In recent months, Delhi underwent two of its annual rituals: one, the hectic yet protracted system of seeking admissions into institutions like Delhi University, JNU etc. and two, the onset of the great campus election carnivals. The legendary Mirza Ghalib had once movingly penned, ‘the world is the body and Delhi its life’. Life in the city, however, has been rather tough for the thousands from the Northeastern states. Baked in the sultry heat of June-July, Delhi cannot possibly provide a more contrasting milieu to ‘welcome’ this motley crew lumped together as Northeastern.
A growing exodus
While in the Northeast we are in the grip of a frenzied discourse on ‘illegal’ migration or influx of outsiders, what has been quietly but steadily taking place is a substantial outmigration. An exodus of some of the best amongst us. Young people from the eight states are coming in ever larger numbers and creating a space for themselves in this city that has developed a reputation for hostility and intolerance. Statistics shows that it is an ever growing exodus. According to reports, the annual average increase in migration is around 15 percent in the last five years. Delhi is one of the most preferred destinations for Northeast migrants with almost half the percentage of the migrants moving to the capital city alone.
Besides the student population, a large working population from the region has been migrating to the metro cities too. Studies show that they are engaged more in the tertiary sectors like the service industry. Another unique feature of this exodus is that unlike the migration from other ‘low income’ states, bulk of the migratory population from the Northeast region is not seasonal in nature or in the category of ‘short term’ migrants (defined as 6-9 months). One explanation is that compared to the migrants from other parts of India, the migrants from Northeast are from better economic and educational backgrounds. Thus, the migration is mostly aspirational with some instances of forced conditions. They result from a combination of push and pull factors. One of the key push factors for young people leaving the Northeast region remains the question of employment, the lack of avenues in the region, especially in the professional service sectors. Decades of conflict and violence have paradoxically co-existed alongside the aspirational zeal of the youth for a ‘good life.’ Only the articulations of these have changed with the opening up of the economy and betterment of communication channels across regions. Conflicts then started acting as a prominent push factor for young people leaving the region.
‘Northeast’: the construct and the context
I am referring to the putative category of Northeastern students rather casually here but yet with some reasons. Delhi is the kind of place that in its own peculiar ways, brackets people into identities. One of course has ways to resist this ‘identification’. Perhaps available in much more ways than available at times in many places ‘back home’. But as philosopher Charles Taylor famously said, our identities are shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition by others. And thus Delhi gives many a people their first context to define themselves or the very first awareness of the ‘need’ to define themselves. There are in fact few tangible ways it is built up. When a student from x,y,z state belonging to x,y,z, community approaches the university campuses of Delhi there is a strong possibility that he/she will run into the ‘admission assistance desk’ run by the student group ‘representing’ that particular region/state/community/tribe. These overlapping identities come often with the overlapping set of ‘representative’ bodies. Most of the time, the student is more than happy to get this ‘assistance’, thus the first lesson for him/her being that one’s identity is often instrumental and contextual. Soon, this ‘identity’ or rather ‘identification’ discourse gets a further push with the election knocking at the campus gates.
Often student politics, like other forms of electoral mobilisations, tends to place one’s vote to his/her assumed ‘primordial’ attachment to kinship. Thus the air in DU gets thick with speculation of ‘Northeast votes’ swinging this way or the other. Although, the ‘common Northeastern students’ as such might not take it seriously at all, a lot of mobilisation does take place in their name. In recent times, one has noticed proliferation of student organisations claiming to represent students from the Northeast. These organisations come particularly alive during the time of campus elections and allegedly try to influence the voting of the ‘members of the community’ towards a particular dispensation. These are the arenas that might become the training ground of the migrant student population in some of the corrupt practices of Indian political system. This also initiates them into ways of partaking in the process of commodification of the label Northeast. Although here one must also mention the instances when students from the region have contested and won in elections from the platform from different ‘established’/‘mainstream’ student parties. The very recent case being the election of a student from Assam to the post of general secretary in Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU). Although one cannot completely rule out the anticipation of community voting here as incentive for the parties in fielding these candidates, one would need more methodologically pointed and structured studies to establish these linkages.
However, there are empowering ways of identity based assertions taking place too. The whole of India saw the spirited protest and resistance by the young people from the Northeast in recent times in many of the Indian metros against a series ‘murder’ of youths from the region. The name of Nido Tania has become household name symbolising these new age protests. The novelty of the protests have been the confidence and assertion on the part of the Northeastern youths to engage and partner as equals with the various civil society groups of the country on the issue. The young protestors have successfully extended it into a fight of not only seeking justice to racist crimes and stereotyping but of redefining the definition of ‘Indian-ness’ itself, where the issue is the acceptance of the indigenous people from Northeast as Indians on equal grounds, not in the form of some privilege or patronage but as per the rights given by the Constitution.
A report released by UNICEF some years back on Internal Migration and Human Development in India talks about how social prejudices and political mobilization based on theories of ‘sons of the soil’ persist in most parts of India outweighing the advantages which migrants could potentially reap from higher density of social networks. The Northeast populations living in different metros are already feeling the heat of some of these prejudices as they are being seen as ‘encroachers’ and ‘bad influences.’ Will these experiences lead towards some self refectory outlook on the youths from the region? A realisation perhaps about the ills of the xenophobia and racism we ourselves indulge in towards the ‘others’ and the ‘outsiders’ in the Northeast? A quick example that invokes hope is that some of the best experiments and new trends being initiated in art, culture, film-making etc in the region are being initiated by a generation that is gradually returning to their home bases after substantial years outside.
One hopes that just as the experience of coming outside for study and work exposes us to the structures of intolerance like racism and prompts and empowers us to ‘speak up’, it will also makes us understand the importance of the virtue of justice. In seeking justice for ourselves in ‘hostile’ cities, we cannot deny it in our own homes.
Kaustubh Deka is an academic and writer based in Delhi
(This story appeared in October 2016 issue of Eclectic Northeast)