Anubhav Sinha’s movie about political peril, Anek, may, as predicted, have ended in box-office failure because the subject matter, “North-East India”, did not register with the majority of cinema-goers. This lack of cinematic success confirms the marginal status of the North-East within the consciousness of Hindi-heartland Indians, but it does not alter the fundamental fact that the movie does in fact suggest the complexity and diversity that comprise post-independence India.
India, more so the North-East, has come a long way over the last seventy-five years, a period during which the region has been battered and bruised, made to be conflict-ridden, and felt bewildered about its status within the Indian Union. But there is also the other side of the coin: The area has simultaneously emerged as intriguing, youthful, and optimistic.
In the eyes of the world, political conflict and violence have largely defined North-East India for most of these seventy-five years, but there is much more to it than meets the cynical eye: Young people from the region, such as Andrea Kevichusa – the “tribal” Naga girl who plays a lead role in Anek – have also come to epitomise “India at 75”.
It is virtually unknown that, in 1947, when Naga leaders met members of the Bordoloi Sub-Committee of the Constituent Assembly – they were visiting Kohima in the Naga Hills to decide on the future of India – it was Andrea’s great-grandfather Angami Kevichusa who was the foremost negotiator within the formidable Naga National Council of that time. The Naga Council headed by Andrea’s forefather demanded that the Sub-Committee speak to them in English, and not in any of the “Indian” languages. Never in their wildest dream would any of these recalcitrant tribesmen have imagined that, seventy-five years later, one of their descendants would star in a Hindi film in mainland India.
In my recent book on the social history of modern Nagaland, Christianity and Politics in Tribal India, Andrea is shown as belonging to a family that produced some of the early middle-class intellectuals during the heyday of British rule. Like most citizens of the North-East, this family has been through more than its fair share of tragedies arising out of political violence and ethnic conflict.
Post-independence, the Indian democratic experiment in the North-East also brought in its wake tragic and brutish experiences for much of Nagaland, and for the North-East more generally; and yet the marvel is that these have not extinguished the resilience and search for purpose among the region’s variegated tribes and people.
The violent past – mostly state-sanctioned – was due to what the homogenising Indian state identified as the needs of the nation. From its perspective the North-East was “nonconformist”, and the nature of its inhabitants, “recalcitrant”. Not to beat about the bush, these ideas represent the worst aspects of Indian nationalism which, instead of celebrating diversity, seeks to bulldoze cultures down into conformity and singularity.
The template of this dictatorial attitude is drawn from the autocratic ideal of majoritarian supremacy, and among its strategies is the nurturing of present-day prejudices. A malign mix of ignorance and snobbery has resulted in a mainstream view from which differences in racial features, religious choices, and cultural alternatives become unacceptable. And yet, for all this, India’s young democracy has also shown – at least so far, though this is fast diminishing – a sporadically commendable record of cultivating hope, tolerating dissenting voices, and creating spaces for unusual talent.
The diverse communities of North-East India have their own demons to keep at bay. As a region, the whole place has a peculiarly irremediable malady – ethnic conflict – which has shown itself as potent enough to turn ordinary people into butchers and spur communities living together for generations to slaughter each other.
Nor is the region free of religious disputes. For the most part, unlike mainland India, where communal riots are overwhelmingly religious, conflicts in the north-eastern states are primarily motivated by ethnic allegiances. But, contrary to popular belief, the North-East is no longer cut off from the mainland, and is now affected both by the virtues and the vices of the encompassing and hegemonic social order.
As an observer of post-independence India, I can only shudder when I think of an incendiary blend of age-old ethnic strife in my region with North India’s imported religious polemics and vexing immigration issues, an amalgam spelling doom.
Sinha’s Anek, based on the North-East’s political quandary, came on the heels of the success of the critically acclaimed Article 15, dealing with caste-based discrimination in post-independence India. Anthropologically speaking, the caste divide that afflicts contemporary India pivots around the Gangetic Plains culture, but the majority of the communities of the North-East trace their migration and civilisation from the Chindwin, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, and Tsangpo rivers, which speaks volumes for their different history and culture. Notwithstanding this, the competing ideas of India since independence have changed the culture and political contours of the North-East.
While what was once designated “Assam and Beyond” continues to baffle or conjure up images of ritualistic weirdness for many in the mainland, the politics and culture wars of the world’s largest democracy – which is now a majoritarian democracy – have become part and parcel of social life in the north-eastern states.
The movie Anek came hot on the heels of The Kashmir Files, a film about the equally contentious and perhaps more volatile region of Kashmir. Never has any Hindi movie in recent history hit as raw a nerve relating to the religious divide in North-East India as this film focused on the issue of Kashmiri pandits. As elsewhere in India, popular culture in the North-East is not only a force to reckon with in the acculturation process, it also mirrors the region’s zeitgeist.
Indian popular culture from Punjab to the Deccan has a compelling influence on the North-East which, in this respect, has been considerably assimilated.
