“Oh Nagaland? You eat dog meat?” That’s the question someone asked at the beginning of my Fellowship Orientation, when I told the group that I was from Nagaland. It’s not the first time I’ve heard a question like this. It speaks to the stereotypes that are unfortunately prevalent in India about people from the North East, which include the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. They are assumptions held about the people of Nagaland specifically, by those who have little knowledge about the region, its history, and its inhabitants. Stereotypes are powerful in determining how we see and interact with others: “Whenever we don’t have a good understanding of people or a particular tribe, we tend to make assumptions about them” (Humstoe 2017). Simply put, stereotypes then “are nothing but those assumptions that have become common knowledge” (Humstoe 2017). Even though North-East India “is considered to be one of the most diverse, culturally rich and environmentally rich regions of the country”, most people in India know little about it (Jain 2016, p. 275). Due to our history, our population includes the original, tribal inhabitants along with people who migrated from Burma, Tibet, Thailand, Bengal, and other places (Inoue 2005, p. 16). To “mainland” Indians, who are not as familiar with their neighbors living in the North East, I therefore may look foreign. Given my physical features, which resemble people from Tibet or Burma more than those from Gujarat or Kerala, it’s not uncommon that most Indians assume I’m a foreigner, even though I’m Indian, born and bred here. It’s often that the term “Chini” (a derogatory term meaning “Chinese”) is used for people like me.
Being from Nagaland, my experience on the Fellowship program so far is unlike my other Indian Fellows. For example, I was the only Indian Fellow to take up Hindi language classes after Orientation in preparation for our Fellowship placements, along with a few U.S. Fellows, because Hindi is not widely spoken in my home state. Although Hindi is taught in schools in Nagaland, it is hardly put into practice outside of the classroom. During Orientation, AIF arranged for us to spend a few days with a local host family in Uttarakhand, in order to prepare for immersing ourselves with local communities and build ties despite language barriers – a skill that is highly valued for our field work as Fellows. There was one moment during our home-stay exposure, where my home-stay mother was surprise to learn that I can understand Hindi, and was thrilled to know that a foreigner could understand their language so well. I tried to explain to her that I was not a foreigner but also from India myself – which in the end was not very successful due to the language barrier. More practice needed here.
Being an Indian but constantly questioned for my identity, made me aware of issues of social inclusion early on. In college, I decided to pursue political science and development studies to learn more. Based on my own experiences, I can relate to others who have to fight hard to gain mainstream acceptance. This is one of the reasons that drew me to apply for the AIF Clinton Fellowship and reaffirmed my interest to serve with marginalized communities on the ground. The experience for me so far has been an interesting journey. Not surprisingly, I’ve been referred to as “Chini” many times in my own country from the people I’ve met during field work and my neighbors within my host placement in Chhattisgarh, like many other places in India – a constant reminder of my difference. However, being in this position also makes me relate more closley with others who face similar obstacles.
While working on my project “Chhattisgarh Social Inclusion Program” under Samerth Charitable Trust, which works with Persons with Disabilities (PwDs), the notion of “social inclusion” was in question as to how important an inclusive community in the country is required. Social Inclusion is about the feeling of being “part of a community, bonded together by a common identity and shared values” (“What is Social Inclusion?”). The World Bank defines it as “[t]he process of improving the ability, opportunity, and dignity of those disadvantaged on the basis of their identity to take part in society” (World Bank, p. 41). Be it in the case of PwDs, people of North Eastern states of India or the vulnerable section in the society whose rights are being compromised and are excluded from the society itself.
In Chhattisgarh, as per Situational analysis in the context of PwDs, the state has 0.62 million PwDs and in urban area there are 21.87% and 79.27% in rural area of the total population. Thus a Social Inclusion program in Chhattisgarh was introduced as CGSIP under Samerth Charitable Trust, which was to ensure PwDs to have an environment which is conducive for accessing their rights. The programme focuses on economic empowerment as well as improving the participation of PwDs in mainstream. The programme will strengthen PwDs by mobilizing them through Disability People Organizations for undertaking self-advocacy and would promote livelihood opportunities for them in selected districts. And also create sensitization program as it is one of the key stakeholders on rights and entitlements of PwDs in order to create enabling environment. The project is a part of the organization called Samerth Charitable Trust which was started in 1992 in Gujarat under Bombay Public Trust Act, 1950 and in 2007 in Chhattisgarh. Samerth is an Indian non-profit development organization that works towards accelerating a humane, sustainable and equitable society. The vision of the organizations is a world free of conflicts and chains of exploitation. The areas of work under Samerth are Women’s Empowerment, Livelihood, Education and Water security. In Chhattisgarh it works in district of Raipur, Mahasamund, Bilaspur, Kawardha, Mungel and Surguja.
There is a fine line between ignorance and misinformation, and I have faced stereotyping of being a North East Indian from both perspectives alike. Using these experiences, I am more aware of being excluded and I am determined to work for the PwDs on their inclusiveness in the society. I consider it both a challenge and opportunity as a North East Indian to be a Fellow at the American Indian Foundation and also on a project which shares a similar issue. It is a privilege to join AIF, which provides equal opportunities and shares values of equality without regards to their race, class, caste, gender, ability, sexuality, or career level. I am excited for all the learning opportunities and challenges which lie in the next 8 months of my Fellowship program as a North East Indian Fellow.
- Jain, Neha. “Northeast India’s Multi-Ethnicities: Dominant Issues and Problems.” International Journal of Humanities & Social Science Studies 3.2 (Sept 2016): p. 275-85.
- Humstoe, Thungdeno. “The Naga Tribes Stereotyped.” Morung Express, 11 Jan 2017. http://morungexpress.com/naga-tribes-stereotyped/
- Inoue, Kyoko. “Integration of the North East: The State Formation Process.” Sub-Regional Relations in the Eastern South Asia: With Special Focus on India’s North Eastern Region. Eds. Mayumi Murayama, Kyoko Inoue and Sanjoy Hazarika. Chiba (Japan): Institute of Developing Economics, 2005. P. 16-30.
- “What Is Social Inclusion?” European Union, 22 July 2013. https://europa.eu/youth/sk/article/39/6145_hu
- The World Bank. Inclusion Matters: The Foundation for Shared Prosperity. Washington DC: World Bank, 2013.