Monday, May 13, 2013

‘I studied History for 5 years, but there was not a single chapter on the history of the Northeast’

Why is the Northeast conspicuous by its absence in the academic curriculum of the country? In a recently concluded conference called ‘Weaving histories of Northeast India’, intellectuals, scholars and historians came together to understand why and make concrete plans to change this aberration. Binalakshmi Neparam, founder of the Manipur Gun Survivors Network and Secretary General of Control Arms Foundation of India tells Astha Tyagi about her vision to get rid of the prejudice that these gaping holes in history can breed. Edited excerpts from an interview - 

 Yours is a not-for-profit organisation that works with survivors of conflict violence. How did this initiative for the inclusion of Northeast India’s history come about? 
The idea came about last year when we saw an exodus of our youngsters from cities like Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai and Delhi after the Assam riots. It was then that a lot of questions started cropping up in my mind about who we are and why we were treated like that. One of the basic problems is that the Northeast is looked at as the ‘other’. People of the region are spoken of as ‘tribals’ and we are called by the word chinki. So the region has a huge negative connotation and we are trying to rectify that.

There are 45 million people in the Northeast and we are an integral part of this country. Then why are we still misunderstood and misrepresented? How come not a single boy or girl features in any of the advertisements? Why is a beautiful Indian girl always denoted as a fair and lovely north-Indian? But we realised that there was no use in getting angry with the media. Then we thought it’s the government agencies that are not doing their job and yes, they aren’t. But we cannot keep blaming; declare hartals (strikes) or go on protests, saying ‘Oh, we are being mistreated’.

I studied History for five years and was struck by the fact that there was not a single chapter on the history of the Northeast. When I took it up with professors in Delhi University, some of them were sympathetic while some said that if you want to learn about the history of the Northeast, go back to the Northeast. They were angry with my question. In fact, I topped the Jawaharlal Nehru University History exams, but later chucked it as a protest.

Our organisation mainly deals with women survivors, but through our work, we started receiving recognition and then we decided to take a plunge into policy making. People learn the most in the first 10-12 years of their life and hence we decided to approach the educational bodies of our country. They have to see to it that the Northeast is properly represented in the country. Once you know a little more about the people, you start feeling for them. At the moment, this feeling is missing.


You had a meeting in November 2012 with policy makers before this. Was there any learning from that meeting which helped shape this one?
These two meetings were about scholars and historians coming together to find the missing links as to why the problem is taking place. It is about engaging and taking appointments with government bodies like the NCERT, CBSE, the HRD ministry, UGC and state boards. We spent one year trying to understand who is responsible for what. We sought appointments and met them and that is why all these people came. We just wrote to them saying, “We feel that the Northeast is not being properly represented, let us talk and discuss this.” We got in touch with Shashi Tharoor’s office, the HRD ministry which does the main syllabus making of the country. When the other boards hear that there is a ministerial involvement in this, they will automatically take notice.

Representation itself has a lot of problems related to it and a project like this will carry with it fears of mere tokenism which might just hurt rather than bring about a change. Are there any apprehensions regarding how this project might finally take shape?
There is a lot of tokenism. I know there are experts working in the field and we appreciate the NCERT’s present contribution like mentioning the name of the Manipuri sarong or the dance. But this engagement is on a very superficial level. We want to move beyond that. Knowing about 272 ethnic groups will take some time. But it is not like we are starting on a blank slate, we do have more than 200 years of writing on the issue. We are not going to work in isolation. We will hold local area meetings and make sure that the Northeast is represented properly. After that, we will bring it to the NCERT, who have assured us that they will definitely include these suggestions in the 2013-2014 revisions.

Don’t you think a project like this works inherently on the assumption that there is exclusion and hence there is a need for an inclusion in a problematic narrative like the ‘nation’? 
This project is about good knowledge. It is about a beautiful country where there are diverse sections. I have been asked many times, ‘Madam, which country are you from?’ Once I had gone for a television show wearing a phanek and someone remarked, “Aapne torn saree kyun pehna hai?” (Why are you wearing a torn saree?) Earlier I used to be hurt, but now I  just do not bother. It is not about inclusion or exclusion. It is about building knowledge about a country where everyone at least knows the basic facts about each other and do not frame prejudices about each other. This project is about proper representation of those areas which are not documented at all.

What is the next plan of action, after this conference?
From this meeting and the last, our pool of resource persons has grown and they will act as the de-facto expert committee. Some of them will be advising us in their own capacity like Dr David Syiemlieh, while some others are ready to come on board. Then we will identify some key meeting places and the results of those will be carried to the NCERT, CBSE and UGC.

What is the final outcome that you envision from this project? 
We want the inclusion of the histories of the eight beautiful states of the Northeast region of India, so that people do not feel alienated or misrepresented. The larger narrative of education in India should be an inclusive, egalitarian one.