Saturday, August 18, 2012

Shekhar Gupta's 'We , the ignorant."'

My friend Olga sent me a text message at 8 p.m. last night to say Shravan would end at 9.48pm. y On one level , I was relieved and wondering what was for dinner ( Biryani, as it turned out). And debating whether or not to sip a glass of wine. Naaaah. Thought better of it... ate a shudh vegetarian meal, and quietly went to bed. I had really enjoyed observing Shravan this year, and was reluctant to abandon my familiar rituals as abruptly.
Lunch today changed all that. My daughter Arundhati who had observed Shravan as well, cooked a delicately flavoured Bassa ( roasted pepper sauce with fresh herbs and crushed garlic). That was it! Tonight is the night of a mega soiree - The Boys ( Abu-Sandeep) are celebrating 25 years in Fashion with a bash at a world famous address, that promises to rival Karan Johar's 40th birthday party. Moet awaits. Or will it be Dom????
Blogdosts... thought provoking and accurate.... as Shekhar generally is...

I'll post my take on the crisis tomorrow...

That is why we don’t get anger in Assam, fear in Bangalore

Please visit: or scroll down to read the article in its entirety.

We, the ignorant

By Shekhar Gupta

A venerable old teacher in my journalism school taught us the “three example rule”. So here are the three I picked up over the past week as India’s “northeast” hit the headlines for reasons happy and sad.

The first two came as Hindi cinema responded joyfully to Manipuri boxer Mary Kom’s success. No surprise that Shahid Kapoor, while hailing her as India’s “million dollar baby” called her “Maricom” as if she was some latest internet-mobile phone product rhyming with telecom he is endorsing, and kept the twitterati amused and indignant for a day. Then someone much older, enormously better read and cerebral, Amitabh Bachchan, said she hailed from Assam, only to correct it later. And finally, a little exchange I had with a genuinely well-meaning former civil servant (with long and distinguished service in the Northeast) on a TV show on whether Mary Kom’s success would change our perceptions of the Northeast. He wasn’t happy that so many boys and girls from the Northeast, now spreading all over India, were mostly working in our service industries, from restaurants to airlines, to hospitals. Why aren’t they doing more important jobs?

Each one underlines to us some aspect of the ignorance, insensitivity and patronising “mainstream” attitudes that we retain about the Northeast. You can understand Shahid Kapoor not being able to spell his favourite boxer’s name. He probably has no time to read the sports pages in the newspapers, or go beyond the glamour supplements. Mary Kom, I’d suspect, can spell better than him, and definitely can teach him a real thing or two about boxing. But Senior Bachchan? You can understand someone of an older generation (including mine) confusing a Naga, Mizo, Khasi or Garo for being an Assamese — Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya were districts in old Assam. But Manipur?

IT is one of the oldest and most distinct states in India and has never been part of any other state. Its demographics can, however, be confusing. Its largest and most distinct ethnic group are the Meiteis of the plains, most of whom are Vaishnavite Hindus and non-tribal. They have given us many stars in weightlifting (Kunjarani Devi), boxing (Dingko Singh, Suranjoy Singh, Devendro Singh), archery (Bombayla Devi) and, not to forget, hockey (Thoiba Singh). Manipur’s hills are inhabited by diverse tribes and many of the conflicts that arise there, including the recent blockades, are because of inter-tribal tensions, compounded by lousy and corrupt governance. Even when I first went to Imphal as a reporter in January 1981, the state was often described as “Moneypour” for its leaky and corrupt government, large sections of which were hand-in-glove with one or the other of its many insurgent groups. Our northeastern state’s demographics can fox anybody. For every tribe that inhabits Manipur’s hills, Nagas, Mizos, Kukis and, of course, Mary Kom’s Kom (a microscopic tribe of just over 20,000), for example, a larger number live in a neighbouring state or Myanmar. So you can understand the senior AB getting mixed up.

