GU’s ‘discontinuation’ of Mising, Rabha courses: Blow to ‘inclusive education’

In a major blow to the linguistic minorities in Assam, the Gauhati University, through a notification issued on June 12, 2020, ‘discontinued’ the 6-month-long certificate/diploma courses on Mising and Rabha languages. The decision, taken during the 4th meeting of the Executive council and published as draft proceedings, highlights that the Centre for Languages and Cultural Studies, under which the courses were offered, will be merged with the ‘Centre for Performing Arts’ and all the running courses under the centers will be discontinued. The decision to merge both the centers can only be termed as ‘absurd’ as ‘performing arts’ and ‘languages and culture’ are separate lines of academic study. No explanation of how and why such a move is being taken is being provided yet by the university.

The Centre for Languages and Cultural Studies, established in August 2015 at Gauhati University, was to undertake efforts towards protection and preservation of languages like Misings, Rabhas, Tiwas, Karbis, Deoris, Dimasas, and other ethnic minorities. The certificate courses on Mising and Rabha languages started in 2017 were seen as an effort towards such a goal.

However barely two years later, the course now is being discontinued.

The Mising Agom Kebang (MAK), the apex literary body of the Mising community, has already highlighted its strong objections. Through a memorandum and a press release dated August 8, 2020, the organization has demanded that the merger should be revoked, and the certificate courses continued in the same way as earlier. They have furthered their demand and have called for the recruitment of permanent faculties for the courses, which was till now being run through contractual positions. They also highlight that the merger is against the earlier notification of the university, which in 2016 highlighted that the center would function ‘independently’.

Neoliberalism, education, and tribes

Under neoliberalism, education is seen more as a ‘profit-making initiative’, as a product which is to be consumed and is analyzed from the perspectives of ‘liabilities’ and ‘assets’. Tribal language courses when introduced in institutes as an academic course are often seen as liabilities or burdens to an institution. Rather than proliferating the importance of indigenous cultural value and knowledge system, it is put under a prism of revenue consuming exercise.

As it is obvious that tribes have a marginally lower population compared to dominant linguistic groups, courses on tribal languages are least preferred by academic administrators as the enrolment of students is low. Thus, these courses often become the first casualties of cost-cutting exercises.

Tribes are good as ‘research objects’ for academic pursuits but integrating their language and culture within the institutional processes of academia faces impediment as they lack the agency and consciousness.

The aspirations of the tribal middle class, who prefer to learn the dominant market language, be it English or Assamese, get jobs, and move up the economic ladder is highlighted as a ‘lack of interest’ within the community. Little attention is paid to the structural issues like lack of avenues to learn the language, apathy from the government towards the protection of tribal languages, and linguistic majoritarianism.

‘Correcting’ systematic neglect

Tribal languages, especially those without any form of constitutional protection, has been on a steady decline in Assam. The Mising language is in the ‘definitely endangered’ category, while Rabha is classified as ‘vulnerable’. The Mising Agom Kebang has been constantly demanding the government to make efforts towards the protection and promotion of the Mising language. The certificate course on Mising language was started in response to the demand raised by the MAK in 2017. In the first year of its introduction, two guest faculties, one each for Rabha and Mising, were hired. Thirty-seven students enrolled for the Rabha course in the 2017-18 session, while the Mising course had 17 students. While the course also continued in 2019 and exams conducted, the results are yet to be declared by the university. No calls for either future admissions to the course or notifications for guest faculties are being made by the university for the academic year 2020-2021, indicating the uncertain future of the course.

One of the key reasons for the decline in the number of speakers, besides the lack of systematic attention and government support to Mising language, is also the lack of avenues to learn the language both academically and in the immediate environment, especially in cities like Guwahati. A generalist profile of the Mising inhabitants in Guwahati would highlight mainly three categories of people: 1) A vast majority of inhabitants are the middle class and creamy layer of the Mising community, employed in various government and private services; 2) A pool of young students studying in various academic institutions; and 3) A small section of climate refugees, displaced by floods, from their original inhabitants, who have been residing mostly on the outskirts of the Guwahati city.

While the latter two are mostly ‘well-versed’ in the language, the majority of those in the first category, especially the second-generation children of the serviced class, do not speak the language. The parents, wanting their children to have a clear understanding of the market language prefer their children to learn English, Assamese, and Hindi languages. With the spoken language both at home and the immediate environment of friends being mostly Assamese, the students slowly lose interest, thereby completely not learning the language. The certificate course in that regard, not only as a measure to correct the systematic neglect but also would have enabled many misings to ‘learn’ the language.

Moreover, the syllabus offered in the Mising language certificate course comprises of three components: a) Introduction to the Mising language b) Grammar and Composition, and c) the Mising language and Culture. Recommended readings are books in English, Assamese, and Mising language which highlight that the course would have not only benefitted the Misings but also people from all communities in Assam with an interest in the language.

Beyond ‘electoral promises’ and ‘exclusionary politics’

Protection and preservation of ‘endangered languages’ demand structural efforts from the government, rather than piecemeal initiatives. It has to go beyond electoral calculations. Amidst the anti-CAA protests in 2019, the Assam government made a slew of decisions to ‘protect’ indigenous people, languages, and land. Major decisions included that the Autonomous councils of Misings, Rabha, Thengal Kachari, Sonowal Kachari, Deori, and Tiwa would be recommended for ‘constitutional’ status, which would enable these councils to access funds from both Central and state governments, besides other rights and privileges.

In other major decisions, the government decided to allot funds to the literary bodies of all the major communities in Assam. It was then highlighted that while the Asom Sahitya Sabha and Bodo Sahitya Sabha would be allotted Rs 80 lakh and Rs 40 lakh, respectively, other indigenous Sahitya Sabhas of communities like Misings, Deoris, Rabhas, etc, would get a Rs 24 lakh each annually. These decisions were seen as a genuine attempt by the government to protect indigenous languages.

On the other hand, the Assam government recently announced that it would make Assamese compulsory till Class X in both public and private schools, which is not only exclusionary but also highlights a ‘majoritarian linguistic nationalism’ taking precedence in the state. The government has also highlighted that it is mulling over a law, which would make only those who have studied Assamese till class X eligible for state government jobs.

