Are people from Shillong aware of other marginalized communities?
That the tribes and communities of Northeast India have been marginalized and haven't received sufficient aid (monetary and otherwise) by the 'mainland' and the Central Government is a fact that is being recognized across the country. More people are becoming aware of the region, getting to know about the various cultures and customs that exist in this hilly part of India. But what do the people of Shillong know about other marginalized communities of the country?
A number of people that I spoke to said that they were aware of the discrimination and segregation suffered by the people belonging to the Scheduled Caste communities, but only in a generalized sense. While they were aware of the fact that traditionally, those belonging to the Scheduled Castes were treated as 'untouchables', people didn't seem to know how this discrimination tends to continue in other forms despite the abolition of the practice in independent India.
"I know that Dalits have been marginalized, suffering violence and discrimination, but the caste system is something that most people in the Northeast cannot wrap their head around. As tribes, we have a difficult time understanding this hierarchy," said Jason, a student in the city. However, Jason said that he was for the 'annihilation of caste' and would support Dalit movements in anyway he could.
There also seemed to be only little awareness about the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad. His suicide brought the debate over discrimination of Dalits into the limelight. Even some members of the student body of North Eastern Hill University were not aware of the issue, but did know about the slapping of sedition cases against student leaders in the Jawaharlal Nehru University. NEHU held solidarity meetings in support of JNU students, but the Rohith Vemula issue seems to have gone under the radar.
When I told Benjamin, who works for the government, that the term 'Dalit' applied to Scheduled Tribes as well, apart from Scheduled Castes, he said that he wasn't aware of it. "I thought that it was a 'politically correct' term used to categorize people who were earlier described as 'untouchables'", he said. When I asked him if he would describe himself as a Dalit, Ben said that the only way to break the hegemony of the oppressors was if the oppressed unite. "I think that the marginalised and oppressed communities, whether they are SC/ST/OBC or religious minorities, should unite to break the hegemony," he opined.
The Hindu-Muslim communal divide in India has resulted in numerous riots, attacks and genocides. In this area, Shillong residents seem to be better aware. "One of the things that I am proudest of is that there is no religious discrimination in Shillong. It is unfortunate that in other parts of the country, people fight over religious identities," said Robin, who runs a small business in the city. He was also of the opinion that the Muslim community, a large portion of which is marginalized and lives in impoverished conditions in mainland India, is better off in Shillong.
On the issue of Kashmir, there was also more awareness. The Northeast along with Kashmir are one of the most conflicted zones in the country. The two regions, apart from sharing wonderful natural landscapes, also have a notable military presence and oppressive laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act have been enacted.
Sara, a student of sociology, said "The conflict in Kashmir is very identifiable to the people of Northeast, which has also had its troubles with militancy and insurgency." She said that it was apparent for everyone, whether they sided against or with the militants, that the lives of ordinary people were being destroyed due to the conflict. "There's a song by the band 'Imphal Talkies' titled 'Lullaby', which talks about conflict the conflict in the Northeast. But it could just as well apply to Kashmir or any other conflict zone," said Sara.
Amrit BLS is currently pursuing Master of Arts in Communication at the University of Hyderabad and was adamant on doing his internship in the Northeast. Why? He was intrigued.
TNT – The Northeast Today was intrigued by that answer and took him on as a Summer Intern.
At 6'3" he is conspicuous enough to be noticed walking the hillocks of Shillong looking for stories to be told. His project "The Good, Bad and Ugly" delves into a balanced analysis of what we often take for granted.