The most important of the three, however, was the civil servant’s response — and not because it was lacking in empathy. Both in his lament that young northeasterners were coming to the mainland and finding jobs only (or mainly) in the services sector, and that more effort was needed to “integrate” the Northeast with the rest of India, he highlighted the fact that the establishment elite’s view of that region has not essentially changed in the last many decades. It is still a distant and estranged region that needs to be somehow brought into the fold, “Indianised”. That stars like Mary Kom would help “us” and “them” in that endeavour. And further, that, it can only change if somehow, people from that region, particularly those with distinctive northeastern features and therefore subjected to truly unfortunate and now criminally illegal racial taunts in our big cities (mainly Delhi), move into workplaces “more important” than the ones they are currently visible at.

It betrays, equally, a lack of understanding of economic mobility — people move into jobs and professions for which they have distinctive skill advantage. And also the added strength of work ethic, dignity of labour and casteless, classless social equality that our tribal societies mostly — and thankfully — still retain. I had my first exposure to this wonderful non-hierarchical view of life in my early travels to the Northeast when I found, to my total surprise, drivers, peons, police escorts all sitting down with the minister and his guests to eat at roadside dhabas. And then, at the Aizawl secretariat, a post-lunch table tennis game between my old friend Fanai Malsawma, then education minister, and his driver. As the driver thrashed Malsawma, he continued to remind him of how slow, lazy and leaden-footed he had become since he was made a minister. And others, mostly drivers and junior employees, sniggered and applauded. Show me a driver in the mainland who will thrash his minister at any game. Or, a minister who will take it in his stride.

IT is because of this remarkable tribal approach to life, casteless egalitarianism, dignity of labour, that tens of thousands of our minutest minorities have discovered how indispensable they are to the booming services sector in our big cities. And they bring some of the most remarkably unique talents, besides, indeed, boxing, archery and weightlifting. A majority of singers and musicians at our restaurants and bars, even at Rashtrapati Bhavan at the banquet for Barack Obama, are boys and girls from the Northeast. You cannot go to a restaurant, bar, or spa, fly on an airplane or be laid up at a hospital without finding someone from the Northeast performing a key function. Should we look down on them patronisingly? Can we even afford to? Go ask the owners of these businesses, even security companies, who are now running around the platforms of Bangalore’s railway station, pleading with their northeastern employees not to flee. These terrified young people represent the first generation of our northeastern compatriots to venture out, seeking a living and dignity in the mainland. We owe it to them — and to ourselves — to make them feel wanted, respected and secure.

Most of us do not even know how tiny these minorities are. There are just over a million and a half Nagas, less than a million of Mizos and all the tribes in Manipur do not add up to a million (7.4 lakh in the 2001 census). Add to that a million each of Khasis and Garos. Arunachal Pradesh has just about a million tribals. And the Bodos, much in the news for the wrong reasons lately? Just about 15 lakh, scattered over several districts of mostly lower and middle Assam.

Their rising presence and indispensability to our cities speak of their brilliant talent which, in turn, is only matched by our ignorance about them. That ignorance is responsible for our lack of respect for our most distant countrymen, as well as our failure to understand what makes them angry. The latest and the saddest example is our lazy view of the Bodo violence through the prism of our mainland’s communal/ electoral politics. Identity, ethnicity, livelihood and survival in the Northeast, including Assam, are very complex issues, fuelled by native peculiarities rather than our classical Hindu-Muslim paradigm. Most Bodos are not even traditional Hindus. Many follow their own indigenous faith, and a sizeable number are now Christian. They are not attacking these settlers because they are Muslim. Nor were the Lalungs, or Tiwas as they are known today (it will be a stretch even now to describe them as Hindus), who killed more than 3,000 in four hours in Nellie in February 1983. It just so happens that the settlers (who the tribes see as alien infiltrators) are Muslim, and Bengali-speaking. But it is better to leave such grave and complex misconceptions about our northeastern citizens for another day. For now, we are struggling to spell their names right, to even figure out where they are coming from. Thirty-one years back, when Arun Shourie sent me to the Northeast as this newspaper’s correspondent, the cashier had earnestly asked me in which currency he should be sending my salary. Events of the past 10 days would tell you that we haven’t changed very much since.

