The fears surrounding COVID-19 have fuelled an old prejudice against people from the north eastern States who are living and working in Pune. The label ‘Chinese’ attached to them now comes with added xenophobia, insensitivity and verbal attacks in public places.
Last week, Hmingtei Chhangte, a working professional from Mizoram, was subjected to humiliation in Reliance Mart after a shopper in the same aisle created a ruckus, saying she could be a carrier of COVID-19.
Narrating the ordeal in a Facebook post, Ms. Chhangte said the woman covered her face each time she passed by her and when Ms. Chhangte asked her what the matter was, the woman began to scream and shout, gesticulating that Ms. Chhangte had been ‘infected’.
While the staff intervened to calm the woman down, Ms. Chhangte, who has been living and working in Pune city for a decade, left the store feeling insecure and disheartened.
“We have received at least 10 reports of racist or xenophobic incidents from people from north eastern States, because of their features. Women, especially, are very uncomfortable venturing out of home. They face ‘coronavirus’ taunts while going out to buy groceries or even taking children to a park,” said S.K. Souriio, former president of the North East Community of Pune. At times, those creating a ruckus do not even have the courtesy to listen to the explanations and protestations of people from the north east who say they are not Chinese citizens, but Indians, he said.
In another case, a woman, who did not wish to be named, said she was startled to hear cries of ‘ Coronavirus aa gaya ’ (coronavirus has come) when she went to purchase a protective face mask in the city’s Sanghvi area.
“It is our humble request to Pune’s citizens to desist from passing such racist comments or taunts, which hurt members from the north eastern States. This is a virus that is afflicting people of all races and communities. North, South, East or West, no part of the globe is secure from its scourge,” Mr. Souriio said.
Mr. Souriio also said they had met the Pune Police Commissioner and the Deputy Collector to apprise them of such incidents.
K. Pritam Singh, who hails from Manipur and is general secretary of Association of Manipuri Diaspora said there were cases of students from the north-eastern States being branded as ‘coronavirus’ in jest. “At times, even so-called ‘educated’ people take potshots at us while there have been incidents where shopkeepers or other people call us ‘Chinese’ in public places like trains and bus stations. While we do not want to accuse anyone, we just demand a little sensitivity in these grave times,” he said.
Another professional, who works at a multinational company, said people from the North East faced prejudice at the best of times, making them feel alienated from the mainstream even though they were Indian citizens.
“Since we look different, we are anyway subjected to such xenophobic and racist insults. Now, I have sinusitis and I if I sneeze in a flight or an air-conditioned room, I wonder how my co-passengers or other people will react. Will they get angry that I am not taking precautions as I am ‘Chinese’, or will I even get a chance to explain to them that I hail from a north-eastern State?” she said.