By Neelanjana Paul, KLE Society’s Law College, Bangalore.
The post-colonial Indian nation comprises of vast geographic, linguistic, ethnic, religious and racial expanse; even after over six decades of Independence, India remains overwhelmingly Gangetic valley centric. The notion of India and Indians in Delhi continues to be heavily coloured by the ethnic and racial profiles and prejudices of the Hindi-Punjabi belt. Much of the negative perceptions of the North-East Diasporas owe their origin and existence to the perverse policies of the central government toward the region and its people. This realisation must be the beginning of an earnest endeavour to address the issue.
The murder of a young man in New Delhi has apparently exposed the bigotry, intolerance and prejudice that many North Indians harbour toward their countrymen from other regions of the huge, sprawling subcontinent. On Jan. 30, a 19-year-old first-year student named Nido Tania from the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh died from injuries he suffered from a beating allegedly administered to him by shopkeepers at a South Delhi market who had earlier mocked him for his longish, stylized, dyed hair, effeminate clothing and East Asian physical features (by reportedly calling him ‘chinki’). The brutal attack on Nido Tania, a young boy from Arunachal Pradesh, by a crowd, in a busy New Delhi market on January 29 and his resultant death has shocked the country and shamed the national capital.
The young men and women from the North-East, frustrated with their day-to-day social, physical and emotional persecution in the city, vented their frustration by taking to the streets. The central government, in its stock-in-trade response, constituted a toothless committee to look into the issue and also conceded the family’s request for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe. In popular discourse, the dominant interpretation of the shocking incident is in terms of racism, abhorrent to civilisation and antithetical to the culture of a liberal plural democracy.
Tania’s killing triggered a wide round of protests in Delhi by students from north-eastern India who demanded political intervention. The Indo-Asian News Service reported that the students have called for the government to enact an “anti-racism” law – asserting that the attack on Tania was motivated by racial and ethnic hatred. The protesters held up placards which read “Why are we treated like outsiders?” and “We are Indians, too.”
It is intriguing because there is no historical context of the North-East having ever clashed either politically or racially with the rest of India except for the brief Mughal invasion in the 17th century which no one except a few academics remembers. There is no toxic residue in the collective historical memory of India about the region that could go towards inciting racial violence against the people of the North-East.
A racial explanation is inadequate as the consciousness of race is innate in human nature and a crucial ingredient of identity formation. It is benign per se vis-a-vis others until there is a clash of interests between them. The north-eastern Diaspora in the national capital does not impinge in any significant way on the political, social, cultural or economic space of the city and thus their presence precludes any clash of interest with those who regularly abuse and vandalise them physically and emotionally. This abuse is unarguably one way. The north-eastern Diaspora in India is socially and emotionally ghettoised.
A mere racial distinction fails to offer a satisfactory explanation for attacks like the one on Nido and day-to-day humiliation of the people from the North-East. These are indeed manifestations of a maliciously noxious perception of them in the rest of the country, more so in the national capital engendered by a mix of corrosive notions of their racial and regional identities.
The central government too has always looked at the North-East differently from other parts of the country. Its predominant perspective of the region is geo-strategic — a troubled periphery surrounded from all sides by countries either out rightly hostile or ill-disposed towards India. The acute sense of insecurity that New Delhi felt in the initial decades after Independence, largely due to presence of hostile East Pakistan and China in the neighbourhood, shaped its entire approach to the region and its people.
India sought to deal with its perceived strategic insecurity in the North-East by insulating the region from the rest of India. It restricted the two-way flow of information, ideas and people between the region and the rest of the country. Abysmal infrastructure, inhibitory regimes of Inner Line Permit that restricts an Indian from visiting large areas of the region, and a perception of rampant insecurity kept the Indian public ignorant and at bay.
Ill-founded and maliciously concocted anecdotes of the region dripping with monstrous negativities shaped the popular perception of an ordinary Indian about the region. The result is, the country knows very little about the region, its people and its rich culture and what it knows is certainly un-celebratory, skewed and often toxic.
In the initial decades of Independence when some handful of tribal militias launched insurgencies, the central government declared the whole region ‘dangerous and disturbed’ under various laws, including the notorious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, flooded it with the Army, Assam Rifles and other central paramilitary forces and created a war-like situation. Its dominant narrative became a sustained defensive war to safeguard the territorial integrity of India.
The logic of war determined every move of the central government to the region. The national mainstream media gave the region a short shrift. Manmade human tragedies of horrendous magnitude went unreported or grossly under-reported to the Indian public. Even today, more often than not, the journalists reporting on the region have hardly an alternative to the handouts and authorised official briefings for the security related news.
Even though the context has radically changed and militancy today is no more than a mere shell of its earlier self, the central government’s attitude to the region remains anachronistically trapped in the past. Its distrust of the region and its people persists. Rarely anything good about the region reaches the rest of India. The continual stream of negatives about the region permeates the popular perception of the region.
The state apparatus of New Delhi is callous and often hostile to a North-Easterner. Looking at the police response to the Nido Tania episode we can deduce that Nido’s sole crime was his refusal to swallow unmerited racial slurs heaped upon him. He vehemently protested the gratuitous insult and in return was pulverised by the very people who had abused him. Bystanders, instead of restraining the assailants, joined their ranks and battered him. The guardians of law demonstrated their wilful indifference to Nido’s grievous injuries and instead of setting the routine process of law in motion– registering a criminal case and taking Nido to a hospital for his medical examination — shooed him off.
Ironically, all this happens to the North-Easterners despite the fact that they are the least troublesome, police records bear testimony to that. Shopping malls, restaurants, star hotels, the tourism industry and private hospitals in the capital and other cities are increasingly being managed by the young men and women from the North-East.
The rabid racism against North-Easterners in New Delhi is largely a function of the government-inspired disdain and suspicion of the region. The central government must introspect. Persecution of the North-East Diaspora will continue so long as New Delhi is glued to its orthodox perception of the region being ‘dangerous and disturbed’.