On a trip to Lahore once, I was struck by the cultural similarities between my hosts and myself. We liked the same food, lived in similar surroundings, and shared the same jokes. It was an altogether friendly experience, separated by a border. On a similar trip to the Northeast, I realised how different I was from the local population. Despite the cordiality, the cultural and ethnic connection of my hosts was closer to China. Yet, I felt gratified that our differences were not a source of alienation, and that the boundaries of nation states were in fact not cultural, social or culinary boundaries.
But through most of India, the Northeast evokes an ambivalent response. Nido Tania’s death is just one of many incidents that has again focussed attention on racism and public attitudes to both foreigners and Indian citizens. Last year, when two women of Chinese descent from Singapore were molested in Goa, the police delayed the registration of their complaint with the excuse that they thought the women were from the Northeast. Two years ago — triggered by an SMS hate campaign — many Northeast residents were forced out of Karnataka back to their home States fearing racist attacks. Only when the Rapid Action Force was deployed in Bangalore did the exodus stop. By then 30,000 people had already left the city. Similar campaigns by Sena activists in Maharashtra have led to marches against Bihari outsiders. Despite the media uproar, little or no action is taken and race issues are brushed aside as being insignificant.
Different responses However, racism outside the country elicits an altogether different response. When actor Shahrukh Khan is frisked by American immigration authorities, it is racial profiling at its worst, and causes a diplomatic crisis.
Four years ago when Indian students — mainly of Punjabi origin — were the target of racist attacks in Australia, incensed and outraged protests were staged against Australians, both in India and abroad. Calls were made for diplomatic ostracism and a boycott of Australian universities. Had those students been of Northeastern origin, would the protest have been as muscular and vehement? Why is the Indian outraged at racism directed at him abroad, and not at home?
Psychologists will say that the Indian’s deep-seated inferiority is rooted in a past of subjugation, the colonial despair of feeling second rate. But a deeper resentment now emerges as a form of by-polar urbanism where protection of self and turf is paramount, and always guarded against any invasion. Unfortunately, when the insularity of neighbourhoods is viewed as a positive attribute, Ugandan women in a Delhi mohalla will continue to be seen as an unacceptable intrusion in middle-class urban culture; as will the Danish and other Europeans, if they abandon the tour buses and start walking down the local streets. The assertion of Indian racist self-worth is always more palatable when weighed against foreign cultural comparisons.
Will then, Indians of African descent, the Siddis, settled in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka ever be truly accepted as Indians? Would Ugandans, if they settled down in India, ever become citizens with full rights, just the way 12,000 Indians have in Uganda? If Indians from the Northeast are not accepted into the mainstream, does that then weaken the case for Arunachal Pradesh being an integral part of India? If indeed mainstream India is unwilling to accept the Northeasterner’s Indianness, why then is the Kashmiri’s position questioned? Is the Indian Kashmiri’s applause for Pakistan at a cricket match as much a betrayal as a resident Indian supporting the Indian team against England in England? The answers probably lie in the larger issue of who is an Indian anyway.
Many Hindus still believe that they are the true settlers of India. Muslims, they maintain, became settlers only through invasion, and Christians through missionary imposition. On the other hand, Muslims — and many Hindus — believe that cultural assimilation is the true strength of the country; while some regard aboriginals as the only original inhabitants of India. Whatever the merits of the debate, once cultural and ethnic contamination — rather than purity — is accepted as the overriding theme of Indian identity, questions of who is Indian become redundant.
Till then, Assamese women will continue to be groped on the metro; at bus stops, Mizo nurses on their way home will be seen by many passing motorists as easy prey. Africans anywhere will be presumed to be drug addicts and suppliers. The enforcing of such stereotypes is a cultural flaw, an acid test for an urban culture that oscillates between modernity, tradition and barbarity, often in the same breath. However long a Ugandan woman may live in a Delhi mohalla , or an Arunachal girl in a Bangalore suburb, they will not be invited to join the residents’ welfare association. Sadly, the stamp of “Resident Alien” is permanently fixed on their ethnicity. The Indian is an unforgiving and ruthless host, living by the rules of some imaginary past, uncomfortable in the rapidly changing present, and completely disconnected with his future in the city.
If anything, the insular state of urban life demands a serious look at outsiders by those who consider themselves insiders. Is a lack of assimilation a threat to cultural integrity, or is the current state of racial exclusion essential for religious and ethnic purity? The answer may shape India’s urban future.
(Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer.)