Such inconsistent decision making and policy fluctuations are clear reflections of the state government’s apathy towards the protection of indigenous languages. In such a context, the decision of the Gauhati University to scrap the certificate courses comes as another blow to ‘inclusive education’.

To make indigenous language courses sustainable, there is a need for a multi-pronged approach. The information has to be shared more aggressively beyond the regular university’s media advertisement about the importance of the courses especially for students, researchers, and citizens. The government institutions such as the Welfare for Plains Tribes and Backward Classes, Mising Autonomous Council, Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council should be involved both in the design and implementation of such courses. For instance, these councils could sponsor candidates willing to study in such courses. The sponsored candidates could include students and researchers from other communities.

Such innovations, we believe, would not only sustain indigenous languages but also build fraternity and understanding among various communities in the state.

(This was co-written by me along with Dr. Bhasker Pegu, Ph.D. from IIT Guwahati. This article was originally published by East Mojo here. The picture used also is of East Mojo)

 

Striking a blow against Assam’s inclusive ethos

The State’s language law points to a homogenised nationalism overtaking minority linguistic and cultural aspirations

The Assam government recently decided to promulgate a law to make the Assamese language compulsory in all schools, both public and private, including the Kendriya Vidyalayas, from Classes I to X. The State Governor has already given a formal assent to the Cabinet’s decision. However, the law will not be applicable in Barak Valley, Bodoland Council and other Sixth Schedule areas, where Bengali, Bodo and other indigenous languages will take precedence. The ‘Assamese nationalists’ are of course happy. Some are even demanding for it to be made compulsory in the exempted areas. However, none of them is talking about what effects it will have on communities such as the Misings, Deoris, Rabhas and the other smaller tribes and their mother tongues.

Data and politics

Statistical data have often been used as a tool to construct the linguistic hierarchy and homogenisation in a region. This in turn becomes an element crucial for constructing and stabilising the regional political economic hegemonies. We have seen that happen in north India with the census-driven communal split of Hindi-Urdu, presuming Muslims to be Urdu speakers, while Hindus to be Hindi speakers. Crucially, this politics marginalised languages such as Magadhi, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Garhwali with their rich literary and linguistic traditions as mere dialects of the Hindi language. And this was a political number game to ensure the dominance of Hindi and Hindi-Hindu elites, nationally.

A similar approach is also evident in Assam. Census data are often used to portray a ‘danger’ to the Assamese language — the ‘infiltration’ of Bengali-speaking communities is considered to be the primary reason. The number of Assamese speakers as per the 2011 Census comes to 48.38% of the population. In 1971, the percentage of speakers was at 60.89%. So, it seems the number of Assamese speakers considerably declined in these four decades. But this data need to be looked at empirically. It has to be noted that most tribal communities speak Assamese but return their own respective languages as their mother tongues. For example, in the Mising tribe, which I belong to, a large majority speak Assamese. This is not because of school education, but mainly because of the fact that Assamese is the dominant market language, at least in the Brahmaputra Valley.

Impact on tribal languages

The imposition of Assamese has had adverse effects on tribal languages, especially on those which do not enjoy any constitutional protection. Tribal languages are generally on a steady decline. For instance, while the Mising tribe reported a rate of increase of 41.13% in the number of speakers in the 2001 Census, by 2011 it was merely 14.28%. Similarly, the Deoris which reported a decadal increase of 56.19% in the 2001 Census, the increase percentage by 2011 had declined to 15.79%. It is to be noted that only the Dibongiya clan of the Deoris now speak the language. The Rabhas community provides for a more curious case. The community reported an increase of 18.23% in the number of speakers in the 2001 Census. By 2011, the number of speakers had decreased to -15.04%, almost completely obliterating the language. Other tribes such as the Sonowal-Kacharis and Tiwas have almost completely lost their languages. 

Tribal communities since long have been demanding linguistic and territorial protection and attention from the State government. On October 30, 1985, the government of Assam, in response to a long struggle by the Mising community, through a gazette notification introduced the Mising Language as an additional subject in Classes 3 and 4 in the Mising-dominated areas. 

Also, additionally, it was to be the medium of instruction at the primary level. The Assam government was supposed to take up various tasks such as appointing Mising language teachers, translating books into Mising, and also introducing Mising textbooks. But only 230 teachers were appointed till 1994, after which the whole process came to a halt. Further, the agreed upon clause of introducing Mising as the medium of instruction never took off.

Tribal communities have always resisted attempts of forced homogenisation. It was in response to the Official Language Bill in 1960 that the Khasi along with other tribal communities started protesting, ultimately leading to the formation of Meghalaya. The Bodo movement for autonomy also finds its roots in this bill. Tribes have often highlighted that the ‘Assamese nationalism’ discourse was narrow and rarely included other communities. However, tribes such as the Misings, Deoris, Rabhas, etc. have still consistently supported the Assamese movement against the imposition of Bengali language or Hindi in Assam. But in turn they now find themselves consistently marginalised, with their linguistic and cultural heritage derecognised by the State and the hegemonic forces.

The CAA factor

The anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) movement could have been a point of departure in the ‘Assamese Nationalism’ discourse. During the course of the movement, a new definition of ‘Assamese indigenous’ was seen emerging. This definition was inclusive of tribal and other non-Assamese communities and was based on domicile rather than language alone. Demands were raised for protection of indigenous land, culture and languages during the course of the struggle.

However, at the core of the movement, was also the fear of infiltration that the CAA bill promoted. Such fear and insecurity have an immanent tendency to straitjacket heterogeneous aspirations and scuttle the inclusive nature of the movement. The government is in fact manipulating this element of fear by raising linguistic nationalism to weaken the inclusive and anti-hegemonic build-up in the anti-CAA movement in Assam. The timing of the government’s decision to bring in a law making Assamese mandatory in schools clearly exposes its intentions. It was first announced in January 2020.

As a job requirement

Adding to this, the Home Minister of Assam states that the government is also mulling over a separate legislation which will make only those who learned Assamese till their matriculation suitable for government jobs in Assam. These moves are clear indications of a non-inclusive homogenised Assamese nationalism taking precedence over the inclusion of minority linguistic and cultural aspirations. Such a move alienates various linguistic identities such as those of tribes such as the Misings, Deoris and Rabhas, etc. and limits the definition of ‘Axomiya’ to just the speakers of the language. By bringing in such a law, the State government is seeking to overcome the legitimation crisis that its support to CAA had created.

