Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Garhwal Disaster:

At the small town of Tapovan, a few kilometers ahead of Joshimat, we stopped to buy some eggs. We were on our way to see the hot-springs at a bend in the road. There was a mesh build around the hot-spring, but people had broken it off long ago to go and place packets of rice and eggs to cook. One of the persons accompanying me even mentioned biryani in cookers. Scalding hot water was bubbling out constantly while the area overflowed with Sulphur and other minerals rich soil. The water was channeled downhill to a few bathing rooms if people wanted to take a dip. The once pristine area now lay desecrated with most trees that lined the slopes cut down and constructions for a dam in progress. The hot-springs stuck out like a sore thumb in that surrounding.

In the distance was the village of Reni, the place from where the Chipko movement had started. Parts of the hills behind it lay barren just like most hill ranges across Garhwal. Deforestation, which is sweeping Garhwal like a scourge has reached even there. Oh, the terrible irony. I sat at the side of the road looking at the broken egg-shells strewn all over wondering if I could find some last remaining vestiges of hope buried somewhere in my heart.  

Something is terribly amiss in this region. It would be extremely easy for me to put the blame on government policies and its corrupt ways of handling everything. But the malaise to me seems to run deep. Ofcourse, the largest part of the problem comes from unplanned and unsustainable urbanization that the state government is hell-bent on following. Corruption in the state’s Forest Corporation, the arm which deals in the commerce part of forests/ forest produces, has ensured that trees are cut down indiscriminately. As explained by Suresh Bhai, an activist, post Chipko movement tree-felling for commercial use was banned in the mountainous region. But in 1994, the ban was lifted for dead pine trees. The Forest Corporation needed just this excuse to start cutting down all types of green trees. Even now I saw green pines marked for cutting in many areas. The Corporation which sells pine gum worth Rs.50 plus crore annually, uses this trick to cut down pine trees because once the gum is taken out, the trees slowly die. Localised environmental movements have helped identify corrupt officials who have been sent to jail, but the corruption is so huge that it continues unabated in other parts. Now add to this developmental activities which started after the formation of the new state in 2000 – urbanization, roads, dams etc.

Gopeshwar with barren hills
A recent proposal sent by the state government to MoEF (&CC) seeks permission to cut down all pine trees. The arguments given are that pine trees are exotic and not local flora, its leaves burn easily in summer setting fires to forests and that it is taking over local varieties of forest patches. The state government wants to plant local broad-leaf trees in its place. Now, the arguments against pines are correct to an extent, but the proposal reeks of a different motive. If MoEF gives a nod to this (which the current MoEF is likely to give), it will lead to unchecked felling of all trees and not just pine. If the state government was so serious about planting broad-leaf trees, it could have well started with all the deforested lands first.

But what I find unsettling is the change in attitude of the communities from the time of the Chipko Movement. People complain of harsh winds and water scarcity but somehow fail to mention the barren hills. The one constant question I have asked everybody is why there are no trees and I have mostly got cagey answers. Some have pointed uninterestedly to patches of pines saying there are enough forests. Somehow I ended up getting the feeling that people’s priorities have changed a lot. They know that they are connected with nature but that sense of ownership is not there. Now it’s a grudging reality which somehow has to be ‘suffered’. The lure of the plains and money is too strong. I have travelled to all the mountain states in India but I have not come across this attitude in other communities till now. The NGOs are very much aware of the issue but are defensive of the fact that people are not interested or sometimes aid the forest officials in felling trees. The situation is like that of an elephant in a room – everybody knows of its presence but nobody acknowledges.

Add to all this the increasing influence of climate change, which has hastened in the last few years (as per people’s perception) – receding glacier, lesser and lesser snowfall, less or no winter rain, increasing temperature, erratic rainfall, winter fog, soil erosion, water scarcity, movement of tree and plant species to higher altitude, pest attacks, unseasonal flowering of trees etc. – and you have a full-fledged recipe for a prolonged disaster waiting to unfold.

What a waste of the efforts of the women behind the Chipko Movement. And what an insult the region has become to their sentiments.

