Korean Influence in India’s Northeast: A Distinct Connect

Dr. Anup Shekhar Chakraborty
January 12, 2020


‘Regulated insularity’ and ‘control’ are the notable features of competing/contending communities in the Northeast of India. The multiple Patriarchies and their agencies selectively churn newer maps of ethnic connectivity and cultural ties. With the ever-changing geopolitical moorings of what can be described as ‘disgruntled geographies’ the discussions in this paper attempts to decode the connecting assemblages of material cultures and social imaginaries that operate surreptitiously in the region. 

Soft Links – An Interconnected Geography 

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. Interestingly, the case of Mizoram between 1996- 2005 and beyond showcases linguistic and cultural influence from mainland India as well as from countries to its east. Consumption of Hindi serials dubbed in Mizo and the Korean sitcoms dubbed in Mizo became common. For instance, the Zo/Mizo, who earlier abhorred watching or liking Hindi movies, and preferred watching Bangladesh TV ‘with its abundant doze of American sitcoms’ in the late 1980s over Doordarshan; now post-2000 loathe missing an episode of the Hindi serials such as ‘Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhie Bahu Thi,’ ‘Kasauti Zindagi Kay’ dubbed in the Mizo language by the local channels. 

Interestingly, in the case of Manipur, the militant outfits have remained silent on the Korean cultural invasion. In Mizoram, the Church has been keener to accept Korean rather than Hindi cinema for reasons of the nature of the content. Also, the Church sees this as a strategy to extend its outreach in the extended neighborhood of South East Asia. The churches in Mizoram are keen to send evangelists and missionaries to proselytize and bring newer populations into the fold of Christianity. The reach of Mizo evangelists and missionaries can be seen through its proselytizing missions as far as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Kiribati, Australia, South Korea, etc. though small in number, their presence in unfamiliar geographies is significant.

Mizoram hosted the North East Round of the K-Pop Contest India, 2015, to strengthen the cultural ties between India and Korea. Mizoram’s capital Aizawl reflects glimpses of South Korea in terms of clothing, hairstyles, cosmetics, food, and even furniture. The shops in the border villages such as Zokhawthar stock vast collections of commodities from the far east. Different items from the east are categorized as Khaw Chak chuak. Pari, a local shopkeeper, mentioned to the author that fairness is an obsession in the state, and Korean fairness products rule the business (Pari. (2010).Personal Interview. (Shopkeeper at Champhai). Aizawl). 

The choices of furniture in people’s homes have changed, more and more houses are opting for Korean designs and refurbishing their homes with curtains and upholsters from Khaw Chak (far east). The carpenters and furniture stores and factories in the state are honing newer skills and designs influenced by the Korean wave. The choices of color are also Korean influenced, and stores have been named ‘Gangnam Style’ after the K-Pop singer Psy. 

Along with the visuals of Korea, come the commodities of the far-east that replace material sensibilities. Interestingly the ethnic-based insurgent groups and the Church and its agencies do not consider the Korean wave to be polluting their culture (Abraham. Personal Interview. Aizawl. 2010). Few respondents believed that the Korean effect was a transitory addiction or a craze among the Mizo youths and would fizzle out to another craze at another point of time, much like the hippie culture in the 1970s to the pop culture in the 80s. Mizos are a culture of ‘enton’ (imitation), and the state has had a similar fascination with American and Hindi films earlier. 

The Korean wave has opened a lucrative dubbing industry in the region (Sangzuali. Personal Interview. 2010, Aizawl). Doordarshan’s inability to provide programs in Mizo and the limited hours of the broadcast that is 20-30 minutes a day has caused the dubbing industry in Mizoram to boom. Local cable networks such as LPS, Zonet and Skylinks, were running their translation services, dubbing Kasautii, then other serials like Karam Apnaa Apnaa, and English films like The Ten Commandments. The popularity of Vai (Indian) serials and material culture from elsewhere in India was considered as polluting the Zo culture and the Christian ways of life.

The Church and its agencies like the YMA, KTP, MZP began promoting an alternate visual consumption for the viewers in Mizoram, and the Korean programs were identified as appropriate for viewership. The Hindi to Mizo dubbing wave and consumption of Bollywood/Vai culture and commodities gave way to the Korean wave, and the social imaginaries of the Zo hnahthlak were directed to the extended South East Asia. The YMA in Mizoram in 2018 issued a letter requesting the state government 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 especially the estranged kins of the Zo hnahthlak in the extended neighborhood of South East Asia.

The soft connect involving linguistic and cultural between India’s Northeast and countries further to its east, particularly Korea, stands out as a unique link in the emerging Indo-Pacific discourse.

*** The author is an Assistant Professor at Department of Political Science & Political Studies at Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata, and member of Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (MCRG), Kolkata. He is also a Visiting Faculty at Department of South and South East Asian Studies (SSEAS), University of Calcutta. He can be reached at anupshekharc@rediffmail.com ***