Not Chinese. Not Nepalese. Not Coronavirus. We are Indians.
May 02, 2020
Dear Fellow Indians,
We have a message for you. Before we enter into a prolonged discussion, let us introduce ourselves. We belong to the eight states of north-eastern India—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. It took the British nearly a century to seize our region and almost no time to label us a frontier. Since partition and independence, we haven’t been much more than mere natural resources and a frontier to the government. We overwhelmingly contribute to the total tea produced in the country but aren’t eligible to house the headquarters of the Tea Board of India. We have deduced from ages of experiences and sufferings that not many Indians are aware of our existence and that we deserve to be humiliated. Though we are legal citizens, we aren’t yet considered cultural citizens of our own country.
Our girls are supposed to be easy preys in bigger cities. It is difficult for our girls to get rooms on rent in those cities, as people there think that we are harbingers of sex and drugs. Our girls are stamped by you as whores. Even if they manage to get a room on rent, there are unsympathetic restrictions on their choice of food items and what kind of smell is allowed. Our girls are tired of the humiliation and the unwanted advances everywhere. Tetei, our daughter, was forced to leave Delhi because of the constant agonies she was subjected to. She was regularly made to feel the word chinki in her bones. If you read the poem she wrote in February 2008, you would know:
Tetei came from a village, far far away,
Where the spring river flows
and the nightingale sings.
Where the autumn brook glisters
like the face of an immaculate.
Where innocence still exists,
there amidst the hills so green.
She left that village, filled with dreams,
Dreams that she always dreamt of
back in her village so bare.
Dreams of neon lights and skyscrapers,
and of opportunity in abundance.
Dreams filled with dreams and dreams,
of changing her life and her destiny.
Oh how that dream shattered, with all the abuses,
Abused for being a woman,
as if it is a sin to be one.
Abused for being from the North-east,
as if she is a cheap whore from Sodom.
Abused by the media for being both,
as if they haven’t done enough harm already.
Tetei cried every night, and finally made her way,
Back to her barren village, far far away.
Tetei’s words echo the plight of most of us who left our homes for a better livelihood, as both political and social conditions were frightful in Northeast India. The government’s extractive and exploitative attitude, armed civil conflicts, and poor infrastructure left us with almost no opportunities. The North Eastern Council (NEC) set up in 1971 and the ambitious Look East policy launched in 1991 could hardly live up to their lofty objectives and remained a rhetoric. Little educational initiatives were undertaken by the central government. We were largely ignored by the national media, except for their discriminating obsession with violence and insurgency in our region. Barely a handful of journalists covered our stories. For long, this media-built perception created a negative picture of the region in the collective imagination—“a region riddled with insurgency and most unsafe place in the country” or “people with mongoloid features and weird food habits and an alien culture.” This notion was reinforced by the 1998 Bollywood movie “Dil Se.” That Manisha Koirala’s “small eyes” made her the perfect choice to play the onscreen character of a Northeast militant was no surprise. The movie is set in Delhi and the Northeast, projecting two contrasting images—a serene Delhi and a turbulent Northeast—and reflecting a common theme rooted at that time in the “mainstream” India: ignorance.
We were the outcast with little or no voice. As our people moved to cities outside Northeast India, cases of discrimination against them escalated at alarming rates. Most of the incidents, barring a rare few, never caught the fancy of the popular media. Apart from subjection to language abuse, rapes became commonplace in our lives. When one of our girls was gangraped in June 2005, the principal of Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi, suggested that our women must wear salwar-kameez to avoid sexual harassment. Protests flared across the city. In July 2007, the Delhi Police published a booklet which advised our women to not wear “revealing” clothes, avoid lonely roads when dressed scantily, dress according to the sensitivity of the local populace, and not cook our native cuisine as the foreign smell could disconcert our neighbors. It was like rubbing salt into our wounds.
The “cheap and easy” image of our women grew stronger with time. In January 2008, two sisters from Manipur were molested by 25 drunk men near Delhi University. One of them offensively questioned the morality of girls hailing from Northeast India, leading to the confrontation. In December 2009, when the verdict of the Dhaula Kuan rape case was in progress, the advocate defending the accused blamed the “active sexual life” of the victim from Mizoram for inviting rape. Despite the rampaging violence and discrimination, Delhi continued to offer some respite from the difficult conditions in our region.