Sign the petition for an alternate development policies for the Himalayan regions

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Nagaland: Quest for Identity – 2

“It was so strange: this mix of tribal identity and Christianity which is a little on your face. Even largely Christian countries, including ours, is not……so Christian.”

It was early morning in Nongriat, Meghalaya, and a few backpackers, including me, were sitting in Byron’s verandah waiting for the sun to peek from the hills and him to serve us his amazing porridge breakfast. The topic of conversation, as in most backpacking gatherings, had turned again to travel experiences (and thankfully not to Game of Thrones!). While all the travelers dispersed after the sumptuous breakfast, I stayed on at the homestay nursing a sudden bout of back pain and weak knees and thinking of what the Australian couple had said about Nagaland. It had piqued more than my curiosity, it set the tone of my travel onwards to Nagaland.

I spent Christmas with M’s family in the pretty village of Mima attending Christmas Mass in the village’s Baptist Church filled with people dressed in the best of their attires – both western and oh-so-pretty traditional ones with distinctive Angami colours and patterns – and followed by a delicious community feast of rice and pork and some more pork. Moving out from the ‘city’ of Kohima and traveling further north and south, the contradictions that the Australian couple had talked about, became more apparent. Most parts of Nagaland are now highly westernized, both in lifestyle and attire, perhaps a little less in local and clan traditions and customs. Unlike Arunachal Pradesh where tribal culture, lifestyle, attire and traditional homes, are still very much prevalent, in Nagaland one gets just glimpses of a culturally rich past mostly during religious and social occasions. H, who works on tourism and community development, said with a bit of regret that Christianity has erased most of the tribal lifestyle and culture as it’s now considered a taboo. His grandparents are the last generation of ‘Pagans’ or people who followed the old ways of animistic living.

Christmas at Mima, near Kohima

As my friend J explained, Christianity came to Nagaland after the British almost 150 years ago. The Baptists have been there since the beginning while Catholics and Revivals came much later. Unlike the European ones, the American missionaries did not accept any of the tribal culture, considering anything to do with animism, a taboo. From head-hunting and tribal warfare days, people have come a long way in terms of modernization, largely due the influence of these missionaries. As N in Khonoma pointed out, the last few regions who live the ‘Pagan’ lifestyle (mostly eastern Nagaland) are still largely poor. With visible improvement in lifestyle and economic advantages arising out of mainstreaming, generations have consciously let go their tribal past, even refusing to talk about it. H, who has experienced such a transition since his childhood, said that earlier hygiene and sanitation practices were abysmal and it was especially bad with pigs, chickens, mithuns and people all roaming around the village freely, reminding me of the conditions still prevalent in many villages across India. Akole from North East Networks (Chizami), who was wearing a traditional mekhala when I met her, felt that it was easy for people to adopt Christianity as there were a lot of similarities with the Pagan belief systems.

High heels in a village - western with the traditional

It is however the youth – the fourth or fifth generation Christians – who are beginning to question their socio-cultural identity just like they are doing with their political identity. Fashion conscious and so effortlessly stylish that they can easily put our metro fashionistas to shame, the youth are looking at different ways to resolve their ‘crossroads’ moment. A section of youth want to reaffirm their identity by going back to their roots, by understanding their ancestral history and keeping their heritage alive. AVT, a TISS Mumbai graduate, who met us in Kohima, took us down narrow bylanes past old houses to a decrepit place which served the local rice drink Dzutho. Any form of alcohol is officially banned in the state including the local rice drink. Sipping the rice beer and watching the sun go down across the valley, AVT enthusiastically talked about tribal practices and customs he knew of and showed us burial practices that existed before. He rued the fact that there were too many western influences in the society now. C, who took me to the forests around Khonoma on New Year’s day, said that the youth want to know more about their roots but parents are not really interested in telling as it’s against their religion to talk about taboos. He felt that his generation is the last who can do something to retain their rich heritage, after which everything will be lost forever. L, who took me around the fields of Khonoma and narrated all the stories/folktales related to the village’s history and monoliths scattered around, is passionate about his village’s past and want to write down all the folklores and stories of his village.

