Becoming Korean-Like in North East India: The Politics of Culture, Consumption, and Economics within

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Written by : Dr. Anup Shekhar Chakraborty
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Disgruntled Geographies
I describe the borderlands on both sides of North East India and Chin state and Sagaing region in Myanmar as ‘disgruntled geographies’ precisely because of interweaving complexities of the geography (densely forested, mountainous, riverine, resource-rich) with that of the Anthropocene (ethno-linguistically heterogeneous, fragmented on religious/denominational lines, sparsely populated, resource contested). Also, the region as ‘disgruntled geographies’ has witnessed the mushrooming of armed insurgent groups exhibiting insatiable anger due to the paucity or the limited nature of connectivity, minuscule industrial growth, and lack of employment opportunities in the region. With the ever-changing geopolitical moorings of what I describe as ‘disgruntled geographies,’ the discussion attempts to decode how the multiple Patriarchies and their agencies selectively churn newer maps of ethnic connectivity and cultural ties through ‘regulated insularity’ and ‘control.’ The discussion thereby connects assemblages of material cultures and social imaginaries that operate surreptitiously in the borderlands of North East India and how at different times sway from radical to analytical negotiations of their experience of colonialism, modernity, and the global market economy and thereby way find their way into a slippery world of their own choice.

The Politics of Culture

The broader restrictions on and lack of cultural outreach of Hindi in the Northeast unleashed a wave of material cultures from South East Asia in the region – depict an interconnected nature of India’s Northeast with Southeast Asia to the east. Ethnic communities in the Northeast borderlands have expressed loud and clear concerns on issues of contagious cultural idioms bracketed as the ‘Indian cultural invasion’ and its threat to the region’s socio-cultural roots. In Manipur, screening of Hindi films was banned throughout the 90s by the Revolutionary People’s Front. While in Mizoram, the Church and the Nexus of Patriarchy have always been fisted on issues relating to Hindi Cinema and Western lifestyles (particularly the phenomenon of dwindling attendance in Church services) and Heavy Metal Music. This comes as a paradox precisely because those in “mainland” India have been fed with stereotype images of people, especially youths from the Northeast, as ‘people well versed in English, attired in western clothing, strumming the guitar and singing English songs.’ However, what goes amiss is the deep-seated conservatism in the region. The item songs and dance sequences in Hindi films are construed to be polluting the youths’ minds in the region. The Churches in Mizoram and Nagaland and the disgruntled outfits in Manipur agree on external elements polluting ‘our culture.’

Hindi films had a good following in the Northeast through the 60s, an era when the region’s local film industry had not yet evolved. In Aizawl, Mizoram’s capital, for instance, cinema culture and theatre had grown to a good stand. During the time, Mizoram was under the spell of the Mizo National Front (MNF) uprising and had become what Mizos locally refer as the rambuai (lit., disturbed land). Following the bombing of the capital town Aizawl in 1966, curfews and raids, usually by the CRPF, had become a norm in Mizoram. The troubled times of the MNF’s secessionist movement and the experience of counter-insurgency in Mizoram adversely affected the way the Zo/Mizos and others residing in the Mizo Hills traditionally spent their evenings. The decades of evening curfews imposed by the Government in the name of maintaining ‘law and order’ weeded the Mizo culture of ‘pawnto’ or activities during leisure hours in the evenings, which included children’s games such as ‘in biruksiak’ (hide and seek) etc., among the Mizos. These curfews affected the cinema culture and theatre in the region (Seema (Chhetri) Chakraborty, Personal Interview. 2018). Gagan Chhetri (Personal Interview, 2017), a resident of Paltan Bazar, Guwahati, mentioned that ‘these bans are usually another means of extortion. Once the amount demanded is worked out, those imposing the ban are Ok with the screening of Hindi films.’ Like Gagan, another resident of Guwahati Paramjeet (Personal Interview, 2017) mentioned that ‘he has grown up in Guwahati witnessing these ‘Notices’ to ban Hindi films, ousting Hindi speaking people from the region.’ The filmmakers and artists from Assam have remained fisted to the militants’ call to impose a ban on Hindi cinema and expressed reservations on such a ban’s objective.

In Manipur, militants had successfully banned Hindi films’ screening through the 90s, including Hindi film audio cassettes’ sale. Northeast-based militant outfits frequently issue statements and impose various codes designed to ‘protect and preserve’ the cultural identity of the different ethnic groups that inhabit the region. In Manipur, a prominent rebel group, the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), had issued Notices to impose a dress code for women in the State and threatened violators with death. The cultural diktats have prohibited women from wearing trousers or saris in public. The code compels them to don traditional sarongs known as Phaneks. The KYKL justified the dress code saying traditional ways were under threat from increasing ‘Western and Indian influences.’ Similar ideas criss-cross the cultural revivalist imaginations of the agencies of the Patriarchy in Mizoram concerning the traditional clothing of Women – the Puan.

Since the late ‘90s, the people of Manipur face a cultural forbiddance imposed by a radical, fringe institution in the name of preserving the local culture. They hold an opinion that Hindi movies undermine Manipuri cultures and traditions. ‘An anti-Hindi movement loomed large. Hindi songs were scorned upon, and youngsters listening or playing Hindi music were subjected to bullying’ (Johnson (name changed) (Personal Interview, 2014). ‘The local nationalist aspirations contested the overarching national spirit circulated from New Delhi. Singing Hindi songs, learning the language, etc., became problematic for the region’s residents, and those who defied were reprimanded and ostracized. The ban curbed an individual’s right to learn and use the Hindi language’ (Monpriya – name changed) (Personal Interview, 2014).

