The Irony of Diversity in India
By Keisha Kashyap
“Northeastern people are so weird”, “Northeastern people eat stinky food all the time”, “The women from the North east are of ‘loose’ character”, “These ‘chinks’ don’t even know Hindi”, “Northeastern people all have small and chinky eyes”. Do any of these sound familiar? If yes, then the chances are that you have just seen racism hurled against northeastern students. It is not uncommon for students from the North-Eastern states of India to hear such phrases in Delhi. Be it a matter of getting a signature from a professor, renting a room or a flat, calling an auto or a taxi, or just walking down the streets, racism is a daily struggle for northeastern students in Delhi.
Ever since 2005, Delhi has become the most preferred destination for higher studies amongst northeastern students. Universities such as Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia Islamia, etc., which accommodate students from various backgrounds, have contributed to this trend. The accessibility to quality and affordable education is what attracts students from the Northeast the most. However, the harsh realities of racism hit students very hard indeed. Most of the issues and struggles that we, the north-eastern students, face stem from racism. This, in turn, is triggered by ignorance and the unwillingness of the masses to try to learn about the culture of the North-East. Thus, a vicious cycle is at work here. People do not have an understanding nor do they try to understand the North-East, its culture and its people. This creates a difference in attitudes due to ignorance, which leads to building of stereotypes.
In 2007, the attacks on northeastern students became so serious that the Delhi police released a pamphlet titled ‘Security Tips for North Eastern Students/Visitors Visiting Delhi”. Unfortunately, it backfired and drew the ire of the northeastern community due to its heavy stereotyping. Some of the pointers included, “Do not cook stinky food in your rooms”, “Women should not be dressed scantily” and “Women should not leave their rooms after 10 P.M.” Such insensitivity by the police is indeed condemnable. But it also shows how deeply ingrained stereotypes about northeastern students can harm us. Not only is the blame for any racist and sexist incident placed on the northeastern students but it is taken for granted that we eat only “stinky food” and should try to avoid it for the sake of others.
The year 2014 started the movement for awareness about racism against northeastern students with a long list of racially motivated attacks. It started with the horrific incident on 29 January, 2014, when Nido Taniam, a boy of nineteen from Arunachal Pradesh, was beaten to death at Lajpat Nagar. Three men, who were shop owners, threw racial slurs about his blonde hair and dressing style. Nido resisted them, at which point, he was attacked brutally. By the time the police arrived, the three men had already fled the scene. However, instead of taking him to a hospital and filing an FIR, the police mercilessly dropped Nido back to Lajpat Nagar, where the men came back and beat him brutally to his death.
This incident raised a hue and cry among the northeastern community. In the same year, several other attacks occurred as well. On 27th May, 2014, a Naga girl was molested and her defenders sexually assaulted in front of the Delhi metro. She and her friends had gone to the Tees Hazari court to give evidence in a case. The accused, a 30-year-old lawyer, not only groped her but also slapped her when she resisted and called for help. He was caught by locals after she cried for help and handed over to the police. They were, however, threatened with death if they filed an FIR or took the matter to the court. Souloni Akha, a student from Manipur was brutally murdered. On New Year’s Eve, 2015, a young student from Manipur was gang-raped by three African men.
Not only have attacks on northeastern students increased over the years, but the number of reported cases has remained stable at a dismal four per cent. This can be attributed to a number of causes, such as financial issues, death threats, harassment by the police and involved parties, lack of support, etc. Students usually do not have the means to take the perpetrators to court unless they have the support of NGOs, politicians or other support groups. Another important issue is that of red-tapism. Due to the lengthy procedures and the delays, most students are unwilling to get involved in any kind of altercation that would lead to legal procedures.
These instances of racism, be it brutal, like that of Nido, or subtle micro-aggressions, like refusing to give change or making jokes about the ‘chinky’ eyes or facial features of one’s northeastern friend, are deep-rooted in ignorance and about a certain image of India as a whole. There exists a binary at the heart of it all, the ‘Us’ against ‘Them’, the latter being the northeastern people. North-East as a whole is not included in our education syllabus. Most people do not know the states or the diversity of the North-East. It is seen either as an exotic place or an undeveloped place where people eat anything and everything, like dogs and cats. This binary gives the perception that northeastern people are foreign in many ways, be it the racial features, the language, food habits, cultures, etc.