The other section of youth is going back to religion in order to forge and strengthen their identity. Like my friend K, they feel that it is religion which has helped them through decades of conflict and improve their lives. It is also finding oneself and others through religion that will help them resolve future issues and bring them together as a strong Naga community.

A Totem put up by an ex-hunter at Khonoma

Walking around the forests and the fields of Khonoma, I could not shake the feeling of being watched by ‘somebody’ amongst the gnarled alder trees, the sudden shriek of a bird, secluded ponds, and the mellow sun filtering through the trees – making me want to believe all the nature spirit stories that I heard there. It was magical. Perhaps it is a bit of this magic, faith in Christianity and the inherent strength of the people who have held on despite odds stacked against them that has made Nagaland a beautiful and distinctive place like no other.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Nagaland: Quest for Identity – 1

Wise words in Wokha

J: You will reach Kohima at around two in the morning. Don’t worry, its safe here. There are Army guys everywhere.
Me: Are you mad? I am not going anywhere near the Army.
J: You are an upper class Brahmin and you don’t look like a Naga, so they dare not touch you.
Me: I am not ‘upper class Brahmin’.
J: Oh. Then God help you.

The conversation with J, my friend who is studying Peace and Conflict, bordered on being a joke, yet somewhere it wasn’t. The media with its sporadic reports on ‘insurgency’ in the state, has successfully managed to create an image of an unsafe volatile state with people up in arms against the Army. Travelers who visit the state do so mostly during the Hornbill Festival, which quite many Nagas would agree, is just a performance put up to boost tourism. The loss however is ours, the rest of India, for not making efforts to go beyond the Hornbill Festival and media reports to understand these resilient and amazing hill people who have throughout generations experienced so much, yet come so far in their collective journey.

My arrival in Kohima at 2am was not as dramatic as J had joked. He along with his friend M were there to pick me up at Learie Point, a CRPF Camp area but with no army personnel around at that time. On the eve of Christmas, when we were exploring the town, eat Naga food and understand a bit of its history, a usually unruffled J suddenly spat out, “Its one of the most disgusting line I have ever read anywhere”. Written on the wall in huge letters was the Indian Army’s tagline for Nagaland – Friends of the Hill People.

Nagaland, it might seem, have always been a ‘conflict’ zone. The tribes, before adopting Christianity, practiced head-hunting as each village/clan functioned as an autonomous unit and therefore the need to guard against its ‘enemies’ and/or forge friendship treaties with other villages. Then came the invasion of Japan into their territory in 1943. Just as they were picking up pieces of their lives, the Indian Army moved in after India’s independence to quell the movement for Naga independence or ‘insurgency’. The Indian Army ended up committing more atrocities on Naga people than even the Japanese who were known for their horrific war crimes. Some of these stories though reported in mainline dailies were lost in the inside pages. More than fifty years of Army presence and a deeply corrupt state government has led to issues or crimes which were unheard of in the state once – drugs, HIV, rapes, migration. Perhaps it’s the strength of the Naga women, who like other women in conflict zones, bore the brunt of it, the resilience of the village structures, and/or their faith in Christianity that have helped the Nagas overlook all this and continue with normal life.

“They are all chasing after the wind.” C, my guide in Khonoma for the day, replied to my queries on the Nationalist Movement. C studied in Kohima and was home for the holidays. While the entire village was engaged in church work on the 1st of Jan, C agreed to take me to the adjoining forest because he thought churches are ‘just man-made structures’.

“What freedom are they talking about? We are free, we have our Naga identity and we have a state to our own. What they want is not politically feasible now. And we are Nagas; once we get our ‘freedom’, we will start bickering and fighting with each other again”, C continued, stating largely what the current generation felt about the ‘Nationalist’ movement. They wanted to move on, forget the past and build a better future for themselves in Nagaland.

