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WHAT TO MAKE OF THE BJP'S 'NORTHEAST IMMIGRANTS' FIASCO?

WHAT TO MAKE OF THE BJP'S 'NORTHEAST IMMIGRANTS' FIASCO?
- Thangkhanlal Ngaihte, Columnist Zogam.com

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When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in their so-called Delhi Vision Document released ahead of the Delhi Assembly elections use the phrase, ‘Northeast immigrants’ to describe the people from India’s northeast in the capital, it rightly causes disquiet and outrage. The generally accepted meaning of an 'immigrant' is 'someone who comes to live permanently in a foreign country'. Coming on top of the Hindu extremists’ anti-minority rhetoric, their claims on the Hindu character of the Indian nation and the attacks to Christian places of worship in Delhi, the misdescription represents the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back as far as the northeasterners are concerned. Social media overflowed with righteous indignation. Many organizations from the northeast also spoke up in anguish. The northeasterners may well be the happiest people when the election results came in on 10 February and the BJP was gutted.

But, is the misdescription such a big deal? It’s one thing that parties, trying to grab votes in whatever way they can, will not miss such instances to score points and throw mud at each other. Is this reason enough for the outrage expressed by parties like the Congress and AAP? But then, why do most northeasterners refuse to buy the BJP’s explanation that the misdescription is a simple ‘typing error’? And now that the situation has passed, what would be the proper way to read this whole fiasco?

Frankly, I do not believe that the misdescription was done intentionally. The BJP, as a party, has nothing to gain and everything to lose by such a stupid act. The BJP, as a Hindu-right party, have always a perception problem with the northeastern states, many of which are Christian-majority. The northeast region may be insignificant in terms of their contribution of parliamentary seats, but they are crucial for the BJP as it attempts to solidify its image as a party with pan-India appeal. Though the BJP has now established foothold in some states in the region, there is a temporariness about those electoral conquests and there is still some distance to go before the party is accepted as a normal party in the region.

Some of the negative perception of the party in the region may be undeserved. It was the Vajpayee government that sets up the Ministry of DONER – the only central Ministry with a region-specific mandate. Perhaps the most serious attempt to resolve the insurgency in the northeast, particularly the Naga issue, happened during the Vajpayee regime. There is reason to believe that the present BJP government is quite serious about tackling the issues of racism and discrimination against the northeasterners in mainland India. They seem intent on seriously implementing the recommendations of the Bezbaruah Committee report, for example.

Hence, there is no good rationale for the BJP to resort to this silly act. The mistake may indeed be an accident. However, whatever the reason for the misdescription,  the damage it cause is real - both symbolically and psychologically. The project of integration of the northeast into the Indian national imagination is still a work-in-progress. It is sad, and ironic, that just when thousands of northeasterners tries to come out of the grip of secessionist insurgencies and sought refuge and acceptance in the mainland, they are subjected to racist attacks on the streets and symbolically rebuffed like this. The BJP did not help itself by clarifying that what they meant to say was 'migrants' and not 'immigrants'. Many northeasterners in Delhi are permanent residents; 'migrants' is a poor choice of term for them.

It important to recall here that things were not always like this. A.Z. Phizo, the original Naga secessionist rebel, justified the demand for independence, in the main, on the claim that the Nagas (and all of northeasterners, for that matter) are racially different from Indians. Phizo was steadfast in his claim to be a 'Naga', not an 'Indian'. Pieter Steyn, in his biography of Phizo, ‘Zapuphizo: Voice of the Nagas’ records that when Phizo, accompanied by Michael Scott reached London on 12 June 1960 after escaping from the Naga hills under very difficult circumstances, there was much drama and bewilderment at the Heathrow airport. To the immigration officials, Nagaland is a non-existent land. Scott nevertheless introduced Phizo to the immigration authorities as president of the Naga National Council. When they asked Phizo why he came without any passport, he replied, ‘When the British came to my country, they did not bring any passport with them. Why should I now carry one to Britain?’. It was only after hours of haggling that the man was given entry to Britain as  an ‘assumed’ Commonwealth citizen. Following in that tradition, other secessionist movements, like the Mizo movement, were based on the claim of never being Indians.

We have come a long way since then. Most insurgent groups in the northeast are now begging  to meet and hold negotiations with the central Government. Even Messrs Th. Muivah and his compatriot Isak Chisi Swe now carry Indian passports. But the compromise is still delicate and the connection tenuous. In view of this, the damage that the ‘typing error’ in the Vision Document of the ruling party in India on this very sensitive issue cause is hard to emphasize, however benign the intention may be. It feeds directly into the secessionist rhetoric of old. One only hopes that there are no insurgent groups looking to capitalize on this to advance their fledging  secessionist propaganda.

At the end of the day, though, the ‘typing error’ is symptomatic of the general attitude of Indian mainland, both officially and unofficially, toward the northeast. That attitude is marked by bored indifference and apathy. No one really cares. No one bother to check and pay attention until the noise becomes too loud. It is a region that occasionally cause nuisance, whose uncommon people need to be tamed with funds or guns. It is a strategically importance land, but whose economy is a burden and which is irrelevant in the electoral number game. It is an attitude which permeates across all parties and institutions, the blame for which cannot be laid on the mainlanders alone.

(A version of this article was earlier published in The Statesman)

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