The Chief Minister of Mizoram, Mr. Pu Lalthanhawla, in June 2009, finally vented his disappointment with his own countrymen at the Singapore International Water Week. In his own country, he had to face the question, quite frequently, as to whether he was an Indian or a Nepalese or from some other country. Shilpa Shetty when called a “Paki” in a 2007 reality show had seen the entire Indian media on the verge of shedding her tears and bringing her agonies, live and deferred, to every Indian household. The same media raised an unprecedented furor over the racial attacks on Indian students in Australia but did little to address our concerns. Lalthanhawla rightly said, “Indians consist of three races – Dravidians, Aryans and we in the northeast.” Is it because of our short stature? Is it because we have a flat nose and small eyes? We smell, with the flat nose. We see, with the small eyes as you do with your “better” features. We were born this way. In 2012, calling us chinki became a criminal offense. But we remained as chinkis and bahadurs among a long list of slurs.
Our men are often stereotyped as drug dealers and addicts. Richard Loitam, a 19-year-old from Manipur, like many young Indians, went to Bangalore to pursue engineering studies. In April 2012, he was found dead in his room. To date, his death remains a mystery. The night before his death, he was assaulted by two students for changing the TV channel. As investigations proceeded, few commented that Richard was a drug addict and that doses of fatal drugs led to his demise, though forensic report ruled out overdose. We felt lost in the dark.
The media lit up the pitch-dark tunnel, albeit late and slow. The widespread penetration of the social media also played a pivotal role in changing perspectives and bringing a long-overdue change. Our fellow Indians’ perception of us markedly improved in the last decade.
The light, however, couldn’t glow long enough to save Nido Taniam, our hero from Arunachal Pradesh. On January 29 2014, he was beaten to death by our fellow Delhiites. Do you know why? Because he stood up against a group, who made fun of his hair and physical features. Nido, who apparently looked different, compelled the country to differently see racism at the expense of his life. The government was exacted into action and implemented the recommendations made by the Bezbaruah Committee. Children around the country now read our geography, history, and culture in their textbooks. Thanks to the fellowships, quality education is more accessible to our children. We found a ray of hope in the creation of the Special Unit for North Eastern Region (SPUNER) under the Delhi Police and the ensuing efforts in sensitizing people toward discrimination against us.
In the same year, the popular Indian reality show “Kaun Banega Crorepati” hosted by the megastar Amitabh Bachchan played a crucial role in highlighting the much-neglected issue. In the promotional advertisement, Mr. Bachchan asks the contestant Poornima-ji, a native of Northeast, “Which country is the city Kohima in?” The audience expects her to know the answer but to everyone’s surprise, she chooses to use one of her lifelines—Audience Poll. “India!” is the unanimous answer, to which Poornima-ji replies, “Yes, everyone knows about it, but how many believe in it?” This message reverberated across the country as reflected in the millions of views garnered by the video. The movement was powerful enough to put popular brands, such as Nestle India, Big Bazaar, and Vim, into action. In 2015, Tinkle Digest’s latest superhero WingStar aka Mapui Kwalim, a 13-year-old Mizo girl, made her debut. This was a pathbreaking initiative by the much-loved comic strip to create awareness in the tender minds of its readers. We hope Mapui’s powers help in quelling the painful stereotypes.
We are proud of the works of Dr Alana Golmei, who has been working tirelessly for our inclusion in the mainland India. The North East Support Centre and Helpline (NESCH) founded by her in 2007 has been our lifeline in fighting discrimination in our country. We have seen setting up of more institutes of national importance—National Institute of Technology Silchar in 2002, National Institute of Technology Agartala in 2006, Indian Institute of Management Shillong in 2007, and National Sports University in Manipur in 2018. The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region’s efforts to integrate the region through tourism and economic development has also played a decisive role in the recent years. Improved connectivity through air and rail has encouraged more tourists to visit our places, thus making our culture travel through their eyes.
Our hopeful eyes on the proposals to amend the law to insert two stricter anti-racial discrimination provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC Section 153C and 509A) are still waiting to shine. It has been six years since Nido Tanium’s death and injuries are still ruthlessly inflicted on our people. The dark eclipses the occasional glimmer of light. Few voices are heard; most silently bear the brunt to avoid worsening the problem. In one untold story, our girl enrolled in a reputed engineering college was described as “having too much attitude” for rejecting sexual advances by the supposedly brightest minds of the country. In another incident, an ambitious girl was asked just before the start of an aptitude test whether she worked in a massage parlor. Our girls are brave enough to ignore the innuendos, but no girl deserves such a behavior.