While the tribes acknowledge the threat that infiltration poses to local languages and culture, they are also wary of the Assamese hegemony and homogeneity. This law will only increase the marginalisation of these communities, triggering social conflicts once again. It is time for progressive sections in Assam to go beyond the politics of fear and assert the inclusive ethos of Assam.

This was published in The Hindu here

Living with the perennial floods: How Assam’s Mising tribe does it

Much of Assam’s flood management approach is focused on building embankments which are often argued to have facilitated a process of ‘contractor raj’. A fair amount of literature and evidence over the years has highlighted that embankments often do not serve many purposes as they are often breached, either due to higher intensity of floods or due to low quality of construction, often done by contractor trying to cut corners and ‘profit’ out of it. In such a context, what Assam needs is to shift its focus to community preparedness and building resilience. And the Mising community could definitely provide a few lessons on preparedness and living with floods.

The Misings are the second largest tribe in Assam with a population of over 7 lakhs (2011 census). The Misings, originally a hill tribe, took the riverine route to come to the plains of Assam in the early 13th century and settled down in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The Misings, with over centuries of co-existence with floods, have developed innovative adaptive methods to deal with floods. An understanding of how ‘nature’ is placed in the tribe’s ‘belief system’ is important. The Mising belief system is centered around spirits, where ‘the good spirits’ are one’s ancestors who are called upon for blessings, while the evil spirits are those bringing ‘trouble’. Some of these spirits exist in nature and our immediate environment, like in forests, rivers, and the sky. These spirits are, at regular intervals are ‘appeased’, through various rituals and offerings. This approach of ‘co-existence’ also takes center stage even when the Misings deal with floods. No attempts are made to fight the floods, instead, the community lay its focus on ‘preparedness’, which gets manifested in the living style of the Misings starting from housing architecture to paddy cultivation to how the village is organized.

The starting point of any discussion on Mising people’s adaptation to floods invariably is their houses. The Misings live in elevated houses called Chang Okum (Chang Ghar in Assamese) built on bamboo stilts or wooden poles.  They serve the dual purpose of keeping floodwaters and wild animals at bay. The houses are easy to construct and each year elevation levels of the houses can be changed depending upon the floods of the previous year. Higher the water level the previous year, the more elevated are subsequent houses built.

What often gets ignored in the discussion is the architecture within the house. A typical Mising house has certain key layers from the roof to the floor, with each of the layers serving a unique purpose. Right above the floor is the fireplace, called ‘Meram’. Above the Meram are two shelves, constructed of bamboo, called Peraband Rabbong. Both the layers are often hung from the ceiling by tying the four corners with jute or cane ropes.  Because Perab is right above the fireplace, it is generally used to smoke meat and fish, which can be saved for future use. Right above the Perab is Rabbong where Pots filled with rice beer mix (which is filtered as per need) is kept. And above the Rabbong, at the ceiling level, another layer called Kumbang is present. The attic space between the Kumbang and the roof is where dry vegetables like potatoes, pumpkins, garlic, onions, etc., harvested from the kitchen gardens and fields are kept for use during the floods. The architecture of the house is described in larger detail here[1].

Because these layers are above the fireplace, the smokes keep these items free from bacteria and fungus while the thatched roof provides the cooling effect. Another additional feature that helps the Misings in collectively coping with floods is also the presence of ‘Tunggeng’, the front porch in the house, which is often quite large. In situations when houses with lower elevation get inundated, the residents are offered refuge in ‘Tunggeng’s’ of those with higher elevation.  The granaries of the Mising families are also built on stilts which keeps the food source safe.

A typical Mising village generally has certain key areas in the vicinity; a river or a pond that provides fish; a forest (chapori), which serves as a source for fruits, wood, firewood, herbs, etc, and a grazing land for the livestock/cattle to feed on. The existence of these areas enabled the Mising community to have a self-sufficient life in earlier times. In modern times, embankments have also come up near these villages, which sometimes offer them protection from floodwaters. The villagers tend to shift to the embankments if the water level rises and then goes back to the village once the waters recede.

Because it is almost certain that the areas inhabited by them would be affected by floods, the community starts preparing early on. In earlier times, each Mising household built a boat that enabled them to continue their daily activities like moving from one place to another, transporting items seamlessly even during floods. With forest cover reducing, logging banned, and wood becoming expensive, cheaper replacements like rafts made of bamboo, wood, or even banana stems are nowadays being used to navigate through floodwaters.

During the dry season, each Mising village collectively constructs a ‘high raised platform’ of mud, which is often used as a shelter for cattle. The community house called ‘Murong Okum’ which is where most of the village level rituals take place is also often constructed in it. Because the elevation of the platform is quite high, if the houses get inundated, villagers move to the platform for a temporary time. Understanding the importance of such a structure, nowadays such platforms are constructed under MNREGA schemes too.

The Misings have also adopted an agriculture pattern suitable for floods. Pegu T (June 2013[i]) highlights that in the earlier times, the Misings focused extensively on ‘Lai aam’ (Aam = rice) cultivation, which needed very little water and could be harvested before the floods came. With time, the Misings, especially those who moved to areas where the intensity of floods was lower, also picked up ‘Aamdang Arig’ (wet paddy cultivation). This cycle enabled them to optimally use their cattle for plowing and also maintain a regular supply of grains.   This also marked the beginning of the phase where the young of the Mising community started migrating to the nearby areas to work as ‘Agricultural laborer’, especially during flood seasons.

While the traditional knowledge systems and constant innovation in lifestyle have enabled the Mising community to adapt to floods until now, the picture is not all rosy. With the intensity of floods increasing, due to climate change and human interventions, erratic and heavier rainfalls for shorter duration and natural buffers like forests disappearing, adaption has become much harder and costlier than before. Modern high-intensity floods demand concrete structures, which many cannot afford. With a large amount of silt being deposited after floodwaters recede, much of the cultivable land of the Mising community has been lost. An increase in the intensity of floods, dykes, and embankments are also often breached, erosions are rampant, which have transformed a large section of the Mising community into climate refugees, forcing them to move from one place to another each year. The community now is also a source of migrant labor, where the young move from their villages towards the cities in search of work.

Notwithstanding the recent trends, the Mising community’s lifestyle and adaptation methods could provide important insights in flood preparedness and resilience, which we could only help could be useful in developing a community-based approach to flood management in Assam.

