The deathly shadow of racism

With subtle and overt discrimination against people of the Northeast in the ‘mainland’, internal racism is back to confront us with the uncanny question: Who and what constitutes the Indian nation?  

Nabanipa Bhattacharjee Delhi 

The twin deaths of Richard Loitam (April 18, 2012 in Bengaluru, Karnataka) and Dana Sangma (April 24, 2012 in Manesar, Haryana) within a week’s span has sparked widespread debate about the treatment meted out to young students and professionals  from the northeastern region of India, those of Mongoloid racial stock in particular the region is home to a large number of non-Mongoloid people too. These incidents remind us of the summer of 2009 when, following the alleged racist attacks on Indian students and professionals in Australia, the government of India intervened at the diplomatic level to address the matter. The issue of attacks in Australia generated heated public discussion in India regarding racist attitudes and inclinations of sections of white Australians. 

In June the same year, Pu Lalthanhawla, the chief minister of Mizoram, speaking at the International Water Week in Singapore, said: “In India, people ask me if I am an Indian… They ask me if I am from Nepal or elsewhere. They forget that Northeast is part of India. I have told many that see… I am an Indian like you” (The Shillong Times, June 26, 2009).  His remarks did trigger a debate on the racist attitudes of Indians but, predictably, the debate died after a while. Except for a few media houses that discussed the issue, it was an open and shut case for the rest. 

“India is one country, one people…united and well-integrated…the issue of internal racism is a lie spread by the media,” remarked a political party spokesperson in a debate hosted by a popular television house. Understandably, he was in  uncomfortable terrain; he had perhaps never imagined that an issue such as racism, which until now he had accused the Australians of, would turn up in his own backyard and, worse, have to be addressed publicly. Perhaps, internal (Indian) racism was something that required, if at all, to be discussed in private conversations and exclusive academic spaces, but, preferably, brushed under the carpet in the public domain. However, after three years and two unfortunate deaths, the issue of internal racism is back to confront us with the recurring but  extremely important larger question: Who and what constitutes the Indian nation?  

Simplistic though it may sound, the question about the location of Northeast India within the accepted parameters of the Indian national imagination is one that has remained unresolved — academic and policy deliberations notwithstanding. Beginning with the architects of the Indian nation to the ideologues of the numerous secessionist and separatist outfits that dot Northeast India’s political landscape, the status of the Northeastern states and their people in the Indian nation state has never failed to cause persistent anxiety and conflict. As a region, largely populated by tribes drawn from Mongoloid stock, its present cartographic coordinates were drawn during the partition and independence of India in 1947. 

Connected to the rest of India or "mainland" by the chicken-neck corridor that passes through West Bengal, the region is a victim of the political blunder committed 64 years ago. In course of time, the seven states, plus Sikkim, that occupy the geographical space in the northeastern region of India were clubbed together to launch the expression "Northeast" and, interestingly, an independent union ministry, DONER, was set up to look after and manage its affairs. For New Delhi, the "Northeast cliché" represented not only a distinct physical space but also one that was "essentially" made up of a similar kind of people, at least racially. Indeed, the region and its people required  treatment that was not only distinct and special but also "different".  

It is obvious that for the Indian State its northeastern region, surrounded by international borders on three sides, was, and has, remained a "trouble zone"; a zone marked by clandestine immigration, inter-tribal conflicts, militant movements, cross-border terrorism, and so forth. The Delhi-based leaders and administrators handled the affairs of the region by according it a "special status", apparently with minimum interference in its political and cultural matters. Following anthropologist Verrier Elwin’s advice to Nehru on "tribal affairs" of the Northeast, latter day administrators and policymakers never realised that, despite ample government funds pumped into the region and the principle of non-interference in "tribal matters", there always remained a sense of utter disconnect between the people of that region and those outside it. 

It is about a large (non-monolithic) community of diverse, ‘different’, culturally (racially) segregated people who never quite made it to the heart of the Indian nation 

The northeastern region, notwithstanding the conflicts that lay within, emerged gradually as a region that was less a benign geographical expression and more an active, cultural one; the process of cultural (racial) stereotyping began with the onset of colonial rule in the region and anthropologists during and after that, perhaps unintentionally at times, contributed to that. The politics of (in)difference played out by the Indian State caught up with the "mainstream" Indian imagination and the Northeast gradually came to occupy the place of, if not a "permanent outsider", then surely a "distant insider". 

