Safety or integration? Hostels pose tough choice for north-eastern students

Bangalore University is all set to open up an exclusive hostel facility for female students from the north-eastern states. Delhi is also likely to follow soon. These hostels will create a safe space for the students who have historically borne the brunt of casual as well as violent racial prejudice, but do they really want safety at the cost of mainstreaming?

In the last four years, promises to build hostels exclusively for north-eastern students across cities in the north and south have drawn mixed reactions. Some hail the move as an assurance of “safety,” while critics slam it as “divisive”.

Meanwhile, amid divergent reactions, the first hostel built for female students from the north-eastern states, under the scheme mooted by the NDA government at the centre, is said to have been completed, and will be inaugurated in Bengaluru’s Jnana Bharathi campus “soon.” This was disclosed in a recent announcement by Dr Jitendra Singh, the Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) Development of North-Eastern Region (DoNER).

The hostel, which can accommodate around 500 undergraduate, postgraduate and research students can be accommodated, is located on 5.5 acres. The accommodation will be “completely free” and will be fitted with CCTVs. The menu, timings and monitoring committee are yet to be finalised. It is the sixth hostel in the Jnanbharathi campus, where about 25% of the rooms could be reserved for local students from the BU campus. Other reports however indicate that 25% of capacity could be  allotted to students from Bengaluru Central and Bengaluru North University, subject to availability.

Steps have been taken to build similar hostels in Delhi too. Union Minister Jitendra Singh explains that a major step forward by the government has been the setting up of facilities for “cost-effective living through hostels and other means” for north-east students in Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University. Land has also been acquired to build a state-of-the-art Northeast Convention Centre in the capital city.

The plan to build hostels will be unrolled in various other cities too, wherever north-eastern students choose to pursue their academic goals, he adds.

Reaction to ‘racism’

The government’s promise of these ‘exclusive’ hostels first came about in 2014, in response to attacks on students from the north-east. In 2012, north-eastern students were reported to be fleeing Bangalore in droves due to attacks. In 2014, Michael Lamjathang Haokip, head of a Manipur welfare body, was attacked for not speaking Kannada in Bengaluru. In New Delhi, the tragic death of Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh led to outrage in the capital.

The attacks against such students across cities got the nation worried. There are reports that north-eastern students are denied accommodation as well as the right to eat their own kind of cuisine. Alana Golmei, founding member of the Northeast Support Centre and helpline in Delhi, says she gets half-a-dozen distress calls a week.

Being physically, culturally and geographically separate from mainstream India, north-eastern students feel insecure and unsafe in cities within the nation. This spells a threat for the identity of the north-eastern student, according to Pradip Phanjoubam, a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Bengaluru. He describes how one hailing from the north-east has to renegotiate the very question of being an Indian once he is out of his state, indicating the cultural alienation of that part of the country.

Safety delayed

A senior official of BU confirmed that the agreement to build hostels in the city was signed in order to safeguard students, in response to an appeal by the North-Eastern Council, which said that there are 3.5 lakh north-easterners in Karnataka, most of whom are in Bengaluru. Land for the exclusive hostel has been given by Jnana Bharati, while the construction funds of Rs 13.6 crore have been provided by the Council. The maintenance will be the responsibility of the university, according to Prof. K. R Venugopal, the vice-Chancellor.

Construction and inauguration, however, have been delayed through the last four years. The foundation stone was laid in June 2016. Successive announcements, such as this, relating to completion and inauguration said that the hostel would be built “soon” and start functioning. Yet, the inauguration – earmarked for November and December last year and then announced in January 2019 again – seems to have been postponed.

Welcome move?

The responses to the construction have been mixed. Vice-Chancellor K R Venugopal is excited that it is a unique experiment that would enable 400 or more students from the region to dine together and enjoy their own cuisine. Many students also welcome it as a great step. Sedenuo, a student from Jnanabharathi agrees that she looks forward to it.

