Alumnus TISS, Mumbai
“We are the eight…we are united” goes the anthem of the John Abraham-owned NorthEast United football club. The song, which features several singers of the North east region of India invokes the eight states to put up a united show in the Indian Super League.
The football team, with its motto “8 states, 1 united” is one of the first to officially present the region to the nation as a union of eight states and not seven. The add-on is Sikkim or Su Khyim, as is called in Limbu language. “Su” means new and “Khyim” is palace. The name is believed to have come from a palace built by the kingdom’s first king, Phuntsog Namgyal. The Tibetans call Sikkim “Denjong”, which means “the valley of rice”. The Bhutias call it “Beyul Demazong” or “hidden valley of rice” and the Lepchas refer to it as “Nye-mae-el” or paradise.
The least populated state of the union became a part of India in 1975. Sikkim never had a common history with that of the greatly diverse north-west part of south-east Asia that our colonial masters had greatly generalized and named “North east”. Sikkim was an independent nation under the protectorate of British India, after which independent India took over the reins and later made it a state.
The previous NDA regime in 2002 made Sikkim the eighth member of the North East Council under the Department of Development of North-East Region (DONER). It sought, and got an approval from both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha the same year to include Sikkim to the North East Council through the NEC Amendment Bill
However, if we compare the people, we find that the major indigenous people of Sikkim, along with that of Darjeeling Hills – the Lepchas – have no history of relations with the North east. Rather, they were closer to the Tibetans and the Bhutias of the plateau and the neighbouring Himalayan hills respectively and the Rajbongshi people of the plains of what is now north Bengal. The Nepali-origin people, who are in majority in both Sikkim and Darjeeling Hills came much later, during the invasion of the Gorkha Army from Nepal in 1790s.
But, the people of Sikkim have one thing in common with the indigenous people of North East. They belong to the same Mongoloid stock.
So, was Sikkim included in the North East region just because their features match that of the residents of the seven states? If that is the reason, then it is blatant racism meted out by the centre and lapped up by the rest of the Northeastern states as ‘identity through physical features’. Even a term has been coined to suit this – “Seven sisters and one brother”. Some added…“and a stepmother”.
Sikkim still shares none of the woes that North East is dealing with, be it insurgency, mega dams or illegal immigration, to name a few. Tourism is flourishing and money flowing in. Under present Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, Sikkim can arguably be termed as one of the best governed states of the nation, and also one of the most prosperous. It has also become a fully green state and may touch newer heights in coming decades. In short, it has no similarity with northeast ‘proper’ states in terms of economy, security or its people.
Sikkim is also geographically not a contiguous part of the peripheral region. It is separated by the chicken’s neck corridor, strategically-located tiny strip of land in north Bengal that joins the North East with the rest of India.
If being of Mongoloid stock is the basis of inclusion of Sikkim into North east, the four districts of north Bengal which broadly fall under the chicken’s neck corridor – Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar and Darjeeling – should also be made a part of North east. The people inhabiting these three districts — the Rajbongshis, Nepalis, Lepchas, Totos and many others — are also of Mongoloid stock too. But, instead of marking these communities as people of North east, the maps of North east constantly mark them blank, or non-existent. This makes the maps of North east look like that of United States, along with Alaska.
The people, the places, the food habits, the languages and the topography and not to forget, the history make north Bengal closer to Assam than to south Bengal. Even the dominant Bengali culture in this region is different from that of south Bengal, being heavily influenced by the culture of Rajshahi division of Bangladesh.
If the DONER justifies that inclusion of Sikkim to NEC and subsequent assimilation of Sikkim in the ‘Northeast’ in people’s minds, is based on economics, then it better be known that the economics of entire northeast region depends on one city that is central to the chicken’s neck corridor – Siliguri. It is through this city that major supplies to the northeast go, as do the Army convoys. And if poverty is given as a reason, the north Bengal districts are way poorer and malnourished, with closed tea gardens causing starvation deaths, which are hitherto unheard of in the Himalayan state.
It cannot be denied that the North east has since 1947 been a victim of “step-motherly” treatment by the Indian nation. Right from the literal abandonment of Assam by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the 1962 war, which famously came out of his mouth as “My heart goes out to the people of Assam” as the People’s Liberation Army troops marched towards Tezpur, to the recurring floods, when mainstream media chooses to ignore but vastly ‘care’ for people affected by urban floods of Hyderabad, Chennai or Mumbai, or even for that matter the Jammu and Kashmir floods of 2014.
However, this godforsaken periphery is also making a mistake of getting clustered into the cocoon of “Mongoloid territory” and generalizing the immense separate identities into the larger Mongoloid identity, thus playing in the hands of the Delhi masters, and at the same time meting out “step-motherly” treatment to the Rajbongshis, Nepalis, Lepchas, Totos and others of north Bengal.
(The writer is using his pen name)