In short, more than half a century after independence and tall claims of unity amidst diversity, national integration and other similar slogans, the nationalising project of the Indian State appears to have fallen on its face. It is ironical that even 64 years after independence, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram has to repeatedly state that the Northeast is an integral part of India and its people are the nation’s own people; after all, aren’t PA Sangma, JM Lyngdoh and T Sangliana, for instance, "well-integrated" Indians?

Indeed, slogans such as "unity in diversity" had more often than not served the homogenising agenda of the Indian State and its ruling class; accordingly, diversities were either gainfully incorporated or rejected outright. The unity that the Indian State claimed to have achieved was therefore only a partial and exclusive one for it was done at the cost of hierarchising diversity itself. 

The ranked classification of diversities created permanent categories such as insiders and outsiders within the Indian nation and its scheme of things; who/what actually deserved to be called and recognised as an "authentic" Indian was also the prerogative of the State and its dominant, power-wielding apparatus. In fact, it is this process of "Otherisation" that has always defined the trajectory of the growth of the Indian nation. 

“We do not let houses to students and professionals from the Northeast,” declared a middle-aged landlord in a South Delhi locality. Upon further questioning, he began a long narrative about his reservations regarding choice of tenants for his house, which he said, would exclude Northeast(erners), Muslims and Habshis (of Abyssinia, generally meaning coloured Africans). Among other complaints, he alleged that the members of these three communities are: “(a) meat and what not eaters (b) heavy smokers, drinkers and drug addicts (c) morally corrupt and sexually promiscuous (d) dirty and "ritually" unclean (e) provocatively dressed and (f) carriers of dreadful, communicable diseases.” (Personal interview, November 21, 2011). 

The question about the location of the Northeast within the accepted parameters of the Indian national imagination is an issue that has remained unresolved 

This gentleman refused to make a difference between the social characteristics and legal status of these "three" otherwise distinct communities. He said that, though the Africans are foreigners, the other two are no less even if they claim to be Indian. While Muslims are established "traitors", the people from the Northeast “do not even look like Indians”, not to mention their foreign and alien culture. 

The cultural (racial) profiling of Mongoloid-featured people across India is marked by an element of everydayness. Pejoratively addressed as "chinkies" and "Chinis" (Chinese),  either ignored or routinely harassed (sometimes violently) in public places, schools, colleges and universities. It is rare in the colleges of the University of Delhi, for instance, to see a group of tribal and non-tribal friends in a collective; a college student who grew up in Delhi told me: “Northeast(erners) tend to live in ghettoes and never mix with anybody. Plus, we also don’t show much interest because they are so different in food, clothes, habits, and so forth.” 

Delhi (in fact, NCR) is relentlessly projected as a site and space of cultural confluence. The capital is "committed" to accommodate with dignity people coming from all parts of India. Hence, if Delhi is relentlessly witness to such racially profiled practices, then should fingers be pointed at other towns and cities of the country? After all, if Delhi has shown the way, can Bengaluru be far behind?  

The stereotyping of Northeast India (obviously not unlike some other regions/communities in the country) is not an uncontested process. Distanced from the so-called nation-building process, the various communities of the Northeast have resisted such move(s) over the years, sometimes peacefully, or else by regular violence.

The protests by students and activists in Delhi following the deaths of Loitam and Sangma are an extension of that tradition of (peaceful) resistance. The issue of cultural (racial) profiling says much more about this region than what was and is always commonly perceived; that the region is neither about western music and fine handicrafts nor violent and mindless inter-community conflict alone. It is also about a large (non-monolithic) community of diverse, "different", culturally (racially) segregated people who perhaps never quite made it to the heart of the Indian nation. 

‘We do not let houses to students and professionals from the Northeast’

Notwithstanding the complexity of the marginalised location — critical counter arguments about "that kind of location" such as "(mis)use"/selective use of the category of tribe (tribal identity) to access the nation’s resources "without the inner desire" to belong to it; or tribal ignorance about other non-tribal communities/regions of India also need to be noted. In the "national imagination", we urgently need to re-visit and debate the matter — certainly not to unquestioningly jump for the "bogey of racial profiling" but to seriously examine whether that was the twilight zone which could have driven young Loitam and Sangma to their untimely deaths.     

The writer teaches sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, South Campus, Delhi University.

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2012