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Being an ‘outsider’ in Northeast India

“Miyas live as an outsider and die as an outsider,” said writer and researcher Nazimuddin Siddiqui, referring to members of Assam’s Bengal-origin Muslim community. “They are not insiders anywhere.”

Nazimuddin was speaking at the session “Who is an outsider: Recognising identity politics in the Northeast” at The Media Rumble 2022, which took place in Delhi on October 14 and 15. 

Moderated by journalist and author Samrat Choudhary, the panel comprised Nazimuddin Siddiqui, the Wire’s national affairs editor Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty, East Mojo executive editor Amit Kumar, RV University assistant professor and writer Suraj Gogoi, and researcher and writer Nona Arhe. 

The question of “outsider” has long shaped public discourse in India’s Northeastern states, especially in Assam. But who is an outsider?

It’s very “region-specific”, Sangeeta said, pointing out how someone from Assam’s Dhubri district on the India-Bangladesh border identifies as an “outsider” and how this differs for someone from upper Assam. 

Nona said in Nagaland, “everyone” is regarded as an outsider except those belonging to indigenous Naga tribes. But it’s also not that simple, she added, with problems and hostility between tribes. 

Suraj said “hospitality” should be considered a mark of who is an outsider and who is not. “As a society in India, we all are known to be very hospitable to our guests and others,” he said. “But the moment this question about ‘outside’ comes, we become not hospitable and hostile…The degree of how hospitable you are determines who is an insider and outsider.”

Nazimuddin argued that the “outsider” issue is constructed and used by politicians to create a “threat perception” that will divert attention from the greater issue of underdevelopment. Sangeeta disagreed, saying politicians don’t create this “fear”, they just make use of it while the Indian state has been unable to address this fear in a meaningful way.

Amit’s theory was that anyone can be an outsider in the Northeast. “You can be an Assamese but still be an outsider in Karbi-Anglong,” he said. “So, an Assamese is as much an outsider in Mizoram as a Mizo is an outsider in Nagaland.”

Watch.

Text by Pratyush Deep

Listen to the conversation here:




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