It rakes up attitudes and discrimination in a supposedly liberal Bangalore

Investigation of the mysterious death of Manipuri student Richard Loitam has taken an intriguing turn even as the police continue to probe into the possibility of his death being caused by a road accident.

Based on the nature of wounds the 19-year-old sustained, which include multiple injuries to his forehead, chest, face and thighs, an opinion has emerged among forensic experts that the boy was beaten by more than the two students. A case of murder has been registered but there have been no arrests yet.

While experts are yet to establish the exact cause of the death, the police and the college management agree that Loitam was attacked on the night of his death.

Brawl or racism?

But ever since the teen's death made national headlines, activists and journalists have agonised over one question — was it an attack on a human being or a crime against humanity?

During the April 29 “Justice for Richard” protest in the city, there were murmurs about racism and hate crime. But protest leaders were quick to dissuade the agitators from making such claims.

“The brazenness of the attack has the classic symptoms of racism,” argues Johnson Rajkumar, Associate Professor of Visual Communication, St. Joseph's College, who also hails from Manipur.

Greater access

Asked how the alleged attackers (one from Jharkhand and the other from West Bengal) could feel more empowered than a boy from Manipur, Mr. Rajkumar says: “It is a question that people from mainland India have to answer. It is well established that people from the mainland — Tamil, Bengali, Hindi, or Punjabi — enjoy greater access to the social web than those from the northeast. We are never made to feel part of the pan-Indian nationalist discourse. Our textbooks have nothing to say on the socio-political history of the northeast. Is this not racism?”

Outpouring of support

The outpouring of support for Loitam from people across the northeast has its roots in the common experience of hostility and isolation that these people face on a daily basis away from their homeland, says Mr. Rajkumar. “The Richard Loitam case was just a trigger,” he adds.

Both Mr. Rajkumar and Chittibabu Padavala, a New Delhi-based Dalit thinker, agree that cases such as Loitam's death should ideally evoke a debate around the reasons for the epic migration of people from the northeast. “They are running away from a life of violence where the state plays the role of a facilitating agent,” alleges Mr. Rajkumar. “They willingly occupy the fringes of society in the mainland because it is still better than the situation back home. If they are not empowered at home, they will always continue to be second-grade citizens in the mainland,” he says.

Not-so-simple

Inspector-General of Police (State Intelligence) Gopal Hosur, however, feels that the subtle game of inclusion and exclusion is an inescapable reality. “To a north Indian I am a Madrasi. To a Tamil, I am a Kannadiga. To a Kannadiga I am from north Karnataka. Who is to put an end to bracketing?” he asks.

Conceding that the problem of people from the northeast is far more complex, he says, “but the answer is not more policing.” Referring to an experiment in New Delhi where the police tried to institute special security steps for people from the northeast starting with maintaining a record of their identity and address, Mr. Hosur says: “The move triggered an outcry with people accusing the police of racial profiling.”

More engagement

The solution, all three agree, lies in policies that will engage with the northeast. “There needs to be a greater effort to promote social interaction and introduce northeast studies in the curriculum,” says Mr. Rajkumar.

“An ombudsman from States such as Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya in Karnataka would help. This person can address grievances of the community in addition to promoting socio-cultural interaction. The police can play a limited role in this,” says Mr. Hosur.