The cinema halls that screened Hindi and English movies previously have converted to shopping complexes, hospitals, and other purposes. The closure of cinema has affected the ‘black ticketers’ of their livelihood, most of whom were women. In the case of Manipur, the ban had turned a blessing to local moviemakers. The Manipur film industry developed quite well with their movies also being picked for awards and screening in film festivals. Few artists and directors found opportunities for enterprise. The vacuum created by the Hindi film industry was filled by south Indian languages, Bengali, and other regional films, but could not sustain the interest of the public for long. The ban on Hindi cinema resulted in the growth of piracy in the region. And now, with unlimited access to the internet such as Jio, it is easy to get a taste of Hindi songs and music.

Culture manufacturing and culture making are indeed political engagement. For instance, the Korean sitcoms and movies have won the admiration of the Mizos, Manpuris, and Nagas in the region and are not perceived as a threat to local cultures. The regional markets display endless pirated DVDs of Korean TV series and films and posters of Korean icons. Mizo and Manipuri youths commonly use Korean greetings in their everyday conversations and emulate Korean stars’ hairstyles and costumes. The most striking change is that Mizoram and Manipur’s youths are keen to pursue schooling in Korea. The ‘Hallyu Wave’ shape-shifts the appearances and moulds the social imaginaries of the multitude of ethnicities in the region and converts the gaze of Look East to the operation of Act East at ground zero.

The Mizo Church sees a potential evangelical market to be explored in South Korea and the extended ASEAN. Mizoram’s churches are keen to export evangelists and missionaries to preach the Good News and proselytize newer populations into Christianity’s fold. Mizo evangelists and missionaries can be seen engaging in proselytizing missions in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Kiribati, Australia, South Korea, etc. However, small in number, their presence in unfamiliar geographies is significant.

Few respondents believed that the Korean effect was a transitory addiction or a craze among the Mizo youths and would fizzle out to another point of time, much like the hippie culture in the 70s culture in the 80s, etc. Mizos are a culture of ‘enton’ (imitation), and the State has had a similar fascination with American and Hindi films earlier. The herd mentality makes trendsetting easy among the Mizos. Professor Thangchungnunga (Personal Interview. 2008) and also Vanramchhuangi (Personal Interview. 2008) call Mizoram’s present culture as a culture of ‘imitation’ (enton) display/exhibition (tihmuh). For instance, in music, traditional instruments have been replaced by guitar and gospel singing. Likewise, traditional dances that have been revived by the Art and Culture Department’s efforts are in danger of becoming mere concert displays instead of symbolic expressions of tribal life.

The Politics of Consumption and Economics within
Doordarshan’s inability to provide programs in Mizo and the limited hours of broadcast (20-30 minutes a day) provided the dubbing industry in Mizoram to boom. Local cable networks such as LPS, Zonet, and Skylinks began running their own translation services (Sangzuali. Personal Interview.2010, Aizawl). The translation and dubbing enterprise became economically attractive in the land-locked terrain. The popularity of Vai serials and material culture from elsewhere in India was considered polluting the Zo culture and the Christian ways of life; the Church and its nexus of Patriarchy began instilling a need to assert cultural vigilantism vis-a-vis revivalism (Nita. Conversation/Interview. Aizawl. 2010). Notices were issued, and the public sphere debates were stirred to call for an assertive protectionist regime to cleanse and protect the pristine Zo Christian ways sans influence of the ‘Vai culture.’ Housewives watching the dubbed Hindi serials and the youths following the Bollywood visuals trends were branded as deviants emulating ‘non-believers.’ The Hindi to Mizo dubbing wave and consumption of Bollywood/Vai culture and commodities gave way to Korean to Mizo dubbing wave and consumption of Korean culture.

The borderlands of Northeast India have witnessed the freer flow of materialities with the realignment of old trade routes. For instance, Zokhawthar, a transit area between Mizoram and Myanmar, stocks huge collections of commodities from S. Korea and ASEAN’s neighbouring regions. Foreign items from the east are categorized as Khaw Chakchuak. Pari, a local shopkeeper, mentioned that fairness is an obsession in the State, and Korean fairness products rule the business. The desire to be Korea-like results in greater consumption of Korean products.‘Made in Korea’ is more socially valued than ‘Made in India,’ especially when fairness products are concerned. Indian fairness products would not result in becoming Korea-like(Pari. 2010). Personal Interview. (Shopkeeper at Champha, Aizawl). The second-hand markets in Aizawl’s Barabazaar and Zion Street are flooded with cheap affordable clothes from Khaw Chak (Abraham. Personal Interview. 2010).

Unbraiding the Borderlands and the Gaze
The continued selective insular politics operative in the region signals polarized tussles of the inheritance of the ‘contact zone idea’ and cultural conservatism’s cacophonies. Ethnic insecurities have become fisted, and enclosure of territories, and ‘rentier capitalism,’ the new normal. Alongside the region has witnessed a heightened engagement of claims making of contending/competing patriarchies. Paradoxically the sizeable ethnic communities have been eagerly anticipating the opening of the borders and the erasure of ‘Colonial lines’ that have been criss-crossed around the region and estranged specific tribes in the area from cousins across the Chin Hills and South East Asia. The YMA in Mizoram recently in 2018 issued a letter requesting the governments at the centre and the federal units to hasten the opening of the borders and boost the connectivity across the region through the Act East Policy and bridge the people to people contact and bring closer the estranged Zohnahthlak in the Chin Hills of Myanmar. This paper’s discussions can also be construed as reflecting India’s Northeast’s soft-power effect and injecting newer possibilities for people to contact people across extended ASEAN.

About the author: Dr. Anup Shekhar Chakraborty
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science & Political Studies, Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata, and member Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (MCRG), Kolkata

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