On the Many Borders and Peoples of the “North-East”

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A CONVERSATION BETWEEN NILANJANA BHATTACHARJEE AND VEEWON THOKCHOM

This epistolary exchange between Nilanjana Bhattacharjee and Veewon Thokchom attempts to understand the absurdities and anxieties surrounding border-making and naming in the region we know as India’s “North East.” Often, in the dominant colonial imagination, the region is either produced under the myth of “unity in diversity” or is relegated to layered forms of erasure by citing its “complexity.” Given their own experiences of the everyday in Assam and Manipur as well as their distinct identity locations, their conversation reveals the entanglements of cartographic and epistemic fictions in the nation-building project in the region.

Five soldiers , armed with guns, are attacking three women protesters.
 Indian armed forces repressing a Meira Paibi (women torch bearers) rally in Manipur. / Archives of the Hueiyen Lanpao newspaper, courtesy of Veewon Thokchom.

Dear Veewon,

When I was tasked with exchanging these letters with you, I did not know where to begin. In Delhi, winter has begun setting in. The city is a polluted gas chamber and I try to remember what blue skies look like. There is no easy route to enter into the discussion on what the north-east of India is. I wonder if it is adequate to begin by differentiating between “North East” in uppercase, sold as one geopolitical, strategic unit whose “diversity” exists as a monolithic block to add to the nation-state’s unity, as opposed to “north east” in lowercase, a mere directional indicator revealing only as much as it promises. In the uppercase, it becomes a “region,” a “strategic military interest,” a “national security threat”: jungles, rivers, hills, and land that need to be “tamed,” put through a rigorous regime to discipline—Disturbed Areas Act, Evacuee Property Act, Cattle Preservation Act, Assimilation Acts, Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Official Language Act—to become the “North East.” It can then be talked of in listicles citing simple examples of continuity, bereft of any complicated history, through pictures of “simple-minded” tribal women dancing over bamboo by the edge of a forest punctuated by shots of elephants, hornbills, rhinos, and the solitary tiger. The mainland’s preoccupation with depicting the “beauty” of this mystical land becomes clear when all advertisements selling the region showcase empty landscapes and animals, but never people. On the rare occasion that humans find their way into the narrative, they are shown as mythical beings, locked in time, whose only responsibility is to regale the mainland gaze and soothe it with their esoteric ways. I read your essays, and I wonder where and how and if you weave yourself into the north east, in lowercase, of “India?”

Hope you are well when you read this. 

Nilanjana


Hello Nilanjana,

It has been a long time since I wrote anything at all. I am at a point where I feel that sitting down and writing something is one of the hardest things in the world. It is like you would rather jump off a cliff than sit staring at a blank screen. But you do also realize that it is only you who can save you from a fall that would break every bone in your body and crush your skull to a pulp. Only you. No one else. 

From Manipur, I see all this news about the pollution in Delhi. And it is scary. They say that it is now the most polluted city in the world, that breathing its air is like smoking ten to fifteen cigarettes a day. In 2020 alone, air pollution caused about 54,000 deaths in Delhi. Is this the price people have to pay for “progress?” Seeing how much the present ruling dispensation succeeds in crafting any narrative out of a crisis in their favor, it would not be a surprise if they added a tinge of roaring and chest-thumping nationalism to the story of pollution in Delhi and claimed that Pakistan was invading Delhi at midnight with smoke-filled drones. 

What you have pointed out here about the “Northeast” is so fascinating. The differentiation of the term in two sets. It’s like how we see the yolk and the albumen of the egg when we break it open. However, I have never seen it that way. For me, the term has always been something that is shoved down our throats, played perpetually against our ears, and carved across our brains. It’s like we all are herded inside an indoctrination chamber, an enclosure where everything is and for the “Northeast.” Do you realize that we even perform, dance, and sing in front of an audience that is infinitely eager to know the “Northeast?”

Historically, the place has been given romanticized descriptions that seem like they are straight out of Victorian literature: “Land of the Rising Sun,” “Land of Festivals,” “Scotland of the East,” “Jewel of India.” These naming and categorizing are deeply rooted in a racist and Brahminical colonial production of knowledge, a project in which we must be simultaneously portrayed as angels and demons. It’s only a matter of choice between the two images, depending upon the time and situation.