The Sublime Object of Racism

The very reluctance to frame the attacks on people from the Northeast in racist terms is a symptom of the culpability of those who indulge in garden-variety racism themselves

Earlier that night, after a long time, I met my best friend for dinner at a secluded Korean restaurant in Paharganj, Delhi. The food was good, the drinks cheap, and my friend predictably chirpy and scandalous. To borrow author Mridula Koshy’s words, my friend has “a face that may be unremarkable in these parts, but would be lovely anywhere else”, and a strong voice with an assertiveness perfected through habit. Her skin is darker, her body unabashedly female, and her “lower-caste” history inscribed all over her official certificates. She has been reminded of these arbitrary attributes all her life, as much and as hard as she has tried to dissipate the gruesome memory of her father being shot at point-blank range by the The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), just outside the gates of the colonial bungalow amid the astounding greenery of one of the many of Assam’s tea gardens.

That night, we took the last metro home to arrive shortly before midnight in Vijay Nagar, a quasi-residential area — if one were to be generous — in the vicinity of the Delhi University campus (but more accurately a ghetto that houses a sizeable diaspora of people from the Northeastern region of the country). My friend and I landed right in the middle of a commotion, because the rickshaw couldn’t go any farther. There was a gathering of over 500  people, agitatedly encircling a Delhi Police vehicle.

On enquiring, we found out that a girl from the Northeast had been molested earlier in the evening in the area — to be precise, in a park a few yards away from my room where middle-aged women in their salwars go on walks in the evenings in their sneakers and children play a sort of net-less badminton. Towards dawn that night, from my balcony I watched a young Northeastern boy sitting in the middle of the street, refusing to budge even as the police van moved towards him. There were hundreds of them — mostly young Northeasterners, some curious locals — on the street, agitating at four in the morning. My friend was sleeping soundly.

By definition my friend is a “Northeasterner”: she is an Okhomiya, and she even speaks fluent Baganiya, which is the language of teagarden labourers. In terms of nativity, we do not have much to share. My early years were spent in upper Arunachal, in a small town (but the largest in the district) by the Siang river. Our experience of the ‘Northeast was as different as it could be: her town was marred by insurgency and violence; on the contrary, mine was tranquil and the loudest thing was nature in all its orchestral glory. But here in Delhi, we were, by definition, one type of people, although of different design. She flits seamlessly between institutionally authenticated Indians and other ‘miscellaneous’ Indians. Her repertoire of street abuses comprises ‘baby’, sexy’, ‘r**di’, ‘kalia’, ‘black p***y’, and so on, which is slightly different from mine. Normally, I would not leave my room without my earphones — it is a survival tactic that I have come to value dearly since it helps abate the city’s aggressive habit of honking, but more important, mutes the torrent of interesting abuses hurled at me, which range from ‘chinki’ (a special favourite), ‘momo’, ‘chow chow’, ‘chow mein’, ‘chandni chowk to china’, ‘mirchi’, ‘china’ (a special reference must also be made to Minister Sushma Swaraj’s sympathetic ‘chapti nak’), and so on. As might be expected of me, I also possess the distanced sense of humour to laugh about it all — after all, the story of the lawyer who, under the flattering light of the hip pub, asked me flirtatiously, seductively, if I preferred China or India is a favourite among my coterie.

Various articles in the next few days following the incident shared a similar tone: “...a girl and her cousin hailing from Manipur were allegedly attacked by two men…”, “Northeast migrants protest against the alleged...” According to sources close to the victims, that night, at about 10 pm, while the girl and her male cousin were on their way to the girl’s PG accomodation after dinner at the cousin’s place, they saw a man urinating by the roadside. The man and his friend, apparently inebriated at the time, turned towards the girl, made lewd gestures and called them ‘chinki’ and ‘Nepali’. On being confronted by her cousin, the two men beat him up. When the girl intervened, they beat her, tore her clothes, urinated on her, and attempted to rape her. One of the molesters was the mechanic from the shop beneath my balcony.

Finding themselves arbitrarily compartmentalised together, ‘Northeasterners’ retrieve their agency through the activation of the very identity that is superimposed on them. On finding themselves on the west of the Chicken’s Neck, they embrace the community that they become a part of by default. A long time ago, over a typical late night dinner of bamboo shoot pork, rice and Kingfisher beer (for those who like the taste of the poison), a Bengali friend who was born in Guwahati set the tone for the dinner conversation by stating that she did not understand all the ‘hype’ about racism. To her, she is as ‘Northeastern’ as they come and had never once been reminded of her place because of it. I turned to the other Northeasterner in the room: “No, I have never faced any form of racial discrimination. They often think I am Punjabi,” said my Okhomiya friend from Guwahati. The other person in the room, comfortably seated on the floor with a plate full of rice, thought otherwise. Of Tibetan ancestry and from Darjeeling — which inadequately but proudly passes as not Northeast— he asserted that racial slurs and consequent altercations are unavoidable aspects of life in the capital. Because we cannot carry our face in
our pockets.

