The Citizenship Amendment Act protests have been going on in India’s North East, especially in Assam, since 2016. Assam’s civil society, the largest farmers’ organisation, student organisations, pressure groups, teachers, writers, actors, indigenous people’s rights organisations, tribal people’s rights organisations, all have been opposing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s sinister design, along with other states in India’s North East.
Like many things that happen in the region, it wasn’t national news in 2016. But now it is 2020 and the protests have captured the national imagination. And that is why more and more people will now need guidance on how to write about India’s North East. You will suddenly find yourself scrambling to write op-eds, essays, reports, stories, novels. These tips, from a writer from Assam, should help you in these dark times.
1. Since many people have still not heard of states such as Arunachal and Nagaland and Mizoram, you can continue to use the word “North East” or “India’s North East.”
It is a convenient umbrella term. It will also serve as your umbrella in these stormy times, rainy days. Clubbing everything together will go a long way in putting together an article that will be easy for consumption. Otherwise, a lot of people will need Alu Bukhara to digest it.
2. Always begin by describing how beautiful this region is.
Always talk about the hills, the orchids, the mist, and then start lamenting how it has turned violent. Insert the word “tribal” somewhere so that criminality can be tacitly established. Don’t give too much context to the word though – just leave it in there. Go on talking about the violence. When you talk about the role of the state, use phrases such as “alleged” even though there is ample well-documented research in the regional languages. Don’t worry if you can’t read them. Most people don’t know that people in the “Northeast” write in different languages.
3. If someone from the region points out during your visit that the problems in India’s North East are mainly between the indigenous population and non-indigenous; and that the Centre’s decades-old apathy that pits one community against the other, nod your head and ignore it.
After all, your readers won’t like it. For others, it will be too complicated. I mean, why complicate an already hard story? In any case the tribals of North East mainly indulge in two things, don’t they? Either they dance in beautiful wrappers and feather-caps, or they fight context-less wars killing thousands of people on both sides.
We also suffer from “attention deficit,” as a friend from Delhi once told me, by which he meant we “North Eastern people” are just attention-seeking overgrown babies (like many straight men in India). Which is kind of true, you know? Because there was indeed a point when we wanted more attention, more representation, but that is another story. Now we have reached a point that we don’t need you to write about us, but that’s not going to happen, so I continue with my tips.
4. Keep your task easy and ensure that no tribal voices are included when you write about North East, where mostly tribals live.
Even if you include them, give them quotes to flaunt your magnanimity. You are quoting a North East Indian activist/writer in your article; that will be considered revolutionary.
5. If you are an editor, there is no need to ask a Bodo writer, a Khasi writer, an Apatani professor, a Serdukpen novelist, a Meitei school-teacher, a tribal Assamese, a Kokborok speaking activist, a journalist of Bengali origin who writes only in Assamese, an Ao Naga or Angami Naga columnist to write about the problems in the North East.
You are enough. You know better. Also, why bother to find something that is not written in English and have it translated? So much work! Anyway, we are just dancing and fighting tribes – how can we even write?
6. You were told, and rightly so, to include the perspective of Muslims. But you didn’t know that Muslims in this part of the country come from different historical points: Some of them don’t fit your preconceived idea of how a Muslim is or should be; also, you cannot project your anxieties and fantasies on them because, damn, they have so many opinions.
You meet a Muslim person, and you are in shock that this person talks about indigenous people’s rights, expresses demographic anxiety, and also critiques the narrowness of ethnic nationalism and also supports it as a form of resistance. Must be a closet detention-centre supporter, you conclude.
“Who are these people,” you WhatsApp your boss, “YOU NEVER TOLD ME ABOUT THEM.” You WhatsApp others and decide to deal with this “new kind of Muslims” who speak Assamese, and are not immigrants from Bengal, later. You have to read up about them. There is no time for so much hard work: Protests are happening in Delhi and those are more important. “Why are there so many communities in North East, ya.” You whine.
