By Abhishek Saha,
Nido Taniam, a 20-year-old boy from the North Eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, had a trendy haircut—long auburn hair, all spiked up. He was a student at a private university in Jalandhar. Like most people from the North East, Taniam had an East Asian appearance—especially single-fold eyelids—and loved music. His dad is a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Arunachal Pradesh.
On January 29 Taniam was lynched, with iron rods, to death by shopkeepers in Lajpat Nagar area of Delhi.
The lynching was the fall-out of a brawl because his killers had poked fun at his hairstyle when he asked them about an address in the locality. The jibe was spurred because Taniam’s different look. Because Taniam was chinky. And because, in that moment of ferocity, those Delhiites—three of whom are now under arrest—fell to that bottomless pit of hysterical racism where compassion has no space.
This is, of course, not an isolated event. Young people from the North East flock to Delhi for studies and jobs—mostly owing to the lack of opportunities back home—and have constantly suffered the brunt of racial violence in the national capital.
In 2009, a 19-year-old Manipuri girl was raped and murdered in Munirka. Another Manipuri girl was raped in March 2010 and the Delhi police refused to file a First Information Report (FIR) by her until members of her community protested for two hours outside the police station. A Delhi University student was molested by a cab driver in 2010. And more recently, after Taniam’s death, a 14-year-old girl from Manipur was sexually assaulted by her landlord’s son also in Munirka earlier this month.
But these cases are only the tip of the iceberg whose huge mass is skirted under water.
People from the North East staying in Delhi complain of a subtle yet vicious everyday discrimination that they face—be it for their appearance or their dressing sense, heartland Indians do come up with something or the other to poke them with.
“I think that people in Delhi are inherently racist. I have walked past people taunting me innumerable times,” says Raikom Terang, a member of the Karbi tribe from North East India who has lived in Delhi for a long time now.
He adds, “I don’t know if it’s envy or fear. May be they just don’t understand us and our culture. As hard as we try to assimilate, we will always be the ‘other’.”
This cultural gap, which Raikom talks about, is also prominent in a number of steps taken by authorities to curb the menace of violence on North East women. For example, a booklet released by the Delhi police in July 2007, asked North Eastern women not to wear “revealing” dresses and “avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily. Dress according to sensitivity of the local populace”.
“The fact that they hail from societies that are culturally more permissive than mainstream India highlights their otherness in the eyes of other Indians,” writes Nilanjana Bhowmick in her article Nido Taniam and Racism in India in Time magazine.
The lifestyle of people belonging to indigenous communities have differed from that of mainstream societies. Their food habits, dressing style, appearance and other cultural aspects are totally different from the almost homogenised population of urban India. But, if that, leads to hatred against them leading to barbaric violence, then something is fundamentally wrong.
Young Assamese journalist Arunabh Saikia, who works for the online media portal newslaundry.com in Delhi, says that there is a prevalent notion in Delhi that women from the North East are ‘easy’ and, ridiculously enough’, people from North East eat ‘weird’ food and live in jungles.
He says, “It’s all part of the larger narrative. We mainstream Indians hate anybody who don’t look, eat, talk, pray the same way as us.”
The lack of Indian heartland’s understanding of people belonging to indigenous communities has to be seen in a larger context. The Central government, the national media and geographical estrangement of the North East from the heartland, all play important roles in what culminates as common people from the North East being graded as the ‘other’.
Tanmoy Sharma, a postgraduate student of Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi says, “Nation-states after all require an ‘Other’ within itself, the ‘Mongoloid Fringe’ of the Northeast being one in this case, to negate it, thereby asserting its identity and power for constructing itself.”
He adds, “What other psychological factors, if ‘unconscious’, can explain the state’s prolonged persistence in ruling several millions people within its territory with a blood-thirsty law like the Armed Forces Special Act in Manipur (AFSPA)!”
From the merciless bombing by Indian Air Force fighter aircraft on Aizawl (capital of Mizoram) to crush the Mizo militancy in 1966, to the utter neglect of Irom Sharmila’s fast –which has now entered its fourteenth year—for repealing of the AFSPA in Manipur, the Indian state has always shown a certain degree of apathy towards its North Eastern sisters. All the North Eastern states combined has fewer Lok Sabha seats than any large state like West Bengal or Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu.
Moreover, other than terrorist attacks, military combing operations or the visit of a high-profile politician the national media hardly covers anything related to the North East.
As long as such an indifferent attitude persists in the minds of ‘heartland’ Indians in every walk of life, the mere acceptance of people from ‘the periphery’ will be difficult, leave aside their assimilation.