The Nationalist Movement had started with the idea of a larger Naga identity – a free country for all Naga tribes, including those living in Burma (Myanmar) and parts of Manipur. The movement like many others, now seem to have lost its key focus, spilt into sub-groups on tribe/clan lines and now perceived mostly as extortionists who do not want the state or its people to progress. There have been incidences of them killing their own members who had tried to find a common ground for all and/or advocate a different path.

On the way to Pfutsero, relatively better roads than anywhere in Nagaland

CY, another student from Wokha who has a keen interest in the movement’s history, said that it’s difficult to support any of the groups because all of them are just as corrupt as the government. The sense of restlessness seemed strong in the youth who wants to do so much but are not able to do so, not even voice their opinions openly. They want to leave their past behind and forge a new identity in the future. For the older generation who once strongly believed in the ideology, suffered the impact of the conflict and faced so much hardships over decades, their identity is deeply tied with the past. They are unable to forget and simply let go.

Socio-politically, Nagaland is in a state of flux where the problems are not as simple as stated above but layered with complexities. In its heart lies the quest for an identity, the definition of which have been shifting and evolving over the years. As my friend K, who is deeply involved in church and community work said, perhaps the first step is not to forget but forgive.

Between the Indian government, the Army, the state government, the nationalist movement, the ideologies of the older and younger generation and Christianity and tribal roots, the past continues to weigh heavily while the future is itching to unfold.  

Friday, 4 December 2015

Time Travelling in Bihar:

A village in Madhubani district
(all conversations took place in Hindi)

Case 1: (Kishanganj)
Me: Will you work after you are married?
Girl: In Rajput families, women are not allowed to work. Except as a teacher.
Me: So what happens to all the education that you have had?
Girl: Doesn’t matter. My dad will still have to pay that much dowry. 

Case 2: (Patna)
Me: How many children do you have?
Domestic Help: Six, four sons and two daughters
Me: How old are they? Are they studying?
DH: The oldest two are working. They are old enough to earn.
Me: Did they finish their education?
DH: No
Me: Who goes to school?
DH: Silence
Me: Are you planning to send them to school?
DH: No
(A six or seven years old daughter helps her with jhadu-pocha twice a day in five homes)

Case 3: (Kishanganj)
Young guy: That uncle of mine is very good. He makes a profit of minimum Rs.20 lakhs whenever he gets a project.
Me: How?
YG: He gets tender from the government for maintenance of all health centres and hospitals in Bihar. He has to give a bribe of Rs.10-20 lakhs to government officials, then increases the tender amount. So, when he gets the tender, he finishes his work within the original tender amount and rest is his as ‘profit’.

It felt surreal. Things had changed visibly, physically yet nothing had changed. The part which had not changed – mostly attitude, socio-cultural norms, social structures and values – infact seemed so deeply ingrained that I felt truly hopeless. I had returned to the state of my Alma Mater after a gap of two decades, and I came back with a sense of great agitation which I have not been able to shake off even now. Physically I could recognize nothing, except my much loved school and the space where my childhood home once stood. Building, apartments, malls, hotels, flyovers, millions of SUVs (mostly given as dowry or political favour), girls in jeans (wearing jeans then often led to eve-teasing), roads which had no potholes, smooth highways, electricity in far-flung areas – one would feel that Bihar definitely was progressing.

Just beneath that surface however, lies a story which is perhaps as old or even older than me. Caste hierarchies, institutionalized dowry system (an informal rate list existed then and new vocations have been added now such as drivers who get a minimum of Rs.6 lakhs), violence against women especially dowry related deaths, not much interest in education, underhand or shady ways of working, financial manipulations (I was charged Rs.472 for a courier which actually costed Rs.272), patriarchy, poverty – all seem to have taken much deep roots. One of the activists/NGO founder and last of the revolutionaries I met there, said that the situation of women has infact worsened. During my school days there was no sex-selective abortion, now it’s prevalent in many areas.

One might argue that all these are present everywhere in India in varying degree. But what bothers me is its on-the-face presence here. A college student who is working now, readily accepts that she will not work after marriage, a domestic help in the capital city is not interested in providing education to her children even though there are many opportunities, a young guy does not understand that a corrupt way of doing business is not the ‘right’ way of working.

