Two students from the North-East have died unnatural deaths in the last few days. Dana Sangma, a student from Meghalaya studying for an MBA at an institute in Gurgaon, committed suicide after she was accused by her college of cheating; Richard Loitam, a student of architecture from Manipur, was found dead in his hostel room in Bangalore from head injuries. In both cases, there have been allegations of callousness by the college authorities and by the police in investigating the deaths, and in Sangma's case, of driving her to taking her own life by discriminating against her. It took protests by the community of North-East students and others in these two cities and interventions in Parliament for the police to register a case under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Act in her case, and to start murder investigations into Loitam's death. While it is for the police to establish if college officials abetted Sangma's suicide, and to trace the culprits responsible for the other student's death, it is hard to disagree with the impression that has gained ground in the North-East after these two incidents that the institutional response might have been swifter had the students been from “mainland India”. Despite the increasing presence of people from the seven North-Eastern States — students as well as economic migrants — in all the major cities of India, there is a collective prejudice against them that is undeniable.
The prejudice is driven by racism, no less, and there is no point mincing words or being coy about this. This racism manifests itself on the Indian street in rude comments, stares, and facile judgments about the lifestyle and morals of people from the North-East. Such attitudes put women from the region at particular risk of sexual harassment and worse, as several incidents over the past few years have sadly demonstrated. People from the ‘seven sisters' — and especially from Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland — also face difficulties finding accommodation in many cities outside the region. The same is true of Kashmiri students and migrants, who often have to deal with the added burden of being harassed by local law enforcement. Last year, the Union Home Ministry issued an advisory to all States asking that Kashmiris not be singled out unnecessarily for police reporting merely because of their origin. Now the MHA has promised there will be “zero tolerance” for crimes against people from the North-East. India has spent an enormous amount of blood and treasure safeguarding its physical territory from militant groups, secessionists and foreign powers. It is time we stopped being insensitive towards the people who venture inland from those boundaries to seek a better life.