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

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Photo courtesy: Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network website
Photo courtesy: Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network website

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.

25 COMMENTS

  1. I might be wrong but this might be due to the size of the population itself (which is actually not homogeneous – and is a mix of many ethnic cultures right?) . There are some 10 states with a larger population than 45 million. This might be the factor than a deliberate attempt to keep NE history out. But, there should be a local push to documenting history in the region and then push this content into the curriculum.

    • We are taught the history of India, not a prioritised history based on a region’s population. Native Americans only constitute 2% of the population of US – this should not be a reason to not teach about them, right?

      • The concern is that the people who wrote history of India , who are they ? Sikhs have 80% of contribution in independence of India and look at Sikhs in India now . how they are treated . Its not the independence from British ! The independence from mugal emperors . May be most our county men dont know that Afghanistan and most of our neighboring countries were Budist . But they were all converted to Islam by rulers of the time and the tried to convert India also to Fully Islam , but Sikh guru fought against that and today Hindus of India are free to observe their religion . But on hindu is thankful to Sikhs . Its a hindu dominant country so don’t expect anything from this nation .

        • Sikhs have 80% of contribution in independence of India – really? You should leave discussion on NE history and get your high school history sorted out. Moreover, the status of sikhs have never been better and you only have to look at professions and sikh population outside Punjab to realize that.

  2. True. When it comes to history Northeast is not alone. How much have you heard about freedom struggle in Tamilnadu or Kerala?
    Yes it certainly hurts when they ask you which country you are from. I have done that mistake to my fellow assamese students. Later I apologized though.
    When we used to have only doordharshan we used to see atleast some north east dances or traditions or some view of NE cities. But with latest satelllite tv there is no coverage of northeast. I’m quite sure there are some nice things happening in NE which can be categorized as news. Goodluck for your fight with govt.

  3. The question we need to ask is why North East is still not explored by an Indian without fear but a foreigner can move around. People do love North East but they tend to forget its History because they can’t move around. There are many don’t know much about Odisha that does not mean it has lost its identity; rather it has its identity because people can explore it from where ever they may be.

  4. The Indian history stop at east of Magadh, the capital of ancient India. So I will refere East as east of Magadh and West as west of Magadh. There are only few mention about Kings and empire of ancient East. We the eastern people are against all the present gods of western India. Mentioned in Mahabharata, King Vasudeva who himself thought to be the god go war with Vasudeva (Krishna), he was killed later by the use of tricks. Father of Rama, Dasaratha made a campain against the East but fail. Later in histroy there are mention of Gangahrid but whose army had ten thousand war elephants during the time of Alexander. East was never a Hindu but Tantric and later converted to Budhism.

  5. anted to share that Committee Against Violence of Women (CAVOW) did FF in NE (Manipur, Nagaland, Assam,and Tripura) with help of organizations in these states on request from Women’s organization in Assam and got out a report in 2002. It carried brief history of these states. Do not know if copies are still available even though was part of this FF.

  6. For the first time in my life, i am helping an University dept to work out a syllabus and i am realising how tough it is to be inclusive. This i am working on is a professional course with one specialisation. I cant even comprehend how the national boards work out syllabus for so many subjects for such tender age groups. I have full trust in their capabilities, and i am positive that the outcome will be aligned to your cause.
    A very close friend of mine is married to a princess from Sikkim, and thanks to that i found out about the matriarchal system!! Someone from Assam who i went to college with fed me the most delicious noodle dish. I have had some late night sessions with Naga students, who had envious political acumen. A dear friend is a guitar maestro and has featured on national television for his writing skills!!
    I am happy that we have present day interactions with people from the NE – whatever be the reasons for migration. A little bit of history, sociology and political science will definitely go a long way to understanding and cementing the friendships.
    I wish you luck with your project Binalakshmi and i am sure there is a way to get representation.

  7. This person clearly did not get the message- “The Northeast is irrelevant”. This is no rocket science but the fact is that since 1947, the Northeast has been and shall continue to be no more than a colony of India. The utilities of the area are confined to it being a source of raw materials to India and serving as a buffer zone between India and her eastern neighbours (foes!).
    As far as the people of the region are concerned, they have never mattered. They are so weird and different, not Indian enough in language, race, habits, or, anything at all!
    Till such time that the region ceases to exist due to its impending acquisition by Bangladesh and or by China, India shall govern these idiots through two groups of people in sync with each other- a) indigenous traitors and b) proper Indians- Marwaris, Bengalis and Biharis.
    This is a sinking ship and any further discussion on the issue is pointless because: (1) the natives cannot govern themselves (2) India’s neighbours are hellbent on acquiring the land and (3) Indians treat us like filth anyway!

