The Seven Sisters – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, and the second smallest state of India, Sikkim, together constitute Northeast India. The region is a mixed bag of various languages, cultures, tribes and indigenous sports.
The partition in 1971 (split with Bangladesh) made access to the North East geographically limited. The region’s seven states are connected to the main body through a 20km wide Siliguri corridor running through North Bengal. Large misuse of central funds has widened the gap between the North East and the rest of the country; resulting in frustration amongst the youth of the country. AFSPA and military violence between the sister states has led to political unrest in this part of the country. There have been a large number of incidents and crimes committed against the people of the Northeast in the mainland owing to discrimination rising from physical appearance, etc. Reported incidents of crime against people from Northeast living in the national capital have increased by around 232.5% in two years.
Northeast region is top sports performer
However, a reason for the Northeast to always be in the spotlight is its performance in sports. A region which accounts for just above 3.6% of the Indian population, had around 7% sportspeople in 2016 and more than 11% in 2012 in the Indian Olympic contingent. Northeast India had exceeded the expectations with double and triple representation compared to the population. And this was despite the challenging conditions and lack of a proper ecosystem to support the exceptional talent that had always been there.
Northeast has been home to eminent sports personalities in the past. Right from Talimeran Ao of Nagaland, the first Olympian Captain from the Northeast to Baichung Bhutia, boxer Mary Kom, Somdev Devvarman and the likes of Dipa Karmakar, Shiva Thapa and ‘Dhing Express’ Hima Das, the region has always given exceptional talent at the national arena.
Football is one of the biggest sports played across the 8 states with teams from Northeast now playing in the national leagues. Apart from football, there have been stellar performances by the players in Archery, Weightlifting, Fencing, Judo, Wushu etc. at both the national and international stages.
Targets of racism
Sportspeople from Northeast India and other remote areas of the country have been vocal about the bias against them and the misconception that they are the “outsiders” in their own country. When Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri was involved in a live Instagram chat with cricket skipper Virat Kohli in May, a user wrote, “Yeh Nepali kaun hai [Who is this Nepali]?” Sikkim-born footballer Baichung Bhutia was called Chinese on Twitter after his tweet on the recent India-China standoff. Six-time world amateur boxing champion MC Mary Kom in 2013 broke down at a media event in Mumbai, accusing officials of discriminating against her because of her race. “Okay, I am from the Northeast, no problem… but I am Indian,” said the boxer from Manipur.
Although allocation of funds for Northeastern states from the sport ministry has been meagre, there is some improvement in recent years. In the 2017 Sports budget, the allocation for the scheme for the Benefit of Northeastern Area has been revised to Rs 148.4 crore as compared to INR 131.33 crore the previous year.
In 2014, the government introduced a special allocation of funds for Himalayan sports in the Northeast Himalayan Region Sports Festival (HRSF). For promoting sports traditions in the Himalayan Region, including Nepal and Bhutan and Indian states such as J&K, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and the North Eastern States.
The government spent INR 350 crores to upgrade sporting facilities, roads and the security infrastructure for the 12th South Asian Federation (SAF) which witnessed participation from nearly 4,500 athletes and officials from SAARC nations and beyond.
Manipur is a sporting powerhouse
Manipur has been the longest standing sporting powerhouse of the country. Ever since the Imphal National Games in 1999, Manipur has been outperforming bigger states in many of the national level sports. The Yaoshang festival is attended by local clubs with participants from all ages and budding talent is recruited into higher clubs. There are multiple clubs affiliated to All Manipur Football Association that handle the local and club level activities at the grassroots.
The Sainik School Imphal Old Boys Football Club (SFC), formed by the Sainik School Imphal believes in brotherhood, where football is a means to spread peace and harmony everywhere. Takyel, Imphal has a SAI NER Centre in Imphal that finds potential in the areas and then coaches them in various disciplines. There is strong support from Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and Vision India.
To understand the sports scenario, we need to take a look at it from 3 different lenses:
1.The Government and the National Confederations
2. The number of events/ leagues/ tournaments that are being held in the Northeast
3. Performance point of view of the individual states at various levels. There have to be more activities in the areas by the National Confederation and infrastructure needs to be further enabled.
The key strength of the sporting arena in the Northeastern states is the presence of strong state-level sports leagues, fostering healthy competition, and channelling a good pipeline of talent to the national level. Higher investment in the form of sports CSR funding will give this region, and our nation at large, the sporting culture it deserves.