Understanding India’s North East: A reporter recounts memories of region, apathy of mainstream India
Rupa Chinai, who visited the North East several times over the course of 30 years, speaks about the people living in the region have been pushed to wall and isolated by mainland India
"The Indian state has consistently pushed people to the wall," said journalist Rupa Chinai. She was addressing an audience at the launch of her book Understanding India’s Northeast: A Reporter’s Journal, weaving together her memories of the region as well as the observations that constituted her work over the 30 years when she visited the region several times.
When she was in her early 20s, she was given the opportunity to report from the North East and work with a senior journalist at a time when the mainstream media did not dedicatedly cover the region's affairs. In the process, she learnt about how various communities lived, what problems plagued their societies, and why an active dialogue between this region and mainstream India is necessary.
"If you want to understand where policy has gone wrong, go to the most marginalised sections — the periphery of the village — to understand India," she said. She narrated stories about the Tripura National Volunteers (an insurgency group), learning about rainwater harvesting, and finding that the people in the region had a desire for development — the kind that would not allow outsiders to exploit them. She remembered the time she had met two members of the Kuki National Army, witnessed a whole village watch a FIFA match, and drove through Sal forests.
"To look at India with different eyes changed me," she said. She spoke about her meetings with individuals in the region: Bikramjoy from Tripura; Mizoram's Hnema, a recovering addict who wanted to reform himself. She would go on to become close friends with many of these people. In this conversation with Firstpost, she speaks about her memories of the region, as well as the change mainstream India must make in its perception of the North East.
The title of your book mentions that it is a 'Reporter's Journal', and you have said that it is about your personal journey. How did the objectivity of being a journalist and the more personal aspects of your experiences come together in this book?
Journalists tend to be in a hurry and ask a lot of questions. One of the things I learnt during my 30 years of travels in North East India was to put aside my journalist hat, put away my pen and notebook and simply learn to listen as a human being. One learnt to pay attention to what is being said, and also to what is not being said.
Deeply personal, painful stories of unbelievable hardship and humiliation – of a people being brought to their knees before the armed might of India – have long been suppressed and unacknowledged. This lack of articulation was particularly so with the women one met. Investment of time, money, energy spent over the years of repeated visits was my way of observing their daily lives by living among them, participating in their occasions of joy and sorrow and following the stories they thought important to share with me.
The very process of journalism calls for the sifting of facts and perceptions, hence objectivity is a matter of interpretation. For me, the key learning was that there are many layers to understanding ‘truth’ and ‘reality’. One can begin to glimpse the whole picture and understand what has gone wrong when one makes an effort to do legwork; takes time to meet a wide cross section of people, while reaching out to those who are most marginalised and living at the periphery.
How did people in the North East respond to you? Were you received the same way in all states?
In the 80s, when I first visited the North East, I found open doors across the region because I then represented a small magazine, Himmat, that had sought to give a platform to the voices of the long-ignored North East. Beyond that, in all these years of travel, barring my encounters with the State and its representatives, I have only experienced warmth, hospitality and the making of friendships for life with ordinary people. I was deeply attracted to the gentleness, simplicity and straight-forwardness of tribal societies here, who are deeply rooted in their cultures. It enriched me as a person and radically altered who I am as an Indian and how I view my country. So yes, wherever I went, one found people with whom one shared empathy.
Did your travels change your own perspective towards the region? If yes, how?
Discovery of the North East was impressions drawn on a clean slate – there were no preconceived notions. What changed drastically was my perception of India and being Indian.
Standing in the shoes of a north-easterner and looking at India through their eyes was for me, learning to take responsibility for what has gone wrong.
There is the Indian State that has consistently pushed communities here to the wall with its arrogance and armed might. Then there is the ordinary Indian who in the eyes of the North-Easterner is racist, exploitative, slippery and downright scary. So much needs to be done to reform our social culture and manners, to bring health, education, livelihood and justice for the poor of our country. Loving the people of the North East is also about loving and caring about those who are my own – a more challenging task for me.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
The Constitution of India has assured tribal communities here ownership of their land, forests and natural resources. While we in the rest of India have wiped out these resources, the North East tribes have honoured that Constitutional protection. They have continued to protect the country’s last vestiges of biodiversity still left on our planet. The Bharatiya Janata Party government eyes these resources and is seeking to take away these Constitutional protections. Communities in the North East are today desperate for development, for their very survival is at the brink. But this development must ensure that they remain masters of their own land, forests, resources and their own destiny.
Do you think writers and journalists today exoticise the North East and its people? Was this a fear in your mind about your own writing?
Many writers and journalists have focused on conflict and insurgency, which makes for drama.
The failure to connect with ordinary people and their concerns, the absence of legwork, tells in their understanding of North East realities. Recently at a book launch in Mumbai, a Delhi journalist who wrote a book on North East conflict was asked which was the most peaceful state in the North East and why. His reply: “Mizoram. Because we bombed them”. If the interpretation is that having bombed, humiliated and brought people to their knees is a recipe for lasting peace, then I truly do despair. It is this mindset that shakes me to the core. Yes, I deeply fear my inability to communicate the depth of what I saw, heard and experienced of the North East.
In the foreward of your book, you mention that you had to pay the price for the kind of reporting you were doing from the North East, in terms of employment and earning a livelihood. Has the attitude of employers and newsrooms in the mainland changed over time? Or has it remained the same?
It’s far worse. Leading Indian newspapers today bring out North East editions, but coverage of the region does not move beyond those frontiers. Most Indians understand nothing about our remote peripheries and have no context to understand events when they blow up. The commercial approach of media and publishing houses blots out vast segments of our population or seeks to shape how they are portrayed. Hope lies within the emerging regional media in the North East, as also the plethora of young writers from there who are beginning to tell their own stories. Hope also lies in the country’s digital media and the avenues that have opened up for affordable self-publishing, which is the route I have also taken. The Indian public must respond to these independent efforts that add to the paucity of news from this region and existing literature; buy their publications and support journalists in getting to the stories that need to be heard.
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