NCAER's Handloom Census found that nearly half the handlooms in India are located in North-East.
As the daylight started streaming past my curtains in a Guwahati hotel, I groggily lifted my head to notice with shock that it was barely 4:30 am. In Delhi I have never been subjected to daybreak so early. This should have been my first warning about how different the North East is from the rest of the India. Most of us never realize that even time zones in India are tailored to the center and living with a single time zone poses interesting challenges to distant parts of the nation.
My friend Alaka Sarma casually mentioned that the North-East shares only 22 km connection with “India” while the border with the neighbouring nations is several thousand kilometers long. She might have a point there. One feels a palpable difference in the culture and the rhythm of life between Assam and the Hindi speaking heartland. But I am not sure if this difference is any more than the difference between Haryana and Tamil Nadu. In Haryana a couple can be killed for marrying with the same Gotra, mythical patrilineal descent through one of the vedic rishis. In Tamil Nadu marrying one’s maternal uncle barely raises an eyebrow.
What sets North-East apart is not the difference but our incomprehension of this difference. I remember Mr. Sharma telling us about the Handloom Census conducted by NCAER where sample size exploded because every home boasted of a handloom for personal use. With the exception of Assam, North-East is one of the most educated regions of the country with very low infant mortality rate and yet, few industries exist and lack of employment sometimes drives young people to “India”, who often return home after feeling isolated and marginalized in a society which has no comprehension of North-Eastern culture or geography.
Few Indians visit North-East, possibly because it is off the pilgrimage route. It boasts of incredible national parks but they are hard to get to and many areas require inner line permits to visit. Ten percent of the Five Year Plan expenditure is supposed to be set-aside for North-East but if it is really being used, we have no idea where it is going. Moreover, distance as well as regulations have constrained industrial development in these areas. A desire to protect the rights of the indigenous people has limited the ability of people from outside to settle in many parts of the North-East. A reasonable regulation that is meant to protect the tiny North-Eastern population from being overrun by migrants but one that further isolates the region.
I don’t know how we can bridge this chasm but perhaps learning about North-Eastern history and culture would be a good starting point. Sadly, I doubt that 90% of the Indians can identify where Arunachal Pradesh lies or which language is spoken in Tripura!