 

(This article was published in East Mojo here. The Image used here is also sourced from East Mojo)

[1] https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/jspui/bitstream/10603/213961/8/08_chapter%204.pdf

[i]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325800987_%27Living_with_Floods%27_An_Analysis_of_Floods_Adaptation_of_Mising_Community-A_Case_Study_of_Jiadhal_River

A crisis of capital: Why migrant workers can’t be ‘managed’ with food and money

The media deprives migrant workers of agency while the Indian state uses them to ‘manage’ the middle class.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on migrant workers. Perhaps never before in recent history have they received so much media coverage.

The mainstream media, which has often ignored migrants as “invisible” workers, has seemingly turned a leaf and published a barrage of reports on the problems they are facing during the lockdown, from having to walk home to conditions in relief camps to the lack of shelter and food.

At other times, the media rarely pays attention to workers’ problems. Even strikes by workers are reported as a “traffic nuisance” or “mob violence” that needs to be curbed. Of course, with the emergence and growth of the public-paid, subscription-driven independent media, things have taken a slight turn.

If we look at the recent coverage of migrant workers, certain patterns emerge.

Most reports highlight “migrant workers” as a homogenous group of victims. Almost all the coverage of the current situation attempts to evoke “sympathy” towards the workers, and appeals for support. It often works: various NGOs and concerned individuals on social media have raised donations and organised resources to feed migrant workers.

However, no one points out that capitalism continues to keep migrant workers in their constant “hand to mouth” state of existence so that their labour power can continue to be exploited for profit.

Second, almost all the coverage – even reports by “progressive” outlets that claim to make the invisible “visible” — continue to cover migrant workers as if they have no capacity to think or resist on their own. It suggests that an “outer agency” needs to come and tell the workers what to do. This portrays migrant workers as mere receivers and consumers of information, with little or no capacity to act on their own.

For instance, in case of the gathering of workers in Bandra, the first question asked by the mainstream media was: “who provoked the migrant workers to come to the bus depot?” There were suggestions that the media and the administration had failed in not “managing” the workers.

These speculations and conspiracy theories constantly flood primetime debates and news reports. Almost all “solidarity” actions focus on the bare minimum, such as food being distributed to the workers. However, migrant workers have defied these approaches, as evidenced by them flooding the streets of Surat, or coming out in Bandra or Ghaziabad, demanding they be sent home.

Media reports also tend to see the current crisis as “temporary” — something that should be managed in the short term. None of them see it as a crisis of capital and the system.

Even the demands raised by activists and the media – for food rations, or cash disbursals – highlight this short-term thought process. Instead, as this piecepoints out, “Economists and social activists had been demanding a universal income support of Rs 7,000 per household per month for at least two months for the bottom 80 percent households, to tide over the crisis. Similar demands had been made by trade unions, women’s organisations and many political parties.”

What many fail to realise is that the Covid-19 pandemic is just a manifestation of a capitalist crisis. It had laid bare the unpreparedness of the capitalist system and the Indian state to deal with such a crisis.

Some reports are cautious and warn the Indian state that the migrant workers might not return to cities to work, which will have disastrous consequences on the Indian economy. This clearly highlights that managing the crisis is not for the sake of the migrant workers, but to sustain the system that brought forth the crisis in the first place.

Putting the wage issue at the centre

The Covid-19 crisis has brought the issues of migrant workers to the forefront. The pandemic has made it evident that we need a fundamental reorganisation of the system and how the world of work is organised. Instead of temporary, superficial solutions, greater attention must be paid to creating a robust system of safety nets, decent wages, and better working conditions.

Migrant workers in India are among the most exploited. In India, the minimum wage averages about Rs 178 a day. The majority of the workers don’t receive even that. This enables the system to constantly create and sustain a pool of labour reserve that will have to continue to work for sustenance wages.

Almost 85 percent of the economy comprises the informal sector, with little or no social safety net. The bare minimum that they earn is not enough to have a decent living. Thus, questions should be raised on why the migrant workers continue to get exploited. Demands should be made for the formalisation of informal labour, better wages, and social security, so the workers have resources to fall back on in times of crisis.

In India, the whole economy is built on “cheap labour”. The differences in class, the presence of cheap migrant labour to deliver essential services, and so on enables the Indian state to manage a crisis like Covid-19. For example, if there was no migrant worker to deliver groceries needed by the middle class, then the middle class would erupt in anger, leading to an unmanageable situation.

Needless to say, this is why the media has been calling for urgently “managing” the migrant worker crisis. Perhaps, they know that if not “managed” well, the workers will erupt in anger – as they did recently – potentially disrupting the status quo of privilege.

Projecting migrant workers as victims not only soothes the neoliberal philanthropic sense of the elite, but also arms the state to control situations. The workers are manageable only as victims. If not treated as victims, they are projected as crude bombs ready to explode, albeit erratically.

There needs to be a fundamental shift from “victimhood” in order to demonstrate the agency of labour and relate it to the crisis of capital. The questions of “decent wage” and “structural questions” should be put at the centre of this discourse.

(This piece was published as an opinion piece in Newslaundry here. )

MISING MIGRANT WORKERS AND COVID19 PANDEMIC

Bangalore is a major destination for migrant workers belonging to the Mising community. The Misings are the second largest tribe in Assam in northeast India. Today morning, I spoke to Ghanadhar Jimey, who is the vice president of the Mising society of Bangalore, who is actively engaged in distributing relief materials to the workers stranded in Bangalore.

Key takeaways from the chat are:-

  • About 2000 Migrant workers from the mising community are currently in Bangalore. They work as security guards, waiters, in the hotel industry, sales executive, and in retail stores.
  • A considerable number of the migrants have lost their jobs, while some are home without pay. All of them stay in rented rooms with bare minimum facilities.
  • Many are surviving on credit from the nearby grocery stores. The workers over the years have been able to establish relationships with the neighborhood grocery stores which enables them to get the essential requirements on credit. However, even the stores now need cash, so borrowing is not an option anymore.
  • Many are surviving on money sent from their families back home. While a good number had also come to Bangalore just before the lockdown. They are surviving on the goodwill of their roommates, as they have not earned any salaries yet.
  • The Mising society of Bangalore, through funds collected from their members, contributions from generous individuals, and the support of an NGO, has been able to reach out of almost 1500 migrants. Relief support is mostly given as rations packets. They need as many volunteers as possible. Those who work have been issued passes by the Nodal officer responsible for Northeastern people in Bangalore.
  • A good thing is that a considerable number of the received some bit of aid from the Assam government and also the Mising Autonomous council. The amount, even though, less is of much help.
  • Many workers highlighted that they would go back home after the lockdown ends. some because they lost their jobs while the majority of them are being called back home by their families. It could be a long time before they return to work again.
  • “There is a need to learn newer skills in Bangalore and then eventually go back to Assam and start their own ventures”, highlight Ghana in the interview.