It hurts. Because when we were young, we understood that most of the problems, social and economic, existed because the state was extremely poor and people extremely orthodox. We had hope then that thing would improve in future, with education and livelihood opportunities. Twenty years ago, there was a genuine excuse for similar cases as above.

Now, with the rest of India galloping ahead, there simply are no excuses.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Living Responsibly:

If the theatre of the absurd continues, then we are on the verge of losing the last opportunity to come together and set things right for our Earth. Going by the sneak previews of the upcoming Paris Conference on Climate Change, the finger-pointing, blame game and one-upmanship have already started while the Earth continues to burn.

As ordinary people, we might continue to look at the Paris Conference askance and vaguely blame our governments and world politics for the current environmental situation, but the fact remains that we have happily lapped up all that have been dished out to us so far. Without even a question. This makes us just as blameworthy for the situation we are in now.  While the world leaders ‘decide’ the fate of our future, we can also help in slowing down environmental degradation by living responsibly.

Being Aware: Once I was talking to an acquaintance on environmental issues when he opened a cigarette packet and dropped the plastic wrap right there on the road. My friend N loves wildlife but she cannot stop bringing plastic bags home.

Each one of us are adding to the environmental chaos by the choices we make in life. Understand and be aware of how you are impacting the Earth. We might not have much environmentally-friendly options, but we can still chose ways to lessen our footprints on Earth. You can chose to buy products which are green/natural, or from companies who follow sustainable business practices, you can carry a cloth bag and insist on not using plastic bags, you can share an auto, or carry a water bottle instead of buying water from outside all the time, not use styrofoam glasses during house parties, take quick showers, not keep the tap running while you clean your kitchen, or tell your maids to stop doing that, switch off lights in rooms you are not using, walk or cycle short distances, stop using the lift if you live on the first few floors, or use brands which source sustainably produced palm oil (HUL, J&J, L’Oreal etc.).

Choices are many, if only we chose to be more aware.

Reduce, Reduce, Reduce: In the narrow roads of Bihar, when you mostly see SUVs and MUVs jostling for space, you know that these were given to others either as political favours, dowry or are simply stolen. In cities like Mumbai and Delhi, when couples or families with one kid buy such fuel guzzling polluting diesel cars, you know that it’s mostly for show value. Remember that just 10 years back, larger families could happily fit into and travel in Maruti Altos. If its luxury that you want, why not a relatively fuel efficient sedan instead? (or a hatchback. oh, I don't know the difference but you get my point anyway)

It also amazes me no extent when I see people lined up at these Hypercitys and Big Bazaars (I will never visit a Reliance shop) with cartloads of stuff which take more than 15 minutes to just empty at the counter. Do they buy all the stuff because they can simply afford to do so or do they really really need them?

What about that kindle with some 400 ebooks which you will never use or read?
Think before you buy. Reduce your consumption. You have no idea how freeing it is to live minimalistically.  

Recycle, Distribute, Reuse: Can you even imagine the kind of waste 1.2 billion people can generate every day? It’s a good thing that a lot of stuff in India get recycled before they hit landfill like plastic or glass materials, paper, electronic goods, clothes etc. However, we only tend to recycle when we get money out of recycling or simply throw things in the dustbin without thinking.

Even though my housing society does not have the provision for collecting dry and wet waste separately, I still segregate my waste. A friend hearing this had laughed and asked how it helped if all went into the landfill anyway. The waste that you throw out is segregated by your housing society kachra walas/walis who have to wade through piles of garbage. By segregating your waste at home, you are atleast easing their process a bit.

