My Distant Cousin, India

It's not about law and order but the alienation that students from the Northeast face in the 'mainland' Updates
My Distant Cousin, India
Narendra Bisht
My Distant Cousin, India
N-E Writes Back

What do Northeast youth really think of Delhi? Take a look at a students' guidebook:

  • Delhiites are possessive, manipulative and selfish
  • Common crimes include rape at the slightest opportunity, assault and false marriage proposals
  • Don't extend tribal hospitality, wear tight clothes or leave your door unlocked. Watch out for blackmailers, cheats, pimps, fake NGOs, fake sales deeds, fake government officials
  • Avoid close contact with sweepers, plumbers, neighbours and other unknown visitors
  • If the house owner harasses you, contact MP/bureaucrats

At 2 am last Sunday, a 20-year-old Delhi University student and call centre worker from Meghalaya went out for a breath of fresh air with her flatmate in her still-bustling South Delhi neighbourhood. She returned two hours later, raped by four men who dragged her into their grey Santro car, drove all over town and dumped her near the original spot. For most Delhiites, she became yet another chilling number in the over 500 such cases that are reported every year in this "rape capital". But for the thousands of young men and women from the Northeast who flock Delhi, the city of opportunities, the message was not just about collapsing law and order but another rude reminder of their 'outsider' status.

It took her flatmate, Milli, who escaped from the abductors' clutches, less than a minute to raise the alarm; but neither the policemen sitting in their parked van nor the late-night diners at the corner dhabha came forward. That callousness, and a daily stream of jeers and lewd gestures, is something that nearly every woman from the Northeast faces when they leave home for what they call the 'mainland'.

"I can't walk anywhere, at any hour of the day, without men stopping their cars or chasing me on their scooters, shouting after me, making me wonder if there's something wrong with me," says Savitri Chettri, a 22-year-old from Sikkim who works a 12-hour shift as a waitress at an Italian restaurant in South Delhi. "I try very hard to dress like a lady but it makes no difference to them—they think I must be either from the Philippines or Japan, never an Indian."

Hat Neu, 25, a graduate from Delhi University who now supports herself as a waitress while she studies for the civil services examination, agrees: "They don't take you seriously, no matter what you wear. They think everyone from the region is a good-time girl."

Monalisa Changkija, editor of an English daily in Nagaland's commercial hub Dimapur, points out: "There is a complete lack of understanding on women from the Northeast by people elsewhere in the country. Our so-called westernised lifestyle is only a facade, and in reality we follow strict moral values."

"There is a clear attempt to isolate women from the region as a different entity altogether just because their features are different," agrees Hasina Kharbih, who heads the Impulse NGO Network in Shillong.

Going to the police is not helpful. "A friend of mine once caught a cyclist who was following her, singing a song," points out Chawng Chuana, who heads the Delhi Mizo Students' Union. "She knocked him down and complained to a policeman who was standing nearby. But he let the man go, and told her that she should focus on her studies rather than book men under eve-teasing." Which is why, according to Chuana, the girls don't go to the police unless they are in dire straits. Like one student living outside the campus who was locked in her room and assaulted by a neighbour. "She went to the police to complain but they shooed her away. Even we couldn't persuade the police to register the complaint." Over 400 students from the Northeast had to go on a protest march before they could get the police to act.

But such flexing of their combined muscle is rare in the northeastern community here, with each tribe and even clan setting up its own welfare body or church to look after its own. "Almost everyday a girl from the Northeast is molested on the roads of Delhi," agrees another student leader, Khamchinpau Zou. "It's part of the racial discrimination we face all the time." As president of the All India Tribal Students' Association, Zou says he has spent most of his nearly 18 years in Delhi rescuing fellow northeasterners from the clutches of local rapists, ruffians, landlords, employers and even the police than in pursuing his law degree. A look into the bundle of letters that his association receives every year is instructive. In one letter, six Manipuri students appeal to the association to get their friend, Thangjamgamba, released from police custody in Gandhi Vihar. His crime? At 9.30 one summer evening Thangjamgamba went for a walk in their neighbourhood with five friends. "Suddenly, Twinkle, a known local dada, began abusing us, calling us Paharis, Chinese, Nepalis." It didn't end there: "He began pushing us and when we asked him why he was doing this, he said 'Nepali hai hai' and hit one of us with a brick." The petition continues: "We called the police who took us to hospital for a medical check-up. Meanwhile, the officer in charge at the police station kept abusing us and threatened us with dire consequences if we did not agree to compromise, saying you are Nepalis, you can't fight against the local people. Don't complain against the local people."