(This interview is the first in a series of interviews I plan to take on the effect of COVID19 on the Mising community. Keep watching this space for more updates and interviews)

Racism in times of coronavirus

On Sunday (March 22), around 9.30 pm, a Manipuri research scholar was spat on by a 40-year-old man and called ‘coronavirus’ in Delhi’s Vijaynagar area in North Campus. She, along with a friend, had stepped out of her paying guest accommodation to buy some groceries. In Mysuru, Karnataka, two young students from Nagaland were denied entry to a departmental store. They were there to buy groceries and had waited for 25 minutes in the line. In Gujarat, a residents’ welfare society barged into a rented apartment of young women professionals from Northeast India and threatened to evacuate them. The police had to step in and provide the necessary ‘assurances’, while the young women stood quietly and wept. And in West Bengal, residents of a colony demanded that students from Nagaland vacate their rented apartments.

These are just some of the incidents of ‘racism’ that got highlighted, thanks to social media. While entire India is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Northeastern people in various parts of the country, outside the region, are also fighting with the additional discrimination and racial slurs that come with it.

Every time, incidents of racial discrimination against Northeast Indians are highlighted, certain predictable reactions follow. First, many start apologizing and highlighting that these are just incidents done by some racist people and do not reflect the mentality of the entire state or the country. What such reactions do is that they isolate these incidents and reduce them to ‘individual problems’ and ignore the systematic bias the majority of the people in this country have against Northeastern people. It is this systematic bias that led to the killing of Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh in 2014 and Richard Loitam from Manipur in 2012 and many others. If racist incidents are just seen as ‘one or two off incidents’ committed by miscreants, racism and bias against Northeastern people never become the centre of the debate. The focus shifts towards the people who committed the ‘crimes’ and is on fixing those people, like filing police complaints and some surface-level investigative actions.

Second, many justify the actions, as a counter to the ‘racism’ faced by other ‘mainstream’ Indian communities, residing in the Northeastern states. Some even claim that the presence of measures like Inner Line Permit, outsiders not being allowed to purchase land in many NE states is discriminatory, which makes such actions against Northeastern folk justified. So, legislative and constitutional actions like Sixth Schedule status or Inner Line Permits, etc, taken to protect the diversity of culture and language in India in themselves are used as a basis to attack diversity.

Racism finds its roots in the constant narrative of the mainstream and the ‘other’, with people from the Northeast region being the latter. People with certain features and descriptions are highlighted as the ‘natural citizens’ of the country, while those who do not, are termed as the ‘other’. A ‘racial other’ is created. A certain image of how an Indian look is constantly perpetuated in popular culture and narrative. Anyone who does not fit that natural description, either might have come from China or Nepal.

The recent spike in racist attacks and of ‘corona’ becoming a racial slur finds basis in this. Many know that the ‘COVID19’ originated in China and assume their own fellow Northeast Indians as those belonging to China and commit those racial crimes. Many don’t bother to find out and those who find out also choose to ignore it and continue the discrimination. For instance, in the case of the two young students being denied entry in Mysuru, the manager was informed that the students had Aadhaar cards. However, he chose to ignore it and still disallow entry.

Ignorance and lack of ‘education’ are often used as a means to justify the continued existence of racial discrimination, almost as an escape route. The recent incidents and many others highlight that it is not the case. The housing society members or managers of the departmental store were all educated folks, who if nothing, just had an ingrained bias against northeastern people.

The continued existence of racism creates a sense of ‘alienation’ and ‘fear’ among Northeast Indians. It’s almost as if ‘we don’t belong’. This alienation process is constantly perpetuated by media who try to fit us into certain ‘labels. And the ‘good’ ‘apologetic’ ‘non-racist’ ‘mainstream’ Indians continue to perpetuate that by constantly ‘reassuring’ us that we are Indians too. Well-meaning journalists and media personnel call for actions from the government highlighting that Northeastern people should be made to feel ‘Indians’. They fail to realize that the reassurance itself highlights the constant bias. If we complain or highlight these biases, we are either called ‘too sensitive’ or that our fears are just overtly exaggerated. No attempt is being made to truly understand the root of the matter or question their inherent bias. And the fear is so inherent that ‘Northeast people’ often choose to stay among their own, creating certain pockets of residences, in these metropolitan cities. These pockets, if nothing else, give them a sense of safety and security. Even the desire to stay among their own is hijacked by popular narrative as ‘Northeastern people’ refusing to integrate with other communities and being narrow in their outlook, sometimes even by scholars from the Northeast itself.

For long, racism against Northeastern people has met with denial. With frequent reportage, mostly through social media, there is some bit of recognition but mostly on the superficial level. After every such action, some condemnation and police investigations follow. Little follow up is done on what happens after a police FIR. A report titled ‘North East Migration and Challenges in National Capital: City’s silent Racial Attack on its Own Countrymen’ released by the North East Support Centre and Helpline published as early as 2011 highlighted that more than 78% of the Northeast Indians residing in Delhi are subject to racial discrimination and abuse over their appearance. These forms of discrimination more than often take forms of physical attacks, sometimes leading to the death of the victim.

The report also highlighted “official apathy” and “bias amongst the law enforcing agencies” as the major reasons triggering and amplifying the problem. While there has been increased sensitization of the police personnel and authorities in India, it is a given that the majority of the incidents of racial violence against Northeastern people go unreported. It is so ingrained in the day-to-day lifestyle of the mainstream communities that people from the Northeast either choose to ignore it or just learn to live with it. Those who fight back often end up in hospitals while some are greeted with even death. Resistance to racist actions are always met with ‘how dare you’, often followed with physical violence.