7. Now that you have spent a month in Guwahati, shopped for handicrafts (bamboo mats, “Assamese saris”) in Jagaran, visited one char among the thousands, you are a North East expert.
No one knows better than you. You will also need a few choice words to ward off anyone who challenges your views. You have to be able to silence them and the only way to silence them is by discrediting them. How do you do that?
First, look at their last names. If they sound familiar, call then upper caste racists. If they sound Muslim, call then ethno-fascists. Use these words liberally. You know, this is how the conversation will stop. After that, the troll army and the rest on Twitter who don’t care for complicated talk would descend to their case.
Now that they are silenced, you can take full pleasure of your success. It is your success. Enjoy it. You have written about a people, dehumanised them, and also silenced them when they came seeking clarifications, raising objections.
8. Sometimes you will find it very difficult to prove your point. Don’t worry, this is about India’s North East.
Until five years ago, most Indians thought Nagaland is in China, and Assam is in Tibet, and people in the North East can’t see as well as you can see because most of us have small eyes. Until a few years ago, you used to make women in the hospitality industry feel so terrible that they had to surgically enlarge their eyes to get good jobs and sustain their existing ones.
You know that you can get away with anything, especially if you have lived for a while in any random North Eastern city working for some corporation or news channel. Just living there for a few years gives you legitimacy. So don’t be flummoxed by the diversity of tribes, languages, histories, cultures, and their clashes with settlers and immigrants. Some people are already doing this to ensure their arguments flow smoothly.
So what’s my tip? Invent a tribe. I am serious, invent! Invent facts. Invent tribes. White people have done it to Africans before, you can do it too. Here’s an example from personal experience: I was in a creative writing workshop once where a white writer after their brief stay in Africa wanted to write a book set in Africa.
Since they didn’t get a lot of time to research about this country, this writer invented a tribe. In fact, you don’t even have to say it is a tribe. Some new ethnic groups have been invented in the past two years by people who claim to know about the Northeast, such as Jongoliya, Ahomiya Hindu, Ahomiya Muslims. Just make sure you have enough binaries to show the battle lines perfectly : Hindus and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus, majority and minority. Keep inventing tribes. Even histories. Trust me, there are books published by Northeast experts where they get the entire geography wrong.
9. The truth is, you want to retain power over the Northeast just as the Hindutva and ultra-nationalist forces wish to continue ruling over Kashmir.
That’s why you didn’t support the freedom struggle of many North Eastern states. You contributed only towards erasing them by never trying to know about them, never speaking about them, never supporting them. You have ensured that we just keep having Peace Talks until the intensity fizzles out.
But the truth is that Assam has been complaining about apathy since independence. The truth is that Assam and Tripura have been expressing their demographic anxiety for more than 50 years. You discredited and silenced them as xenophobic. You said they have erected bogeymen. While doing this, you enabled the states to rehearse what they are performing today in JNU, Jamia, Uttar Pradesh.
Your silence has tossed the country into this cauldron of hot oil. We always said that what is practised on the margins will be performed in the Centre. But you can’t just sit and watch this show though you helped produce it – right? You have to ensure that someone must be held responsible. You can’t even blame Pakistain, because you are an educated and informed person.
But there is an easy solution. Just blame the North Eastern. Call them detention camp lovers. This is how you will also abdicate responsibility – “We don’t want detention camps, these violent tribals in North East want!” Make sure you don’t make mainland Indians feel uncomfortable by talking about their silence before. This is my most important tip: blame the North Eastern. Especially the Assamese, because they are a complicated and somewhat divided bunch.
10. But it is so uncomfortable to hear what the people of the North East have to tell you, especially about your work, though they are talking about a longer tradition of misrepresentation and silencing that you have inherited, helped sustain. (In that sense, even you are raced and the raced dominant culture seldom knows that they are raced.)
But how can you think without feeling implicated because you have to put yourself at the centre of the narrative always? I understand this. The white writer who wanted to invent a tribe in Africa bristled with my suggestions. So much hard work, gone in vain! The price of tickets, the research you did by shopping tribal masks, and the trip to the poorest part of the country. That was so traumatic for you: to see all that poverty for two hours.