Shobhaa De


Dr.Mayurakshi said...

Shekhar Gupta's article was a refreshing read, considering the ignorance, apathy and misconceptions harbored by a large number of the 'mainstream' Indian population about the people from the North-Eastern states.

I've made a small attempt to clarify few of the most common queries and speculations I've personally faced or overheard at some point in my life regarding us, the people from North-East India.

Please check them out at the following link:

Ambika said...

I remember I was in Std I/II and hesitatingly approached a fellow school girl. "Are you Chinese?". She shook her head and I am from Darjeeling.
"Darjeeling", "where is that?" I thought to myself, but didn't ask her. We became friends. I taught her Marathi, she taught me her native tongue..most of which I have forgotten. She still speaks Marathi very well.
Everytime I hear or read of NE vs Mainlanders, I remember this ignorance of mine. I hope I never commit such folly, inadvertently

Rajesh Gupta said...

Shekhar Gupta's article did point out the ignorance & apathy ,we have towards North eastern people . It was informative & compelling article. But , lately I 've found Shekhar has started to behave like omniscient ,specially in case of moments of Anna & Ramdev. He has written articles, which smell smugness. Indian Express need to do a lot to Connect again with general public. IE should stop trying to behave like a Paper for elites.

Pooja Rathore said...

i agree with blogfriend Mayurakshi...i liked the post..he is right.... atleast i accept my ignorance.DE your support for Sangama for presidential post seems so right(though he lost it...but had he won iam sure it would have lead to big change).Neverthless this post opened my eyes and from now on i will not be ignorant.

Tsomo85 said...

BAHAHAHAHAHAHA Mr. Former civil servant himself not impressed with hospital jobs? Unimportant????? Because sick people are worth penny? Is this what he is going to teach his children? If he finds serving those in need in our community is unimportant than how did he served in northeast for so long? That's like saying it's such a unfortunate to be teacher just because they don't make bags & bags of $$$$. SHAME ON HIM FOR BEING EXPOSED! Now we know his 5cent wisdom inside his old brain. In college my nursing professor told us children of those people who are professionals in hospital & medical institute happened to be healthier & more knowledgeable in terms of making better choice in their daily life (health & wellness). Now can anything be more important than our health & serving those in need of help? Unless he is talking about the ward boys & still they're far better than being caught on camera in an shameful compromised position while holding supposedly super fancy job titled & sucking the balls of other woman's husband, that too in government office! ROFLMAO He should mind his own business before he start preaching on wellbeing of northeastern people! Reality only takes one leaked video tape to reveal someone's "status." Till then he should pray to god every morning & be thankful that he can proudly walk around & freely breath in name of "civil servant" or be able to get any Delhi lawyer types as he wish, at any given day because you never know what's in store for tomorrow! :-)

Tsomo85 said...

Mr. Ignorant civil servant wants to be india's superman to make every citizen software engineers & business tycoon; specially northeastern ROFLMAO! I wonder if his wife does anything to India or the community beyond just being a housewife without having to do any dishes??????????? JOKE

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Ravi Patel said...

This thing Shekhar is a joke! I concede that in most parts it is a sensible article till he gets to the usual 'secular' bulls..t that they just happen to be Muslims and bengali speaking ones. Such a thing has happened not because they happen to be believers but because they are. Silent ethnic cleansing of the infidels from wherever these lot intrude and you know what happens. Bodos are a proud people and are not going to take it laying down like the loathsome and despicable cowards who infest New Delhi. Shekar is a useless thing. just see how he has destroyed the crusading spirit of this once great newspaper that he shamelessly edits. The fact that many of his competitors are even worse and dalals of the Congress, is another matter.

quantum4907 said...

I think it will be an error to

"But it is better to leave such grave and complex misconceptions about our northeastern citizens for another day."

There is no time left. The people who will attack Moral policing by Ramsena at Mangalore(I do not support all of it), do not talk about acid attacks on girls in Kashmir.

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