Any action, towards addressing the racial discrimination against Northeast Indians, will have to start with the acknowledgment of the problem as systematic. Criminal and corrective actions like FIRs, official advisories, as recently issued by the ministry of home, do nothing much beyond criminalizing the issue. It does not address the core issue of cultural sensitivity and respect for diversity. Respecting differences is not something which is taught in India, either in classrooms or in family lives. Thus, it keeps perpetuating. The Bezbaruah committee formed in 2014 after the death of Nido Taniam suggested a range of actions that could be taken to address the rising racial violence in India. But many of the measures are still to be implemented.

(Opinions are personal. This article was published in East Mojo here. Picture downloaded online. Not copyrighted by author or infringement intended)

India’s Longest Rail-cum-Road Bridge in Assam Is a Death Trap. Here’s Why.

It was January 13. I had an important meeting lined up for the day. I called up my mother in the morning and told her that I would be busy during the day and won’t be taking calls. She informed over the phone that they were preparing for Magh Bihu, which was two days later. My brother had joined the team of young guys to get wood for the ‘Mezi’, while my aunt was getting the necessary things needed to prepare pithas and ladoos.

After a brief conversation, I cut the call and got ready for the meeting. By 1:30 pm my mom called anyway. I picked up reluctantly, thinking it could be an urgent matter. And it was. My mom was sobbing on the other side, while she somehow managed to tell me that my uncle was killed in a road accident. The accident happened on National Highway 15, on the stretch from Bogibeel to Kulajan in Assam’s Dhemaji district.

My uncle, along with a friend, was on his way to Silapathar, the nearest town, when a speeding bus collided with them, instantaneously killing them both. He left behind three teenage kids and a grieving wife, who stare at an uncertain future, as he was the only breadwinner in the family.

The Bogibeel Bridge, which connects the districts of Dhemaji with Dibrugarh, with a length of 4.94 km is the longest rail cum road bridge in the country. It was inaugurated amidst much fanfare and pompous celebrations by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who opened it for public use on December 25, 2018. People of the region, myself included, were very happy. And why should not we be? The construction of the bridge took an agonizing 16 years. The bridge and the newly constructed highway effectively cut short a journey of more than two hours to only 30 minutes.

However, Bogibeel and NH 15, especially the 15-km stretch from the Bridge to Kulajan, has been in the limelight for the number of accidents over the years. Within days of inauguration, a young child was hit on the bridge by a speeding SUV. The whole incident was captured on video by a co-passenger in the SUV. The video went viral on social media and the child had to undergo a long battle for his life. But not everyone was as lucky as him. In 2019 itself, more than 50 accidents took place in the stretch with more than 40 losing their lives.

Assam tops the list on the number of road accidents in the entire Northeast region. A report titled ‘An analytical glimpse on road accidents in Assam’ highlights that in every 100 accidents, 30 people lose their lives while 89 are injured. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 7,180 cases of road accidents in 2018, out of which 2,712 people lost their lives. According to a newspaper report, there were 296 cases of road accidents on National Highway 15, in which 83 people lost their lives and over 270 injuries were reported.

Considering the sheer number of fatalities, one would assume that the administration would have taken up drastic steps to ensure the safety and security of the passengers on the road. But very little is actually done. There is minimal media attention, with more than 80% of the incidents not being reported. A Google search for accidents on Bogibeel Bridge will give you only a few results. The local police outpost confirmed a large number of accidents that took place on the road. When I questioned their inaction, they highlighted that they needed clear instructions from the district administration’s office.

I started interacting with the local population, car and bike drivers, and the local police outpost to understand the cause behind the accidents. I concluded that the following reasons give rise to accidents.

1. Non-use of helmets: Almost all the motorbike riders, including the pillion riders, did not use helmets. Even though it is illegal to drive without helmets, there is no police presence to monitor and ensure that the drivers wear helmets, don’t engage in drinking and driving.

2. Over speeding: There is no check on the speed limit on NH 15. The majority of the traffic on the road comes from autos, motorbikes, private cars, and ultra-buses which ply passengers to and fro from Silapathar, Dhemaji, Jonai, Gogamukh, etc, to Dibrugarh. Often buses cross over the speed limit and collide with bikes and autos leading to accidents. Most of the fatalities are reported in collision with motorbikes due to the non-use of helmets. Also, there is not even a single speed limit hoarding on the road.

3. The exit to Mechaki Tongani: The nearest village to the Bogibeel bridge is Mechaki Tongani, and there is an exit to the village on NH15. Most of the accidents take place near this exit. The exit itself is very badly designed with no proper markings or speed controllers near it. For people trying to get onto NH 15 from Mechaki, a very sharp turn has to be taken which increases the probability of getting hit by speeding vehicles from the other side.

4. Selfie and photography on Bogibeel Bridge: The Bogibeel bridge has served as a boon for the people of Sissi-Tongani, Silapathar, and other neighboring regions. In the recent times, it has also become a very popular tourist spot. At any given moment, cars, bikes and even privately hired buses stop midway in the bridge for people to post for photos and selfies. This quest for photography leads to an increasing number of accidents.

Many of the accidents are actually avoidable if some strict actions are undertaken by the local and police administration. Some activities, that I believe would go a long way in reducing the number of accidents:

1. Ensure checking of all vehicles for licenses, helmets and drunken driving in NH 15 and ensure that road safety laws are followed by everyone.

2. Put up speed limit signboards on the entire stretch from Bogibeel to Kulajan at various important points. The signboards should be put up in Assamese and English so that everyone can understand those.

3. Have a scientific evaluation of the Mechaki Tongani exit and ensure a safe exit and entry system to NH 15 from Mechaki, which I believe would drastically reduce the number of accidents.

4. Declare Bogibeel Bridge a ‘non-stoppage area’ and disallow photography in the bridge. Special spots for photography can be created before entry into the bridge.

5. Strict instructions should be given the police force, especially Silapathar PS and Dambuk Outpost for strict actions against offenders and vigilance like checking of licenses and helmets at various points on NH 15, which will automatically reduce the number of accidents.

6. Conduct road safety campaigns by liaising with local organizations which will enable easier access to the local communities.

