The three recent incidents against people from Northeast which came into limelight from social media has deeply disturbed many. It is neither the first time that I read such a disturbing news nor will it be the last one.
Some students from Manipur were asked by CISF personnel to purchase tickets at fares that are charged to foreigners despite producing their valid identity cards at Taj Mahal in Agra . The disturbing video of two Manipuri women getting brutally assaulted by their landlord in Bengaluru at night and the brutal beating of a Manipuri youth Romen Abrambam by his employee in Gurgaon on account of ‘suspicion of data theft’ has rightly generated much condemnation on social media. Such incidents of discrimination based on racial grounds must not only be condemned but also must be strongly flagged to enable serious deliberation on why such discrimination occurs frequently even though such acts are not permitted by law. Most of the time, this kind of momentary outrage dies down without any serious enquiry into the rampant persistence of racist abuse.
Lakhs of migrants come from different parts of the country to big cities in search of better education and jobs. So do the people from northeast and its vicinity. Chronic underdevelopment, inter-ethnic disagreements, the strong contestation with Indian State on the issue of self determination by multiple ethno-linguistic groups and 59 years of military rule under Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA, 1958) in many parts of North-eastern states have created enough pressure for people to migrate to big cities for better life prospects.
If they survive the difficulties imposed by its rugged geography, underdeveloped economy, assertive politics and draconian de juri military rule at home then the practice of racial discrimination makes life worse in the big cities they migrate to. It is like jumping from a frying pan into the fire. Despite the widespread prevalence and persistence of racism, there is convenient sidelining or rather non engagement of this issue among the academia, the public and more importantly the government. People with Mongoloid features and black African in general and Northeasterns in particular face continuous harassment as they struggle to assert their rightful space among the so called “mainland Indians”.
Even as we speak of racism that Indian citizens face within India, it is important here to dispel certain misconceptions. It is commonly believed that only people coming from Northeast are likely to face racist abuse. Without much verification, victims of racist hate crimes are therefore immediately reported to be from North East. So the issue of racism is sometimes deliberately confounded with the issue of regionalism. Although most cases of racial discrimination in metro cities are faced by the people from northeast states because they comprise a larger chunk of migrant population, it is important to note that even among them, it is mainly those with mongoloid features that end up being discriminated the most.
For instance, a Bengali migrant from Tripura will face less discrimination than a Manipuri or a Naga as the former might face the problem of regionalism but latter will bear the brunt of racism and regionalism. Racism is the not limited to people from North East because non-North-eastern people like the Gorkhas, Ladakhis, and Tibetans who have Mongoloid features also face the same degree of contempt and discrimination.
Surprisingly, every act of such discrimination irrespective of which community it affects, receives a blanket labeling of a “North-eastern issue”. This by itself shows the extent of bias and negligence inherent within the society.The non-recognition of identities other than “mainland Indians”, “south Indians” (often derogatively addressed as Madrasis with utter disregard to linguistic and cultural differences among southern states) and “North-eastern”; reeks of ignorance, exclusion and deliberate marginalisation.
There is ample evidence of the objectionable ways in which harassment takes place. While racist comments/slurs/mockery of facial features, food habits, and fashion sense are among the most routine and common; intimidation and violent physical assaults (sometimes leading to death) without any provocations have also occurred very frequently. The situation is worse for women as they have to bear double brunt on account of their gender and racial identity.
The dominant racist stereotypical construction is that north-eastern men are either “violent”, “idiotic”, “drug addicts” and that women are “promiscuous”. Such stereotypes shape the day to day interaction where men become a target of ridicule and patronisation and female are openly sexually harassed with impunity. It is only the few obverse incidents of violence leading to death like that of Nido Taniam that manages to capture public attention. Whereas the routine discrimination/humiliation in our daily interaction with so called “Indians” goes unnoticed and unchallenged.
There is no public space which is free from racial stereotypes and biases, be it the places where we study and work or places where we have some recreation. It is this kind of incessant minute social interactions that dehumanises and inflicts psychological scars on people who face it.
The racial prejudice and bias of people also gets reflected in the functioning of institutions. The institutionalised nature of this discrimination finds its manifestations in the lackadaisical attitude of police and their reluctance to accept racial violence/crime as racially motivated. This attitude is prevalent in media reporting in their rather willful negligence of incidents and selective representation in popular media; among the academia and also among healthcare providers through their uncooperative behaviour.
The recent example an incident where students from Manipur were asked by CISF personnel to provide Adhaar card and other identify proofs even after showing their student identity cards to prove that they are “Indians” since they thought that the students looked like “foreigners”. Another instance is when a Manipuri student Monika Khangembam, who was going for an international conference with a valid Indian passport on 10th July, 2016 was asked to answer irrelevant questions like the number of states in India by an immigration official at IGI airport as she did not “look Indian enough” for him. These incidents show how such racial biases/stereotypes have been silently institutionalised.
