Citizenship, identity and belonging: The Northeast migrants in Delhi


Heigrujam Premkumar
In its broadest sense, a citizen is a participatory member of a political community. A citizen of a nation-state is granted certain rights and privileges which are not available to aliens, and at the same time a citizen also has certain obligations towards the state. These rights and privileges are equally distributed among all the citizens of the state. Speaking of those who are within the territory of a democratic nation-state, the status of citizenship is of utmost importance and value. It is something to be cherished and held with pride.

However, such a concept of ‘universal citizenship’ that assumes that ‘citizenship status transcends particularity and difference’ has been increasingly challenged. There have been concepts of ‘group-differentiated citizenship’ mainly proposed by Irish Marion Young and others, the concept of ‘cultural citizenship’ popularized by Renato Rosaldo etc. These concepts of citizenship challenge the universal notion of citizenship and cater to more of an identity centric discourse of citizenship.

I draw from Niraja Gopal Jayal that there are three main analytical dimensions of the question of citizenship. These are status, that determines who can be a citizen; rights, i. e., the bundle of rights and entitlements that accompany citizenship; and identity, which signifies the affective dimension of citizenship as belonging.

The identity dimension of the citizenship question with respect to the ‘Northeast’ migrants in Delhi will be the main focus here. As I will argue, the people from the Northeast are granted the legal status of citizenship and thus they are supposedly granted all the rights and privileges that any citizen of India can enjoy. The alleged racial discrimination, continued violence (verbal or non-verbal) and various other forms of discrimination against this group, however, have made them question their place in the political community, the Indian nation-state. They have come to question their status of Indian citizenship, their identity as an Indian and their belonging to the political community. In the process, the emergence of a pan-Northeast identity among Northeast migrants will also be discussed.

The Central Question
When difference is not positively acknowledged and recognized in and by a political community, how would this implicate the citizenship question particularly that of the feeling of belonging to a nation-state with respect to a minority community?

The hypothesis I present here is as follows:
If the nation is an ‘imagined community’ where this imagined community is created and developed through continuous dialogue and discourse, then a real affiliation to this imagined community, the feeling of being a part of the nation-state in the truest sense requires a positive recognition and acknowledgement of difference in and by the mainstream.
The lower cultural and social position of Northeast migrants in Delhi and the lack of their due recognition, however, makes them less effective in finding a place and making a voice in this discourse and thus leading to continuous exclusion of this group from the imagined community i. e., the imagination of the Indian nation-state.

The long persisting sense of alienation, the increasing incidents of alleged ‘discrimination’ and acts of ‘racial’ violence against the people from Northeast has compelled them to construct a pan-Northeast identity and assert this identity to be recognized and protected.

Initiating the ‘Discourse’
Discourse, according to Michael Foucault, is ‘a certain “way of speaking”.’ It is also about ‘the group of statements that belong to a single system of formation of knowledge.’ Further, discourse is a culturally constructed representation of reality. It constructs knowledge and thus governs, through the production of categories of knowledge and assemblages of texts, specific rules of what is to be accepted as truth, what is possible to talk about and what is not. In short, social realities are linguistically/discursively constructed. And, more importantly discourse is about power relations in the society. What we have come to believe and accept on various subjects is nothing but what is discursively constructed by those individuals who have socially, culturally and even politically dominant position or power.

The academic as well as the everyday language of citizenship, identity, and belonging in India is characterised by almost an absence of the “Northeast” and its people in the discourse. Social realities constructed in this manner paint the imagination of most of the Indians about the nation with the Northeast or “Northeasterners” not coming into the picture of their imagination. Except for those who have met, interacted or befriended a person from the Northeast in mostly educational spaces or residential areas where people from the Northeast seek accommodation and live, or who have studied about the region and its people, most people of India hardly know about the Northeast and its people. Even for those who know about the Northeast and its people, Sanjib Baruah says, “one may be able to say that someone is from North-east India based on looks, though he or she may not always get it right.” The outcome of such a situation is that people from the Northeast (here, Northeast migrants) are either excluded from or constructed as outsiders in the ‘public’ mind.

Therefore, most of the terms that are used in this paper may not be academically popular yet they are very much in use by the men and women in the street as well as in various administrative or governmental documents. Dealing with these contested categories and terms, however, still necessitates clarifying on their usage. Some of these categories and their meanings are culturally located. These terms are sometimes constructed and they have been very much in use among the Northeast migrants.

If we follow the social representation theorists such as Wolfgang Wagner, the ‘everyday discourse’ among the Northeast migrants in Delhi and the ‘mainland’ people should enable us to see that the categories used here are very much ‘out there’. These categories and terms are also responsible for the construction of a social and political world where Northeast migrants are seen as ‘outsiders’ or less of an Indian citizen.

