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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2708

Demystifying Racism in India

By *Dr. Saumitra Mohan

It has been more than 67 years since we became independent and it is presumed that the state-nation called India should have by now become a nation-state. But the fact remains that things are far from hunky dory. The fissiparous tendencies fanned by the revisionist forces a la extremists, naxalites, separatists and terrorists continue to work at their prime agendum of balkanizing our beloved country.

But much to the chagrin of all the Cassandras and prophets of doom like Selig S Harrison, India as a country has held its ground. While Harrison had declared in the wake of our independence that India would soon fall apart in multiple states (read countries), Pakistan has often vowed to bleed India through thousand cuts. We, however, continue to grow stronger by the day and continue to exist as a country even though many of our time twins in Latin America, Africa and Asia have fallen by the wayside or present the picture of a failed state. And these countries include some of those in South Asia including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But yes, having said this we can’t be all complacent and sit on our laurels. As they say, if you sit on your laurels they run the danger of falling flat sooner or later. So, we definitely have a lot of ground to cover, more so in light of very disturbing and disconcerting developments in recent times. While one can definitely deal with an identified enemy within and without the border, it is really difficult to nail those living amongst us and masquerading as citizens. There are some citizens who, intentionally or unintentionally, are weakening the evolution of nationalist tendencies in the country. The nationalist feeling, the so-called ‘we feeling’ that Benedict Anderson once visualised as a desideratum for his ‘imagined community’ to constitute a strong, well-bonded nation-state still appears elusive if we look around and cognize some of the developments in our civil society.

One of such disturbing developments is the alleged ‘racist behaviour’ among Indians against some of our fellow citizens. The fatal attack on Nido Tania, a young boy from Arunachal Pradesh in a South Delhi market in February this year resulting in his untimely death later, suspicious death of a young Manipuri woman in her flat in South Delhi’s Munirka, the assault on two Nagaland youths in Gurgaon and merciless beating of a Manipuri student leader in Bangalore for not speaking Kannada are some of the recent instances of violence against our fellow citizens from the North East.

The Central Government is said to have taken a series of measures to ensure safety of citizens from North Eastern states in New Delhi and elsewhere. They include regular police patrolling of colonies where people from North Eastern states live, starting exclusive helpline for them, race and gender sensitization programmes and speedy disposal of such cases. Today, we also have a Minister of State (Independent Charge) for the North East Region in former Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General V K Singh. The reinforced attention and concerted measures have been taken following the death of Nido Tania early this year to ensure the safety of people from the region in the National Capital Region.

Earlier in 2012, in an attempt to prevent racial discrimination against people from North East, Indian Government had asked all the states and union territories to book anyone who commits an act of atrocity or crime against people from the region under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. A predominant majority of people from the North East have the protection of this central legislation available to them by dint of their belonging to one or the other tribe as scheduled in the this Act. A person found guilty for non-bailable offences under this Act can be imprisoned for five years.

As per a study, an estimated two lakh people from the North East have migrated to Delhi between 2005 and 2013 as also have many times more people from the other provinces of India. According to the Union Home Ministry, crimes against the people from the North Eastern states have reportedly gone up by 270 per cent during the past three years. The Home Ministry data also confirm that crimes against people from the North Eastern states increased from 27 in 2011 to 73 in 2013. The crimes that witnessed the highest increase were in keeping with the national pattern though and inter alia included molestation, rape and hurt. While molestation increased by 177 per cent during the period, rape cases increased from one in 2011 to 17 in 2013.

The data give credence to observations by the Government appointed M P Bezbaruah Committee that ‘people from the North Eastern states are racially discriminated against in Delhi’. The 11-member Committee, formed in the wake of the dastardly attack on Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Tania earlier this year, submitted its report to the Government recently where it held that 86 per cent of the North Eastern Indians living in Delhi have faced some sort of racial discrimination. The Committee in its report has stated that people from the North Eastern states faced more problems in Delhi than in other metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata. It also said that over two-thirds of women from North-East had reported that they faced harassment and discrimination in Delhi.