Vezokho Resu, also called Akho, President of the North-East Welfare Association Karnataka (NEWAK) is appreciative. Manning helplines for north-east students, he has received a number of complaints of discrimination from students. “Many hosteliers say that the food is not up to the mark. They also miss the privacy of exclusive hostels, where they would be able to follow their own lifestyles. So I don’t see anything wrong with having separate hostels,” he says.

Has Akho himself faced problems in the city? “No. Having lived in Bengaluru for 15 years, I am quite confident that it is safe,” he says. Why does he welcome the isolation of students then? Because he feels it would really help students to focus on their studies and professional pursuits. “Why not exclusive hostels?” he asks; “It is necessary to educate our people to accept each other, but until that happens, it is important that north-eastern students get some exclusive space in order to keep them safe and focus on their development.”

Not everybody favours the idea of exclusive hostels for any particular community, though. Dr Rini Ralte, Professor at Christian Theological College, who is running a helpline for students from the northeast studying in Bengaluru, is deeply opposed. “The cuisine of the north-easterners is spicy. But is that really enough as a reason for separate hostels?” she asks.

“We come to Bangalore, which is among the most happening cities in the country. We come here to study and progress along with others, not to keep ourselves separate from the mainstream,” says Rini, adding “Bangalore University is a safe place, compared to other cities and has lots of opportunities. If we accept the opportunities but stay in a ‘separate’ hostel, that is not desirable. I welcome the idea of building relationships and friendships. Reaching out and creating a network among students are more important measures.”

She also points out that as the campus is so huge, it would be better to fulfill the needs of everyone, not just northeastern students. What is the point of one hostel? That will not solve anything, she says. “The diversity of our north-eastern states and even those here is simply not being addressed. All of us speak different languages, follow our own traditions and castes. What is the government doing to ensure integration of all that?”

Dr Ralte disagrees that having an exclusive hostel would make north-eastern students safer. On the contrary, “it makes us so much more vulnerable,” she says, “it unnecessarily creates resentment and divisions.”

Omprakash Potsangbam, President of the Manipuri Meite Association, also rues the fact that with exclusive hostels for north-east students, there would be “no mingling of north-eastern students with the rest of the country.” It does not help to keep students isolated from the rest of the people in a city, he points out. “Why should people function in silos rather than in collaboration with each other? It would help if the government increases the capital and capacity to share through more resources and awareness. Special assistance should be given to the people from underprivileged areas, or those from the north-east. However, keeping them isolated from the rest of the country is not in the least acceptable.”

Economically, north-eastern students should be given avenues for earning well and moving on, instead of getting isolated and aloof from people. “So far, no one has ever come to ask us about our problems in the north-east,” he says.

Even when the very idea was mooted in 2014, many students raised objections, calling it elitist and discriminatory. They were worried that it would isolate, instead of integrating students with the mainstream. Isaad Raising, a Manipur students’ leader, confirmed that it would be difficult to promote national integration. It would help if measures were taken to get students to spend more time with each other, he said.

Another students’ leader, Albert Muvaiah, also feared the “elitist tag” on campus. He pointed out that there is already a kind of “negative feeling” towards north-easterners, as local students believe that they are being given preferential treatment by the University. The gap between locals and north-east students cannot be closed only with hostels, he contends.

The important point is to integrate and create acceptance, instead of isolating and deepening the divide, according to the naysayers. One student explains: “It is true that casual racism is everywhere. We are called “chinkies” and our looks and food are scoffed at. However, that is the practice among all sections, races and communities. Each one calls the other names. How do we all come together except through acceptance and integration?”

According to Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, societies do not change on their own. Change can be brought about only when the correct conditions are created. Currently, the creation of these exclusive hostels is just symbolic, but it is the prevailing bias and climate of mistrust that needs to be changed.

Even as north-eastern students pour into the national cities in search of greener avenues, some look for “safe” ghettos, but a large number appreciate the importance of building bridges, not islands.

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