"What people outside the Northeast don't understand," says architect Lalbiak Mawia Ngente, former head of the Delhi Mizo Welfare Association, "is that there is no entity called the Northeast. It is a mini-India, with eight states, each with a dozen or more tribes, none of whom gets along with the others. But because of our mongoloid features we're all bracketed together and face the same attitude: that we're not part and parcel of India." Ngente says he has been stopped countless times—once even at an immigration counter—to prove his Indianness. "I counter back: What does an Indian look like?" he laughs.

But for most, this is no laughing matter. As Zou says, "It's a two-fold curse: Indians don't think of us as Indians, and then they treat us like second-class citizens." Forced to share an identity that is not of their making, most of the community leaders have been bending backwards to ensure that their tribesmen don't besmirch their collective reputation. Ngente admits that when his association discovered a few of their girls had got embroiled in the flesh trade, the leaders used every weapon in their arsenal to send them back home to Mizoram. "We first talked to the girls, then threatened to tell their parents, then coerced them to go home," he recalls. A similar response greeted Sunday's rape incident, with community leaders spending the first few hours ensuring that the victim did not belong to their tribe. "I can assure you," says Spain Lingon, secretary of the Delhi Khasi and Jhantia Welfare Association, "that the girl is neither from the Khasi nor Jhantia tribes."

But with thousands of young men and women suddenly pouring into Delhi from the northeastern states in search of jobs in call centres, hotels, malls and restaurants, community leaders are now waking up to the fact that welfare associations can't just be about feasts, carol-singing and Christmas parties. "Next week," says Lingon, "all the community and church leaders from the Northeast will sit down to discuss our common problems." The leaders hope to get every new migrant from the region to register themselves at their respective associations "so we can keep track of them". Besides, they want to lay down some ground rules, such as what to wear, where to go and how to live for their youth who, according to them, are deprived of parental guidance. "At home, our culture is different—young men and women mix freely, can stay out as late as they like, but Delhi is not home," says Ngente.

May sound suspiciously like moral policing, but it's a regimen student leaders like Zou seem more than happy to comply with. Wearied by the endless complaints of harassment and violence against them, Zou says it's time they changed their "tribal outlook" and integrated with the mainland. Zou blames his own leaders for corrupting the youth, introducing them to the high life and encouraging them to stick together and not socialise with the community they live in. "Our youth are not interested in building bridges with the people they live with. If you wear inappropriate clothes and don't speak Hindi even after living here for several years, what else do you expect? Unless you discipline yourself, how can the police protect you? Anywhere in the world, if you go around drunk when everyone else is sleeping, who will protect you?"

However, such moralising is unlikely to go down well with the fiercely independent spirit of these young tribals. As a young BPO worker, Linda, asserts: "Whether my parents are here or not, it makes no difference to my lifestyle. Everybody knows what is right or wrong, we don't need anyone telling us."

Linda has an unexpected supporter in sociologist Ashis Nandy. "Trying to break the stereotype by becoming different is of no use," says Nandy. "Most people in Delhi know nothing about Northeast culture. The only stereotype they have is that they are outsiders. Any foreign woman to them is fair game, and according to them the women are foreigners—lacking morality, used to sex and therefore a little more can't hurt."

But that's why, Zou says, it's time that the people of the Northeast form their own lobby in Delhi. "You have the Bania lobby, the Punjabi lobby, the Jat lobby, the Bengali lobby, the south Indian lobby, the scheduled caste lobby and the Christian lobby. So why not a Northeastern lobby?"

Sheela Reddy with Wasbir Hussain in the Northeast
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