The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a new kind of racism. It made Donald Trump call it the ‘Chinese virus’, a racist slur. Now, it’s making Indians call people from the eight northeastern states ‘corona’ and ‘virus’.
This isn’t the first time that people from the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Assam, Sikkim, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya are being otherised and targeted by ‘mainland’ Indians. They have been called ‘chinkis’, ‘momos’ and ‘Chinese’ for decades. Now a new term of abuse has been added to their bigoted lexicon.
India’s racism virus
On Sunday night around 9:30 pm in Delhi’s north campus area, a man on a scooty spat paan on a woman from Manipur, calling her ‘corona’ as he sped away. In another incident, nine young professionals from Nagaland living in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad with no travel history or symptoms were forced to spend more than 24 hours in a quarantine facility because they were mistaken as ‘Chinese’ and complaints were made against them in their office stating that they were infected with the ‘virus.’
The list doesn’t end here, in fact, a couple of days back at a mall in Pune, a woman covered her face when she saw a woman from Manipur and gestured looking at her like she was ‘infected’. Two students from Darjeeling also faced racial slurs linked to coronavirus in Kolkata.
It looks like India’s latent racism has been unleashed with full force, exposing all the underlying bigotry and the desire to treat people from the northeast states as second-class citizens.
Othering of the own
“Oh, so are you from India,” is the most common form of racism that people from northeast tolerate, followed by a very ridiculous negotiation of Indianness.
When I tell racists that I am from Assam, they often asked me if Assam is a part of India, and this is not one isolated incident. As a matter of fact, they have also asked if Sikkim and Shillong are both in one state, if Cherrapunji is a part of Nagaland and not to forget how they refuse to consider the states of northeast India as different places with different identities in terms of culture and language. It has often been expected of me to understand Mizo, or speak to Nagamese considering it’s the ‘same thing’.
With this comes the typical racist remark: “All of you look the same.”
Till when are we expected to tolerate this racism under the pretext of lack of geographical knowledge of one’s own country?And let’s not forget the occasional abusive slurs like ‘momos’, ‘chinki’ and ‘choti aankh’.
We are often looked down upon as ‘alien-like’ creatures because of the extremely distasteful and nasty perception of ‘mainland’ India that the food habits of people from northeast are ‘impure and filthy’. “Tum log to kuch bhi kha lete ho,” is the classic example of rasicm. Not everyone eats chhole bhature, and that’s okay.
What makes racism worse is it’s dangerous cocktail with misogyny. ‘Mainland men’ whether they are complete strangers you meet at a bar, the local shopkeeper or just a normal passerby, have always considered women from northeast as ‘easy’, ‘slutty.’ These conclusions they say, have been drawn from the way we ‘dress’ and ‘carry ourselves’. A friend of mine from Manipur was once bullied and mocked at by an auto driver who repeatedly kept questioning her national identity, while finding ways to take a peek at her legs. In another instance, a landlord in Delhi had told a friend of mine from Nagaland, “Aap log northeast se ho, waha ki ladkiyan to bohot party karte hai, hum ghar nahi denge,” while scanning her top to bottom.
Ignorance of educated elite
India has a social responsibility to constantly evolve and correct its ways. But this racism against the northeast has gone unchecked, and has sometimes even been encouraged.
Unfortunately, even the educated ‘elite’ class of ‘mainland’ India doesn’t understand the culture, history and demography of northeast India and indulges in casual racism, trying to turn it into light humour.
They often club, address and identify us as ‘northeasterners’ in an extremely stereotypical manner, refusing to validate the individual identity of our respective states, which people from the rest of the states enjoy.
This needs to be stopped right now because coronavirus cases are increasing day by day and who knows this systematic racism might translate into something more perilous and result in incidents like the murder of Nido Taniam in 2014. Twenty-year-old Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh was killed in broad daylight in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar area in a fight over his ‘hairstyle’.
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