Take it from me: while growing up in an obscure town in the 1990s in Nagaland, the little-known and fresh-faced Pallavi Joshi clad in immaculate Navy uniform in Aarohan – a rare feminist-oriented Doordarshan serial, way before she eerily parodied university-bred Indian feminists in The Kashmir Files – was already the talk of the neighbourhood. Yet at that point of time the early ’90s, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which took India by storm, was nowhere in the picture in my hometown. But gone are the days of communities at the margins disconnected from politics on the mainland and affected only by local events and happenings.
India’s political landscape has changed significantly in the last seven decades, as has the homeland of the Nagas, a tribal people whom AV Thakkar called, during a Constituent Assembly debate in 1949, “a very difficult race to deal with.” When UN Dhebar, then the Indian National Congress President, visited the Naga Hills in 1955, Rano Shaiza, the first Naga woman Member of Parliament (elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977), wrote him a scathing letter protesting against the Indian army’s atrocities against women: “If it is the desire of the Indian Government and a programme to carry out [sexual violence] – shoot us directly and bayonet us but do not molest our chastity.”
When one of her fellow Naga women, Phangnon Konyak, after a long wait of almost half a century, became a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament in 2022, one of her official tweets said: “Looking forward to watching this movie [The Kashmir Files],” wading into a political issue once believed to be far removed – religion-wise, historically, ethnically, and culturally – from the Naga world.
China’s popular culture cannot hold a candle to that of Japan’s and South Korea’s in North-East India – all thanks to the CCP’s censorship, the excesses of Han nationalism, and China’s imitation of the West. The Hindu right has a significant head start in the long-term culture war in the North-East (which is another story altogether), but there is no gainsaying that for the moment the Chinese have lost the ideological and culture war in my region.
In the coveted hilly regions of Arunachal Pradesh that China covets, children from Buddhist tribes like the Memba, Monpa, and Sherdukpen – which have a centuries-long historical and cultural connection with Tibet – dance to the latest Hindi tunes, and many of the young there daydream of conquering Bollywood. Even the obstinate Mizos of Mizoram state, quintessentially a north-eastern community not in the least bothered with Indian popular culture, have joined the bandwagon, dubbing popular Balaji Hindi serials into the Mizo language.
In the North-East, popular culture enjoys more success in the integration business than do government agencies and welfare programmes.
This does not mean that the North-East is becoming homogeneous. Instead, its spectacular ethnic and linguistic diversity has metastasised after Independence. Take the case of Naga tribes geographically divided into between four north-eastern states. To navigate the region’s linguistic labyrinth, the Naga people in Imphal valley (Manipur) speak Meiteilon, Sylheti Bengali in the Barak valley (Assam), Assamese in Upper Assam, Arunachali Hindi in Arunachal Pradesh, Haflong Hindi (a corrupted form of Hindi) in Dima Hasao (Assam), and Nagamese, a pidgin Assamese, in Nagaland. Despite all attempts to tinker with its distinctiveness, the North-East persists as a Babel for language jingoists.
The pugnacious assimilation drive of recent years in the North-East may not spell well for the region and the country at large. Until now, the most successful and sustainable cultural exchanges between this region and the rest of India are those that have been unforced – the archetype being Hindi-based entertainment. Exchanged through the invisible capillaries of airwaves and the internet, the cultural archetypes have have been imbibed and developed by people “along the lines of their own genius” – to recall Jawaharlal Nehru’s fine phrase.
India’s first prime minister was neither a linguistic chauvinist nor a religious dogmatist. As a liberal agnostic he understood the futility of attempts to impose a majoritarian language or culture or faith on the North-East. By contrast, Nehru’s contemporary and close friend, the Burmese Premier U Nu, patronised Buddhism as Burma’s state religion, paving the way for an unholy alliance of ethnicity, religion, and language, the consequences of which are plain to see in contemporary Myanmar.
India is witnessing increased cultural exchanges, movements of people, and economic interdependence between the North-East and the mainland. Amid the complexities, pitfalls, and challenges of this populous and difficult-to-govern nation, our undeniably flawed Indian democracy has allowed art, music, literature, and movies to flourish, enabling some of the best ideas, talents, and innovations to reach the country from its margins.
It would be far more economical, effective, and sustainable for New Delhi (or Nagpur) to let Doraemon, Chhota Bheem (take it from my five-year-old cartoon aficionado niece who has started to speak good Hindi), Arijit Singh’s love ballads, and Allu Arjun’s breakdance integrate with or assimilate with or coexist alongside the North-East’s communities and the mainstream.
Silent strategies and invisible influencing will work where saffron muscularity and military domination will not. Banking on the region’s fickle and chameleon political class, which changes colours and can move effortlessly from red to saffron and then back to red – depending on who in New Delhi is dishing out the incentives – is like investing in cosmetics that do nothing to the heart and soul beneath the skin.
G Kanato Chophy is a Fellow of the New India Foundation whose book Christianity and Politics in Tribal India: Baptist Missionaries and Naga Nationalism was published by Permanent Black in 2021.