  8. Names from north east are difficult to pronounce..why would kids waste their time on learning inconsequential tribal history which does no have the necessary traits of a progressive culture? India’s history is only about kings and warriors rather than jungle tribals roaming around in banana leaves hunting pigs for dinner..Rather than the tribal history the history of Tibet and Buddhists should be taught to Indian students

  9. i’m from the northeast and sad to say i know nothing about the region’s history because it was never a priority when i was studying in ‘mainland’ india. I’ve also been asked which country i was from. and on mentioning my home state people have actually asked where that was. not knowing a particular city or town is forgivable but being unaware of your own country’s various states is just silly.

  10. You are doing a great job dear. Wish u all the best for the hurdles ahead. May you be able to conquer all the problems and bring one the most Beautiful part of the nation back on the history map of this nation. People will be there question your work, integrity and WHAT NOT but dont unnerve. This is a fight for the nation, children of tommorow should know about the nation and all the people who live in here.

  11. Actually quite a pertinent question, most of history taught in schools deals only with the large empires and kingdoms. So we only study in CBSE the Mauryas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals some bits on the smaller regionals like Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras, Vijayanagar, Marathas, Shivaji etc.

    At the college level there definetely should be courses on the NE history.

  12. Not just the North- East. India is a vast country, and serious issues of misconceptions about cultural identities exist in many places. The South Indian, the North Indian, the Kashmiri, The North- Eastern Indian, all live pretty far from each other, even today, thanks to the inability of any fast means of travel to penetrate the market. If I have to travel for more than a day to reach a place( and given India’s size a lot of places in out case), its not very easy to mix up the whole thing. think of a cocktail shaker of 20 litres if you want a clearer picture. What we need is faster, better, more accessible means of transport, to mix up all groups.

  13. Learning history need to be started at local level, so here my question is “ is any of the Northeast student studied their own history in their schooling days?” say example: ) Arunachl Pradesh, or Manipur, or Mizoram or Nagaland …… etc. do they studied their own history ?, is there any a single chapter in their states board syllabus?? Binalakshmi brings up a nice and important point but it seems she doesn’t know where to start, to lay down a possible path to change from such ignorance. Blaming mainstream or whatever…. should not be a priority in reshaping minorities/northeasterners youths, we have seen enough blame game in our life, so let’s learn something new and positive knowledge by keeping away from detest mindset.

  14. In my point of view no Indian is genuine , if he shows interest or if he is forced to know about history of other nations , without having knowledge about Indian States 100%. Indian History usually starts from religion only.As per Mahabharatha one of the wifes of Arjuna belongs to NorthEast only and Kaamakhya Temple is closely related to the Mahabharatha Story.Hence it is part of India only and the Experts shall find out the missed out History and try to include in Indian curriculum at the earliest.Citizens from any part shall not have a feel of neglect and it is the duty of all to remove the feel, if any has.

  15. There is a need to change traditional pedagogy and outdated curriculum in order to improve the quality of education.In comparison to foreign universities,our quality of education is very very low.This is not only in case of history but other subjects too.

  16. Unfortunately the history taught in schools is too Delhi centric. Other regions are mentioned mostly in their relationship to Delhi. It is hardly the history of India.

  17. This is such a well thought and well written article. I have friends from northeast region who are regularly harassed as chinkis it bothers me that we are such uneducated mass that we rely only on our books to educate us, why don’t we learn from our friends too! This young girl talks of how our textbooks never mention North east, I would like to point out our textbooks does not mention south either. I am glad Mumbai is the financial capital else Maharashtra would be lost with all the other south Indian states. Try telling north Indian that sorry not all south Indian are Madrasis, it is an exhaustive project and yet they will lump all the south Indians as Madrasis ( it is a wonder how they know harayanvi and a punjabi are different) but an Andhraite, A keralite, a Kannadiga and a Tamilian are all Madrasis. I amaze at people level of knowledge not education mind you but knowledge. Our history books are so obsessed with the Lodhi’s, Mughals and Gandhis that anything beyond them does not exist and they are brainwashing us generation after generation with the same crap.

  18. I think our history textbooks should be revised to include the events that happened in every region. I am sure that it’s possible. I know that most Indians do not accept North-East Indians. But I think a part of it resides in the fact that North East has become violent throughout the past few years and also our current political leaders fear objections, protests and violence that will rise if we take up such a sensitive issue…. If people have noticed, most newspapers or news channels avoid taking up issues of North-East unless it is absolutely necessary…Anyway kudos to all who fight for justice! It’s better than being insensitive and resilient!

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