The Ugly Skin We Live In

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Once again, it takes a mindless death to expose the ugly underbelly of New Delhi. People from the Northeast have long complained about discrimination in the national capital but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Will the death of 19-year-old Nido Taniam change anything?

Taniam, the son of an Arunachal Pradesh MLA, was studying at a private university in Punjab. Last week, he arrived in New Delhi to visit friends and relatives.

According to media reports, this is what happened. On 29 January, Taniam was at Lajpat Nagar and asked a shopkeeper for directions to a friend’s house. The shopkeeper made jibes at his appearance, especially his bleached hair.

After a verbal spat, Taniam broke the glass door of the shop. The shopkeeper and his friends smeared chilli powder on Taniam’s eyes and thrashed him. Soon, the cops landed there and packed off everyone to the nearest police station. The dispute was resolved after Taniam was made to cough up Rs 10,000.

Surprisingly, the police dropped Taniam back at the same spot where the tiff had taken place. Once the cops left, the shopkeeper and his friends attacked him again. The police returned and this time both sides “amicably resolved” the dispute and even signed an apology letter.

After Taniam returned home, his friends claim that he complained of chest pain and went to sleep at around 6 am the following morning. Around noon on 30 January, they took him to AIIMS, where he breathed his last.

Taniam’s cousin Arun Chamrak says he was shocked to hear about the violence because Taniam was not a hot-tempered boy. So, what then angered the young Arunachali?

The police are treading with caution before giving the incident a racial tint. “We are waiting for the scientific evidence through the post-mortem report, viscera report and the toxicology report in order to determine the line of investigation,” says Delhi Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat. “We have testimonies but their veracity can be corroborated only when the scientific evidence is in.”

Meanwhile, Taniam’s parents have joined the protests in New Delhi, which are being led by Taba Doni, the general secretary of the Arunachal Students’ Union. “In Nido Taniam’s case, all we want is justice and that the culprits be punished according to the law. We will continue our protests until then,” says Doni. “How come we never get justice? Look at the Richard Loitam case in Bengaluru and the Dana Sangma case in Haryana. The government has not resolved those cases and this case too shall die down like that. We are tired of this racial discrimination.

“In the past six years I have been here, I have been disappointed and discouraged by repeated comments based on my appearance such as ‘Chinky’. These are all based on my race. It is time the government passed and enforced strict anti-racial laws in the country.”

Politicians wasted no time in throwing their two bits about the way that people from the Northeast are mistreated and how it should be stopped. The media also came out all guns blazing against the Delhi Police, but failed to recognise that the root of the issue was actually an attitude problem.

In 2007, when Darjeeling boy Prashant Tamang came up trumps in Indian Idol, the popular reality TV show, a radio jockey named Jonathan Brady remarked on his show Khurafati Nitin that “shopkeepers would have to make alternative security arrangements because Gorkhas had now taken to singing”. The Nepalese community took offence and protested and the information & broadcasting ministry was forced to step in. Not surprisingly, many Delhiites merely smirked at the jibe that reduced the Gorkhas, known for their courage and valour in battle, to chowkidars or security personnel.

TEHELKA spoke to many students from the Northeast and each one had his/her racism anecdote to narrate. Just like people from the rest of the country, Northeasterners also come to Delhi for the quality education on offer. But they stand out because of their Mongoloid looks.

The neglect of the Northeastern states, torn with internal conflict, is probably emblematic of the way that people from the Northeast are treated in the country’s capital.

In February 2013, locals made racial slurs and attacked 10 Manipuri students at Katwaria Sarai in south Delhi. The police had refused to lodge an FIR and the Northeast Support Centre had to intervene before a complaint was registered under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which attracts stronger punishment than simple assault charges under the Indian Penal Code.

“Whenever we pass through a crowded street, people pass obscene comments like ‘How much for one night?’ as if we are prostitutes,” says Babina, a Manipuri student.

In another incident, Khomba H was trying to squeeze his car into a narrow parking spot in Delhi. It led to a pile-up of cars behind him. Two youths on a bike remarked mockingly, “Yeh Nepal nahin hai. Kya kar rahe ho? (This is not Nepal. What are you doing?)” “This smacks of racism. If I had been someone else, the guy would have said something in anger but not used a racial slur,” says Khomba, who is a Gurgaon-based professional.

Kawplai, a Delhi University student from Mizoram, adds: “They talk to us as if we party all the time and all of us live together. They think that we are all from Nepal.”

There is a sense of outrage being experienced and voiced by the Northeastern community since the racial hatred has led to the death of a youth. But, before we proceed to that, it is important to understand that people from these eight states are not just different in terms of their physical appearance but also in terms of their culture.

“People regularly use comments such as ‘Momo’, ‘Chinky’, ‘Nepali’, etc,” says Cacy Ralte, a lawyer from Mizoram, who has been living in New Delhi for more than a decade. “The comments revolve around our appearance. They don’t understand that they are actually insulting two cultures at the same time. However, I feel as Indian as anyone and my sense of national pride does not diminish when someone passes such comments.”