So how do you discredit these awful tribes and indigenous people that speak too much, have too many opinions? Just call them xenophobic. It is very easy to do that. If you find it hard, just learn from some accounts of BJP IT Sena: If you are a dissenting Muslim, you are a terrorist; a dissenting student is from the Tukde-Tukde Gang; dissenting civil society members are Urban Naxals; a dissenting Northeastern who refuses to accept the mainland’s narrative is, of course, a Xenophobic.
11. But how long can you call a people xenophobic and win an argument? You have to invent something more catchy.
Also, using this word makes you racist. Some people have already pointed that out. But you aren’t racist. You love eating pork. You have never acted like those racists, “Ah, Missing Tribe, are they missing? Why are they missing? Since when?” You can’t be discredited. You are so authentic that you have even slept with people from the North East. You are an honorary North Eastern or honorary Asomiya, honorary Arunachali.
But see, you still have to discredit them. Otherwise, these North Eastern people will call you out. There is a brilliant way of doing this. The British did this in most of South Asia and Africa. Just discredit the entire community for the atrocities of their politicians or for the crimes committed by earlier generations. Remind them of earlier massacres, ethnic riots, and shame them to silence.
Starting a story about a people a few decades late always dispossesses them, doesn’t it? It is the most powerful technique to dehumanise a people and present them as disreputable in the eyes of the mainland.
12. Tip # 3 might haunt you a bit. When this happens, look for voices from North East that cater to the fantasy of barbaric, uncivilised borderlands and publish them on a regular basis.
Ensure they quote a lot of French and German philosophers. Some Nordic ones will do too. Don’t make them quote Foucault, because, you know, he is a bit ubiquitous.
13. This is a tip mostly for gatekeepers. Of course, you will be approached by a large number of people seeking to convey their opinion through your publication. Don’t deny them because if you do, it leaves a record, and people can crib; or tell each other.
You don’t want to be branded as racist, even in the whisper network. In this case, you should do what the Indian state is excellent at : Wait. Wait till everyone is exhausted protesting. Wait till everyone is waiting for your response. Wait, but also shoot them an email after a while: “We will publish this piece, but can you please wait? We will send you some edits.”
The writer will agree, and wait. Make the writer wait longer than Vladimir and Estragon waited for Godot; longer than scientists wait for Hailey’s comet. One day you will receive an email, most probably polite: “Sorry, I am withdrawing this piece.”
And who am I? Why should you believe me? I am often thought of as Anurag Kashyap’s brother. I am not. I often try to present the complex picture of Assam and the reason behind the North East’s protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. But I get mocked and discredited as a Brahmin (some of these people claim to be left-leaning on their social media profiles).
I want to historise the problem. I want to say that even though, with my current documents, I wouldn’t have made it to the National Register of Citizens. I have never supported detention camps. I have always maintained that we can’t go ahead by excluding millions of people and alienating millions of others who call Assam home.
I am not a Brahmin. I am also not Anurag Kashyap’s brother. I wish he were mine. He would have at least amplified my voice on social media. I will tell you what my caste is because I also get asked the question often by mainland intellectuals.
So, here’s a bit about me: my community is Koch. In Meghalaya, the Koch are scheduled tribes. In Assam we are not; my community is fighting to get us scheduled tribe status. When they become successful, I will become tribal, but my radical queer sister and activist friend says, “Why wait for the state to give you a certificate?” I kind of agree with her.
Until then, according to the Government of India, I am an OBC: Other Backward Castes. I don’t have a caste certificate because when I went to get it issued in 2002, the queues were too long, and the process was too complicated. I was eighteen. I would rather eat pizza. I ate pizza. In a shop called Pizzeria, in Guwahati. If you are from the mainland, most probably my nose is flatter than yours. My cousins don’t even have noses.
Aruni Kashyap is a writer from Assam. His Father’s Disease is his latest book of fiction.