The recent success stories of northeast players in the Olympics have made everyone proud, from Mirabai Chanu bringing home silver on the very first day to Lovlina Borgohain’s bronze on her Olympic debut to Nilakanta Sharma from Manipur playing for the men’s hockey team and winning bronze, everyone seems to be talking about it, applauding it and feeling proud of their achievements as Indians.
But what about the rest of the time?
Not long ago, these same people were called “Coronavirus” for their different physical attributes and were asked to go back to China. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the people from the northeastern region (NER) have been the target of negative media reporting and political pronouncements, as well as hate speech on social media.
When people treat them as outsiders, we mostly see only people from the Northeast voicing their concerns, fighting for their rights, while the rest of the country remains oblivious.
Although new incidences continue to occur, racial discrimination against people from the NER by mainland Indians is nothing new. Recently, in a viral video, we see a YouTuber from Punjab calling Arunachal Pradesh’s MLA “Chinese“.
Even a year after the incident, the memory of a few people from NER being denied access to a Bangalore store is still fresh. They were denied entry purportedly because they looked “Chinese” and, therefore, carried the virus with them even though they were wearing masks and provided valid proof.
Every individual from the Northeastern states who moved to “mainland India” seeking better education and economic possibilities has been subjected to some form of racial discrimination.
A person walking past me just whispered into my ears, “corona ki mareez” (corona patient) and disappeared into the crowd. And this happened in March 2020, when the virus just started catching people’s attention in India.
A junior of mine was called “chinki” by another student from North India and was asked to go back to China while ordering food in the canteen in a reputed college of the University of Delhi.
The problem is that the culture and stories of the northeast have never been discussed and the region as a whole has not been explored properly yet. Unfortunately, even Bollywood has contributed to the problem by providing inaccurate information as there is no proper representation of northeastern people in the mainstream film industry.
In the film Mary Kom, Priyanka Chopra, a Punjabi actress, was cast to play the role of a Manipuri boxer. According to her make-up artist, her complexion was brightened, frickles were added and eyes were made to look smaller to get a “Manipuri look”.
In a recent interview, when Omung Kumar, the director of Mary Kom, was asked why he didn’t cast anyone from the northeast to play the role of Mary Kom, he answered that even though he looked for a lot of northeast actors for the role played by Priyanka Chopra and Darshan Kumar, no one “suited the role”.
While the film Axone tries to highlight the plight of people of NER in the capital Delhi, it too cast a Bengali actress to play the role of a Nepali actress (protagonist) and still has a long way to go to have a proper representation of northeast India.
As a student of History at Delhi University, it was shocking and quite disappointing for me when in my three-year under-graduation program, I couldn’t find a single mention of the history of the people from the northeast. We study about the Mughals, Rajputs, Marathas, etc., but there was not even a single topic/paper on the history of Northeast India.
For instance, the history of the Ahom Kingdom, one of the longest-ruling dynasties of India that resisted Mughal invasion 17 times, or the history of the indigenous people was nowhere to be seen. If this is not taught or discussed nationally, how do we expect people to know about it?
Many still consider the northeast a land of jungles and often ask questions like, “why do you have such tiny eyes?”, “You all eat anything and everything, no?” or “Is there any airport?”. These stereotypical beliefs haven’t changed much since independence. People are still unaware and have misconceptions regarding this part of India.
When will this change, when will the people start recognising the people of the northeast, not as outsiders, but as their own, discuss about it, work towards its development, only when they win an Olympic medal?