One of the most glaring examples of how institutionalised racism works is from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Last year, a group of faculty close to right wing saffron ideology brought out a dossier (collection of documents and parchas of different organisations) in which they claimed that students from Northeast, Kashmir and Muslims are “terrorists”, “anti nationals”, “anti Hindu” and that female students are involved in “organised sex rackets” with the help of faculty, mess workers and beauty parlours.
Students from Northeast and many other organisations protested and demanded strict action against those faculty members who compiled and circulated the dossier but till date no inquiry/action has been initiated against them. Instead the students who protested against such a racist dossier were subjected to proctorial enquiry by the JNU administration and the penalty for protesting against racism will be announced soon. A university space which is presumed to consist of the most conscious civil society and is supposed to be free from social biases, showing such a brazen display of racism reveals how deep the problem of institutionalised racism is.
It is quite evident from these incidents how certain communities are always deemed as a “suspect community” who are to be put under continuous surveillance and discipline.
There are several questions that must be asked here because these are injustices that cannot be overlooked. What was the source of this extra zeal which made the officials (CISF and Immigration officer) override the document provided by other departments and go an extra mile to conduct their own inquiry for the validation of the students’ Indian identities? On what basis was Abrambam singled out, racially abused and brutally thrashed by his employee in an alleged “suspect of data theft” while other employees were let off without any inquiry?
What was the actual cause of that searing hatred and rage that made an octogenarian man and a retired school principle beat a young Manipuri girl at mid night? Why were the students of JNU who were protesting against the highly racist-communal dossier subjected to proctorial enquiry by JNU administration while the faculties who compiled and circulated it in media left untouched to roam free with impunity?
The real danger of such repeated acts of humiliation and discrimination is that the one who faces it tends to internalise the narrative of such stereotypes. Besides have a devastating impact on a person’s self worth; it tends to make this discrimination a matter of inevitable fact which has to be accepted without any discontent. So, over time the person will stop resisting to such racist slurs and discrimination thinking that nothing can be changed and it has to be accepted. It is exactly through such a process of helplessness and inevitability that racism is routinely reproduced and suffered repeatedly. The lack of popular outrage can be explained by this normalisation of racial discrimination.
Many people claim that strong anti-racial discrimination law will eradicate this problem. However, strong laws can give protection to persons affected by these acts but it cannot eradicate underlying social malaise. All that law and redress mechanism can do is to create a strong deterrent to racist behaviour but it cannot generate the much needed consciousness which can ultimately bring change for the greater good.
Limitation of SC/ST Prevention of atrocities Act, 1989 to eradicate rising caste atrocities against Dalits or of rape laws to prevent gender violence bears this testimony. It doesn’t mean that such laws are not desirable but its limitation is that it will only act as a preventive measure rather than eliminating the cause itself. Hence, there is a need for a vibrant social movement on the issue of racism which challenges this unequal social relation.
No one is born a racist, but it is the norms/behaviour which society inculcates in a young mind that gets reflected in her/his daily social interactions. So, if such a behaviour can be learned then it can also be unlearned. There lies the role of a strong social movement which challenges this unequal power relation and can sensitise and bring consciousness among the population against racism. We need to collectively embrace this vision of a racism-free society but the lack of a strong social movement against racism in India has negated all possibilities to generate such awareness. Occasional cases of scattered and short-lived outrage is bound to fizzle out.
The problem of racism is widespread but is hardly acknowledged in public discourse. The experience of discrimination is harrowing to people who face it every day in their life. Non recognition of the problem, lack of public discourse, institutionalised nature of operation of racism and lack of any strong social movement on the ground has made matters worse. In a nutshell, racism is an existential hazard for many who have to bear its brunt every day. Racism is difficult to avoid as long as we study or work within the “territorial borders” of places where their “natives” don’t look like us, eat like us, dress like us and talk like us. There might be a longer list of all the things that we may differ in; but are these ethno-cultural differences reason enough to subordinate our citizenship and violate our dignity? Does our compulsion to migrate out also compromise our political agency? And should we hang down our heads and submit to this “power” that the so called “authentic Indians” have naturally acquired through their geographical advantage?
Does the onus of this struggle for rights, space, respect and dignity only rest upon the racially abused citizens? Lest we forget, any major social problem cannot be addressed by an individual alone. It was always the involvement of countless, faceless peoples that changed the course of history and put an end to many oppressive social practices the world over. Social problems can only be addressed through collective social effort. So the option left is to raise our voice and fight against it collectively or remain silent and suffer this discrimination forever. The choice is yours!
I am very thankful to Rukmini Di, Marina, Tshering Di and team of Gorkha Students, JNU for their encouragement and insights provided to complete this article!