Two very distinct phenomena have been happening in the region due to the rise in accidents. First, a cottage industry of motor accident claims has emerged in the accidents. Within 24 hours of my uncle’s death, more than four people visited us, with each one offering to get more money for the family. Each one implied that the other was inefficient. There is almost a competition to get more cases. Even some police personnel suggested some ‘good persons’ who can handle the claims.

And second, it has given rise to some rumors and superstitious beliefs among the local community. The local community, along with the bus drivers, talk of the ‘presence of a supernatural spirit’ in the spot where most accidents take place and are in the process of constructing a temple near the spot. All the people I interacted with highlighted that their cars and buses skidded at that spot, which I believe could just be a design flaw.

Almost all the motorbike riders in the area are people from the nearby region, who are either on their way to the nearest town or back from it. Almost all of those who lost their lives to the accidents are sole bread-earners for their families. So, their deaths leave behind a trail of grieving families. I sincerely believe that the local and the state administration should treat it as ‘urgent’ and take up all the necessary steps to reduce the number of accidents, if not completely eliminate them.

(This article was first published in East Mojo here. It was later picked up by the Wire and published here. The featured image has been clicked by PTI and taken from the wire article. No copyright infringements intended)

THE VILLAGES ARE LONELY

On first look, it feels as if nothing much has changed. The roads are still the same, half coarse, half muddy. The river is still the same. The water hyacinths are still there and are blooming to its glory. The bridge leading to my village is still broken. The school building still has no windows. Some cows are grazing in the field nearby. And Kids are playing in the mud. About 2 and half decades ago, I use to be one of them, digging the mud and playing around. The men are still gathered around playing cards, with a dozen around sneaking into the cards and watching the game. They swear at each other. Often the voices get very loud and I can hear some of them accusing the other of cheating or not paying up. One of them looks behind and scream, ‘Arrey Aine kobv ‘solo, gidung kune?’ Aidun? (Aine ko, how are you?)  I respond, I am doing well and walk along.

The Bridge is broken. I had to leave our car on the other side of the bridge. A tiny rest house is built by the Mising autonomous council. People gather here every morning to catch the few auto-rickshaws, which ply them to the nearby town. As I walk across the bridge, a little boy rushes to me and welcomes me home. My cousin’s youngest. He has grown a bit so it takes me some time to recognize his face. But it does not matter. Within a few minutes, the entire crop of kids gather around and take me to the nearby shop for their customary sweets. This happens every time I come back to the Village. The tiny little gumti (shop) still only has the necessities. You can still buy mustard oil for 5 rupees here. The women are still working. As it is evening, they are coming back from the fields. Some ladies, collecting water in the nearby tube well, shout out to me, ‘we also need sweets from the city’, ‘Did you get us some?’ followed with bursts of laughter.

I walk ahead and reach home. My granny, who can barely stand up now welcomes me home. My uncle looks at me, says, ‘Gidungkun’ (you’ve come) and acknowledges me with a nod. I can hear him asking my cousin to get some ‘pork’ for the night as I had come home. He knows I like it. I get fresh and change into casual clothes. At around 5 pm, a bunch of young boys, around 15-20 yrs. of age gather in our house to meet my cousin. They have packed bags with them. My cousin, who is now 24 has been working as a migrant laborer in Bangalore city for the last 4 years. He tells me that he works as a security guard in a mall. 5 other young Mising boys stay with him. He is now back and is contemplating if he wants to go back or not. Those boys tell me that they are on their way to Silapathar Railway station, from where they will take the train to Guwahati and move on to various cities of India to work as migrant laborers. Another one of my cousins decide to join the group. He has recently married. His new bride, quietly looks on, while I try to convince him not to go. He tells me that he is joining the group going to Ahmedabad. ‘Oiya, Giyo no !’ (Oiyow, don’t go) I say. I tell him about the heat in Ahmedabad. He says, ‘Okumse ager kama. Empe’ kape’ duyen’, (there is no work here, how will I stay without doing anything). I get confused. I tell him about the difficulties of being a migrant worker in a city and how unforgiving the city life is. He hears me out, but still decide to go. I don’t say much anymore. After about 2 hours, all of them move towards Silapathar.

Migration, over the years, has become one of the defining characteristics of the modern Mising society. Every day, hundreds move out, from the villages to uncertainty, towards the cities, looking for cash jobs. Our village has no young people left. Those left behind are the women and middle-aged and elderly men and very young kids. Needless to say, most of the work falls on the women left behind. They get up earlier than the rooster and is the last one to hit the bed in the night. It’s tough being a woman in a Mising village.

The important question here is how did ‘Migration’ as a phenomenon emerge in the Mising community? To elucidate this, let me contextualize it to my village. Around 200 years ago, a group of families, migrated to our village and decided to settle down. All the families collectively cleared a patch of land and establish it as their habitat. The group then decided to divide the land among the clans. So the Pegu’s got some, and the Doley’s the others and so on. However, the families within themselves collectively cultivated the land. Vegetables and pulses came from the kitchen garden, while fish came from the river. Firewood came from the forest. The village was run by the Dolung Ke’bang and was self-sufficient.

Then the floods came. The Misings were generally well prepared to deal with it. Each family had a boat, and during the rainy season, they generally kept all the cattle in a raised platform, jointly constructed by the village. However, the intensity of the floods continued to increase over the years. Agricultural land was filled with sand, our neighborhood stream became a full-fledged river and land erosion became regular. In one of those floods, half of the school in our village got drowned in the river. The makeshift bridge disappeared, and our village got cut off. The only way to go across was to use a boat. Agriculture which earlier enough did not even provide subsistence food. The schools, which already had no facilities, remained closed the entire season of floods. Young students started dropping out of school. Thus, the young started moving out and looking for options to work to earn cash income.

Many went to Arunachal, worked as bonded labor. Some came back with Malaria and some did not.  Some decided to follow the emerging lower middle-class Mising families to the nearby towns and worked as ‘Haluwa’ (Agricultural Laborer) and ‘Domestic help’. This phase continued for a few years.

With projects like Bogibeel Bridge and other road contracts coming in, the same set of people started working in these projects. The cash income made them happy. With those projects coming to an end or simply not being able to provide work to all the surplus labor, some started moving towards the cities. The initial groups, after months or years of work, came back to the villages, with their stories of hopes and dreams. They were better dressed and more confident than before. Those remaining at the villages got dazed at their stories and soon started joining them in the cities. Batches and batches keep moving every year. The Mising community, which was once a self-sufficient community, today has become a source of surplus labor for the cities.

