Meet Anirban Saikai, a northeastern who is struggling with his identity. He is a lawyer, who is also an equestrian, from a small town in Assam. Travelling to different corners of the country for studies or a job, Anirban always faced or saw some kind of prejudice against northeastern people. Read further to find out about his side of the story.
Anirban Saikia, 25, Lawyer, Dibrugarh
Interviewed By Poorva Dinesh
Why did you decide to give us an interview on identity crisis?
Generally, people in this country know that northeast is part of India but they don’t accept us as a community. There is clearly a discrimination there. Secondly, there is a conflict about my identity within the family. My mom is three quarters Bangladeshi, my dad is an Assamese and I was raised by a Garhwali aunty. Wherever I go I’m a little cautious to say I’m from the northeast. Often, I feel the need to ease up people around me by joking about northeastern people before I can start having a decent conversation with them.
I’m guessing you started doing this when you stepped out of your hometown?
Yes. The first blast of discrimination I got was when I joined college. It was literally a culture shock for me because there were so many people from different parts of the country. Obviously, coming from northeast India, our Hindi-speaking skills aren’t good. So, subtle tones of racism were thrown my way when I couldn’t pronounce certain Hindi words and people would laugh at me. I’ll give you another example. Jumika (Yeptho), a student from GNLU, died of tuberculosis last year. His condition was so severe that his brain was affected by the bacteria, because of which he lost physical abilities. And his own batchmates were of the belief that Jumika was probably a drug addict. Immediately people started associating northeastern youngsters with drugs after his death. I faced prejudice of that nature as well. That’s when I realized that racism and discrimination against the northeast exists. And maybe joking about my identity will ease up the people around me and get them to understand more about us.
Do you think that has helped?
Humor does help. At least in the smaller community that I hang around with.
Do you feel attitudes change based on the city you go to, that certain parts are better than the others? Or does the ignorance about the northeast exist nationwide?
I don’t think there’s any part of the country that’s better than the other. I could ask people to name the northeastern states and they won’t be able to. I could ask them to name the capitals and they won’t be able to. That’s the general lack of awareness about northeastern people that’s prevalent across the country no matter where I’ve gone. Also, the violence cases that have come up during the last few years, e.g. Richard Loitam was beaten to death in his dormitory in Bangalore. Or the case where Arunachal Pradesh minister’s son was beaten to death in Delhi. It’s everywhere and I personally faced it in Calcutta. My point is, people are unwilling to integrate but very eager to demonize especially us or any of the Adivasi tribes.
But as I talk to you, I feel that you don’t really have a sense of belonging to the community either. Is that why it’s a case of identity crisis?
It’s true. What you say is right. And it’s personified by the way my sisters are married as well. My dad belongs to one of the Adivasi tribes. It’s a patriarchal society. But my elder sister married an Assamese from a different tribe and my younger sister married a Bengali. Now I’m not saying that’s identity crisis but it has diluted our tribe or people.
Do you sense any amount of discomfort because of that within your family?
Discomfort arises when we are invited to, say, a ceremony within my father’s community. When I go there, I have absolutely no clue what’s going to happen. There’s genuine discomfort in associating with just one community because I have never been wholly a part of a particular community and they look at me as an outsider.
Interesting. So, you are saying that your identity is enough for them to invite you to such ceremonies but not so much to include you within their circle of trust.
Yes. If you put it in a larger context, that’s also the case with northeastern people and the rest of India as well.
Do you think you’ve found your identity now or do you still struggle with it?
I’m comfortable with the struggle. I’ve not really understood who I am but I’m very comfortable joking about it, which makes me realize I’m comfortable with the crisis per se. Like, I joke about how I got the wrong genes from my parents. I should’ve gotten the looks of a northeastern and the brains of a Bengali, but I got the opposite (both laugh). Right now, I’m happy to identify myself as an Indian and not just as an Assamese or a Bengali. But the crisis is still there.
The last question is not related to the interview topic, but we ask everyone we interview – what does love mean to you?
There are various kinds of love – between a child and his/her parents, between a couple, etc. Generally, love is accepting somebody with all their flaws.