Drawing from Bourdieu’s phrase “categories of practice”, it is clear that the categories and terms used in this paper are “categories of social experience, developed and deployed by ordinary social actors.” The statements or group of statements represented in the everyday discourse of these men and women in the street construct a social reality where Northeast migrants are often seen as ‘different’. Similarly, in the everyday discourse and categories of practice by the Northeast migrants in Delhi, a social reality is discursively constructed where they narrate each other about how they are seen or treated by the ‘mainland’ people as ‘second-class citizens’ and thus a separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. More often than not “we are also Indians” becomes the theme of protests among Northeast migrants in Delhi whenever they are subjected to alleged racial discrimination. This often provokes the question of belonging among the people of Northeast.

The terms or categories such as mainland or heartland to represent region outside Northeast, and periphery or frontier to represent Northeast etc. are part of the language that people from the Northeast often use in their everyday narrative and interaction with each other. The terms such as ‘racial discrimination’ or ‘racial violence’ are also used not only among the Northeast migrants but also by the media-print, electronic or social- to describe violence against the people from the Northeast. These are terms which have not gained academic popularity but always used in the everyday discourse. The term “Northeast” has been mostly used by the Government and the academicians to represent the region geographically or as an administrative concept since early 1970s, though in recent times it has also been used as a prefix to people from the region- Northeasterner(s) or Northeast people.

In this paper, an attempt is being made to define the notions of citizenship, identity, and belonging with respect to the Northeast migrants in Delhi in terms of how they experience and perceive these notions. The ideas or terms such as heartland/mainland, periphery/frontier, Northeast, Northeast migrants, etc. are also explained in the process. Doing this is considered necessary, even inevitable, considering the contested nature of their usage, and at the same time, to make this paper more of a meaningful start to the discourse on identity of the Northeast Indians.

This paper also asserts the need of reformulating the academic discourse in the country by bringing the periphery in the forefront or at par with the mainstream discourse. Without a positive engagement with and recognition of the group identities who are seen and treated as different or who themselves see as different, a progressive, inclusive society is not possible.
Citizenship, Identity and Belonging with respect to the Northeast Migrants in Delhi. (To be contd)

Further, she argues that “these narratives are contested, fluid and constantly changing but are clustered around some hegemonic constructions of boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’ and between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and are closely related to political processes.” In another note, she also argues that “emotional components of people’s constructions of themselves and their identities become more central the more threatened and less secure they become.”
“Belonging is about emotional attachment, about feeling ‘at home’ and about feeling ‘safe’.” To draw from Yuval-Davis again, the notion of belonging refers to patterns of trust and confidence and raises fundamental concerns about the relation of community and society. It is also about social locations such as belonging to sex, race, class, or nation, about ‘constructions of individual and collective identities and attachments,’ as well as about ‘the ethical and political value systems with which people judge their own and others’ belonging.’
“Politics of belonging,” on the other hand, “involves not only constructions of boundaries but also the inclusion or exclusion of particular people, social categories and groupings within these boundaries by those who have the power to do this.” The power mentioned here is that of Bourdieu’s symbolic power and also of the Foucauldian one that underscores the role of body practices as mediating relations of domination.

In the politics of belonging, the boundaries of the ‘imagined communities’ as understood by Anderson are crucial. It reinforces the separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. However, Yuval-Davis argues that the politics of belonging is not only about “the maintenance and reproduction of the boundaries of the community of belonging by the hegemonic political powers, but also their contestation, challenge and resistance by other political agents.”

The politics of belonging also brings up the question of what is involved in belonging, in being a member of such a community. Yuval-Davis says that loyalty and solidarity are considered requisites for belonging in pluralist societies. On the other hand, requisites of belonging based on origin, ‘race’, or place of birth are considered most racialised and least permeable.

One clear experience that more or less represents the collective experience of Northeast migrants invoking questions of citizenship, identity and belonging as well as politics of belonging is narrated by Sanjib Baruah in one of his articles in which he quoted a Naga student’s experience in Pune. In the words of the student, ‘after coming to Pune he became “half Naga, and half Indian,” while he was “a complete Indian” before.’

