The fraught question of belonging, identity and autonomy has been playing out in the Northeast for decades. It has erupted in insurgencies in Nagaland, Assam, Manipur and Mizoram. It fuels the racism that residents of the Northeast face in the mainland, where they are embattled outsiders. But there is another side to this story, the unacknowledged experience of those who are “outsiders” and minorities in the Northeast. In his essay in the anthology under review, Sanjoy Hazarika lists the derogatory names for “outsiders” in each state — the Bongaal or miyah or bidekhi in Assam, the dkhar in Meghalaya, the vai in Mizoram. As the turmoil in Assam over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) reveals, the question of belonging still has desperate consequences for the so-called outsiders — 40 lakh people now face the threat of being designated non-citizens.
The xenophobia of language has in the past turned into violence — the Nellie massacre that killed 1,800 Bengali Muslims is the most cited example; but that was not the only instance of riots being used to subordinate the “non-tribal” minority (Bengali Muslims, Bengali Hindus, Nepalis, Biharis, Marwaris, ie, anyone who is a “non-tribal”). Their disempowerment through violence and micro-aggressions remains an untold story. This anthology seeks to break that silence, to chart the colonial encounter that created this cohort of outsiders, and to record their experience, which found little redressal or justice.
As several essays in the volume detail, in 1874, British fiat led to the Bengali-speaking Muslim majority Sylhet district being removed from Bengal and attached to Assam. It remained a part of Assam, an uneasy rapprochement, till 1947, when it was given over to East Pakistan after a referendum. Thousands of Bengali Hindus left their home in fear, and moved to the adjoining hills of Assam. Even before Partition drew a line, however, Bengalis had lived in these lands, as economic migrants, traders and as clerks in British bureaucracy. Just as the logic of nationalism is often vulnerable at the margins of nation-states, so is the certainty of subnationalism. For, what are now firm barricades and borders were once pitstops on the long road of history and human movement. In the essay ‘How We Got There’, journalist and co-editor of the anthology, Samrat argues that once fluid ethnic identities, where there were no fixed boundaries between communities, became fixed and more confrontational. “The proliferation of printing presses in the 19th century triggered the standardisation of languages and linguistic identities. Diverse territories with rainbows of cultures were reduced to monochrome representations following European notions of nationality and race.”
In his essay, Binayak Dutta recounts how imperial commercial interests created Shillong as a cosmopolitan town and the capital of Assam in 1874; Bengalis from Sylhet (about a few hundred km away) came to work, as did Marwaris, Assamese, and even before them, the Nepalis. The idea of cosmopolitanism collapsed through the 1980s and 1990s, engineered by riots in which 100 non-tribals were killed in a decade. “…Multi-ethnicity was viewed as a transgression of community interests [in hill areas]. Violence was viewed as a legitimate means to homogenise geopolitical and social interests, in the name of community interests.” Eventually, the dkhars bled out of Shillong— for the Bengalis, especially, a second exodus.
This violence was felt on the skin as a relentless othering, as several moving essays in the volume relate. In ‘Growing up Miyah’, Shalim M Hussain writes about the normalised bigotry against Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam; Anjum Hasan writes about a mob at her family’s door in the 1979 anti-dkhar riots in Shillong; Dutta recounts the story of a teacher always seen in a sparkling white dhoti, who stepped out during the 1979 riots and was stabbed to death. Mahua Sen’s ‘Chronicles of a Death Untold’ examines the “design flaw” in Indian secularism, which failed to acknowledge let alone sympathise with the Hindu Bengali victims of violence — through the story of Gauri Dey, a pregnant woman out on a walk with her husband, who was gangraped, a rod shoved into her and left to die. It is not just the non-tribals who were tripped up by a colonialism-decreed border. In a fascinating essay, Suhas Chakma recounts how the Chakmas, who once lived in Assam, Tripura, Chittagong Hill Tract, Bangladesh and Myanmar became refugees in independent India.
The bewilderment of people with a paradoxical relationship to history surfaces in many of the essays (Mitra Phukan’s ‘In Search of Home’); as does the tragedy of being reduced to communal identities. But in the gap that opens up is humour and self-awareness (as in the essays by fiction writers Hasan and Ankush Saikia); and the final banishment of the idea of home. Not all the essays are consistent in quality, some are weighed down by sentiment. There is a distorting focus on the history and experience of Shillong, to the exclusion of other geographies. Nevertheless, the anthology adds up to a valuable record of narratives and collective memories from the Northeast.