The Youth in North East India – A perspective

(By Jerry Thomas, Director of Northeast Regional Youth Commission, Guwahati)


By their sheer number the young people are a mighty force. They spell power. These days our attention is grabbed by the global concern over terrorism. It is said that the Taliban in Afghanistan has an armed militia of 19,000 and the entire world is gearing up to take them on. Highly motivated, committed, – may be even brain washed – trained and characterized by a rag-tag kind of discipline, they have become a force to reckon with in the world – for good or for bad is a different question. We have seen the footages of young kids being put to rigorous training in the mountain terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan and perhaps many of us are perturbed by the fanatical glow of these kids. Never mind the fact that similar camps are within our own region, where our own kids are trained with similar fanatical intents. Just shows what “education” -define it in any way you want – can do.

By any conservative estimate the young people of the region between the ages of 16 and 25 would constitute a staggering 7 million and more! And they are power. Forget the Taliban, this 7 million can become a force to reckon with if only … educated?!

The Young North East

In general there is no denying the fact that the young people of the region love adventure and risks – especially of a physical nature. They find it easy to work in groups and gender interactions are spontaneous and easy. Organizational skills seem to come naturally to a majority of them. They are quite articulate and express themselves fearlessly, though exceptions are there. They have appreciable social skills and practical intelligence. Even the rustics among them have a social grace that amazes an observer. (Who would not like to pitch in with a group like this?)

It is such a loveable group that is at the centre of our focus today, for all the challenges that it poses and the possibilities it promises. Where do the young people of North East India find themselves?


The global changes that are at an accelerated pace today have rudely shaken the communities in the region from their slumber (?). I leave it to social scientists to elaborate on the nature and the process of change within communities that were more or less insular. But as may be expected, the impact has been tremendous.

1.a. Breakdown of social/community systems, values, attitudes. “Old value systems are crumbling. Alienation is increasing in this era of rapid social change,” says Dr. Md Muslih-ud-Din, educationist. (quoted in The Assam Tribune, 29.07.2001). When systems in place crumble all too quickly and are perceived to be obsolete, the elders withdraw not knowing their role and the young grow up without direction and anchor. The result is, as some psychiatrists in the region say, the emergence of “my world is me” syndrome, to the extent of “doing what you want” without actually thinking about it. There are no role models and nothing is scared – not even parents.

1.b. Perception of affluence and glamour as key indicators of development, with little or no thought given to values and change in mindsets. The opportunity available for corruption in the system, the administration of development process by the rigid and “statistics oriented” government, and the lack of awareness and consequential exploitation of the masses have contributed to this. The contribution I can make to development is that I become rich and I have all that I can dream of! Even the rural illiterate are not free of the influence of the “Reebok shoes, Rayban glasses” attitude towards progress and development.

1.c. Identity crisis: The identity crisis experienced by the young in the wake of all the changes that are taking place in every field and amidst the confusion of nationalistic movements mushrooming in the region is quite perceptible. “Who am I? Am I Khasi? A Northeasterner? An Indian? A Christian? What is my identity?” asked a young girl from Meghalaya, during a discussion in Guwahati on the problems faced by the youth in the North East.

1.d. Cultural uprootedness: Aggravating the problem of identity is the feeling of a cultural uprootedness. Without placing blame on any factor, it must be said that the change in the ways of living and thinking brought about by Christianity, modern education, the political and economic systems that were introduced have added to the confusion.

1.e. Speedy Urbanization: Towns and cities hold the promises and dreams (and thrills) placed before the young by the media, by education, and by the adults. And the young rush to the cities in search of education, jobs and future. Some do make it. The others? Pushed into an unfamiliar world, with little or no direction from any quarter, dreams of many cash. Students are falling prey to drugs and alcoholism at a much younger age. It is said that there is a “three fold increase in truancy, drug intake and booze binges among youngsters, especially among the 10th and 11th graders”. (The Assam Tribune, 29 July 2001) Anjan Saikia, a Guwahati based neuro-psychiatrist says, “instances of stress and depression among youth have shot up considerably. Today I get a lot more cases coming to me than five years ago.” Debasish Dasgupta, Psychotherapist says, “More than 70% of my cases are troubled kids, unable to cope.” Few are there to listen.

