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Is there a space for North-Eastern identity among students’ politics in Indian Universities?

Is there a space for North-Eastern identity among students’ politics in Indian Universities?

thangminlal lalcha haokip


Thangminlal (Lalcha) Haokip

thangminlal lalcha haokipMy colleagues have often asked me why University students from the North East do not take an active part in students’ politics in mainland Indian Universities. Often times, I would find myself unable to answer this inquiry. Perhaps, a convenient straitjacket reply could be that since a majority of these students are first-generation University attendees, they cannot bear the direct and indirect financial costs of political activism which may run foul of the administration eager to terminate their scholarships. It is also discouraged by the language barriers and the differences in cultural expression.

However, over a period of time, I have come to feel that this explanation is both inadequate and incomplete because it doesn’t really address some core issues that revolve around mainland campus politics. I have developed a dislike to my own response as no one could truly be apolitical.

I was first faced with this dilemma when a Dalit friend approached me with the idea to help initiate a student group that would start a dialogue on issues related to caste at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru in 2016. This discussion took place in the aftermath of the suicide of Dalit scholar, Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University. The proposal was no doubt a plausible one, but my concern was simple, how can I- a Christian tribal from the North East, initiate a dialogue about caste, in a Hindu majoritarian student community.1

I deliberated with my friend that while I can empathise with the Dalits’ cause for liberation from the oppressive caste system, I cannot communicate its consciousness. Over the course of our discussion, it only became more apparent, how much further we were from understanding each other’s political identity and personal consciousness. The experience made me examine my own personal and political identity as a north-eastern student in one of India’s elite Universities.

In order to understand why a person from the North East cannot participate or ally with any student political groups in Universities, it is imperative to know the historical, economic, cultural and social conditions in which these dominant political ideologies have developed and to further examine how they profess thinking that may not directly reflect the social and material experiences of people from the North-East.

Today, Indian Universities are occupied by four major ideological groups, namely- the Hindu Right Wing (Hindu nationalist), the Feminists (women’s rights advocates), the Ambedkarites (Bahujan groups who advocate for the dismantling of the oppressive caste system) and the Marxists. These groups continue to wield significant influence on campuses that extend from political representation to classroom discussion.

Can the Hindu Right Wing (HRW) communicate with the Northeast?

The first group that we need to engage with is one whose clout on campuses has only grown under the present regime. Hindu right-wing politics is centred on the political ideology that is Hindutva, and claims to work towards establishing a unified Hindu rashtra that is inseparable from the religious faith. This particular brand of political activism has found limited purchase within the North-Eastern community primarily because it speaks of a Hindu vision to a majority Christian and Buddhist audience.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that Hindutva ideology is an import that comes from the West of India and has no history of cultural assimilation with the ethnically diverse and historically distinct communities that reside in the northeast region. This has meant that its attempts at building a single identity based on one religion, have found little to no success, though it continues to be deployed as a tool to advance its political interests in the region.

In recent times, however, the electoral successes of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in north-eastern states may be cast as a counter to the previous assertion. However, one must note that ideologically, this success is not built on the acceptance of Hindutva politics, but is rather a result of the internal conflicts that exist within various tribal groups, coupled with the lack of strong regional parties. Richard Kamei writing on the rise of BJP in Manipur very aptly reaffirms this when he writes that: “the electoral outcome in Manipur is contextual, and cannot be explained within the political narrative currently governing the nation. People who have voted for the BJP in the state have not done so due to its Hindutva narrative”2 (The Caravan, 16th March, 2017). While a case for the success of Hindutva may be made in a state like Tripura, where more than 80% of the population are Hindus, this argument simply does not hold water in any other state in the North East.

It is this disconnect between Hindutva and the North East that ensures that any student political group speaking the language of a Hindu identity is bound to exclude the majority of the North-Easterners who cannot and do not associate with it. This also provides some insight into why the BJP has had to deploy horse-trading and build coalitions with regional parties to make their electoral entry into these states.

How inclusive are the Feminist Spaces?

Debates on feminism currently revolve around the intersection of caste and gender; religion and gender; patriarchy and gender; gender and legislation affecting women’s rights, while not engaging in an adequate, substantive study into the role of racial identity as a factor for determining political identity. As a by-product, this discussion inevitably excludes the women of the North East.

Ruth V. Chwangthu from Mizoram, a co-founder of ‘Nazariya LGBT’ asks “Who really owns the feminist space in India”? Speaking from her work experience with Feminism in India (FII), she notes that feminist discourse in India is largely dictated by mainland Savarna feminists who determine the nature of the dialogue and do not pass the mike to identities like herself, reducing the role of these women to that of poster girls for feminist diversity (Round Table India, 27th May, 2019)3. Some may dismiss this example as anecdotal, however, it is representative of how a north-eastern feminist woman can find herself entirely excluded from the feminist conversation. This disconnect between mainstream feminist discourse and the Northeast may be symptomatic of the larger lack of understanding of the historical and cultural differences that distinguish the experiences of women in the mainland and women from the northeast.

This is best captured by Melissa Lukashenko (an Australian Aboriginal writer) who writes that: “while feminism may be a global movement with global applicability- factors such as political, regional and ethnocultural distinctions could mean that feminist ideology would be inappropriate for indigenous women. Because of the common colonised history, women would want to place decolonisation as their central project- and in doing so place identity and nation building at its core”4 (Vijayalakshmi Brara: Cultural and Indigeneity- Women in the Northeast, April 2017). This is precisely what the women’s movements in Northeast are grappling with. This can be seen in Meira Paibi’s or Women Torch Bearers of Manipur fight for the removal of the colonial law-AFSPA or the support for insurgency movements led by different ethnic groups to reclaim their ethnic identity from the Indian state. Here, the militants believe the present Indian state to be a colonizer, similar to the British, responsible for stealing their identity, nationality, and freedom while exercising total control over their lands.

