You know you have left 'mainland' India the moment you leave the outskirts of Guwahati, Assam. Life suddenly takes on a different pace. For the tired eyes of an urban dweller, the green is incredibly soothing. And even the pre-monsoon Brahmaputra, at its lowest water level, is awe-inspiring.
But the scenic beauty, the slower pace at which things move, the abundance and variety of vegetation fail to camouflage the tensions that prevail just beneath the surface. You catch a glimpse when suddenly you come across army personnel patrolling an area. The military presence in Upper Assam is not as obvious as in Kashmir. But it is there, a reminder that all is not well in this beautiful State.
Even in the not-so-remote parts of Assam, you are constantly reminded of the fact that the entire region remains apart. 'Connectivity' was an issue more than three decades back. Assamese and other Northeasterners complained of their lack of access to each other and to India. Today, things have improved. There are more flights and trains coming into the Northeast from the 'mainland'. But connectivity between the 'Seven Sisters' is still poor. And although the Internet has begun to spread its reach, access is still indifferent at best and non-existent at worse. In fact, despite all these changes, the issue of 'connectivity' continues to be the subject of editorials and discussions.
Difference and remoteness from the 'mainland' are also evident in the choice of stories in the newspapers of Assam and the Northeast. After days of being assaulted by images of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches on the front page in Mumbai newspapers, it was a relief to read local newspapers for whom the brouhaha over this meshing together of sport and entertainment was a non-issue. In fact, even their sports pages did not carry any reports on this new version of Bollywood and cricket â that ought to be called Bricket.
Instead, the newspapers reported bomb blasts in Manipur, the death of a one-horned rhino in Assam (a reminder of the constant problem of poaching), and the civic problems that the burgeoning capital city of Assam faces. "Mainland" politics, and sports, were a somewhat lower priority.
The visit was also a reminder of how serious environmental concerns are ignored despite studies and reports. The highway that slices through the Kazhiranga National Park, a World Heritage Site, is like a scar. Buses blow loud horns, trucks spew out diesel fumes. Despite this, you can actually spot a rhino or two in the distance. But how long will these animals survive this steady onslaught on the environment that occurs day in and out just a few metres away from where they graze and calmly view the world around them?
Alienated and hurt
Despite the differences there are common concerns but also uncommon worries - feelings of alienation, of hurt, of anger, of injustice. A meeting with a group of people in any part of the Northeast inevitably reverts to this. Why does the 'mainland' media ignore the concerns of the Northeast? Why are we always stereotyped? Why is only conflict covered and nothing else? Why do development issues in the region not matter?
The women of the Northeast are an interesting example of issues that are common and yet different. There is an impression, based on the fact that Meghalaya has a matrilineal society, that women in the Northeast are better off than women in the rest of India. Not so, feminist scholars of the region point out. For instance, although property is passed on through women in Meghalaya, there are few women making policy or holding elective office in that State. In Arunachal Pradesh, women are not allowed in the village council. So even though women in the Northeast are visible, are active in the economic sphere, are not burdened by customs such as dowry, and the region has a positive sex ratio, the status of women is still not what it appears. And women still have to fight the same battles within their families and in society as women elsewhere.
Similar yet different
It is also interesting to see how the young people, in one of the more remote universities, are similar and yet so different. At a discussion with students in one such university, concerns similar to those of their counterparts in "mainland" India were expressed. A hardly perennial at all such discussions is the issue of a dress code. What should women wear? Can they wear what they feel like or should they conform?
Sexual harassment and so-called 'eve-teasing' is another constant. What should women do? Complain? Grin and bear it? Fight back? An unusual concern was "open dating". Some of the young women were uncomfortable about some of their counterparts openly going out with young men on the campus. This they held was inappropriate. For people in their twenties doing a master's programme in a university away from their homes? Yes, argued some, as this was being done behind the back of their parents.
So would these women accept a man their parents chose for them as a suitable husband? As expected, there was ambivalence. Some bravely declared they would go in for 'love marriage', others suggested 'love' with parental approval was better, and still others held that it was best to go with the person their parents chose. As a representative sample, this was probably not very different from what you would find in most other universities in India barring those in the metros.What was refreshing about the young people was the lack of cynicism, the openness to ideas, the willingness to express opinions and the confidence that they could pursue their dreams. Could this be one of the plus points of being away from the 'mainland'?