“Between me and you,/ I think, /Everyone’s a little bit racist—John Tartaglia, Avenue Q
In 2007, a booklet brought out by Robin Hibu, an IPS officer from Arunachal Pradesh then posted as Deputy Commissioner of Delhi Police, drew sharp criticism among the North-eastern community living in the capital city. Titled as Security Tips for Northeast Students/Visitors in Delhi, the booklet was full of instructions for the migrants of Northeast India, right from how to cook food to how to dress. One such instruction said “bamboo shoot, Akhuni and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighbourhood”.
For Hibu, a 1993-batch IPS officer from Arunachal Pradesh, one of the eight north-eastern states, the booklet was a ‘brotherly advice’ to the north-eastern community so that they could assimilate well with the people in Delhi and avoid racial discrimination. However, Hibu’s instructions did not go well with a section of the community. It criticised the senior officer of cultural imposition and moral policing of women from Northeast India.
Comprised of eight states and home to over 200 tribes, Northeast India is famous for its pungent and aromatic food. The cuisines are prepared by extensively using fermented spices, beans and bamboo shoots, vegetables, pulses, dry fish, among others. This struggle of North-easterners to cook their food in metros like Delhi is well presented in the 2020 Bollywood movie Axone: A Recipe for Disaster. Directed by Nicholas Kharkongor, it revolves around a day in the lives of a group of friends from Northeast India living in Delhi, who struggle to prepare a cuisine using axone, away from public view on the occasion of one of the friend's marriage.
Axone (or akhuni), a spice from Nagaland, a north-eastern state with a majority of tribal population, is fermented soya bean paste which has a strong pungent smell. It is indigenous to the Sumi Naga tribe and it is used across all Naga dishes. In one scene from the movie, a North Indian landlady in Delhi yells at the tenant girls from Northeast India who were cooking pork meat with axone, “When you rented this apartment, I had told you can’t make that stinky food here.”
Bhogen Goswami, a migrant from Manipur who lived in Delhi for three years (currently Mumbai-based), had a similar experience. He said, “For people from the Northeast, sometimes it is very hard to get rented accommodation in cities like Delhi because of our food choices. I remember once looking for a rented house in Maharani Bagh of Delhi, and a landlord put the condition that we should not cook indigenous food in our kitchen.”
In another experience, while studying in Vadodara, Gujarat, Goswami was told to vacate a room after a woman complained to his landlord, accusing him of keeping "stinky stuff" in his kitchen.
The Ministry of Home Affairs in February 2014, under the Chairmanship of M.P. Bezbaruah, Member, North-Eastern Council (NEC), constituted a committee to look into the concerns of North-eastern people living across India. The report stated, “It was submitted before the committee that many landlords also consider the people from the Northeast as difficult tenants because of their food habits and resent pungent smell that Northeast cooking have due to use of fermented bamboo shoots or soya beans.”
The committee was formed in the light of the Nido Tania murder case in January 2014. Nido, a 19-year-old student and the son of a former Congress minister from Arunachal Pradesh, was beaten to death in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, after an altercation with shopkeepers who made fun of his hairstyle and hurled racial abuse before beating him to death.
Dolly Kikon, a senior anthropologist and author from Nagaland in her paper titled Dirty food: Racism and Casteism in India said, "The prejudiced treatment emanating from ignorance of the eclectic food cultures in Northeast India (Kikon 2013) and the lack of knowledge about the region often means racism is downplayed (McDuie-Ra 2012a). It seems to suggest that Indian racist culture is a result of citizens who are unaware about diversity, while reiterating caste sensibilities about pure and impure food cultures as the norm. Here, casteism and racism feed off each other. The disgust towards food that communities from Northeast India consume signifies how caste authority and privilege reproduces politics of purity and civic order.”
Talking to Outlook, Hibu said, “Look at any school syllabus. Other than NCERT, there is hardly any chapter on our history, people and culture. If someone from Delhi, UP or Bihar, has not read about us, we cannot expect them to understand us. Northeast also has this image of being full of insurgency and that it’s an underdeveloped region. There is miniscule osmosis of interaction between people from the eight states of Northeast with the people of mainland India.”
