Racism in India has so far been debated in relation to the caste question but the northeast question is an opportunity to imagine modes of collective living which go beyond lip service multiculturalism

While the Supreme Court may have relegated LGBT people back to the closet (at least legally) the issue of racism in India on the other hand — with the vigilante raid against African women and now Nido Tania’s death — has been outed and we can either choose to confront it or continue to live under the delusion that all is well in our multicultural wonderland. And if the issue is out, it is perhaps time to differentiate between racism with a capital R and racism with a small r, or, in the world of the media blitzkrieg that we inhabit we could distinguish it as front page racism and footnote racism. Nido’s death — shocking as it is — is merely symptomatic of a much larger systemic malaise of how we deal with cultural difference in this country. While racism occasionally manifests itself in the form of hate crime it is felt most acutely as an everyday phenomenon in the form of snideness, smirks, casual references to someone being “chinki” and morally upright judgments about clothing and sexuality. On that count, it would be difficult to find a single northeastern Indian who has not at some point faced the brunt either of unwelcome banter or culturally curious questions (“Is it true you eat snakes?”) whose naïveté would be touching were it not so offensive.

Ignorance and prejudices

The ‘racism’ word understandably provokes a fair amount of discomfort since it presents an unattractive picture which stands in sharp contrast to the official “unity in diversity” rhetoric. And yet it is a little ironic that even as we fume with righteous indignation at the treatment of Indians in the United States or Europe, we are shocked when we are accused of racism ourselves. Even if we were to agree with detractors who argue that it may be rash to characterise Nido’s killing as an instance of a hate crime or a racist attack and that it was just an instance of hooliganism that could have happened to anyone, it is a little difficult to forget that the comments about his looks and hairstyle which prompted Nido’s angry response smacked of racism. Nido’s death is a sad testimony to the fact that we are able to speak about systemic everyday racism only when confronted with the capital R variety.

Commentators have observed that the cultural ignorance and prejudices have always existed in India citing the familiar example of how all South Indians are “Madrasis” and those living north of the Vindhyas are clubbed “Punjabis.” But it is important to recognise one crucial difference in the way that people from the northeast are treated. While a north Indian may be called a Punjabi or a South Indian a Madrasi, the markers are still within the rubric of Indian nationhood whereas it is not uncommon for northeastern Indians to be hailed as Chinese, Japanese, Nepali or Korean. One of the placards in the protest against racism in Delhi on Saturday read: “We are confused and scared in our own country. What shall we call ourselves? Indians? Nepalis? Chinese?” When was the last time someone from Delhi was called an Afghan because of the similarity of his or her facial features? Kashmiris on the other hand can equally testify to the generous bestowing of indiscriminate citizenship having been accustomed to being called Pakistanis.

In the protests and the debates on media that have ensued, one of the recurring themes and slogans has been “We are Indians too.” While this is understandable as a claim of equal citizenship it is also a little disturbing since it casts a burden on people from the northeast having to prove their sameness rather than assert the right to be different. What then of the expatriate Japanese or Chinese community? Do they abrogate their right against non discrimination because they are not Indians? By framing the experience of racism within a limited rubric of citizenship alone we run the risk of obfuscating questions of national identity with questions of belonging. It is in fact ironic that groups who have proudly claimed their self-determination on the basis of their unique identity have to respond to the experience of racism through a sentimental language of citizenship.

A truly cosmopolitan ideal is one in which a city or a country can belong to you even if you do not belong to it and while it is tempting to resort to a liberal plea for promoting cultural awareness and the importance of “mainstreaming the northeast” — the complicated history of the northeast with its various self-determination movements and armed struggles requires a slightly different imagination of multicultural citizenship — one in which we move not from cultural difference into sameness but from cultural difference to cultural difference.

Opportunity to imagine

Racism in India has so far been debated in relation to the caste question but the northeast question is one that allows us an opportunity to imagine modes of collective living which go beyond the lip service multiculturalism of exotic floats accompanied by tribal dances in Republic Day parades. The presence of northeastern Indians in “mainstream” India extends the very concept of India and demands a political and ethical imagination beyond inclusion into history textbooks and speedy trials of hate crime cases alone; it asks instead what it may mean for the mainstream to be open to be northeasternised, for Maharashtrians to be a little more Bihari’d and to acknowledge that a plurality of hairstyles and food cultures only enriches our collective selves. The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze once remarked that it is better to be a schizophrenic out for a walk than a neurotic on a couch — perhaps a bold imagination of our diversity demands that we be comfortable with our multiple identities if we are not to collapse into the neurosis of the singular.

Incidents like the Richard Loitam, Dana Sangma and now Nido Tania cases have the possibility of opening many old wounds which have only been tenuously resolved in recent times. It is not surprising that in the midst of the protest against racism, one protester chanted “Hame kya chhahiye? Azadi chhahiye.” This was echoed by many others who were there. It was a spontaneous act but one that stands witness to the fact that even if the Azadi is not about self-determination any longer, it echoes an underlying sense that they have never belonged. If we fail to understand that the call for freedom first and foremost emanates from the struggle against racism and discrimination, we run the risk of collapsing into what Tagore once described as a world broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.

(Lawrence Liang is a lawyer and researcher with the Alternative Law Forum. Golan Naulak is with Our Little Stories, currently based in New Delhi.)

More In: Comment | Opinion