Let’s talk about our jewels. The Golden Girl, Mary Kom, has won laurels for India and not for Nepal. Despite giving it all for our country, she routinely faces racial bias. Why? Seven percent of the Indian contingent in 2016 Olympics were from the Northeast. They poured every drop of their sweat to make us proud. Should their identities be questioned? Dipa Karmakar’s sensational performance brought smiles to the entire nation and not only to Tripura. Somewhere we need to stop. We salute the 2016 movie Pink for making a statement on discrimination against us. In the court room scene, the lawyer emphasizes on naming Andrea Tariang’s native place as Meghalaya rather than referring to her as someone from the Northeast. The chinki someone.
We managed to become immune to the word chinki but the COVID-19 pandemic gave us a fresh identity. We are now Coronavirus. Scientists are running against time to develop a cure for the deadly virus and will be successful. But we doubt if there would ever be any cure for the deadlier virus of racism.
On March 20, 2020, in Ahmedabad, police picked up nine employees of Northeast origin from an insurance company based on a complaint alleging that they were from China. They were placed under forced quarantine with other patients suspected of infection. In another such tragic incident, a young man from Meghalaya committed suicide after he was fired and forcibly evicted from his apartment on accounts of allegations that he might be infected with the virus. In Delhi, on March 23, the day after the Janta Curfew, a man called our Manipuri girl “corona” and spat betel nut juice on her face. We are disturbed and more afraid than ever. Not only because of the novel coronavirus but more so because of the increasing attacks on us.
In Kolkata, on March 28, a 24-year-old woman from Sikkim, suffering from abdominal pain with no symptoms of COVID-19, was forced to undergo test and put into an isolation ward with several other infected patients. The initial questions thrown at her were—“Are you a Chinese? When did you get here from China?” On the same day, this time in Mysuru, a 20-year-old boy from Manipur who stepped outside to buy groceries from a nearby shop was denied all the items. “You are not Indian,” the staff shouted as he was chased away.
On April 6, a Manipuri girl was spat on by a miscreant in Mumbai, which we consider the safest city outside our home. In Bengaluru, on April 20, two Manipuri boys were beaten by police for not maintaining social-distancing norms when they went out to buy groceries. The police physically assaulted and caned a Darjeeling-born 25-year-old journalist and his Manipuri cousin for failing to show the necessary pass for roaming around in Bengaluru, while some on-lookers were calling them “coronavirus.” In both the upsetting incidents, our people were selectively chosen. Our heart goes out to our brothers and sisters from Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Koch Bihar, Ladakh, and to our Indian-Nepalese friends; they face the same torture as we do. We would like to remind you once again, dear friends, that we are humans and that we have feelings, too. Monolid eyes do not make us any less Indian. While we cry foul when Indians face discrimination abroad, our hypocrisy is out in the open when we call our own countrymen names.
We do not wish to share these stories now, but we can’t afford to take an appointment with life for the perfect moment. The scrutinizing looks, the questions, and the need to establish identity repeatedly are too harsh to tolerate. India isn’t only Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra. Neither is India only Chennai and Kolkata. India is as much Manipur and Nagaland. India isn’t only Anu Sharma and Anjali Daware. Neither is India only Narayana Raghavan and Sukamal Chatterjee. India is as much Zorothra Darlong and Larson Sanathomba.
India is as much Inzamam Alam and Burhan Mohammed.
We understand most of us are afraid of something that is unfamiliar. But rejection is not the solution to ignorance. Acceptance is. Empathy is. We stand not only for our people but also stand against all forms of racial discrimination and stereotyping. People from South India, for example, are mocked in the North; similarly, people from the North are treated unfairly in the South. We need to educate ourselves and stop stereotyping into believing that all South Indians are Madrasi, all Marwaris are Makhichoos, all Marathis are Ghaatis, and all Punjabis are Sharaabis. We are also guilty. We ask forgiveness and strongly condemn all acts of hate crimes against people from Bengal and Bihar in our own backyard. As more African-Americans and Native Americans die compared to the White Americans in the course of the pandemic, we realize that the racism virus is bigger than us.
When the pandemic ends, the world will go back to normal. Maybe, we should not. We do not want to live in a normal world but in one devoid of racism.
Can we not anymore be treated as aliens in our own soil? If only you co-operate.