Saturday, September 21, 2013

India of a thousand dreams!

I am from the North-East — a paradise unexplored as those grandiose “Incredible India” campaigns would spell. I belong to the land of the rhino, the national parks and the dances. But I also belong to the land which is on the wrong side of the “looks” discourse. Where I come from people don’t have long noses and sharp big eyes; we have flat noses and small eyes. Colloquially, my brethren from my home are lumped together as one big racial group, “chinkis.”

We, the people of India, have never had problems with sweeping generalisations such as the loud Jats and Punjabis or the silent Tamilians, good or bad generalisations adorn our social discourse. Yet, never are they so vivid and as socially offending as with the “chinkis” and very often it spills over to those who don’t have the “chinki looks.” I must admit that never in my life have I been referred to as an exotic breed unlike my friends — that is because I share a more “mainlander” look. So the question is: why this necessity for a mainlander look to be called an Indian?

Recently, a close friend visited the Taj Mahal. He wanted to see the beauty that made India a global tourist hotspot. He had his Afghan friend along with him. They had a minor altercation with the security guards over entry for the Afghan student. Soon, the guards demanded identification proof of my friend. When he showed them his identity card, they did the unimaginable! They asked him to take a foreigner’s pass. Imagine the surprise and disgust of my friend. He had studied in Delhi almost all his college life and now he had to get a foreigner’s ticket because someone decided that he was not Indian enough to be Indian; or, perhaps, he was on the wrong side of the country.

This is not just one story. We hear thousands like this everyday. We hear of Bodo students being harassed during the Tibetan monk protests (since they looked Mongoloid). If you are a Mongoloid and girl, Delhi suddenly turns dangerous for you because there is a popular discourse that “NE girls are cheap.” This negative perception is endorsed by even neighbourhood aunties who argue that these “thin girls with short clothes” are always on the lookout for “easy money.” Sometimes, I wonder if this is really concern or disgust or merely jealousy since most of the aunties got the wrong part of the deal in the weight debate! Yet, the question remains: what does this mean for my friend and many others like him who face harassment everyday? It seems the idea of “India” still does not include them or others like them.

On the other hand, there is no denying the discrimination that runs counter in the North-East. The recent declaration of a bandh in Meghalaya against a “non-tribal” getting the Speaker’s post in the Assembly points to the bias that exists in the “egalitarian” tribal milieu. If anything, tribal society today is not egalitarian — it is mostly an exclusivist society where anything non-tribal (non-Mongoloid) is seen with suspicion and contempt.

So the story of India is one of conjoining these two systems (mainland and NE) — one which thrives on discrimination and an idea of India which is either speaking in Hindi or a south Indian techie, and the other which is inherently distrustful and exclusivist in character.

When one looks at the root of the problem, it is not the clash of these two systems but one which has a “trust deficit” in essence. The problem is both sides have not been able to bridge the trust gap.

The solution will be found when someone from Uttar Pradesh/Bihar/Tamil Nadu stands up for my friend the next time he or she is stopped at the Taj Mahal and called non-Indian. The solution will be found when a non-tribal is declared Speaker of a tribal State the people rejoice. This is very much our India, an India of a thousand dreams they may come in all shapes and sizes but one whose destiny is shared.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The India-Bangladesh Land-Swap Deal

One again, the Indian government hashit a roadblock in its attempt to introduce to parliament legislation that would enable a land swap deal with Bangladesh to take place. That is a shame, for the bill—the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement—has implications not only for foreign relations but also for larger questions of human rights, the right to livelihood and even the larger contours of what constitutes foreign policy in India today.
The bill in question called for India to exchange 111 of its enclaves in Bangladesh in return for 51 Bangladesh enclaves in India. Under the agreement India would give up claims for just over 17,000 acres of land which will be transferred to Bangladesh. In turn Bangladesh would cede around 7,000 acres, which would then join Indian territory.
The deal would not only end a historical thorn in the bilateral side, it would also open a new era in the relationship. India often suffers a “perception problem” in the eyes of its neighbors, which often view India with suspicion because of its size, economy and military might. That in turn encourages them to turn to China. The land swap deal would go a long way to improving India’s local image.
A healthy relationship with Bangladesh would have other economic benefits. India could seek from Bangladesh as a goodwill gesture transit rights to its northeast, brining development to a struggling region. A deal could also revive the moribund South Asia Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ), comprising India’s north east, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. And a deal would give a pre-election boost to a Bangladesh government that has generally been favorable to India.
A land swap agreement would also give citizenship rights to close to 52,000 people: 37,000 on the Bangladesh side and close to 15,000 on the Indian side. These stateless people, often victimized, would finally get rights and privileges as citizens, to the benefit of India’s human rights record.
This deal could particularly benefit the North East and Assam. Resolving the land issues would enable borders in these areas to be secured. India would be able to talk officially about the issue of migrating Bangladeshis, a thorny problem for Assam for nearly three decades that will only grow with climate change.
Despites these benefits, the legislation has faced numerous hurdles, particularly accusations that India is selling off land to Bangladesh. Not unexpectedly, ground zero for the opposition has been the northeastern state of Assam. Any policy initiated by New Delhi towards Bangladesh needs to take the sensibilities of Assam into account. In addition to the historical immigration issue, there is Assam’s proximity to Bangladesh and the region’s own troubled history with India’s neighbor, extending back to the 1970s.
So the protests and marches against the alleged sell-out of Assam are not surprising, nor are they completely groundless. There is a genuine feeling in Northeast India that the central government often takes it for granted. Hence, there is a need to engage the people of Assam on a more direct level to talk about the benefits of the swap and any possible ramifications. Assam has a vibrant civil society, which should be engaged on this issue. In short, it is time for some public diplomacy.
On a broader level, this is an opportunity for India to adopt a new model for the 21st century, one that recognizes the changing nature of diplomacy. As their self-identity grows, India’s states and its people want a greater say in how India frames its relations with its neighbors. The land swap deal is an opportunity for India to adopt a new foreign policy discourse that engages the states and the public, while giving the Northeast a chance to participate in the rewriting of its own history.
(Appeared on The Diplomat on September 3rd 2013,Link to the article here