2. Young people in the North East are MEMBERS OF A SOCIETY IN CONFLICT

No one who has lived in the region needs to hear again and again that North East is a region with more than its share of conflicts and consequent violence. I do not intent to elaborate on the nature of conflict in the region, but only mention the types of conflict that leave scars on the society.
• Insurgency, militancy, secessionism
• Clannism, Tribalism, Factionalism
• Denominational rivalry: discrimination

Where do these conflicts leave the young? Entire generations have grown up in this poisonous atmosphere of conflict. What about their social, emotional and psychological growth? What are the values they relate to? What trauma do they undergo? These are questions that need to be answered for unleashing the power that the young represent.

3. Young People in the North East experience DEEP FRUSTRATION
An issue that is overlooked easily while addressing the youth situation is the all pervading sense of frustration that the young people experience. Nothing seems to go right in the region; the image that the region has outside is very negative having a telling effect when the young go outside; governance is almost nil. Together with all these is the almost exclusive focus on the militants and the insurgents and the violent gangs, with everything else deteriorating or coming to a standstill.

There are two main groups of youth most susceptible to frustration:
• Educated but not skilled & not guided, not employed, not knowing what to do – wooed by the militant groups – burden to the family that had placed high hopes on them; let down by an education system that had fanned their ambition by promising them the pie in the sky.

• Dropouts: skillless – jobless – misfits – ashamed to work on land – despised by many. Good material for anti-social gangs and militant groups.

Dropout rates in Class 1 to Class 8
for the year 1999 – 2000

Meghalaya 77.74% *
Assam 69.81%
Arunachal 64.92%
Manipur 43.08%
Mizoram 65.81%
Nagaland 40.27%
Tripura 68.24%
*(highest in India followed by Bihar 77.62%)
Min. of HRD 2000-2001 Annual Report

High incidence of unemployment is a factor that fuels frustration. It is estimated that the educated unemployment level is over 40% in Nagaland. In Assam there are 1.5 million registered unemployed and as many or more unregistered ones. Unemployment scenario is helped by a number of factors:
• Government is saturated
• Land based employment is neither interesting nor appealing (though the situation gradually changing)
• Unwillingness to do the so called menial jobs
• Minimum entreprenuerial skills
• Few opportunities in industry; technology has not taken root
• No self-discipline for sustained hard work
• Yearning for immediate results
• Lack of foresight and long-term goals

While in the cities the striving is to strike big, in the interior rural areas, the striving is to drive away boredom. In the cities there is a tremendous pressure to succeed and psychiatrists in the region say much of the anger displayed by the young originates from this pressure. Ambitions soar and dreams of making it big constantly play on the young mind; but when failure stikes, most can’t handle it.

In contrast in most of the rural areas, there is nothing that the youngster can occupy himself/herself with. There is nothing happening there – after working on the land, what? Tourist brochure villages exist in art and fantasy and in shows – otherwise for those living there it is an endless series of boring days and mirthless evenings. Having nothing to do is not the best environment for growth.

Recreational facilities both in the cities and the villages are almost non-existent. Wholesome places where the young can relax, interact, learn and grow and groom themselves physically, socially and culturally are rare. And yet in this atmosphere of tension and anxiety, such facilities are a must.

Frustrations of various kinds lead the young to addictions, violence, gangs and militant camps. A sample study of 600 16-25 year olds was done by the National Institute of Advanced Studies (which is still to be published) and its findings are startling. Indepth interviews with these members of the generation next “found them entangled in a web of frustration, anger, withdrawal and escapism. Half of them felt that people were justified in resorting to violence when there were no other way to make the government listen. One third were willing to take to the gun to be heard and a fourth felt bloodshed was inevitable if the miserable conditions of the have-nots were not to change for the better.” There is tremendous anger at a system that has failed to deliver. Often this anger gets channelised into crime. Police officials report that there is a sharp rise in thefts and burglary by middle class and lower middle class youth today. They are even suggesting that crime counseling be done seriously in educational institutions starting in schools. An alarming direction in which the torch bearers of the next generation are heading!

But there is also a positive sign here – the young who are angry at the system and take to violence exhibit a high level of social consciousness and responsibility and a determined investment of energy. They take to violence because they find themselves in a no-win situation. Something that educationists should think about and systematically exploit.

4. Breakdown in Social and Personal Discipline

It is a visible reality that the traditional instruments of social control are more or less defunct. But nothing has replaced them. Parents have not stepped in where the village/community was once effective. Schools/churches have not filled in for the training of the young as powerfully and significantly as the institutions that have disappeared. There is a continuum of unguided growth right from childhood to adulthood – it is, in most cases, over-indulgence of the child and almost unbridled freedom thereafter. Cases where parents are afraid to discipline the children who blackmail them by threatening to join the underground are not rare. Media has failed too. It is a world where the young navigate by themselves and when they do make mistakes, the adults are only too eager to term them “misguided”.

