The realm of contemporary social discourse is populated by an increasing number of “subaltern” narratives movements recognising and giving voice to all kinds of minorities and underrepresented communities. Increasingly, we are hearing voices of women, Dalits, LGBTQ+, Blacks, environmentalists, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, children, the disabled, vegans, and animals among others.

In some parts of the world, where politics and policy lean towards what has been described by some as “minority appeasement”, the privileged majority says it feels cornered too. Men feel threatened by feminists, whites feel threatened by people of colour, Hindus feel threatened by Muslims and Christians, nationalists feel threatened by liberals, business conglomerates feel threatened by the working class, warmongers feel threatened by peaceniks.

Whom does that leave out? Whose fear is more valid, or less real? Surely, the fear of losing one’s life is greater than the fear of losing one’s privilege, but does that make the fight for what is perceived as one’s preserve any less ardent? We know how the scales are tipped when there is a fight between forces like capitalism, white supremacy, Brahmanism, and humanism. And what happens when the tables are turned, or the turf is switched? Does the grass still seem greener on the other side? Where must our sympathies lie?

Uncomfortable questions

Insider Outsider: Belonging and Unbelonging in North East India poses many such uncomfortable questions. Edited by Preeti Gill, noted writer and publishing professional, and Samrat, an author and journalist, this anthology brings together multiple perspectives of identity from the conflict-fraught “seven sisters” – the states of North-East India. In addition to two introductory essays by the editors, several poets, authors, artists and activists come together to contribute 16 points of view on life beyond the “mainland”. However, it is important to note that these are not the perspectives of “indigenous people” (barring one), but of those who are considered “immigrants or settlers”, despite having spent all their lives, and even several generations, there.

Through lived experiences, these essays, poems and personal accounts bring into sharp focus the politics of identity and the identity of politics of a region that has unfortunately remained as misty as its mountains in the larger public consciousness. These accounts, laced with poignance, sadness, and even horror, leave many a knot in a reader’s stomach.

While many of us as aware of narratives of discrimination elsewhere in India against those from the North-East, this book reverses the gaze by presenting accounts where those from other parts of the country are discriminated against by people from the North-Eastern states. Suddenly, one is faced with the danger of righteous indignation, or a cruel and blanket idea of “justice”.

Is being called a mayang or dkhar (non-tribal outsider) better or worse than being called a chinki or a momo (pejorative terms for people with visible Oriental features)? One is left in that terrible spot of moral ambiguity, for there are no easy answers to questions like whose lands, whose rights, whose homes and whose lives are at stake. The book presents many strange paradoxes, where “we” becomes “them” and “they” becomes “us” over and over again.

Carved in blood

Many of the pieces in this anthology hinge on people’s experiences in a decade that can be easily called the “notorious nineties”, when the trend of ethnic cleansing and the infamous AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), cost countless innocents their lives. But we are told that these regional problems took root, like most things, in the colonial period.

Several landmark acts of political cleaving shaped the destiny of the North-East of India. The first was in 1874, when the Assam territory was separated from Bengal and termed the “North East Frontier”, which was a non-regulation province. Shillong became the choice of administrative centre for the British, and therefore the focal point for political activity.

In 1905 and 1912, the area was incorporated into the new provinces of East Bengal and Assam and re-established as a province. The British played an arbitrary game of jigsaw, drawing borders, as they were wont to, on linguistic bases. People were pieced and grouped as Bengalis, Oriya, Assamese and Bihari. In his essay titled “How We Got Here”, Samrat offers an illuminating linguistic history of these languages that once formed a continuum, changing gently with the landscape, before being boxed into silos with the coming of the Christian presses.

Further, in the wake of the Partition in 1947, when Bengal and Punjab were cruelly slashed, another region suffered a geo-cultural crisis. The erstwhile province of Sylhet was divided in a way that gave part of it to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), while the segment left in India was lumped with Assam. As a result, Indian Sylhetis had no state to call their own.

The accession of the princely state of Manipur was achieved by coercion rather than the will of the people in 1949, and this move remains wedged like a thorn in Manipuri consciousness. Statehood for a greater Assam in 1950, and the subsequent breaking away and creation of the hill state of Meghalaya in 1972, are all encumbered with bloody histories.

Lives lost and found

Anindita Dasgupta and Neeta Singh bemoan the loss of their ancestral Sylheti homeland, and thereby an identity, in the essay “In Search of Lost Time”. Their lament of being seen as outsiders in what was essentially their own land forces one to question the idea of assumed ownership that comes with naming conventions. A (not so) beautiful parallel can be found in the idea of a woman taking her husband’s name after marrying him. Does a new name imply an annulment of her entire life and personality before that point? If not, how fair is it for the Assamese to deny Sylheti Bengalis their cultural identity, or worse still to want to expunge them, simply because someone decided to rename their ancestral land “Assam”?

The case of Shillong is similar. Once the capital of Assam, this cosmopolitan city was home to many Assamese and non-Assamese peoples. Following the violent separation of Meghalaya, it became the capital of the new state. The Khasi, Garo and Jaintiya tribes, as the new overlords of the city, wanted none of the non-tribes or dkhar in “their” city, and inflicted violence and terror routinely on them, forcing many to flee.

Anjum Hasan’s account of her childhood in “Growing Up With Mrs P” and Paramjit Bakhshi’s “I, Dkhar” both present the beautiful as well as the terrifying aspects of the city of Shillong, where they spent considerable parts of their lives as “outsiders”. In fact, Sanjoy Hazarika, in his essay, “Insiders, Outsiders And Those In Between: After All, There’s Much In A Name”, offers us an entire list of words that denote outsiders in North East India: bahirormanuh, bidekhi, or deshwali in Assam, vai in Mizoram, and dkhar in the Khasi hills of Meghalaya.

In Hazarika’s narration of the plight of such “outsiders” in the North-East, one finds easy reflections of what is happening with the Mexicans in the US, the Rohingyas in Myanmar or even Biharis in Maharashtra. The book speaks of other kinds of discriminations too, such as in Shalim Hussain’s piece about “Growing Up Miyah” (Muslim), or Suhas Chakma’s piece on how the Chakma tribe, which is Buddhist and speaks an Indo-European language, is not spared either.

Weaponising the process of othering seems easy, often needing only the will of a few politicians. In “Chronicles Of A Death Untold”, Mahua Sen poignantly asks: “If a benevolent humanity were to erect a symbolic sculpture of a refugee, wouldn’t it be a poetic paradox to assign it a square piece of land in this world?”

Insider Outsider places its reader on a precipice, one side of which is a ravine of human cruelty driven by insecurity, and on the other side, a haven of humanity. If people have been victims of organisations like the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam), they have also enjoyed the robust protection and love of the hill people. By interspersing the political with the personal, this book reminds us to differentiate between movements and individual actions, between choices and circumstances. But, most importantly, it forces us to introspect and remember that if we are insiders here, we may well be outsiders elsewhere. The earth belongs to no one and to everyone, and it may serve us well to live as generous hosts and grateful guests.

Insider Outsider: Belonging and Unbelonging in North-East India, edited by Preeti Gill and Samrat, Amaryllis.