Attacks on people from the Northeast are increasingly being reported from all over the country. In February, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) set up a committee headed by MP Bezbaruah, member of the North Eastern Council, after the death of Nido Tania, a 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, in one such attack in New Delhi. The committee was asked to examine the growing instances of attacks on people from the Northeast and make appropriate recommendations. It submitted its report in July, but the attacks continue.
A dispassionate reading of India’s history helps in understanding the root causes of the attacks and the failure of the government to stop them. The Aryans came from outside the region that is today known as India and the distinction between ‘Aryas’ and ‘Anaryas’ formed the foundation of ancient India. Over the centuries, this distinction metamorphosed into the caste system, essentially based on varna (colour). The system prevailed over all the reformist religions, including Buddhism.
Indeed, Indian civilisation was built on an edifice of racial bigotry. Yet, most Indians do not believe that they are racist. Just as the Northeasterners find it hard to believe that there is racism in the Northeast as well.
This denial is part of State policy. “Categorical distinctions of ‘race’ or ‘national or ethnic origin’ have ceased to exist and race itself as an issue does not impinge on the consciousness or outlook of Indian citizens in their social relations,” the Indian government had stated in a report to the UN Committee on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 1996. This continues to be the government’s position even today.
Based on experiences of racism across the world, the UN has defined racial discrimination under Article 1 of the ICERD as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin, which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life”.
Going by this definition, Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla, who has rightly been raising his voice against attacks on Northeasterners in other parts of India, needs to consider whether the way the minority Brus and other non-Mizos are treated in his state amounts to racism or not. It cannot be denied that discrimination and violence along ethnic lines is a reality in the Northeast.
As for the Bezbaruah Committee’s recommendations, they fail to address the problem adequately. Can implementing the recommendation for a “visible face of the Northeast in New Delhi” help put an end to the acts of violence and discrimination? The repeated attacks on Northeasterners in Bengaluru expose how parochial many of these recommendations are.
While police helplines for Northeasterners could be useful, the police often do not know which provisions of the law to invoke in such cases. They regularly discount “racial motivation” even though racism is not defined under Indian laws. The response of the authorities has been to invoke the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. But this cannot be done, for instance, in case of attacks on the Meiteis of Manipur, who are of Tibeto-Mongoloid origin like the other Northeasterners, but are not listed as a Scheduled Tribe.
Even in the Nido Tania case, the trial court dropped charges under the Atrocities Act as the CBI had not produced the ST certificate of the victim. And for reasons best known to it, the CBI had earlier dropped the murder charge against the accused. These are extremely significant procedural lapses.
To combat racism, India first needs to recognise that there are acts of racial discrimination, which is natural in any diverse society. And then we need to enact a specific law with specific procedures to try these offences. Unless such a law is enacted, the attacks shall continue even if a “visible face of the Northeast” is established all over the country.