This experience is not an isolated one, rather a shared experience. What can be inferred from here is the construction of an identity which is seen ‘different by’ ‘others’. It also raises the question of belonging to the political community, the nation-state as a citizen. “Am I a part of the imagined communities” become a central question in the quest of finding an emotional attachment, the sense of belonging to the nation-state. The social reality which sees a Northeast migrant as an ‘outsider’ then makes him feel as if he or she is only a ‘half-citizen’ or as Young calls it, a ‘second-class citizen’. This construction of his identity is not one-sided. It is due to his interaction with the ‘mainland Indian society’ that he has come to see his citizenship status in this way.

By mainland Indian society, it is used here to refer to the culture of the ‘heartland’. Drawing from Duncan McDuie-Ra, the concept of heartland is used to refer to the rest of India. “While India has other frontiers aside from the Northeast, making the idea of a unified or even identifiable heartland problematic, the concept of a unitary ‘India’ that is ‘out there’ away from the Northeast is an important part of the local spatial imaginary.”

The phrase “mainstream India society is a fuzzy idea but something that Northeasterners feel. It is the hegemonic society that they don’t belong to but that characterises the space they live in when they migrate to heartlands. Whatever the flaws of the generalisation, it is one that ethnic minorities from the frontier make to distance themselves from the mainstream and reproduce their minority identities.”

Contrary to the ideas of heartland and mainland Indian society is the idea of ‘frontier’ or ‘periphery’ representing and describing the Northeast. The Northeastern states are politically and geographically distant from Delhi. As McDuie-Ra argues, the distance between the people of the Northeast frontier and the rest of India is qualitatively different from other regional differences within the country. According to him, the ‘Northeast migrants’ commonly use the concept of frontier as a self-conscious reference to the distance of home from the rest of India.

The terms Northeast migrants and ‘Northeasterners’ refer to “those people from the Northeast who trace their lineage to East and Southeast Asia and as such are members of ethnic minorities racially distinct from the communities in the rest of India, even when accounting for the diversity of India’s population.”

Accordingly, visible difference separates the Northeast migrants from the rest of Indians. They are judged first and foremost by their appearance. “Physical features denoting Tai, Tibeto-Burman, and Mon-Khmer lineages mark migrants as separate from the Indian mainstream, even when accounting for the diversity of that mainstream. In fact, these features routinely lead to questioning of nationality and citizenship.” Indeed, most of the time, the Northeast migrants are misrecognized as not belonging to India.

Quoting Wimmer, McDuie-Ra says that ‘race’ is pervasively present in the social fields in which individuals and groups exist. However, as Thomas Hylland Ericksen argues, there is no way to believe in the ‘objective’ existence of race. The object of the study here is the social, political and cultural relevance of the notion that race exists. The sole focus of this study, in other words, is ‘the social construction of race’.

Interestingly, it is this socially and culturally constructed notion of race that captures the distinction made by Northeasterners themselves to denote their difference from other peoples in India and also the ways migrants from the Northeast are differentiated by the Indian mainstream. More frequently than not, the Northeast migrants are put together into a singular category because of their distinctive appearance. “The feeling of exception is experienced with such frequency and poignancy by migrants that it defines and orchestrates their interactions with the city and its inhabitants.” “The production of this category also works in favour of building solidarity among Northeasterners, even across rifts considered irreparable back home.”

One place that hugely represents Indian mainstream society in the spatial imaginary of people of the Northeast is Delhi. The relationship between the frontier and the heartland is often depicted in the form of Northeast and Delhi. Delhi is considered to have the highest number of Northeast migrants. The Northeast community in the city is also considered more diverse, consisting of those who come to study, work or to do both. At the same time, Delhi is also seen as an unpleasant, unfriendly, expensive and violent city.

Drawing from Mamdani’s analysis of the “actuality of failed cultural, economic and political inclusion” of a different minority in a hegemonic society and “racialised expression of belonging,” Yuval-Davis argues that “violence is central to projects of belonging.” While Yuval-Davis’s and Mamdani’s account is of violence by the radicalised minority because the hegemonic society failed to include them, the case of the Northeast migrants is about racial violence being inflicted upon them by the mainland Indian society and at the same time absence of a cultural, economic and political inclusion of the group. In both, violence plays a central role to the projects of belonging.

Northeast migrants experience high levels of racism and racial violence in Delhi. “They are seen as racially distinct from other groups that make up India’s diverse citizenry and physical appearance is central in interactions with members of other communities…. In fact, race routinely leads to the nationality and citizenship of [Northeast] migrants being questioned by other city dwellers.”

