By Utpal Borpujari
On June 26, 2009, Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla said at an international seminar in Singapore: “I am a victim of racism. In India, people ask me if I am an Indian. They ask me if I am from Nepal or elsewhere. They forget that the North-East is part of India.” This April 24, during a conference in Aizawl he again said, “You (rest of India) continue to ask for our passports at hotels and airports… It means you don’t accept us (North-Easterners) as one of you, as Indians.”
Lal Thanhawla’s comments last year, made when racial attacks against Indians in Australia had been hogging headlines, made instant headlines. But the fact is that people from the North-East face regular discrimination, including physical attacks and snide remarks, in other parts of the country because they don’t look, well, “Indian”. And it is the women from the region who come to study or work in places like Delhi or Pune, who bear the brunt of such “racist” attitudes, going by statistics and media reports.
Take for example the incident of October last year, when a PhD student of IIT-Delhi allegedly burnt a young Naga girl to death in her rented accommodation in south Delhi because she had repeatedly spurned his advances. A couple of years ago, another young girl from Manipur was gangraped in a moving vehicle after she was forced to get into the car near Dhaula Kuan in the capital. In Pune, an incident of an allegedly racial attack on four Naga students had created news in the middle of last year.
These are just but a few examples, and according to Madhu Chandra, spokesperson for the North East Support Centre and Helpline (NESCH) that was set up some years ago to provide help to victims of such incidents in the National Capital Region (NCR), which witnesses probably the maximum number of such cases, a study only reaffirms the trend. The study found that 78.75 per cent of those covered had faced racial discrimination, been called “chinkies” or “Nepalis” and made to feel like “strangers in their own land”. Chandra says NESCH, which coordinates with student community organisations from the North-East, has handled 34 cases since October, 2007, 41 per cent of which were of sexual abuse, 18 per cent of beating by locals, 12 per cent of rape, and so on.
The feeling of insecurity that North-Eastern women get especially in northern India is reflected in what Laisram Indira, a Manipuri journalist now based in Australia, says. “In Delhi, I lived for 14 years with prejudices everyday. It took a lot of time to find acceptance and assimilate with neighbours. People would find any excuse to pick a fight with us. I had to fight for acceptance on an everyday basis because people just treat you as an outsider who cannot speak the local language… the media in India went berserk over the unfortunate attacks on Indians in Australia – if only they got berserk when North-Eastern girls were molested or raped!” she says.
Nalini Deka, professor of psychology with Delhi’s Indraprastha College for Women, puts the blame on this attitude on the sheer lack of information and exposure of the rest of the country to the North-East. “It has created a sense of psychological absence of the region in the minds of policy makers, politicians and the bureaucracy, and the only image that it creates is of tea, floods, insurgency and perhaps the exotic,” she says. “One way of increasing the exposure is to have state-funded study groups of young people that will invite non-North-Easterners to various centres of learning and research to write, report on the socio-psycho-political issues of the region,” she says, something that Chandra agrees to.
Chandra says the attitude of both people and police towards North-Easterners in the NCR is shocking. “People from the region, particularly girls, are considered strangers here because of their look and unique culture. The feeling is that do whatever one likes with them, and they will not have anyone to help them. But most shocking is the attitude of some of the police, who refuse to file cases of molestation or sexual assault until pressure is mounted or the media take up the cases,” he says.
The Delhi Police, which had received flak a couple of years ago for issuing “one-sided” instructions to North-Eastern students on how to dress, eat and behave, issued a “zero tolerance” policy against incidents faced by North-Eastern people after the murder of the girl by the IIT student. But, Chandra says the promise by Delhi government to set up a Helpline and a North East cell under Delhi Police has been just lip service. Chandra says while he has lived in many parts of India earlier, he has not faced anywhere else the kind of everyday humiliation he faces in Delhi. “Majority of the Indian society actually does not know the North-East. When I say I am from Manipur or Nagaland or Mizoram they just cannot locate us geographically, and would insult us by calling us Chinese, Nepalese or Japanese,” he says.
Mumbai-based film editor Pallavi Baruah Kotoky, who went to college in Pune, has another interesting view to offer. “When I first landed in Pune, most of my classmate used to tell me – ‘you look different’. Their problem was I didn’t look like a North-Easterner as I didn’t fit into their preconceived notion of what a person from North-East is supposed to look like!” she says.
At the same time, she points at another aspect that aids continuance of this sort of ignorance to some extent. “Most students from the region have a tendency to hang out only with people from their own state. It is natural to feel insecure in a new place, but many of us choose to restrict and stick to our own narrow safe and secure world instead of mixing with others.” Prof Deka shares the view, pointing out that girls from the North-East tend to relate only with their own kind, not even with other tribal groups from the region. “When you isolate yourself and communicate only with one another in your language you are treated as a stranger further increasing the social distance,” she says.