(Appeared in Shillong Times, Aug 22, 2014)
Our homegrown bigotry is so deep, so pervasive that we sometimes need reminding just how ingrained and tough-rooted it really is. Our situation is, of course, unique. We are simultaneously: minority and majority. We derive the ‘benefits’ of both in equal measure. We make use of minority safeguards, which are constitutionally recognized, and which are indeed vital to the survival (and empowerment) of the small. Yet our attitudes towards other races/communities, especially the poor, is as casteist as of the most orthodox acolytes of the largest castes. Though we have, in a manner of speaking, achieved (debatable of course!) what other tribals all over the country are seeking to achieve: ruling for themselves; we continue to oppress in turn, the minorities within our own minority community.
Our situation makes it very hard to paint things in black and white. Perhaps it would be more fruitful to seek out the grey areas, the shades that are not so simple to discern. Hatred has blinded us to anything other than a commonplace brutality and a (so-called) necessary violence to maintain our supremacy over other peoples. Though we might control the political reins, it is still not enough and we continue to impose our chauvinism and fists on the ones who cower; they MUST cower before us else they get burnt alive. It is a rather tragic and comedic part in which slave at times becomes master, master in turn slave. Of course, we cannot brand our entire community with such an iron. It is also one with much heart, openness and flexibility, though many a time one is hard-pressed to find these.
Our oldest enemies or adversaries seem to be the people of the Sylhet Plains. But is it so easy to say this? Often at times we disregard our rather close and cozy relationships with these people. Why then do we hate them today with such venom? Quite often the geopolitics of our own backyards are filtered to us through the lens of so-called experts. We do not ask the class interests, the personal biases and political agendas of these people. The intricacies are rolled over and a simplistic, urbane narrative is presented to us as truth. We fear the assimilations, and possible, obliterations of our own distinctive identities as a “hill people”. Who says we are “hill people”? Maybe we were a “ravine people”, a “slope people” or “people living in the foothills”? We are “hill people” and therefore diametrically opposed to “plainspeople”; but what about the areas in between hills and plains? For a long period of time, this was where the life of our people was built upon and thrived in. Yet the experts and ‘babus’ tell us otherwise based on shoddy and questionable assumptions, most of which is drawn from Colonial gibberish.
Today outsiders who do not even belong to this region, who do not have sensitivity towards the North East, who share no historical ties like us and the Bangladeshis, seek to tell us that the Sylhetis are foreigners and anti nationals, terrorists and land grabbers. This is the distinction they create to justify their own landgrabbing and militarization of the region. They call these people “foreigners” based on a border which some white man helped draw on a piece of paper! If we look at history, Delhi is a far more foreign place to us than the nearby plains. Indeed this mentality is foreign and recent. It is nationalism without past or context, a dumbed-down version which can be called to use at any time, for the convenience of our dearest political people. I do not mean to say there are no “illegal” immigrants but I want us to question the politics of “legal” migration more incisively.
“Illegals” have no rights, guns or resistance so they present an easy target; their only weapon is quantity, it seems. They are seen as something sub-human: a horde that travels to favourable lands, lays babies and overwhelms through reproductive might. We call them the ‘freeloaders’ (“poiei”) and celebrate them being beaten up and chased around like goats. Do we dare do the same with the “legal migrants” who come with armaments and take up entire mountains as campsite? Do we dare question why we have so many men with guns in our backyards? We do not; for we somehow have convinced ourselves they are here for our own protection. It is interesting to note – in 1972 the year Meghalaya was formed, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was amended to include this state within its purview. The irony is obvious. So too is the lack of trust in such a move. The same is true for “legals” who come to develop our apparent backwardness. They can occupy large acres of land seemingly leased but in reality it is as good as a sale deed. They are not “poiei” because they bring us small trinkets like the white men who ruled over us less than a hundred years ago. Tomorrow if a Bangladeshi industrialist comes to “develop”, will we see him/her as a “poiei”? I hardly think so. “Poiei” is for poor people, rich people deserve better names.
What we must demand today is something no pressure group has raised so far, to my knowledge. Not with sustained effort anyway. We must demand the retraction of the military apparatuses from our walks of life. Some might say that I am being an idealist, such people take the world as it is. But true Progressive vision starts with just that – a vision; something to aim for, to work towards. Why can’t we emulate the countries of the world which have disbanded or reduced the strength of their militaries? Are we still so filled with hate and fear? Is it not ourselves that we fear and hate? Let us acknowledge the truth of military occupation; that we are surrounded by armed force and that violence breeds violence. Is it not a tenet the Mahatma would stand for?
“Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing …
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn? (Pete Seeger)