In Lajpat Nagar, which is home to many migrants from the Northeast, people said that Northeasterners had a different way of living and dressing, which leads to people “not understanding them”.

“But, we don’t dress any different from anyone else,” retorts Ralte. “Other girls in Delhi wear the same clothes as we do, but when we wear them, our features probably become more prominent. Racism persists because of the lack of awareness of our culture in ‘mainland’ India. Even though it sounds like a hackneyed script, the ignorance causes people to mock what they don’t know.”

A week before Taniam’s death, locals beat up a Manipuri girl and her friends in Kotla Mubarakpur in Delhi. The girl had gone shopping for groceries when some rowdies abused her. Without her knowledge, they tied a dog’s leash to her shoes. Scared, she kicked the dog and the dog’s owner attacked her. When the shopowner, who was also from Manipur, tried to defend her, she too was beaten up as were other friends who came to their rescue.

Shockingly, none of the bystanders intervened. Local cops did not want to register their complaint until they got in touch with a senior officer. The arrests came much later even though the accused were identified on the spot.

“It’s a lack of understanding of what is India,” says Utpal Borpujari, 45, an Assamese filmmaker and film critic. “Though we celebrate our plurality and diversity, that is only on paper. This also exposes the big failure of our political leadership, both regional and national. They have not been able to inculcate these values in the people. There is no representation of the history and the ethnic diversity of the Northeast in any school or college curricula. It’s not in history books and you don’t get to know about one whole part of India. Thus, you have people throwing around terms such as ‘Momo’ or ‘Chinky’. The Northeast is full of freedom fighters and other heroes. Boxer Mary Kom won a medal at the 2012 London Olympics, Danny Denzongpa has been a Bollywood star for four decades, Baichung Bhutia captained the Indian football team…

“We Indians are very intolerant. There is intense drama when an Indian is attacked in Australia, but not when it happens here. Only people from that region raise a hue and cry when there is an atrocity. A life has been lost in Delhi and it is only the Northeastern people who are protesting. The so-called mainlanders are not joining in and we continue to live in our insulated islands. In Mumbai, the Shiv Sena and MNS are intolerant towards bhaiyas, Kumar Vishwas made a comment about nurses from Kerala… and a dangerous situation is brewing.”

Borpujari’s comment might seem extreme but India has a race problem. Today, people from the Northeast work in every service sector imaginable such as retail, hospitality and aviation but the rest of India fails to recognise them like Indians from any other state, be it Punjab, Delhi, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka or Odisha.

“The moment there is a similar incident, the politicians pay the usual lip service but they do not want to include the Northeastern history in the syllabus,” says Borpujari. “But now, this country needs a law against racism.”

But a Chinese man, who runs a restaurant in Lajpat Nagar, says Northeasterners don’t assimilate. “Have you ever been to the Northeast? Can you roam around freely wherever you want? Can you go out at night? I have been living here for five years and, sometimes, people try to con us because we look different. But, once they realise that we speak Hindi, they stop trying.”

North East India Image Managers, a voluntary organisation, conducted a perception audit among corporates, journalists and management professionals. The survey revealed that 87 percent of them could not name all the eight states from the Northeast region.

“Eventually, the solution lies in improving the education system and making it inclusive by bringing in Northeast history,” says Tituraj Kashyap, a communications professional who volunteers with North East India Image Managers. “We need to understand that people with Mongoloid features are as much Indian as those with Aryan and Dravidian features. The Indian dream is not restricted based on geographical location. All Indians aspire to grow and Nido Taniam came here to grow. However, anti-social elements put an end to that and this can change only by addressing the perception gap.”

It is not Delhi alone, though many like Borpujari say that north India, in particular, is more extreme in its hatred against cultures that it does not understand. In 2012, there was a mass exodus of Northeastern people from Bengaluru and other cities after a fake video of persecution in the Northeast was circulated.

India’s obsession with skin colour is emblematic of how racist a country we are. Skin fairness products flood the market and are freely advertised through mass media. Matrimonial ads in newspapers still sell or ask for fair-skinned brides as if that would guarantee nuptial bliss.

Many cities claim cosmopolitan status, which means embracing international cultures and co-existing in harmony. But, if Indians cannot even embrace our own countrymen and women, we don’t deserve that label.

(With inputs from Laxmi Ningthoujam)

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I am a Bengali from Assam and living in Delhi for the last 12 years. Have first-hand knowledge of both the places. I agree Delhi is a nasty place, but when you come to racism (the more apt term will be ethnic chauvinism), the N-E beats Delhi by miles. Forget their hateful treatment of so-called non-locals. How do they treat each other? Assamese-Bodo, Naga-Kuki, Naga-Dimasa, Arunachali-Chakma? Extreme animosity between them. Why liberal in Delhi but parochial in own land? One thing I must add though — the people who have come to places like Delhi and Bangalore to study or earn a living are people who have left that pit of terror and are trying to turn a new leaf and so should be commended.

    • I am sure Soumitra knows much more that me on race. But it is quite true of the internal hierarchy withing communities of NorthEastIndia where for example Assamese look down on those from Mizoram.

      Any community which does not try to integrate will always get relegated to the sidelines. Let every one introspect.

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