But if you want to ensure that some of the stuff is sustainably and meaningfully recycled, then there are other options too.
-        Old clothes (clean): donate to NGOs like Goonj who recycles or upcycles them
-        Bedsheets, rugs, towels, buckets, mugs etc. (again clean): donate to animal shelters or old age homes.  
-        Books: There are many community libraries, educational institutes which take donated books. All you have to do is google.
-        Tetrapacks: In Mumbai, Sahakari Bhandars collects tetrapacks, for other cities you can check
-        Electronic goods: to sell or dispose off your electronic goods responsibly, you can visit sites such as,,, etc. which offers such services across cities in India. You can also buy refurbished electronic goods from,,

Go Local, Go Natural, Go Organic: Do you know that in the scalding summer heat, nothing can be cooler than wearing Khadi? Have you heard about the freedom fabric called Malkha? Or about western outfits made of Ikat which can turn more heads than when you wear Zara? Have you tried products or groceries from Khadi or our decades old company Vicco? There is an amazing variety of home-grown products which are simply great for Indian climate and needs.  All you have to do is explore a bit.  
Start using organic vegetables or groceries. You don’t have to convert to being 100% organic but you can start by including atleast one such item in your monthly list.

Take an Ideological Stand: My friend S volunteers with wildlife NGOs every year. He says he does so because he wants to live guilt-free. Pick up a cause or an ideology for living one’s life and stick with it. It can be as simple as donating Rs.100 per month to your favourite charity or saying thank you to others or as involving as taking a month off from work to volunteer for a cause or protesting against mining in virgin forests.

Remember, your actions now can leave an indelible impact later….either good or bad. Only you can chose how you want to live your life and influence our collective future.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Metro Middle Class Melodrama:

‘SEC A’ was a term often used in marketing and advertising to describe a section of population belonging to the ‘socio-economic’ category of ‘well-educated in established professions’ with income level that of middle middle class and the upper middle class. There was also a category, SEC A1, which as the name suggests was the ‘well to do’ or ‘rich’ category.

A few years ago, I happened to visit one such family in Delhi who can be described as SEC A1 or ‘Professionally well qualified, both partners working in well-known corporates at senior managerial level, young kids going to an ‘elite’ school, owning a house and two cars, having domestic helps, a cook and drivers, foreign travels etc.’ However while talking, the lady of the house pointed to an area close by and said – that’s where the ‘rich’ lives!

This one comment set me thinking – do ‘rich’ people in the metros know they are ‘rich’ or are they perpetually looking at the next guy/ girl as The quintessential rich person?

I ended up harassing a few friends, both from corporate background and social sector with many questions on being middle class and being rich etc. The answers that I got were quite interesting especially from people with corporate/ private sector jobs. Sample these:

·         If money can multiply on its own, its being rich. Eg: property, gold, business etc. All salaried people including a CEO would fall into middle class
·         It’s not just money but money versus responsibilities. If responsibilities are less, you save more and can be rich. We need to keep working towards savings. Rich are those whose savings take care of responsibilities and allow to spend on luxury
·         The difference is between wanting a Nano and a BMW X series
·         If you have family money, then you are rich with an earning of Rs.50 lakhs because you are not paying EMIs and loans. If you pay for all your expenses, then you are upper middle class
·         Middle class can be defined by income status along with socio-cultural behavior; lifestyle might have changed but not so much change in thoughts and attitudes
·         Middle class people are always bogged down by EMIs, credits, loans etc.
·         Living in a metro makes you middle class even if you are earning a ‘good’ salary because of the expenses
·         I have never been comfortable with the concept of wealth, but yes my salary makes me fall into the ‘rich’ category

So if all of them are still middle class, who then are the rich? A TOI Calculator puts a person earning Rs.50,000 per month as belonging to only 0.33% of India’s population. Many researches (some links given below) indicates that in India, people having disposable income higher than Rs.10 lakhs per annum (NCAER) or people spending more than Rs.20,000 per month are RICH!

And, who are the middle class?

It seems, the actual definition of middle class has undergone a vast change since the days of our parents, whose generation gave the middle class a definitive character. Families with fixed income most of which went into paying income tax, the rest was tightly controlled between monthly expenses, children’s education which had to be good, and lots of savings for future. Travel for leisure would happen once in four years after calculated savings and meticulous planning and even buying Amar Chitra Kathas would be considered once in a while ‘affordable’ luxury. Socio-cultural behavior would be defined by the community that one stayed in, not venturing too far away from traditions. There were even aspirational middle class careers such as doctors, engineers, banking, civil services, lawyers etc.


