting in Manipur, telling his co-passengers on the train: "Kya, kya khate hain ye log. They eat everything... dogs, cats, bamboo."
 The article goes on to analyse the causes behind the alienation. Four things have worked together for many years, says writer Sanjoy Hazarika: a historical, physical, political, and emotional sense of distance. Pradip Phanjoubam, editor, Imphal Free Press says: "It is no longer so straightforward as it used to be. Alienation earlier was on account of the incompatibility of the north-east identity with the Indian ‘mainstream'."
For a change, northeast India is in the news, for wrong or the right reasons. One intriguing story in Bangalore Mirror was of a Muslim braveheart who rescued northeastern girls. “Two girls hailing from Manipur and working as beauticians at a parlour in BTM Layout were walking back home after work on Wednesday night, accompanied by two boys who also hail from the north- east. A gang of five eve-teasers targeted them near Shiva Talkies in Koramangala III Block, but before things could get out of hand, help came in the form of none other than the Muslim landlord of one of the girls.”  
It’s a good sign that the “Northeast People” have left an indelible mark in the economy of Karnataka as this news report in Business Standard titled “Exodus of northeastern people hits businesses in Bangalore” implies. The story read: “At a popular restaurant on Residency Road here, tension was palpable among the staff, working with grim faces during the busy lunch hour. The reason: An overnight exodus of 40 employees belonging to the country’s northeastern region. Close to 10,000 people from the north-east, working in various business establishments here, have left the city in a hurry over the past 24 hours, after rumours that there is a threat to their lives.” 
“If the people of the north-east leave Bangalore in large numbers over the next few days, the hotel industry will be worst affected, for it is very difficult to find replacements. A lot of people from Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Nagaland are engaged as cooks, captains, and waiters in many hotels, especially restaurants serving Chinese and north Indian cuisine,” said Vasudeva Adiga, president, Bangalore Hoteliers Association, and owner of the Adiga chain of restaurants. A popular upmarket premium beauty parlour has already reported the exit of three of its five beauticians in the past 24 hours. A large number of beauticians in Bangalore are from the NE states.  
It’s time, the “national media” started understanding the “Northeast People” as they are clubbed together as they are gradually trying to assimilate in different parts of India. If this stereotyping continues, then we will continue to have lopsided news coverage which will be detrimental in the long run. A simple way to understand the “Northeast People” is by trying to know and write about them even when there is no major crisis or upheaval.
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