The Committee in its 82-page report, inter alia, has recommended the institution of fast track courts and special police squads, integrating each and every aspect of the North East into the consciousness of people outside the region through educational interventions, increasing social media outreach and legal awareness campaigns, having earmarked residential facilities to address the accommodation problem faced by North East people, holding regular national and international events in the North East to create greater harmony and better understanding, making such offences with racial overtones into cognizable and non-bailable offences and expediting disposal of such cases.

Many citizens from the North-East India have complained that they have been stereotyped by such characterizations as ‘Chinky’, ‘Hakka’, ‘Nepali’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Chow Mein’ by people in Delhi, with reference to their facial features, particularly the appearance of their eyes. For the distinct style including sartorial and tonsorial, tradition, culture, music, dance and more distinct facial features, they are said to become easy preys to outrageous remarks and alleged racial attacks. In 2007, the North East Support Centre and Helpline (NESC&H) was started with the determined object of increasing awareness of prejudices and attacks against people from the North East. The Centre (NESC&H) was launched with the express purpose to provide assistance to those from the North Eastern community who face various forms of alleged discrimination.

In the wake of back-to-back alleged racial attacks on people from North East in Delhi and elsewhere, the influential North East Students’ Organisation (NESO) has rightly demanded the curricular changes by inclusion of the history, geography and cultures of the people of North East in our school syllabi. ‘In major cities in India, people from the North East are often mistaken for foreigners by some people. They have to be educated. The only way we can educate them is by incorporating the history, geography and cultures of the people of North East in the school syllabi,’ NESO Chairman Samuel Jyrwa opined recently. ‘No law, no matter how stringent it is, can stop the racial attacks. The problem is in the mindset and it has to change. The problem is also about people’s ignorance that there is an India beyond West Bengal’, he said.

While the alleged racial discrimination against the North Eastern Indians is a reality, the fact remains that there have been similar reports or incidents of alleged xenophobic attacks and discrimination against Indian citizens of other regions in North East. It is a common knowledge that the migrant workers from Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa or Uttar Pradesh have been subject to a growing degree of xenophobia, racial discrimination, prejudices and violence in the North East. In 2000 and 2003, anti-Bihari violence in North-East led to the deaths of up to 200 people and reportedly generated around 10,000 internally displaced refugees. There have been a number of racial attacks against the Bihari community in North-East states like Assam, Manipur and Nagaland including massacres as carried out by the militant groups.

On 18th Jan, 2014, five youths from Bihar were shot dead after being pulled out from a bus by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) militants in Assam’s Kokrajhar district. Three others, also from Bihar, were injured in the same incident. In 2007, thousands of Hindi-speaking labourers fled from Assam after a series of massacres and bomb attacks. Overall, 98 non-locals were killed in Assam during 2007 disturbances. In March-April 2008, a banned Meitei outfit killed 16 non-locals in Manipur. Purbottar Hindustani Sammelan (PHS) has alleged that anti-social elements in Assam have been carrying out a continuous hate campaign against the Hindi speakers in the region. In 2009, altogether nine Hindi speakers were killed in Assam and Manipur, after the attackers set ablaze around 70 houses.

In 2010, Hindi, Bengali and Nepali speakers were killed by the NDFB militants in Assam. Maharashtra has similarly experienced hate campaigns from time to time against people from Hindi speaking states or from South India. But such alleged racial discrimination or harassment is not confined to Indians in states outside their own, but also against people from other nationalities including those from Africa either because of their colour or their features. As a society, we still have not learnt to treat with dignity some of our fellow citizens from amongst us as usually done with the downtrodden Dalits and women.

India is one of the top ten linguistically and culturally diverse countries. We have proudly cherished and celebrated our ‘unity in diversity’. Instead of the ‘Melting Pot Model’ which tries to forcibly amalgamate and assimilate all cultures and sub-cultures into one overarching identity, India has consciously opted for the ‘Salad Bowl Model’ to ensure that all cultures retain their distinct individuality while also being an inalienable part of the larger Indian civilisational entity. It is to this effect that the Constitution of India guarantees some basic fundamental rights to citizens including ‘prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth’ vide Article 15 or ‘protection of certain rights including the right to move freely throughout the territory of India and to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India’ vide Article 19.