The exoticisation of the northeast does not help either. In Delhi, often there are events and fest organised to make the people ‘understand’ the northeast. Such fests are often filled with lousy attempts at trying to ‘educate’ the masses, which is mainly frequently exclusively by the upper middle and upper classes. These include a few dishes such as momos, a few chicken stews and dishes, or some sweets, which are ‘acceptable’ to the targeted audience, in this case, the bourgeois, while leaving out the real items that are eaten on a daily basis. For example, fermented food is a staple in these states. Fermented soy beans are a delicacy in the northeast. Most states have their own versions. In Manipur, it is called ‘hawaijah’. In Nagaland, it is called ‘akhuni’. In Meghalaya, it is called ‘turungbai’. However, the northeastern cultural fests do not include these types of food which are essential to the people. These events have to cater to the tastes and standards of the people in Delhi in such a way that the various cultures of the northeast are compromised and the identities of so many tribes and communities are reduced to a few items of food, art and craft and a few dances.
The dissolving of the various identities has harmful effects in general. The entire north east is homogenised under a single garb. The people and the various cultures are seen as being the same. Many people, however, complain that northeastern students do not try to interact with others and tend to stick to their own community. This can be said to be a result of the racism that we face regularly. It is only reasonable that we stick to one another for safety and also to have a sense of belonging. However, northeastern students face another rather peculiar issue. The issue of what I would call aggressive assimilation. In this case, the non-northeastern person accepts northeast to be a part of India. They praise the region and the culture and will defend their northeastern friends and companions. However, they refuse to accept the fact that racism exists. They accept the North-East, its people and its culture only according to their perceived notions of what it should be like and how northeastern students should do and behave. This kind of racism stems from a much skewed perception of nationalism. People from different parts of the country are free to do what they like but only if they conform to a certain protocol. This is a highly problematic attitude that many people in Delhi seem to have and are unwilling to let go.
Jawaharlal Nehru University has been a safe space for northeastern students in general, as compared to the rest of Delhi. The various northeastern communities are well represented in the cultural, political and academic life in the campus. Cultural events, here, are organized by the students from the communities themselves. This gives an authentic flavour to them. However, even in the JNU campus, students still have to face racism in the form of micro-aggressions rather than violent forms. For example, cultural events are restricted by the administration. The fests have to refrain from serving beef, a staple in most northeastern states. The serving of fermented foods is also frowned upon. Northeastern students are mocked by some due to the different facial features. It is not uncommon for people to demand northeastern students about their identity, culture and race. They are also expected to engage with racially and culturally ignorant remarks, such as “Assam is the capital of the North East”, “Where is such and such state?”, “You do not look like northeastern at all!”, so on. These are things that are taught to us in schools and can be searched on the internet at the click of a button. Yet most people choose to remain ignorant.
There have been many attempts to curb racism against northeastern students in Delhi. Groups like the Manipur Gun Survivors Network, founded by Binalakshmi Nepram, work tirelessly to bring justice to victims of racism. When, in 2014, a fourteen-year-old Manipuri girl was raped by her landlord’s son in Munirka, the panchayat passed a diktat saying that they wanted to get rid of ‘gandey log’ (dirty people), implying that northeastern people were the cause behind all the trouble in the area, Nepram was the first one to tweet about it. With the help of her group and students from nearby Jawaharlal Nehru University, the police finally arrested the rapist. Other attempts, such as the Bezbaruah Review Committee of the Delhi Police Cell, aim to assimilate northeastern students into the Delhi society. However, the attempts by the government have been futile and half-hearted. Perhaps the most serious drawback is that there are no specific anti-racism laws in the Indian Constitution. The closest that one can get to justice being delivered on racism is the Prevention of Atrocities Act against SCs and STs, 1989. This leads to a lot of loopholes. While a person from a Scheduled Tribe from the northeast can file a case on grounds of racism, the same cannot be done by a tribal from Central India, for example the Gond tribe.
The need of the hour is change, not just in laws but also in education and perception of people regarding the North-East. Along with ignorance, there is also a lack of respect and interest in the cultures of the northeast. Such issues will not end with mere laws and acts nor will the public be enlightened by fests and events highlighting the ‘northeastern culture’. It remains to be seen how the government will handle the issue, given its lackadaisical attitude towards the Northeast.
Photo-credit: Keisha Kashyap
Keisha Kashyap is a research scholar in Japanese Studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies in JNU. She is from the North-East and takes an active interest in learning about the various cultures of the North-East and the rest of India. Her hobbies include reading books and mangas, listening to music, especially Japanese and Korean music, watching videos on YouTube and Anime, taking care of stray animals and trying out funky hairstyles.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.