Kut Festival: A way to break free from the Anti-North East racism?

The recent rise in racist crimes against people from North East India could be stemmed by including the general public in fests like the Kut Festival.


It is a bright and pleasant afternoon, with part sunshine and part clouds filling the air. Located pat in the middle of modest residences in the Byrathi layout of Kothanur village (about 12 kilometres from Bangalore city), is a ground littered with tents, a volleyball net, and posts, all set for a football tournament. Young people dressed in casuals and sports jerseys are milling around either participating in the games, organizing the affairs of the day or looking around, much like they would have on any other day in the park.

The Chavang Kut Sports Meet organized by the Thadou Students Organization (TSA) is well underway with a decent turn out of 100 odd students from the Thadou tribe in the city. It is exclusively what many might describe as a “North Eastern” affair or in local parlance, “Chinese people festival” as we were told by shopkeepers and pedestrians who gave us directions to the place.

253A0478

In the periphery of the event, stand a few police personnel from the Kothanur station, stationed to ensure that the programme went uninterrupted. One of them says, “Since the incident a couple of days back, we’re just here to make sure no disturbance happens. These were the orders given by our station.”

Kut is the annual harvest festival for many tribal communities in the North East, celebrated across the Seven Sisters on the 1st of November. Despite the prominence of similar festivals like Baisakhi in Punjab and Bihu in Assam, Kut remains one of the least known cultural festivals in India even though the festival has no direct historical linkage to any religion. Considering most of the tribal communities from the region were believers of Animism until the evangelical sweep initiated by colonizers, the festival has only recently been infused with some components of Christianity. However, it has by and large remained a cultural celebration unifying tribals across the globe with folklore, history, dance, music, and food.

A sports meet is usually organized as a precursor to the main function that is specially is put in place to engage the community youth in the fun and games, while reinforcing the traditional values and political identity of their tribal roots. The atmosphere in this sports meet is a mixture of leisure and excitement, generated by the competitive yet communal spirit of the games. This is something that the Thadou community in Bangalore probably need the most at this time of mass suspicion and general insecurity.

253A0447

Less than a fortnight ago, the North Eastern Indians living in the area came under much scrutiny following the attack on the TSA student leader Michael Lamjathang by a few drunken locals for not speaking Kannada. A student of BMS College of Engineering in Basvangudi, Lamjathang came to Bangalore in 2011 for his studies and, along with other prominent members of the tribe like Pastor Obed Haokip, formed TSA to secure the interests, rights, and dignity of the many Thadous living in Bangalore.

Thadous and a history of racism

Thadous are politically and demographically one of the dominant tribes of Manipur, spread across different parts of the North East and mainland India. Student organizations like TSA have been formed especially for students who face much difficulty in adjusting to the culture and life outside the North East, Manipur in particular. Instituted in 2013, TSA came about as a concrete support system for students in the aftermath of the mass exodus in 2012. Michael said, “When the mass exodus happened in 2012, a lot of my friends staying in places like Shivajinagar and Ejipura called me up as they were afraid after hearing all the rumours.The students had to come back to complete their studies.”

The attack on Limjathang was followed by incidents involving other North Easterners in Bangalore and Delhi, after which “racism” resurfaced as a heated topic of discussion once again. The series of incidents reported since the Kothanur attack, followed by an attack on a couple in Nrityagram, have been a rueful reminder of the gravity of the situation and show the lack of priority given to the Bezbaruah committee recommendations in the wake of the lethal attack on Nido Taniam in New Delhi that caused much outrage earlier this year.

Racial tension, from Bangalore to Gurgaon

The mere fact that the series of these attacks were reported at the peak of the festival season in India is filled with irony. Based in Gurgaon for the last 10 years, Bruce K Thangkhal, a student leader from Manipur, shared pictures of lighting up Diyas on his Facebook profile and gifts he sent to family back home through Flipkart. Like many others from the North East, Bruce has been at the receiving end of harassment and discrimination, even hate crimes. “Villagers will beat you without your fault. One Diwali in Gurgaon, someone threw an aloo bomb at me that was already lit up. I got scared and shouted after which they rushed towards me and hit me with iron rods and bricks. I was carrying a jellyfish to celebrate Diwali with my two sisters working in a restaurant but instead, I reached home wounded and bandaged.”

The political dialogue on sensitivity towards people from the East of India has been a constant uphill struggle across regimes. And this struggle has only gotten harder in the last 10 years as migration from North Eastern states have witnessed a huge surge, from 0.4 million in 1981 to 0.6 million in 1991 and up to 1.1 million in 2001, with Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka counting as major destinations, as per a study by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia.

253A0531

The study also goes on to mention that until the year 2000, North Eastern Indians moved to metropolitan cities to work in in the Central Government or for higher studies. But given the relative lack of development and security caused by insurgency in many states, more people have started coming out for general studies and to work in private companies, with more than 3 lakh persons from the North East in Bangalore within the age group of 21-40 years at present.

The issue of migrants

Pastor Obed Haokip left his home in Manipur after his house was burnt down in the ethnic clashes between Kuki and Naga tribes in different parts of Manipur. As a part of his mission work he’s travelled and lived in different towns and cities before finally landing up in Bangalore in 1990 where he settled in Kothanur. “Out of all these places I like Bangalore. It’s a very peaceful city. I was one of the first few who came and lived in Kothanur and did not face any discrimination at that time. With the economic growth of the city, there have been changes in the social life,” he said.

One of the findings of the Bezbaruah report mentions that, “There has been a change in the profile of the migrants, which could be a factor behind the rise in crimes. Earlier, it was mostly students. Now many come to work in the lower rungs of the service sectors. Preference for workers from the region in certain areas, like the hospitality industry, has fed resentment in a certain section of the local population.”

