Saturday, 1 February 2014

India's north-east and racism

The death of a student from India’s north –east in Delhi raises disturbing questions about regional integration and racial profiling.

Nido Taniam has been killed. He was beaten mercilessly by the “locals’ in South Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, a popular residential area for students and migrants from India’s north-east.

Was his death an act of racism? Or, an altercation that went out of control leading to his death?

The mainstream and the social media are swarming with messages of protest over the death of young student from Arunachal Pradesh. Many see it purely a racist attack and are organizing rallies to demand swift police investigation. The unfortunate incident has ratcheted the thorny issues of racism in regard to India’s oriental looking citizens living in other parts of the country.

Let’s step aside from bigger issues of policy, politics and militancy that always forms the core of debate whenever north-east is discussed, and focus for while what brews tensions when people from the north-east and “locals” live side by side.
Apart from the students, Delhi has seen a huge influx of people from the north- east, Darjeeling and Nepal over the last decade. Many of them with basic education have found jobs in the retail sector and the call centers.  Many more are now employed with restaurants  and work as security guards.

Almost unseen to an outsider and sandwiched between posh neighborhoods of South Delhi is Munirka village. It provides affordable accommodation to thousands of students, young professionals and other migrants from the north-east. It's crowded, cosmopolitan and is bustling with small businesses. Many of them have opened small businesses here. Small rooms have been turned into chapels.

Raju, one the local landlords, who is a Jat, tells me how Munirka village has transformed in last 15 years. He says when the oriental looking people first arrived, the locals thought they were from Korea or Japan. 'We had no idea such people existed in India’! He admits that landlords have benefited because of people from the north- east house rent has gone spiraling.

Raju says, “ I have no problem in renting out rooms to them as long as they don’t create trouble and are well behaved.” But there are issues: there is a cultural clash and some locals feel their lifestyles are ‘immoral’ and they bring in foreign (western) culture. “We don’t want our children to be influenced by them”, says another landlord who has stopped renting rooms to people from Manipur. She assumes all people from the region to be Manipuris!

It is also true that many from northeast promote cultural values that they might not necessary practice back home. Deepak is from Darjeeling works in a retail shop. He tells me about the deliberate and arrogant attempt by the some young people from the north-east to show that they are different. He says, “many keep to themselves, and that creates a problem.”

For those who understand the north-east would know that there is not much cultural assimilation in the region, but when students travel to other parts of the country, they unite under one banner and assert themselves as “north eastern”.    

Once in Delhi, they increasingly find difficult to get along with the local mainstream cultures. Regional sentiments run high. They complain of racism when referred as ‘chinkis’.

Group fights are a regular phenomenon amongst those who resort to hooliganism in university hostels and in residential areas, and in many instances they are more about personal issues, which can have fatal fallout.

But why this alienation amongst students who are young and have an opportunity to do well?

First of all not much have been done to facilitate the acceptance of people from the northeast in the local societies. It’s not easy given the conservatism that already hounds the local communities. The government has to educate the people through community building programmes and tell that people from the north-east are also Indians.

Universities and boarding schools must adopt programmes to integrate students from different states. It has to be a part of induction and fresher’s day parties, and any regionalism mustn’t be tolerated. A robust mechanism involving students from various backgrounds needs to be put in place to fight any sort of racial abuse in educational institutions. Police  should be sensitized.

Also, students from the north -east should try to develop broader national outlook and get over with petty regional issues and divisive ideologies. North-east also has a lot of successful people, they need to serve as ambassadors to promote harmony and talk to students from the region.  
Finally, the media mustn’t act responsibly and not prematurely see the attack on Nido Taniam as a hate crime.  Whist his killers must be brought to justice, but raking the issue as a hate crime will only create further rift and mistrust between communities which is not desired.