With the majority of the young moving out, the villages are now deserted. The football fields are empty. No cricket tournaments. Ali-Aye-Ligang and Bihu festivals are shorter because there are no young people for extended merrymaking. There is no more soman-giman (Dancing and Singing). No drum beats, no flutes from the field, and no sudden outbursts of Oi-Nitom. The rivers have no fish, so no collective fishing. A half-constructed concrete bridge lay in the river. The school still has no windows. Not many students go to study anyway. Wives long for their husbands, while mothers await their sons.

The villages are lonely. They look forward to the young coming home……!!!

 

 

REST IN PEACE, BABOI !

It drizzling outside. After a few warm days, Delhi is cold again. This year has been unusually cold. Climate change…I guess. I just finished packing. I leave for Assam, tomorrow early morning. I should ideally be sleeping early so that I can get up and go to the airport on time. But sleep betrays me. My heart is restless. And I am scared. How do I face my family members? How do I prepare myself for the ocean of tears that will come tomorrow?

Today has been a sad day. It started off as an exciting day, where I was a step closer to my dream. I had planned out my entire day, prepared myself for the test which was in the afternoon.  About half an hour before my stipulated ‘test’, came the news and it shook me. I lost my youngest uncle (Baboi) to a tragic road accident. He and a friend were on his motorbike when a speeding bus hit them, leaving both of them instantly dead. They lay in a pool of blood. I went blank. As if somebody had wiped out everything that I had studied and prepared. But it was too late to give my emergency reason to not sit for the test. I did sit but wrote nothing much. I know it won’t be a favorable result.

Baboi, as he was the youngest, there was not much of an age difference between him and us. He always stayed with us and was a child when my dad got married. So we almost grew up together. Good in studies, my dad supported him in his studies and wanted him to become ‘someone’. Thus, he was extremely sad, when baboi decided to get married and go back to the village. But Baboi continued to get my father’s love and attention, as he took over the responsibility of the entire household in our village and started progressing. His education gave him an upper hand over the others, in an erstwhile village of not ‘very educated people’. He became the contact person for political parties to expand their threshold and was the to-go person for the villagers, to access govt. service and schemes. He knew the offices and was among the very few who could fill the ‘forms’. Thus, he quickly enjoyed a status of privilege in the village. To, us (my siblings and I), he was both a friend and mentor, while he was with us. Firm at times, and friendly in others, he always looked out for us.

Now he is suddenly gone. In a Flash. He leaves behind 3 teenage kids, a wife and an old mother (granny), along with 4 brothers and 2 sisters. By the time I reach tomorrow, he will already be buried. I know I will break down, along with everyone who will be home tomorrow. It’s going to be a long days of mourning and even longer nights.

You are in a better place I know but you left us here…!!!

 

Citizenship Amendment Bill and Narratives of the Struggles

India recently passed the citizenship Amendment Act 2019 under which illegal immigrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from the south Asia neighboring nations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who entered India on or before 31 December 2014 can become legal citizens of India. The Act excludes any such benefit to Muslims. The Act has been vehemently protested from the very conception. The protests continue unabated even after it is passed, and is currently spreading like wildfire across the country. The entire state of Assam and other northeastern states like Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh has been the major points for the protests till yet. Such has been the extent of the protests that Internet both broadband and mobile remain suspended in Assam and parts of Meghalaya. Curfew and section 144 has been imposed in almost all the places of protests. But people continue to defy the curfew and come out in large numbers, especially in Assam. 4 people have been killed while more than a dozen injured.

While discussing the protests, two dominant narratives are now highlighted, first that the Act by using religion as a pre-requisite for citizenship challenges the very ethos of the Indian constitution and what it stand for. It is also against the secular values of the nation, which the constitution guarantees to protect. The Act, by law now classifies immigrants or ‘persecuted’ people on the basis of religion. (The Act itself does not mention the word persecuted). This is being highlighted as the dominant narrative of the struggles in India by the mainstream media. States like Delhi, Maharashtra, West Bengal, etc. are highlighted as proponents of this narrative.

The other narrative, which people of Assam and other northeastern states are following has nothing much to do with religion but more to do with identity and land rights. They do not want ‘any illegal immigrant’ irrespective of their religion. As most of the states with constitutional protections and sixth schedule statuses are kept outside the purview of the Act, the majority of the protests are happening in Assam. Other states like Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur is now joining in the protests.

Now certain trends are being noticed in the media –

  • By dividing the strikes into narratives, a section of the media is also seeking to hijack the Northeastern narrative or just bulldoze the whole thing. Many seem to be eager to highlight the Assamese people as xenophobic for not wanting ‘persecuted refugees’, and that the movement is inward-looking. They think that the protests in other parts are by default better due to the values it stands for like ‘secularism’ and ‘constitutional ethos’.
  • Such blanket narratives not only harms the movement but also ignore the historical and lived realities of the people of Assam. Assam and states of northeast after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, steadily kept receiving influx of immigrants/refugees from across the border. Now they have reached a point where they cannot share the burden anymore. People in Assam have lived with their experiences and have seen with their own eyes, the attack immigration brings on their language, land and culture. Thus, the movement is also about protection of their ethnic identity. 
  • Various media personnel including those from the northeast use the reason of Assam voting for BJP and supporting the NRC as justifications to their narrative of portraying the Assamese people as xenophobic. The Assamese people when they voted for BJP did it with a hope for systematic eradication of the whole illegal immigration business. They were tired of political parties milking the issue for political mileage in every election. They hoped NRC fix that once and for all by maintaining a registrar of citizens and migrants who have come to Assam before 1971. This was a commitment done under the Assam Accord. Instead what Assam got was a badly carried out exercise which left out millions from the list. But the govt betrayed the Assamese people because they themselves rejected the NRC when they found that more Hindus are missing in the list. Now they have brought in the CAB to protect those left out Hindus. It’s pretty evident even though they keep trying to hide direct connections to it. While both the exercises are connected, those bulldozing the ‘secularism’ narrative have not tried to find out the reasons for Assamese people’s support to NRC and opposition to CAB. 
  • And it also clearly highlights the lack of understanding of the media. It is beyond their imagination that people of Assam and NE are more proud of their ethnic identity than religious identities. The movement is a clear depiction of that.