Strangers In A Strange Land


Where is India heading? Has our country lost its way in its blind and hypocritical pursuit of ‘nation-building’? If Indians are still thinking racism exists only in the West, it is time they scrutinise their own approach towards northeastern people. With never ending ugly incidents of molestation, murder, verbal abuses taking place, and being always termed as ‘Chinki’, ‘Chinese’ because of our Mongoloid features in our own country, I wonder how long will our country pretend there is no racial discrimination against its own people — the northeast Indians!

It was June 1st in 2007 when I first landed in Delhi for my further studies. I noticed a disturbing tendency among the waiters in the food joints, taxi drivers, auto-wallas, and the other non-northeastern people right from the moment I stepped out of the airport. Shopkeepers would grin and make sexual remarks at me and my northeastern friends. I had trouble understanding the source of this unwanted attention. Never ever had I thought that my Mongoloid features would be the reason for it. I am an Assamese, have oblique eyes, small flattened nose, short in height and look visually dissimilar from the locals. But is this enough reason to draw such reactions?

I did become self-conscious about my attires: could it be that I was wearing a sleeveless top, or that I was wearing shorts/knee length skirts. I started wearing jeans and shirts, salwar kameez etc. But, modifying myself did not stop them from staring at me either.
Property dealers, landlords and students would make a different face on knowing I belong to the northeast region. They would ask if Assam is in China or Nepal, if I live in a jungle in my home-state, if my primary food is dog meat and rice or if there is any cinema theatre in my region. Their list of absurd queries would be never ending. And today six years have passed, yet things are all the same. I am still asked by my friends in media industry if Shillong is in Guwahati or Guwahati and Assam are different! I am no longer shocked with the lack of common general knowledge in them. Were they not given to write the names of Indian states in school? I clearly remember, this was one question we were asked in our exams till my seventh standard, and everybody in the class would score full marks in that question if not the others. And here in the national capital, people ask me if I require a passport to come to Delhi! Friends would request me to invite them for lunch/dinner so that they can have traditional home made momos which is a popular dish in China. I have lost the patience of making them understand that we are brothers and sisters in the similar way you people are with Punjab or Haryana. But, my efforts have always gone waste. I am still considered a native of China, Nepal or Thailand who belongs to a jungle tribe (they term it as habsi), speaks some funny language, eats momos and noodles for survival, lives in tree houses/jungles, and goes hunting for meat!

Discrimination against NE

Image Source: iDiva

We call our country India- a democratic republic. But how far can we agree to it? From casteism, racism, sexual abuse, gender discrimination, our country has it all and the governments fail to take steps against them. When you hear the word racism, most people think either about Indians or African being criticised in developed nations, but there is an entire other community in India itself who experiences racism on every level without a real sense of justice, and it is the northeastern Indian. Why even the umbrella term ‘northeasterns’ is required to describe us, when we all are Indians? The reason of this discrimination is found to be social profiling that is opinion formed upon one’s appearance, culture and levelling everyone with opinions formed upon some experiences.

The recent death incident of Nido Taniam, a student from Arunachal Pradesh residing in Delhi has brought into light the mindset and behaviour of Indians towards their own people from northeast region. Nido was beaten to death with rods and sticks by local shopkeepers in Lajpat Nagar market when he protested against the racist remarks made to him.

Tenzin Sonam, a teacher in a school in Delhi said, “This incident of Nido is not only racist but sick and inhuman. I am a regular victim of racial discrimination. Leave about other people, my own students would pass sexist remarks at me. I am simply fed up with Delhi and its people. Things are so good at my hometown in Arunachal. It is only because of my career I am here, otherwise who would like to be made feel like an outsider in her own country everyday?”

Projjwal Dutta from Assam, who is a music programmer and singer by profession in Mumbai says, “Nothing is different here in Mumbai as well. The deliberate passing of racial comments on the Arunachali student’s hairstyle by the shopkeeper in Lajpat Nagar New Delhi and then beating him up to his death clearly shows that the attackers were pre motivated or mentally prepared for any altercation, particularly with any northeastern guy or girl. The police dropping off the boy back into the same locality where the first scuffle broke out and he getting beaten to death with iron rods by his previous attackers clearly show police involvement in the whole crime. Some form of organised racism is being brewed up in certain areas of Delhi. We northeasterns and all other like minded people belonging to different religion or speaking different languages should give up our ignorant prejudices against one another and unite together to demand a high level CBI enquiry into the whole incident and if not each one of us should file an RTI demanding to know as to why police dropped the boy back into the same area and why they have named no accused in their FIRs. The movement for justice must not die down.

This is not the first incident that has happened to a northeastern. How can we forget the mysterious death of Loitam Richard in Bangalore, the murder of Ramchanphy Hongray in the national capital, the suicide by Dana Sangma and other such incidents in the past which the nation has ignored till today? There are countless incidents reported or unreported where our people from northeast India face several issues of racial discrimination, harassment and violence outside our home states as a result of lack of awareness among the Indian citizens about the northeast region and our unique culture.

Despite the significant contribution to nation building by people of north-east India in sports, technology, art and culture, the people of northeast origin are still unable to live a life of dignity outside their home states. We are always made to feel as “foreigners” in our own nation. I clearly remember the hue and cry raised by our people when Bollywood diva Shilpa Shetty in Celebrity of Big Brother faced racial abuse at London in 2007, but when it comes to northeast people the whole nation turns a blind eye. And if you are thinking discrimination towards us is limited to verbal, sexual assaults or beating up, then hang on! There are difficulties in renting accommodation, landlords refuse to return the hefty amounts of rent advance, mundane overcharging of fares by autoricksaw-wallahs, and also stereotyping for purposes of employment! Yet, Police, Union Governments, civil societies and intellectuals refuse to accept the racial discrimination faced by us.  And when in 2007, Delhi Police decided to solve the problems of security faced by the north-easterners in Delhi, they came up with a booklet entitled Security Tips for North East Students asking north-eastern women not to wear “revealing dresses” and gave kitchen tips on preparing bamboo shoot, akhuni, and “other smelly dishes” without creating commotion in neighbourhood — What could be more horrifying than this?

However, in 2012 a law was passed by Ministry of Home Affairs to book offenders guilty of atrocity against people from the region under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act since a significant number of persons from the North-East belong to the Scheduled Tribes, where under the law, an offender can end up spending five years in jail and the accused could be denied anticipatory bail as well. And in case the police fail to act on a complaint, he/ she could be imprisoned for a term which should not be less than six months and may be extended to a year. But unfortunately law enforcement agencies including the police have failed to implement it.
Protesting the death of Nido on internet forums, holding candlelight-march, and crying out slogans are not enough. And like Richard Loitam, one day the nation shall forget Nido, and the forms of racial discrimination will continue bruising the body and mind.

It is high time to address the issues of racial discrimination and sexual violence immediately. School curriculums should include the glorious history and culture of northeast so that they learn to respect the people and consider them as their fellow citizens.  The reason for fighting against racism is not just because it is practised against “our” own citizens but because it is wrong regardless of whether the victims of racism are citizens of the country or not. Otherwise, with ever-increasing crimes, the challenge is huge.

Note: The article first appeared on Northeast Trailblazer/Inside Fact


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