Racism in times of coronavirus

On Sunday (March 22), around 9.30 pm, a Manipuri research scholar was spat on by a 40-year-old man and called ‘coronavirus’ in Delhi’s Vijaynagar area in North Campus. She, along with a friend, had stepped out of her paying guest accommodation to buy some groceries. In Mysuru, Karnataka, two young students from Nagaland were denied entry to a departmental store. They were there to buy groceries and had waited for 25 minutes in the line. In Gujarat, a residents’ welfare society barged into a rented apartment of young women professionals from Northeast India and threatened to evacuate them. The police had to step in and provide the necessary ‘assurances’, while the young women stood quietly and wept. And in West Bengal, residents of a colony demanded that students from Nagaland vacate their rented apartments.

These are just some of the incidents of ‘racism’ that got highlighted, thanks to social media. While entire India is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Northeastern people in various parts of the country, outside the region, are also fighting with the additional discrimination and racial slurs that come with it.

Every time, incidents of racial discrimination against Northeast Indians are highlighted, certain predictable reactions follow. First, many start apologizing and highlighting that these are just incidents done by some racist people and do not reflect the mentality of the entire state or the country. What such reactions do is that they isolate these incidents and reduce them to ‘individual problems’ and ignore the systematic bias the majority of the people in this country have against Northeastern people. It is this systematic bias that led to the killing of Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh in 2014 and Richard Loitam from Manipur in 2012 and many others. If racist incidents are just seen as ‘one or two off incidents’ committed by miscreants, racism and bias against Northeastern people never become the centre of the debate. The focus shifts towards the people who committed the ‘crimes’ and is on fixing those people, like filing police complaints and some surface-level investigative actions.

Second, many justify the actions, as a counter to the ‘racism’ faced by other ‘mainstream’ Indian communities, residing in the Northeastern states. Some even claim that the presence of measures like Inner Line Permit, outsiders not being allowed to purchase land in many NE states is discriminatory, which makes such actions against Northeastern folk justified. So, legislative and constitutional actions like Sixth Schedule status or Inner Line Permits, etc, taken to protect the diversity of culture and language in India in themselves are used as a basis to attack diversity.

Racism finds its roots in the constant narrative of the mainstream and the ‘other’, with people from the Northeast region being the latter. People with certain features and descriptions are highlighted as the ‘natural citizens’ of the country, while those who do not, are termed as the ‘other’. A ‘racial other’ is created. A certain image of how an Indian look is constantly perpetuated in popular culture and narrative. Anyone who does not fit that natural description, either might have come from China or Nepal.

The recent spike in racist attacks and of ‘corona’ becoming a racial slur finds basis in this. Many know that the ‘COVID19’ originated in China and assume their own fellow Northeast Indians as those belonging to China and commit those racial crimes. Many don’t bother to find out and those who find out also choose to ignore it and continue the discrimination. For instance, in the case of the two young students being denied entry in Mysuru, the manager was informed that the students had Aadhaar cards. However, he chose to ignore it and still disallow entry.

Ignorance and lack of ‘education’ are often used as a means to justify the continued existence of racial discrimination, almost as an escape route. The recent incidents and many others highlight that it is not the case. The housing society members or managers of the departmental store were all educated folks, who if nothing, just had an ingrained bias against northeastern people.

The continued existence of racism creates a sense of ‘alienation’ and ‘fear’ among Northeast Indians. It’s almost as if ‘we don’t belong’. This alienation process is constantly perpetuated by media who try to fit us into certain ‘labels. And the ‘good’ ‘apologetic’ ‘non-racist’ ‘mainstream’ Indians continue to perpetuate that by constantly ‘reassuring’ us that we are Indians too. Well-meaning journalists and media personnel call for actions from the government highlighting that Northeastern people should be made to feel ‘Indians’. They fail to realize that the reassurance itself highlights the constant bias. If we complain or highlight these biases, we are either called ‘too sensitive’ or that our fears are just overtly exaggerated. No attempt is being made to truly understand the root of the matter or question their inherent bias. And the fear is so inherent that ‘Northeast people’ often choose to stay among their own, creating certain pockets of residences, in these metropolitan cities. These pockets, if nothing else, give them a sense of safety and security. Even the desire to stay among their own is hijacked by popular narrative as ‘Northeastern people’ refusing to integrate with other communities and being narrow in their outlook, sometimes even by scholars from the Northeast itself.

For long, racism against Northeastern people has met with denial. With frequent reportage, mostly through social media, there is some bit of recognition but mostly on the superficial level. After every such action, some condemnation and police investigations follow. Little follow up is done on what happens after a police FIR. A report titled ‘North East Migration and Challenges in National Capital: City’s silent Racial Attack on its Own Countrymen’ released by the North East Support Centre and Helpline published as early as 2011 highlighted that more than 78% of the Northeast Indians residing in Delhi are subject to racial discrimination and abuse over their appearance. These forms of discrimination more than often take forms of physical attacks, sometimes leading to the death of the victim.

The report also highlighted “official apathy” and “bias amongst the law enforcing agencies” as the major reasons triggering and amplifying the problem. While there has been increased sensitization of the police personnel and authorities in India, it is a given that the majority of the incidents of racial violence against Northeastern people go unreported. It is so ingrained in the day-to-day lifestyle of the mainstream communities that people from the Northeast either choose to ignore it or just learn to live with it. Those who fight back often end up in hospitals while some are greeted with even death. Resistance to racist actions are always met with ‘how dare you’, often followed with physical violence.

Any action, towards addressing the racial discrimination against Northeast Indians, will have to start with the acknowledgment of the problem as systematic. Criminal and corrective actions like FIRs, official advisories, as recently issued by the ministry of home, do nothing much beyond criminalizing the issue. It does not address the core issue of cultural sensitivity and respect for diversity. Respecting differences is not something which is taught in India, either in classrooms or in family lives. Thus, it keeps perpetuating. The Bezbaruah committee formed in 2014 after the death of Nido Taniam suggested a range of actions that could be taken to address the rising racial violence in India. But many of the measures are still to be implemented.

(Opinions are personal. This article was published in East Mojo here. Picture downloaded online. Not copyrighted by author or infringement intended)

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