It is not a inoccuous slip, neither can it be explained away as a ‘printing or clerical error’. It is but another instance of the shameful ignorance of the Heartland about India’s Northeast. Or else, why should people from the Northeast in the country’s capital be labeled ‘immigrants’? That too by the party ruling at the Centre? The BJP’s Vision Document for Delhi makes the promise that ‘Northeastern immigrants’ will be protected by setting up special cells in all police stations and special 24–hour helplines, as well as arranging special guardianships for NE students among local families. Noble intentions indeed, and quite in line with the Central government’s acceptance of the MP Bezbaruah committee’s recommendations to guarantee security for NE people in the metros. But when the BJP came under attack for its faux pas, it tried to limit the damage by substituting the word ‘immigrants’ with ‘migrants’ in a perfunctory tweet. As citizens of India, people from the Northeastern states can work and stay freely in any part of the country just like people from other states. So why classify NE people as migrants? If we recall the way ‘Bihari migrants’ are treated in states like Delhi, Punjab and Maharashtra, it becomes clear that the Heartland considers NE people too as denizens of a perennially troubled region desperately seeking livelihood elsewhere.
Even if the Central government amends the country’s crimil laws soon to make derogatory remarks or violence against NE people a punishable offence, the real problem is to remove the ignorance about this region in the rest of the country. Nido Tania from Aruchal Pradesh is beaten to death in South Delhi for his ‘foreign ways’, Michael Haokip from Manipur is thrashed mercilessly in Bengaluru for not speaking Kanda, girl students from Handique college in Guwahati are prevented from seeing Taj Mahal for ‘not having passports’, and so on ad useum. Bhogeswar Baruah, winner of the 800–metre gold in the 1966 Bangkok Asiad, has spoken of the discrimition he faced in the tiol Games the year before. The entire country celebrated Mary Kom’s boxing bronze in the London Olympics, followed by a historic gold in the 2014 Incheon Asiad. So it was not surprising that the recently released biopic ‘Mary Kom’ did well; but what came as a surprise was that a few leading actresses from the Northeast were considered for the title role but rejected. Filly Priyanka Chopra was chosen to play Mary Kom on screen, ostensibly to make the film ‘acceptable’ to cinegoers. Such a state of affairs seems absurd, but Prime Minister rendra Modi has himself spoken about feeling like an ‘outsider’ in the corridors of power in Delhi, having come from Gujarat in India’s western corner. Did he not have to stamp his authority by becoming an adopted son of Varasi, passing through Uttar Pradesh to win the throne in Delhi?
There are an estimated 2 lakh people from the Northeast in Delhi, and the Congress, AGP and other parties have lost no time in taking the BJP to task over its irresponsible mistake. The AASU, NESO, KMSS and many other organisations from the region have registered sharp protests. It is necessary to make governments and parties take utmost care in the language they use about the country’s diverse peoples. For long, the people south of the Vindhyas were derisively called ‘Madrasis’ in the Heartland, and stereotyped mercilessly in popular media. That cultural incomprehension about southern states, the widespread ignorance about their rich history and accomplishments in the arts and sciences still persist. But there seems to be little doubt in the Heartland that people of the southern states are neither foreigners nor immigrants. Surely this has much to do with the stronger economic performance of the southern states raising their profile, as well as the pro–active roles their governments and Parliamentary representatives play in Delhi. Contrast this with the general inertia of state governments in the Northeast, their ibility in getting scheme monies from Delhi that is rightfully theirs, the diffidence and lack of homework of most MPs from the region in Parliament. Respect has to be earned, just as Hem Baruah, Dinesh Goswami and PA Sangma once did for the Northeast in Parliament. And there must be no compromise with self–respect, which the people of this region must strive for relentlessly.