But, as mentioned above, we are still to build a cohesive nation-state and our nation-building process is far from complete. Indian nationalism remains a building under construction. The so-called racial assaults on Indians in different parts of the country are more of a reflection of a sick mentality and criminal mindset than anything else. Don’t we see such instances of xenophobic and racial offences even in the liberal Western countries including the countries of North America and Europe which include USA, UK, Canada, France and Germany?

In a statement in Lok Sabha – Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju rightly maintained that ‘it is not a fact that people from North Eastern states are being ill-treated in different states of India including Delhi’ and that attacks against them were ‘random’ in nature. One also feels that these discriminatory instances and experiences are more of aberrations and exceptions than part of a generalized mindset on the part of the people of the regions under news. More or less Indians are quite liberal and devoid of any habitual racial behaviour. While the above mentioned offences and crimes against North East people are a reality, it is also true that for every crime committed against the North East people in Delhi, similar and more number of crimes were committed against the people from the so-called mainland India if the data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) are to be believed.

Delhi not only has reported the highest rate of violent crimes in the country, but has also been found to be more prone to violence than any other state. The NCRB statistics say that around 54.4 per cent (10,733 to be precise) cases registered in Delhi are violent crimes. In 2013, Delhi reported 1,441 rapes making it the city with the highest number of rapes. The burglary incidents rose from 449 in 2013 to 4,447 till March, 2014. The motor vehicle theft cases rose from 2,893 in 2013 to 4447 in March, 2014. Reports of crimes against women in India such as rape, dowry deaths, molestation, kidnapping, sexual harassment, trafficking and cruelty by relatives increased by 26.7 per cent in 2013 as per NCRB statistics. There were, in all, 309,546 crimes against women reported to the police in 2013 against 244,270 in 2012. Police attribute the astronomical rise in these crimes to greater public awareness and better reporting/registration of crimes.

Most of the offences and crimes, as mentioned above, were never part of an institutionalised cultural outlook but manifestation of criminal behaviour on the part of some deviant Indians including militants as also borne out through investigations. A good number of these offences and crimes were later found to have been executed either with the criminal intention of looting or were instances of group clashes. As one can definitely not stigmatize the entire people of North East for violent and murderous attacks by militants on people from outside the region, likewise the people of Delhi or Maharashtra in general can’t be disgraced.

The alleged spurt in crimes against North East Indians has simultaneously seen a secular rise in crimes against all classes of citizens. If there has been racial stereotyping of North East Indians, there has been similar stereotyping for a person from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, Punjab, Gujarat, West Bengal, Rajasthan or Haryana as also typified by the jokes in circulation. So, it can’t be argued that only North East Indians have been targeted. The criminals have secularly targeted all classes of citizens. The above incidents are deviant behaviour on part of a section of our society and should be dealt with strongly and swiftly. The various recommendations of the Bezbaruah Committee should also be given a serious thought for pre-empting recurrence of such episodes in future.

Against this background, what are also needed, apart from strong policing and exemplary punitive measures against such offences, are more institutionalized inter-cultural exchanges and interactions, culture sensitization exercises including inclusion of specific chapters in school syllabus for inculcation of healthy, eclectic and cosmopolitan mind-set and attitude vis-a-vis people from diverse cultures and regions, not to speak of encouraging more inter-caste, inter-regional and inter-faith marriages. We definitely need to outgrow these archaic, anachronistic, pathological, and abhorrent leftovers from our past and build a broader consensus to ensure the emergence of a more tolerant and progressive India from the womb of ournation-building process. The sooner we complete our odyssey from being the state-nation to a nation-state, the better.

Dr. Saumitra Mohan is a member of the Indian Administrative Service of 2002 batch and belongs to the West Bengal Cadre. He is presently posted as the District Magistrate and Collector, Darjeeling in West Bengal. The views expressed are those of the author and don’t reflect that of the Government.

- Asian Tribune -

Demystifying Racism in India
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