In fact, it is for these reasons that the feminist conversation in the northeast today continues to revolve around issues of ethnic identity, language, nationality, culture, customs and values. However, unlike their Dalit women counterparts in the mainland who can unite based on their caste identity, north-eastern women do not have any overarching identity which can unite them under one umbrella, making it difficult for them to establish one narrative that could represent the region.

In other words, they can neither be a part of the mainstream feminist narrative nor create a unique, all encapsulating, narrative of their own.

It is because of this distinction that North Eastern students in mainland Universities face difficulties in engaging in feminist dialogues with their colleagues. While they may be seated inside one classroom, they are divided by history, race, identity, politics and different cultural experiences. Mainstream feminism is yet to find a language that can talk to the north-eastern women.

Can the Dalit politics align with North-eastern people?

A Dalit identity is rooted in the caste system within the Hindu religion. A Dalit carries a caste that has been prescribed to him or her by the religion and is discriminated based on this prescribed caste. However, a North-Easterner (majority tribal) is not a Hindu and therefore has no caste. He is discriminated based on his racial and regional identity. While the identity of a Dalit is made apparent by indicators such as his surname, the North Eastern identity is both racial and abstract, in that it contains within it, several sub-identities. Both are discriminated against, the former by birth and the latter by race. The difference lies in the fact, that while the Dalit has a political group to help fight its cause, the North-easterner as an identity does not. Interestingly, the manifesto of the Dalit Panthers (the revolutionary group formed in Maharashtra in 1960s) released in 1973 in Bombay, including the Scheduled Tribes under the definition of ‘Dalit’.5

However, as we have seen historically, there have not been any attempts by Dalit or Bahujan politics to ally with the Scheduled Tribes in the northeast and vice-versa. Even, if such an alliance were attempted, it is bound to fail because Dalit politics primarily align around caste identity. As long as this continues to be the case, the students of the North-East cannot be a part of it. They may sympathise with the Dalit cause, but they cannot be a part of its struggle and vice versa. This difference is rooted in their history and religious identities.

Does Marxism have an audience in Northeast?

Marxism gained prominence in 19th century Industrial Europe when the ideal audience for the ideology were the industrial working class. In India, the ideology was popularized after the East India Company shifted production to British India. The arrival of the company led to the creation of an industrial working class within Indian society, that continued to be closely determined by one’s caste location.

Throughout this period, the Northeast (which was still outside India) did not witness any industrialization significant enough to cultivate clear class divisions. In fact, between the two landholding systems that existed within Tribal communities in the Northeast, one where land was owned by a local King/ Village Chief and one where a Village Council controlled the land (based on the principle of common ownership of property), it was the latter which was most prevalent.

Under the common ownership of property, the community produced goods and worked towards fulfilling the needs of the community by toiling on resources that were considered common property. In this form of production, the process takes place in circles i.e. each individual works to produce for the other and jointly for the communities’ needs, calling for the halting of production and preventing any substantive excess surplus that could be exploited for commercial gain after their needs are met. The focus on subsistence, as opposed to a focus on profit, ensures that there is no exploitation of workers and as a result, no material conditions for a class struggle to exist.

It is for this reason that Marxists have been unable to successfully spread their ideology into the popular political thought of the North-East. The only exception to this rule has once again been Tripura. However, once again this is an exception primarily because a majority of the population of Tripura are Bengalis who are not indigenous to the region and hence adopt a landholding system distinct from that of the indigenous Tripuris. In most other cases, the party’s struggle has been best illustrated by that of the Kangleipak Communist Party in Manipur formed in1980 that is still unable to mobilise the masses towards its cause.

It is also for this reason that a traditional Marxist students’ group will find it harder to evangelize its class struggle politics to north-eastern students because of the social-economic conditions that the left advocates are different from the experiences of the people in the region.

Finding a way out

Even after 70 years of independence, the North-eastern identity continues to suffer in the mainland as a target of widespread racism, reflecting the larger lack of acceptance towards its people. Resolving this would require unprecedented government intervention into remedying historical inequities. Foremost would be ensuring the representation of the northeast contribution to the history of India in the school history textbooks so as to lay an early foundation against ignorant racism within the mainland masses.

Similarly, while north-easterners have developed an informed understanding of mainland Indian religion and culture through exposure to arts, literature and cinema, the same cannot be said for mainlanders. Mainstream media discourse must play a critical role in bridging this gap and stop overlooking the interests of the North East populace simply because of their limited numbers.

Furthermore, universities must also encourage cross-cultural studies and student exchange, and student political groups must foster a politics that engages with racial identity as extensively as they do with caste, class, gender and religion.

Finally, it is vital that the north-eastern diaspora, especially University students, see themselves as one when it comes to engaging in politics with the different identity-based factions that exist on university campuses. To develop a collective narrative, they must set aside their ethnic differences and work towards establishing a politics that addresses their historic racial discrimination. While various northeast students’ groups have organised themselves in different Universities to address these issues (North East Student Union in Delhi University, North East Students Forum in JNU) they have largely remained cultural associations and not political ones. As more and more north easterners begin to reside in the mainland and move for higher education, it is imperative for them to find a politics that speaks to their identity, or create their own political bloc based on the similarity of their cultural experiences in order to have a dialogue with the other identities as equals.



1. We eventually set up the committee and named it Savitri Phule Ambedkar Caravan (SPAC).







Thangminlal (Lalcha) Haokip is a fourth yr Student in the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru.

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