With material aspirations, access to credit and loans, multiple and different career options, much higher incomes, ‘I am worth it’ marketing gimmicks and high peer pressure to maintain ‘standards’, the current middle class is undergoing an identity crisis. An interesting article by Prathap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express points to the deepening crisis in such ‘middle class’ careers and why it reflects the ambiguous position of the current middle class. As he mentions, careers are now mostly driven by aspirations of consumption rather than identity or meaning which once the middle class strived for.

Sadly, none of us belong to our parents’ generation of middle class ideology anymore.

As for my friends living in metros and people belonging to similar income category, I have a hypothesis – that even though they have moved into the ‘rich’ category long back, their middle class upbringing makes them feel very guilty of acknowledging their financial status even to themselves.   

Intersting links on middle class definitions:

Hilarious post on middle class hypocrisy:

Saturday, 1 August 2015

There is Something About the North-East:

This is a region where men do not feel the need to be macho or are bridling with ‘male pride’ and women are not overly coy, feminine or just trying to be sexy. Here, men work alongside women in farms and help with household work. Here, there is no strict division of labour, a men’s work versus women’s work kind of world. Here, if a man beats up his wife, his wife is just as capable of beating up the man. This is a place where men and women are not strictly ‘men and women’, but two sides of being human. 

Well its true, the North East – from Darjeeling Hills in the north to Arunachal in the extreme east – is a place which is definitely not like the rest of India. For a deeply patriarchal society that defines the rest of India, the NE can feel like a foreign land. But if one stays in any place in this vast region and experience daily life here, he/she will truly understand just how horribly wrong things are on the other side of the country and probably other parts of the world.

Many feminists may still argue that a society can’t be so perfect. But for me, this is as perfect as it can get. For this is where I feel like a human; this is where I am able to breathe freely.

Darjeeling Hills

If on one side, the rest of India seems to have become almost homogenous, the NE on the other side is a kaleidoscope of socio-cultural identities, traditions and stunning biodiversity. I still do not understand the political intricacies of this region well and you can call me selfish, but I want this region to remain as secluded as it is right now from the rest of the country. As a country, we are governed by the same laws and policies, strategy and vision across all states, which at some level do not take into cognizance or acknowledge the huge diversity that once existed and still exists in pockets. For example: the rich anthropological sites of Bastar and Araku Valley will cease to exist in a few years with the thrust on mainstream ways of governance and exposure to mass media. In Ladakh, the ‘Hindu’ law of monogamous marriages did away with the tradition of polyandry which helped to keep the population in check as is required in a limited-resources region. Or the culture and traditions of small tribes of Arunachal Pradesh threatened by exposure to labourers from outside outnumbering these tribes, when dams get built on their rivers and valleys.

Take another example of Gorkhaland. It’s a region which is socio-culturally much closer to Sikkim yet it’s a part of West Bengal. In all aspects, Gorkhaland is as different from the rest of WB as potatoes are to fish. And all the successive governments have not done much to recognise the different identity and culture. My project colleague narrated how the current government sent dhotis and sarees during the HudHud disaster which seemed like a complete disregard and affront to the community’s way of life. During my stay in Gorkhaland also, I saw signages and cultural functions being staged in Bengali. I am told that when Mamta didi comes, she gives speeches in Bangla in her effort to create a larger Bengali identity.

I do not like the idea of a separate state as one can see the devastation caused in Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand in the name of development after they became separate states. Perhaps an autonomous hill council like the one that exists or that of Ladakh might work. Or a union territory. Or perhaps we can let these regions and states develop like Bhutan and help preserve their unique identities. I don’t know what the perfect solution is which can work politically, socio-culturally and environmentally too.     

As my project colleague mentioned, urbanization, environmental destruction and dilution of culture will probably happen as part of the ongoing process. The question now is who does it and who gains from it – a government who is keen on alienating them or their own people.

This prediction might just be right, but it’s a future which I refuse to acknowledge.

Not for the North East atleast.