In May 2013, Reingamphi Awungshi, a 23-year-old girl from Manipur working at a Saket mall, was found dead in her apartment in Chirag Delhi. She was found lying in a pool of blood with injuries on her nose and toes, clutching a cellphone. The police called it suicide, suggesting that the injuries on her body were caused by rats. According to Reingamphi’s brother, her landlord’s brother-in-law (who was missing at the time) had been harassing her. After three days of protests by the community, the police lodged an FIR. Not more than 200 words were written in the mainstream media about it, creating only a momentary, secluded buzz on social media. In January 2014, the death of the 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, Nido Taniam, at the hands of a group of men in Lajpat Nagar in broad daylight (the same Lajpat Nagar embraced so often and lovingly in popular culture) created considerable furores in the country and abroad. The Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, tweeted about it, the Gandhi scion visited the protesters in Jantar Mantar, and even Arvind Kejriwal added to the limelight donation, so to speak. In one of the Chai shows, titled Racist Hai Hum?, Barkha Dutt devoted about 15 minutes of airtime to the issue. The questions were as varied as, “Do you think the political response is a publicity stunt?”, “What did you think of Mr. Gandhi being here because he was absent in the December gangrape protests?”, “You think Arvind Kejriwal will do something more?”, “Those who think Mr. Kejriwal should start a dharna raise your hand”.

(un)Fortunately, the public discussion of the issue extends beyond which political leader wants to appear sympathetic. In the days following Nido’s death, the media was abuzz with various theories — out of which the most indicative was the theory that he may have died of a drug overdose. In 2007, the Delhi Police released  a  booklet titled Security Tips for North-East Students/Visitors in Delhi, which instructed Northeastern women to not wear “revealing dresses”, cohort with “Africans” or cook “smelly dishes” that “create ruckus in the neighbourhood”, among other things. In 2011, the University of Hyderabad launched an initiative to curb drinking and drug use on the campus by working with students from the Northeast. “We are stereotyped and stereotyping,” says Leki, an M Phil scholar in Delhi, originally from Arunachal. “We are easier targets. There are easier names and meanings which can be attached to us.” She adds, “Interestingly, the person responsible for the booklet, the Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police, Robin Hibu, is also from Arunachal. It shows that at some level, some of us have completely accepted our stereotypes.”

The candlelight vigil for the death of Salouni Akha, a young man from Manipur who was beaten to death by five men in South Delhi in July this year, is quieter than the post-Nido episode. There are few known faces, all from the Northeast this time. Nido’s mother is also present. A few journalists scramble to get to her, even as she speaks to the camera teary-eyed. This time, there is less melodrama and a palpable sense of cynicism. A line from a Lou Reed song becomes significant unexpectedly: “It’s hard to give a shit these days.” Nido’s mother tells me later, “I have many things to say but I’ve forgotten most of it because of emotions.”

As my company whispers to me that the man on the stage has many cases against him, the young, markedly pretty Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma, the 186th descendent of the Royal House of Tripura says, “Not only MPs from the Northeast, MPs from other parts of the country ought also to speak about this. We do not want special rules or laws for us, we only want the same treatment as the others.” On this evening of mourning and scepticism, words such as these which are relatively balanced and rational, can only come from a place of cultivated distance, I think to myself.

In between all the speeches by politicians, I have managed to make a few friends in the gathering. Asen Newmei, a PhD scholar at JNU in the School of Arts and Aesthetics, thinks that the people from the region are systematically targeted: “Why is Nido’s blonde hair such an issue and not the  countless cases of mehendi-dyed hair in the city?” Her friend adds, “Even the case of Salouni... apparently, the perpetrators said to the guy from Bihar who was present at the time, ‘Tumhara maamla nahin hai.’ Still the police calls it road rage”. David Boyes, activist and member of the Bezbaruah Committee, adds that, according to the two friends’ accounts, the perpetrators also repeatedly said, “Maaro! Maaro!’ and, “Why are you here?”.

Shem Raomei,  a health professional, bespectacled and clad in all the markers of middle-class respectability, says if you’re a Northeasterner in Delhi, it is essential to have enormous control and restraint in the face of gruelling daily provocations. Lika, a feisty young woman and the Vice-President of the Naga Students’ Union, says that the societal process of being “othered” is a daily reality. “The problem of staring... it’s not just the men, even in the ladies’ compartment the way we are stared at...” She laughs a loud, throaty laugh and says, “...I don’t know what it is...whether we are too beautiful or just too ugly.”

