The Road To Be Taken: Addressing Discrimination against Northeast Indians

Photo: Times of India

By Anandita Pathak & Aditya Ranjan Pathak

The recent incident of a 21-year-old YouTuber from Punjab hurling racist slurs against an MLA and Former Union Minister of Congress from Arunachal Pradesh, along with the case of journalist Rahul Kanwal’s blunt statement indicating that Nagaland is not a part of India, are a part of a pattern of similar incidents against people from the Northeast. The Covid-19 situation in the country last year which took a critical turn fuelled the rise in cases of racism against the Northeastern population in the other metro cities of India where they migrate for higher education or work. While numerous instances were reported, many went unreported, for the terror and trepidation of aggravating the situation towards a more uncontrollable one. Comfortability and equality have become rare to seek when one’s identity is causing one trouble, and to what extent this trouble may lead one is unimaginable in the light of the recent rape and murder cases. A study commissioned by the Indian Council of Social Science and Research (ICSSR) on racial discrimination and hate crimes asserted that people from the northeast were “harassed, abused and traumatised” and were called ‘coronavirus’.

It is not a new instance that North-Eastern Indians experience extreme forms of discrimination while residing across different regions of their own nation. While the Articles 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 of the Indian Constitution lay down the provisions of the Right to Equality to all Indian citizens, the infringement of the same has been observed for several decades, in the form of racial discrimination against migrants from the north-east. The issue goes unnoticed by many until people find extreme violence or gore in it. In the Delhi region alone, the statistics reveal a significant amount of discrimination faced by the north-eastern students as well as other working officials. Delhi being the national capital serves several purposes and has been a crucial site economically; in terms of trade and manufacturing, it provides ample opportunities for labour in organised as well as unorganised sectors. Skilled, unskilled, semi-skilled and all kinds of jobs are available which has been an important reason for drawing people from the surrounding areas. Moreover, the reputed higher education institutions in Delhi and the historically renowned institutions like Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University and several others stand as reasons for the large student influx from the north-eastern states to migrate to this mainland city. A 2014 report published by the M. P. Bezbarooah Committee, set up by the Ministry of Human Affairs, stated that from 2005 to 2013, over 2 lakh people from North-East India moved to Delhi, out of which about 86 percent of them faced discrimination. If that doesn’t raise questions, and gets normalised, then what will?

The terms ‘Northeast migrants’ and ‘north-easterners’ refer to those people from the North-east who trace their lineage to East and South East Asia and as such are members of ethnic minorities racially distinct from the communities in the rest of India. Visible difference separates the north-east migrants from the rest of mainstream Indians. Physical features denoting Tai, Tibeto-Burman and Mon Khmer linkages mark these migrants as separate from the Indian mainstream and this routinely leads to the questioning of nationality and citizenship by other city dwellers. Especially students studying across different institutions in Delhi have often experienced violence and verbal assault because of their regional identities and racial features. The continued existence of this evil can be observed from the recent cases of calling Northeastern students ‘Corona’, ‘bat eating tribes’, ‘chinkis’ not only in Delhi but even in states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra at a time when the entire world is dealing with a pandemic. According to reports, during this lockdown, a 20-year-old Manipuri girl, was racially abused and physically attacked, by an elderly woman and few others in Haryana’s Gurgaon, while an individual was spat on by strangers. While these are recent incidents, previous examples include the case of Reingamphi, a young woman from a family of rice cultivators in Manipur, who was suspected to have been raped and brutally murdered at her rented accommodation in Chirag Delhi in 2013 and Mary Ezung from Nagaland, who was found dead in Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave. These represent a mere fraction of the numerous similar cases that eventually become a part of statistical data. In addition to infringing the right to equality, these incidents also violate “the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.” It is not about the question of humanity anymore when one forgets what it is to be humane.

While spitting on a cow or a rapist is a rare scene in our nation, spitting on a fellow citizen for belonging to a minor ethnic community which is geographically remote to the mainlanders displays deep-rooted bias. The conflict with our neighbouring nation and the association of appearance of the north-easterners with the same nation, is the reason why many Indians are unable to familiarise and connect with the apparently ‘chinky’ looking people. It is saddening how the mainland resident/YouTuber’s audacious and ignorant words had to be contested by some Arunachali youth and even an army personal, who constantly have to demand their legitimacy as a citizen of India. Their clarification is an attempt to persuade others that they deserve similar right to freedom and mutual respect. It is amusing how the price of one man’s negligence and prejudice is being paid by the victim, thereby demonstrating that they are somehow culpable for being physically, emotionally, and mentally abused.

Such incidents of prejudice can only come to an end if the issues of xenophobia, prejudice, and cultural, historical, and geographical ignorance of mainland Indians are addressed adequately. However, there also needs to be a concerted approach from both the central and state governments for mitigating this social evil of racial discrimination. Most of these cases come to light and remain in discussion for a short period of time. While people may have been arrested for such heinous acts, very less has been achieved in the long run. In 2014, the Supreme Court had directed the state and central governments to curtail several discriminatory practices against people from the north-east living in different parts of India. In the case Court on its Own Motion v. Union of India, the judges have stated that these disturbing incidents threaten the integrity of the country and violate Article 19(1)(d)&(e) of the Constitution as it shows intolerance towards the rights of the north-easterners to freely move throughout the territory of India and to reside and settle in any part of India. Moreover, it defies Article 301 of the Constitution as natives from certain states of India are harassed, thereby preventing them from settling and carrying out business in another State. The M.P. Bezbaruah Committee set up in 2014 post the death of Nido Tania, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, also made several recommendations to curb this issue of racial discrimination in the mainland. One of the key recommendations includes the deployment of a special squad supervised by the North East Special Police Unit to ensure speedy justice. However, very little has been achieved in implementing the recommendations. While the existing laws need to be implemented effectively, an anti-discrimination law is an utmost need for India to protect all its citizens that represent a rich diversity.

Anandita Pathak is a SAFE Fellow, YP Foundation, New Delhi. She is a final year undergraduate student at the University of Delhi.

Aditya Ranjan Pathak is a Research Assistant at Urban Ecologies Project based at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore and the University of Cambridge, UK. He holds a masters degree in History from Ambedkar University, Delhi.


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