253A0505

Obed echoes this theory. “They weren’t threatened before because we were lesser in numbers. Since 2010, a lot of people from the North East have joined the non-formal sector. As the IT boom brought about more North Indians and other outsiders to the city, the hospitality industry also grew rapidly to meet the emerging demands of a metropolitan city. Obed maintains that the families in his neighbourhood live in communal harmony, but a few bad elements do take advantage of the situation and North Eastern people are softer targets considering they ethnically stand out.

Quartz reported that the review committee notes, “Many such workers live in affordable areas, which are essentially urban villages, and where their way of life comes into conflict with locals who are still rooted in conservative traditions.” It doesn’t come as a shock then when we hear these incidents happening in metropolitan cities, as smaller towns outside of the city are slowly becoming a part of the city but are still more rooted in smaller, more traditional communes.

Suburbs with wide streets and not so wide mindsets

Living in Richmond Town, a more cosmopolitan part of Bangalore, Kim Maria, a non-profit professional, feels that the solution oriented thinking is missing in all this dialogue around racism. “Being from Delhi, I’ve of course seen the kind of eve teasing and stereotyping that happens based on where you come from. But since a lot of us are migrating in greater numbers,we stay in places where accommodation is cheaper, mostly in the outskirts which are still very rural. You have these people from the North East who are coming out for the first time and the locals are still very traditional, both of whom have been living in their silos. They don’t how to start relating with each other and are insecure and suspicious about the change. Whereas among the more urbane population who are exposed to different cultures, they are not threatened by newer people.”

253A0455

The main recommendations of the Bezbaruah Committee include instituting special probe police units, fast track courts, cases to be closed in 90 days, inclusion of the North East history and culture in school textbooks, amending section 153 of the Indian Penal Code to include stringent punishment for racially-motivated crimes, and setting up an implementation committee with civil society representatives in the ministry of home affairs. However, despite the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs being a native of Arunachal Pradesh, none of these proposed solutions have seen the light of day.

Standing up for the community

As committees and the Government take their own sweet time, some members of the community have taken proactive steps. Bruce recently shared a picture of him riding a rickshaw late in the night around Gurgaon. When asked about it, he said that he and a friend sometimes volunteer to ride cycle rickshaws for women from the North East returning late from call centre offices in Gurgaon.

Bruce and his friend sometimes volunteer to ride cycle rickshaws for women from the North East returning late from call center offices in Gurgaon. Pic Bruce K Thangkhal

Bruce and his friend sometimes volunteer to ride cycle rickshaws for women from the North East returning late from call center offices in Gurgaon. Pic – Bruce K Thangkhal

While crimes against women in the NCR region may not always be necessarily racially motivated, he said, “We offer our services only for women who looked distinctly from the North East since a huge chunk of North Eastern women who work graveyard shifts in the BPO sector feel unsafe to come back home in the wee hours.” In 2012, a woman from the North East working in a pub in Sahara Mall in Gurgaon was gang raped after her late night shift. This incident became infamous in the light of the state response to impose an 8 o’clock ban in offices for working women.

In all the propositions towards solutions, whether the memorandum presented by the North East Students Organization or the recommendations of the Bezbaruah committee, there has been no mention of cultural representation and interaction. It’s hard to talk about inclusion when the North East doesn’t have adequate nor equal representation in our culture or national identity, right from our National Anthem which has no mention of the rivers that flow through the region.

Kut: A way forward for inclusion?

Given that Kut is celebrated annually on a larger scale, either through state funds or crowdfunding in the community, it can easily be the kind of cultural space of interaction that festivals like Durga Pujo have created for everyone to participate in, expansively using art and entertainment as strong mediums.

Pastor Obed however cautions that the festivals need to adapt to non-natives being a part of it: “Till today our programmes are exclusively for us so we invited leaders from the local community as our chief guest and guest of honour so they also know who we are a little bit. I think this will help. But we’re still a bit reserved to invite the general local community like students from other colleges because we could risk losing our own identity. Many young people here shouldn’t miss out on what we’re trying to do. When we’re so mixed up, it will take away the real function. When we want to do our own programme, we want people to come and see, not so much to participate.”

253A0582

The event was attended by local dignitaries like Minister of Railways DV Sadanand Gowda, K.R Puram MLA B.A. Basavaraja, Additional Commissioner of Police Alok Kumar and DCP Vikash Kumar Vikash.

Kut festivals are a huge economic potential for the development of these states as well as a visible and accessible space for the mainstream, educated or working class, to understand and experience the culture first hand. While there’s no denying the urgency of the need for police sensitization, special cells and educational re-learning, one must be wary that efforts towards institutional inclusion don’t end up further ghettoizing the community as ‘disadvantaged’.

Kim Maria sums it up aptly: “Unless any kind of cultural exchange happens, it’s very easy for mass suspicion to spiral into mass hysteria.”

All pictures, unless otherwise mentioned, courtesy: Shilpa Raj


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Makepeace is a freelance writer and a make believe selfie model. She formerly served as a Community Editor at The Alternative and now works with an international non profit in Bangalore. The only kind of marathons she loves are the ones on the idiot box. Follow her at @makeysitlhou more

   FOLLOW US

   SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
  Top Stories on TA






  Top Stories in SOCIETY






   Get stories like this in your inbox

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Makepeace is a freelance writer and a make believe selfie model. She formerly served as a Community Editor at The Alternative and now works with an international non profit in Bangalore. The only kind of marathons she loves are the ones on the idiot box. Follow her at @makeysitlhou more

Discuss this article on Facebook