Meanwhile, Hibu is on the stage, saying, “We are far, far away from home. At least in Delhi, we have support. I get calls from Pune, Agra, Bengaluru and there is no support there.” I think of all the other people from the region who are not fully integrated into the community even in Delhi — the men and women in call centres, the hospitality industry, in spas and beauty parlours, and so on — who are also the most vulnerable as the cases often suggest. “It isn’t that simple. Class plays out here as well. What you and I face in academic institutions is different from what a person who works in a beauty parlour and lives in Munirka faces,” says Leki. She hastens to add, “Of course there are stereotypes which even the educated people make. Isn’t it surprising to meet, well, an articulate, ‘smart’ Northeastern woman?”

After the death of Nido, the Bezbaruah Committee, under the guidance of MP Bezbaruah, was set up to study the problems of Northeastern people living in other parts of the country. According to reports, among the many legal and other recommendations that the committee made, one was to utilise the medium of Bollywood and the Indian television industry to bridge the gap in awareness about the region and its people. The biopic on Mary Kom, the boxer from Manipur, is a big production — many Northeasterners are happy about the movie that seeks to show their home, and that the stunning Punjabi actress, Priyanka Chopra, stars in it is a sign of acceptance and recognition of them on the part of the mainstream Indian community. I am reminded of some people from my undergraduate years — these people were quite lovely on their own but they preferred not to be seen ‘hanging out’ with any cohort of people which had a majority of distinctly Northeastern faces. The excuse was buyable, i.e., they didn’t want to be seen as ‘clannish’. This would normally be a textbook case of post-colonial dilemmas playing out but of course you cannot suggest that the famously colonial subjects are now colonialists themselves, or that victims of racism have become racist, or that Holocaust victims have embraced fascism.

Mary Kom, the movie, rides on the shoulders of a female lead which is in itself a rarity in Bollywood; that it is a story of the ‘miscellaneous India’ that will reach a larger number of people in the country than ever before is cited as reason enough to celebrate it. The questions of why not a Northeastern actress or why in Hindi or who gets to represent a successful, inspiring Indian story are questions that simply ignore the commercial considerations and reflect lack of understanding and short sightedness about the business of moviemaking in Bollywood. After all the hype about the prosthetic eyelids and imported make-up artist, the recently released trailer of the movie was, to be honest, rather disappointing. The language of the movie, i.e., a dialect of Hindi spoken in the Northeast, is superficially appropriated, and the eye-lid prosthetic-cum-make-up technique seems to have utterly failed. At best, it looks like an Indian version of a technically poor but intending-to-be inspiring blackface minstrel show. Boyes stresses that “commercial Bollywood needs to be sensitive, which it has clearly failed to be.”

There is clear resistance by the mainstream community and the state to identify the issue as racism. The public discussion starts from tactical and politically correct sympathy and ends at semantics, i.e., the argument that it may well be a case of targeted discrimination but ‘regionalism’ as a cause is as reliable as any. “I think our idea of violence has become very warped. It’s like people are waiting for murder or rape to happen to acknowledge that racism, gender violence or casteism exist. The attack on a lawyer from Arunachal at Tis Hazari court was not taken seriously because it wasn’t gruesome enough. It’s because violence has been repetitive, contempt is repetitive,” says Leki. Phurpa Tsering, a student and activist from Arunachal, says, “I think there is a stark contrast in the perception of recent crimes. People not from the Northeast attribute the crime simply to the generic levels of high crime rate in Delhi. However, what they fail to realise is the disproportionate levels of crime perpetrated against the people from the Northeast. According to a recent study by Jamia University, 88 per cent of women from the Northeast have faced sexual harassment at least once during their stay in the capital as compared to only 54 per cent of women from other parts of India. Thus, there is an exclusive character of the crime, and thus, when put to its logical conclusion, it boils down to just racism.” I ask Boyes if Northeasterners as a community are too sensitive, since after all, the crime rates in Delhi are in fact very high. He says, “Many Northeasterners die or are assaulted in the city every day. We only take up cases which are clearly based on racial profiling.”

Yoko Ono’s charlatanism and Lennon’s platitudes are often amusing — on a good day even likeable. Although, when they sing, “Women are the n****** of the world”, I feel a certain unease that may be shared by many. It’s as lazy as the generalisations reflected in statements such as, ‘but Indians from every part of the country face it’, or ‘all women face it’, and so on. Discrimination is a reality but the more specific and accurate reality is that there are many forms of discrimination. We can either choose to diagnose it accurately or get by (or die in this case) saying, c’est la vie.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2014