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Is India Racist? Curse Of The C-Word And Why There Is No Line Of Control When It Comes To North-Easterners

The racist slurs hurled at North-easterners living or travelling outside their region is akin to what the Blacks face in the West

Is India Racist? Curse Of The C-Word And Why There Is No Line Of Control When It Comes To North-Easterners
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Being a Northeasterner in India is not easy—a shadow of suspicion, that oddballish mistrust, tails each one who ventures west of those river valleys and forested highlands of the tourist brochures. Ask Nido Tania, lynched in Delhi. Or Richard Loitam, bludgeoned to death in Bangalore. There are more and some are lucky to be alive, spared to live the trauma of being unaccepted by their own countrymen for just being someone from a region with faces or food habits that does not agree with the typical Indian trademark. They suffer the humiliation every day, like dying a thousand deaths. The constant “othering” is a grim reminder of the majority’s contempt for a distinctive minority—the “Chinkies”— that often translates into bullying. That also begets a kind of reverse-racism when a member of the majority checks into the minority’s territory where tables turn in the form of numbers. So, any non-native is a Dkhar in Meghalaya or a Haring/Haliang in Arunachal Pradesh. But these are not words minted recently. They existed from long ago, primarily because most tribes and communities of pre-Independence, pre-British times lived an isolated life content with their remoteness. Anyone outside the immediate cluster was an enemy. Times have changed, as has the context. The shades of “anti-outsider” have paled over the years, but the crumbling stucco on both sides of the chicken’s neck that ties India with the predominantly tribal Northeast continues to reveal the fissures. More pronounced in the “mainland” of the Dkhars than in the land of the “Chinkies”—because more and more of them have come out of their historical self-isolation to study or for jobs in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and the like.

The racist slurs hurled at Northeasterners living or travelling outside their region is akin to what the Blacks face in the West. The C-word is equivalent of the N-word—outright negativity directed at another person, the “other” person. How does racism look like? What are its forms, hues? Is looking “different” a crime? Are their foods “disgusting”? Are they really “uncultured”? “Are you from China?” This is the most common question a Northeasterners must answer because many have Mongoloid features. This may seem trivial for others. But it questions a person’s identity and nationality. An Indian soldier from Nagaland may be the bravest at the frontier (the Naga Regiment’s bravery at the Kargil war is stuff of legend), but he wouldn’t be spared the “Chinky” insult in plainclothes—mostly when returning home on a train, tired and lonely from months manning a position along the hostile India-Pakistan border—the Line of Control, the LoC.  

There is, however, no line of control when it comes to racial prejudices. Efforts are made to raise awareness through films, visual art, books et al. The film Axone—titled A Recipe for Disaster in English—was made in this direction. It is moderately successful in showcasing and creating awareness about Northeasterners. The title itself is self-explanatory—full of the pungent punch that has driven many landlords in Indian metros to hound their tenants (mostly students) from the Northeast out of their flats, sometimes at the dead of night. Axone, or akhuni, is fermented soybeans from Nagaland, known for its sharp ammonia-like flavour that the uninitiated compare with unwashed, sweaty socks. Kanji of northern India, the purple carrot drink, would raise the same stink if left to ferment a few more days in its raw form. If kanji is the flavour of Holi, akhuni or its like is integral to kitchens in the northeastern hills.

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Much of the bias, thus, springs from ignorance and pre-conceived notions. This lack of knowledge can be quite galling at times. This leads to tragic events—young men and women are killed in racist attacks, people spat on, called names. Nido, a young student from Arunachal, was punched and kicked to death because a few people in the neighbourhood didn’t approve of his hairdo and taunted him about it. He protested. How did he dare! The “Chinky” had to be taught a lesson with blows. One of the characters in Axone was inspired by Nido. It was important to tell his story. This is also the story of many like him. Nido’s death sparked national outrage; those who know and love the Northeast and its people hung their heads in shame. The authorities promised safeguards—one such is the Delhi Police’s wing to protect people of that far-off region. Yet, a girl from the Northeast couldn’t escape the “corona, corona” jeers when she went to buy groceries during the pandemic-induced lockdown in Delhi. A Mizo girl was called “corona” by a woman at a Pune store. Just for her looks, the girl was seen as a “Chinese”, and hence a carrier of the virus. That same taunt was hurled at nurses from the Northeast working in Calcutta around the same time. Around 300 of them packed their suitcases and left the metropolis. There are ample reports of instances when nurses were denied entry into their rented apartments or hostels after a long, tiring Covid shift. Even hospital administrations are accused of not helping them. In Delhi, a 40-year-old man spat at a woman from Manipur and called her “corona”. He garnished the slur with lewd comments. Such cases are dime a dozen, all “lived” experiences for many from the Northeast. The slurs rained more after the Galwan faceoff—“the “Chinky” conveniently morphed into “Chinese motherf***r”.

Nido died for his K-pop dyed hair. Many have been attacked for similar, trivial reasons. The assailants didn’t like the “other” person—that’s the only excuse. The hatred leaps from many fronts, especially the distinctly different culinary culture in the Northeast. Dog meat is one of them. All Nagas are painted with a broad brush and mocked, especially by animal lovers, as dog-eaters. Some tribes do eat dogs, but tiny Nagaland is a land of 16 major tribes and fierce headhunters. Just as not all are headhunters, not all are dog-eaters. It’s the same as calling an Aghori sadhu a cannibal because a small amount of them, driven by the highest form of tantricism, eat flesh from corpses for moksha. There’s no instance of death threats on Aghori babas for “cannibalism”, but Nagas were issued one—a dog lover and activist put out a video on social media in which she carried her rant to extreme and declared she would behead any Naga she came across. Nagaland Police arrested her in Mumbai for the hate speech. Nagas questioned why a chicken or a goat’s life—both common food—was not as sacrosanct. Point but there are no easy answers as food habits develop over time and are based on availability. What is undeniable is people’s right to choose their food.

With the big reach of social media—of course, with pros and cons—and other platforms, there is more information available. More and more people are becoming aware. Television advertisements show a lot more NE faces than what it used to a decade ago. Then again, prejudices are hardwired to the human psyche—which explains why an Assamese or a Khasi in Meghalaya has a repertoire of racial jokes about his neighbouring tribe. Racism against the Northeasterners is wrong and the reverse against the “other” by the Northeasterners is equally wrong.

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