Students Demand Northeast Culture, History Be a Part of School Textbooks to Counter Racism
Students across the country are pushing for better integration of the historical and cultural narrative of the Northeast within the education system. More than 40 student bodies have urged the Ministry of Education and Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to carry a mandatory chapter exploring the Northeast region and identity in NCERT textbooks — in order to counter stereotypes and racism.
These appeals for inclusion are in response to an offensive YouTube video, in which the speaker denigrates the people of Arunachal Pradesh by claiming the state was not a part of India and the names of people were “non-Indian,” which sparked massive outrage. The YouTuber responsible for it was booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code linked to sedition and promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, and language.
The controversy has led to widespread demands to better represent and narrate the culture, ethnicity, and history of the people of Northeast India within school curriculums. “Such things are happening because people don’t read about the northeast. Once these issues get into the syllabus and people start reading about the northeast, these issues will be resolved,” Debonil Baruah, an advisor to the North East Student Union (NESU) Vadodara in Gujarat and one of the organizers of the campaign, told The Wire.
As of now, the NCERT curriculum carries a supplementary reading on Northeast India — however, the impact is tepid and ineffectual as it is not a mandatory inclusion. The current curriculum then overlooks the cultural and social identity of more than 4.5 crore Indians.
“Many incidents from the past and till today are provident enough of the negligible information that the mainland Indians have on the 8 states of Northeast India,” the Nagaland University Students’ Union NUSU (L) President, Hipito Achumi, said in a statement.
Students organizations and universities from the Northeast, along with other parts of the country, will air their appeals as a “Twitter Storm” under the #AChapterforNE and #NEMatters on Friday to bring awareness.
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The video was not an anomaly or a one-off instance — it echoed the racial attacks, ignorance, and inherent bias towards people in the region by those who live in “mainland” India. One reason for their exclusion is the stereotyping of what “real” Indians should look like. This is reflective of the rampant baseless “othering” that feeds off of biases and translates into bigotry.
“Starting from facial abuse to racial abuse, even to the extent of accusing us of being Chinese is not a new topic,” Hipito Achumi added.
The region’s proximity to China has also long made it the subject of exclusion rhetoric, with the sentiment growing stronger in light of tensions between India and China last year. The discrimination took a sharp turn during the pandemic, with global racism against Chinese people trickling down to a local level, as Northeast Indians were stereotyped and attacked again.
“The lack of cultural understanding in mainland Indian communities has always manifested itself in slurs and attacks that have increased and not reduced,” Naorem Pushparani Chanu and Gorky Chakraborty argued in The India Forum.
A study commissioned by the Indian Council of Social Science Research this year reported a series of attacks in various parts of the country, where people from the region were “harassed, abused, and traumatized” and disparagingly called coronavirus.” One of the conclusions of the study was that the deep-rooted bigotry “cannot be solved by policing alone.”
With the current campaign, students hope to use the locus of education and learning to dispel stereotypes against Northeast Indians. “Racism is an evil that needs to be uprooted and the most pre-eminent approach to achieve this is through education. We believe that educating the masses and especially the ignorant about the significance of Northeast India through the inclusion of a mandatory chapter concerning the rich history of Northeast India in the NCERT textbooks will go a long way to uproot the evil of racism,” a joint statement by the NUSU read.
In 2017, Arunachal Pradesh’s minister had pushed for a Private Member Bill “The Compulsory teaching of North-East culture in Educational Institutions” in the Parliament, but it wasn’t taken up. Further, the M. P. Bezbaruah Committee, which was set up after the attack and murder of a 19-year-old student in Delhi to look into the issues faced by Northeast Indians, published a report and made a number of recommendations to integrate Northeastern culture and history in the NCERT syllabus, the Indian Express notes.
An education curriculum that folds the richness of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim will also serve another purpose. It shifts the onus of awareness away from the citizens of the Northeast — who are forced to defend their identity and belonging — and onto people who clutch to hateful biases.