5. Youth in the North East Experience Deep Underlying Insecurity

Youth in the north east appear to be very self confident and assured. But scratch the surface and you are confronted by a fear and insecurity that is well hidden. These are camouflaged with an apparent aggressive self confidence and a ‘care a hoot’ attitude. Apart from the violence, the entire situation in which they grow up has taken its toll on the young. We realize this only when we listen to them closely. Listen to these statements by young people in the region:
“Crack us open and darkness will flow out.” (a college student)
“We are generation that breaks down easily; small things make press the panic button.” (22 year old sales executive)

“Today’s youth are haunted by failure, where not to make it is as good as dead, ” says a psychiatrist who works in the region.

To quote from an article titled ‘Living on the Edge’ by Md Sabir Nishat that appeared in The Assam Tribune on 29 July 2001, “Decisive, street-smart, competitive – that’s the illusion. Burdened by the demands they make on themselves, today’s youngsters seem to be in a vague kind of mourning: having lost something, of a sense of betrayal, insecurity, uncertainty, a gnawing frustration, loneliness and a feeling of being on the edge of a precipice. Candidly speaking – they are a troubled lot.”

In a system that places high premium on results and outcomes, hardly any one pays heed to the whimper of the frightened child within the young person.

6. Emergence of Class System in Tribal Societies

The young are finding themselves in a society that is getting more and more polarized, and yet apparently prides itself on being egalitarian. Distinctions between the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the influential and those without influence, the powerful and the powerless are becoming more and more glaring today. The rich becoming richer, the educated placing themselves in positions to exploit the ignorance of the uneducated and loot them mercilessly and shamelessly, the powerful and the elite ganging up against those who are powerless – these are no stories from a far away land. Values, attitudes, relationships are being defined more and more by the parameters set by these distinctions. What will the young choose? How will they decide? What will their outlook be?

From this general scenario, I would like to shift your attention to two specific groups:

A Myth that has survived pretty long was the myth of women’s empowerment (equality?) in the North East. But those of us who have interacted with the communities here, know how empowered the women are in the society here! No doubt, the girls do enjoy quite a bit of freedom compared to those in other societies and they are quite adept at handling themselves – and even bolder and adventurous than their counterparts elsewhere. But equality? Empowerment? I think it is a different matter altogether. I think there is a saying in the Mizo society (correct me if I am wrong), which goes something like this: “a fence and wife can be changed any time”. Our young women, smart and intelligent as they are – and even more resilient than men – are no doubt denigrated to secondary level without much of a protest or resistance. The myth lives on!

The Exploited, Unrecognized, Pushed-to-the-edge Group: Yes, I am talking of the Adivasis of the Assam plains. If I am not mistaken, it is the single group that makes the biggest contribution to the economy of Assam. And what is the investment made on them – largely illiterate, poor, socially not recognized, ridiculed, despised, branded as “coolies”, “tea tribes” (as if they were created for the purpose), and living like slaves (if there is slavery anywhere, it is in the tea gardens – hope we will remember that when we sip our daily cups of tea). It is a group that for a century and more resigned itself to its fate, to the inevitability of its degradation. And to think that the church had and still has some of its largest presences among this group of people! The young are waking up – rather, rudely shaken awake to the reality of their wretchedness and the injustice of it all. But unfortunately, I am afraid, there are strong indications that they are going the way of other groups in the region – the way of confrontation, exclusivism, aggression and violence. I do not know if it is too late – how do we respond? Will we respond before more of our young people are swallowed up by the self destructive forces of violence? Or for that matter, will we respond at all, till our institutions and our personnel are touched?


There is much more that can be said about the young people of North East. I have tried to put together the larger picture to put ourselves in perspective. Details have been deliberately avoided, lest I sound redundant.

We are talking of youth from the perspective of education. We often ask about ourselves and our works: How effective are we? How successful have we been? Elaborate evaluation processes to measure success and effectiveness are the order of the day. A parent accompanying his child to the school asks similar questions: “Will my child do well?” “Will my child be successful?” “Will he top in the class?” Questions of great concern. Periodic evaluations are done in schools to measure success. But one seldom hears a more fundamental question being asked: “Will my child be happy today? And tomorrow? And the days to come?” And hardly any evaluation of that factor.

But does education deal with creating happy people? If it does not, then it is high time we redefined education.

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