According to Hibu, the booklet of instructions initially drew criticism from a section of the Northeast community, but the misunderstandings ended after a meeting with the community organisations. Hibu said he felt the responsibility to communicate certain messages to the people from Northeast as an ‘elder brother’.
He said, “We have a different kind of food. We eat many things that are not eaten by the rest of the country. Some of our food like akhuni and bamboo shoot smell strong, so people can object to these foods being cooked in the kitchen. If you cook it, cook it discreetly, away from people. I respect people’s culture and diversity, but at the same time you need to be respectful towards the sentiments of the people around us."
Simon Rongmei, an executive member of Zerenglong Welfare Association, a Delhi-based association of tribal communities of Northeast India, has said that after the Special Police Unit for North-Eastern Region (SPUNER) was established, more cases of racial discrimination against North-easterners have been reported, followed by effective remedial measures on timely basis. The SPUNER was established in 2019 on the recommendation of the Bezbaruah committee. Simon, who hails from Nagaland's Zerenglong tribe, said racial discrimination arising out of food choices comes from ignorance about a community and an upper-class notion of pure food.
He said, “Categorising certain food as stinky or less sophisticated comes from a mindset of class division when the upper caste thinks their food is purer than what lower class people eat. In such cases, asserting one’s identity and recognising one’s identity is very essential.”
He added that food-based discrimination in metros is the main reason behind ghettoisation of North-eastern communities in places like Humayunpur, Munirka and Burari.
“When communities stay in one place, they can cook and eat whatever they like to. Around such communities, markets of north-eastern goodies are flourishing big time," said Simon.
Jyotirmoy Talukdar, Senior Writing Fellow of Ashoka University, who hails from Assam, said that discrimination of tribal communities based on their food is not only exclusive to mainland India, but these cases found within the North-eastern states as well.
Talukdar said, “Cases of discrimination based on food are common even in Assam. Mutton is usually the safest caste-approved meat in the state. In defining civility and couth, pork becomes quite interesting. It is more widely eaten by the Assamese than it is cooked. Caste-Hindu Assamese kitchens are yet to give it access, but the palates have.”
Supporting Talukdar’s statement, Sapna Begum, a student from the Meitei Pangal community of Manipur, recalled how she and her tribal friends used to go to the dining hall of their hostel in Guwahati only after the girls belonging to non-tribal groups were finished eating.
Sapna said, “This rule was made by our hostel owner after the non-tribals living in the same hostel complained of us eating stinky food.”
Talking to Outlook, Sanjoy Hazarika, noted author, columnist and specialist on the North East, said, “Equality lies in diversity and not in uniformity. Article 14 of the Indian constitution guarantees the Right to Equality. We have different traditions and cultures in the North East and food is an integral part of these traditions. So we should respect different food choices even if we don’t eat some foods. This respect should be mutual.”
Pointing out that restaurants on North-eastern cuisines are becoming popular in cities like Delhi, Hazarika said, “It is not just a cultural matter but also a business proposition where unique flavours and dishes of a unique area attract millennials and others seeking new experiences and tastes.
“In Delhi and other cities, there are a growing number of restaurants offering Naga, Assamese and Manipuri cuisines. They don't just cater to people from the region. If you visit these places, you will find customers from other parts of the country and abroad. I often take friends and guests there because I want them to savour good and unique food. I am proud of our rich and diverse cuisines which reflect the range of our very complex communities. This should be encouraged.”
According to Bhogen Goswami, getting irritated by the smell from food being cooked might be a natural instinct, but the resentment should not extend to the point where the person cooking that food is discriminated and not granted accommodation.
Rongmei is also of the opinion that there should be a balance between the two different perspectives of mainland India and North-easterner when it comes to cooking North-eastern food outside Northeast India.
“When you are in a different place, just like we want them to understand us, we also need to understand them. We have to balance it somewhere,” concludes Rongmei.