The country’s many minorities require a comprehensive anti-discrimination law.
The shallow cosmopolitan veneer of India’s capital city Delhi is mouldering and peeling, revealing ugly remnants of a chauvinist majoritarian population uneasy with difference. Young people from distant corners of the country — and indeed from far countries of the world — converge on the metropolis to study and find work. But they learn soon enough to live with suspicion, hostility, condescension and stereotyping as a way of life in this unwelcoming city of opportunities.
The murder of Nido Taniam, a young first-year graduate student from Arunachal by men in Lajpat Nagar marketplace who taunted him for his appearance and hair-style, tore open like a festering pus wound the long-suppressed collective anguish of young people from North East India. They surged for angry demonstrations before police stations and at Jantar Mantar, speaking out about rampant sexual harassment and violence faced by young North Eastern women, random hate violence against North Eastern young men, barbs by classmates, work colleagues, landlords and strangers, and bias in police stations, classrooms and surprisingly hospitals. The cold uncomfortable word they used to describe the discrimination they routinely face was ‘racism’.
Their grief mounted further when a 14-year-old Manipuri girl working as a domestic help was raped in South Delhi’s Munirka as she was returning from a medical store. The rapist, her landlord’s son, was photographed by some CCTV cameras as he cruelly dragged the girl, leading to his arrest. But Munirka has a khap panchayat which met along with members of the Resident Welfare Association; and instead of condemning the rape by a young man of their community and finding ways to make the colony safer for women, they decided to evict tenants from the North East: Their resolution was reportedly to clean up the colony by throwing out from it the North Eastern ‘trash’: the word used was gandagi.
The hurt and anger of North Eastern residents of Delhi was doused by diplomatic interventions by the local police by organising meetings between North East residents and members of the khap panchayat and Resident Welfare Association, who agreed finally not to evict peaceful and law-abiding North Eastern tenants. But the fear remains that there will be a low-key ‘cleansing’ of the area in the way that Khidki was cleared of most of its African residents just months after the racist attacks on them by vigilante residents led by a Minister.
The anguish of migrants to the city from India’s North Eastern states is firstly about the stereotyping to which they are subject. All North East women are believed to be of ‘easy morals’: sexually active and promiscuous. All North East men are believed to be drug-users. In Munirka it was claimed that young North East men indulge in regular boisterous heavy drinking and drug use, as though men from other communities including the local Gujjar and Jat youth do not drink or abuse drugs and all North Eastern men do. Leading newspapers and TV news channels thought nothing of prominently carrying speculative news reports after Nido Taniam’s killing (subsequently proved false) that he may have died not because of hate assaults but drug overuse.
Young people from India’s North East also feel wounded by the routine ignorance of mainland Indians about the North East, and how they are not regarded to be Indians. Classmates and colleagues do not take the trouble to learn and pronounce their names correctly, assume they are Chinese or Nepalese, sometimes actually ask them if they need passports, and call them ‘chinky’. Meitie Vaishnavite Hindus from the Manipur valley dream of the day they can make a pilgrimage to Brindaban in Mathura, but the priest often bars their entry into the temple, dubbing them maliach or unclean foreigners. History textbooks very rarely carry the histories of the North East states. A teacher in a South Delhi college asked how many students had heard of Rani Lakshmibai, and every hand went up. When she asked how many had heard of Rani Gaidinliu, the Naga heroine of India’s freedom struggle, hardly any student responded.
People also bunch all eight states from the North East into one, ignoring the enormous linguistic, cultural, ethnic and religious diversity within these states. Arunachal alone is home to 150 tribes and more languages than any other state in the country. Yet for mainland Indians, all North Eastern residents are just ‘chinkies’, and they clump them even with residents of Ladakh and the higher reaches of Himachal Pradesh, and people from Nepal and Tibet. It is long overdue for all textbooks to include the histories and cultures of various North Eastern states, underlining their contributions to India’s rich diversity.
It is extremely challenging for a young person from North East India to find a house on rent in Delhi. They report discrimination by teachers and employers. The country’s many minorities — religious, ethnic, caste, disabled and sexual — require a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, one of the many unfulfilled promises of the out-going government.
But more importantly, residents of the city need to reflect on ways that this city, which welcomed millions of refugees from India’s Partition a few generations ago, should now learn to welcome with friendship and open hearts other peoples from India and the world, who come with their dreams to this city and make it their own.