TODAY -

Citizenship, identity and belonging: The Northeast migrants in Delhi
- Part 1 -

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.

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.

(To be contd......)


* Heigrujam Premkumar wrote this article and was published at The Sangai Express
This article was posted on January 20, 2017.


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