It is noted that India is a diverse country where there are various group identities based on religion, caste, and even ethnicity. However, “the nationality and origin of these communities are not questioned at every turn. They can “blend in” to the heartland (rarely completely) in ways that north-east migrants cannot. This is not to argue that these “others” do not face discrimination and violence; rather, north-east migrants feel their experiences of racism are distinct. To put it simply, they look different from the other peoples of India. They are not viewed as yet another ethnic group in the vast Indian milieu; they are an exceptional population. As such, they are subject to different perceptions and treatment than other groups. This makes it “difficult for them to escape from their ethnic identity if they wish to.”
Besides, the Northeast migrants are subjected to epithets such as “chinky” in the city. While it is argued that the use of such epithets are common such as ‘South Indians’ are called ‘madrasis’, it is to be noted that this naming is only based on cultural rejection, not on racialised thinking. Both are abusive and to be condemned. However, it should be noted that the racialised abuse is targeted only towards people from the Northeast, not to any other group in the country.

On the other hand, Northeast migrants are often criticised for their alleged failure to assimilate to the mainstream Indian society. However, many Northeast migrants find that the question for assimilation is only one way that they are asked to assimilate while the mainlanders fail to even acknowledge the cultural difference that people of the Northeast exhibit.

In the recent years, there have been many reports of alleged racial discrimination against the Northeast migrants in Delhi. The killing of Nido Tania, a college student from Arunachal Pradesh and many other cases of alleged racial violence has been making headlines recently. Despite efforts by the Government, these incidents of alleged racial violence continue to occur thereby constantly making Northeast migrants feel discriminated.

These experiences of Northeast migrants in the capital city provoke the questions of citizenship, identity, belonging and the politics of belonging that they themselves ask and they are being asked.

What is interesting here is that there seems to be a boundary in the project of the politics of belonging, the ‘imagined communities’ maintained and protected by the mainstream Indian society not allowing the people of the Northeast being part of this ‘imagined communities’. This may be a conscious or subconscious effort. But in any way, because of their different appearance, distinct culture and lifestyle, their visible difference the people from the Northeast are excluded when the public mind constructs their project of politics of belonging.

The exclusion from the idea of national belonging has led to two interrelated developments: first, the boundaries of the politics of belonging has been strongly contested and challenged by the Northeast migrants, and second, the Northeast migrants have started identity-making in which they have discovered and constructed ‘difference’. As it is argued earlier, people’s construction of themselves and their identities become stronger whenever they feel they are more threatened and less secure.

Similarly, “although a common Northeast identity is elusive in the frontier itself,” McDuie-Ra finds, “among the different ethnic minority groups a nascent pan-Northeast identity exists among [Northeast] migrants, forged through shared experiences of life in an Indian city and a reconsideration of the ties that binds communities from the frontier.” He reiterates that “although the idea of the Northeast may be deeply contested in the frontier, in Delhi it gives migrants from the region an identity that is inclusive and but also distinct from the Indian mainstream.”

McDuie-Ra also argues that “being in Delhi allows divisive politics of home to be tempered, allows solidarity among north-easterners to be articulated, and most importantly, allows Indian citizenship to be enacted by making claims on national, state, and city governments.” The finest example for such solidarity is in the form of protests the Northeast migrants carry out in opposition to racism and violence in Delhi.

The existence of a pan-Northeast identity is reiterated by many scholars from the region as well. Ngaihte and Haokip argues that the existence of a pan-Northeast identity is very much real. Sanjib Baruah also argues for the same.

In all their arguments it is emphasised that the long persisting sense of alienation, the increasing incidents of alleged racial violence against the Northeast migrants has led the Northeast migrants discovering and constructing their identity as belonging to one region, despite differences back home, often showing this in the form of collective protests against these alleged racial violence. At the same time, they continuously challenge the existing imagination of national belonging, asserting themselves as being part of Indian nation-state.

Concluding Remarks
According to Renato Rosaldo, Toby Miller and many others who are associated with the concept of cultural citizenship, a citizen has the right to be different and belong to a participatory democratic sense. Scholars such as Will Kymlicka have argued that liberal societies need to become more welcoming than they are in respect of group rights.

The people from the Northeast in Delhi have a ‘difference’ and that has to be accepted in and by the mainstream Indian society. Without a positive recognition of the ‘difference’, it will be difficult to make them feel ‘at home’. The social reality constructed should also be accommodative of this ‘difference’. The feeling of being alienated and discriminated should be removed through a positive recognition of their particular cultural setting. While arguing about the ‘politics of recognition’, Charles Taylor argues that “identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence….. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.”

Already made part of the conjecture, it is reiterated here that if the nation is an ‘imagined community’ where this imagined community is created and developed through continuous dialogue and discourse, then a real affiliation to this imagined community, the feeling of being part of it in the truest sense requires a positive recognition and acknowledgement of difference in and by the mainstream.

Source: The Sangai Express


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