India’s northeast speaks out against racism

Al Jazeera speaks to people from seven states who say they are discriminated against in the rest of the country.

Protests have followed Nido Taniam's death in New Delhi on January 30 [EPA]

A recent street brawl in New Delhi that spiralled out of control and led to the death of a young student from India’s Arunachal Pradesh has brought into focus what people from the northeast have always bitterly complained about without getting much of a hearing: racial discrimination that they routinely face in the rest of the country for their Mongoloid looks.

Since Nido Taniam was killed in late January, the complaints have grown louder and northeasterners have taken to the streets in large numbers across India to highlight the discrimination. 

Every year thousands of young people from the northeast migrate to New Delhi and other cities for higher education and jobs. The seven states known as “Seven Sisters” are connected to India with a sliver of land that spans over the northern top of Bangladesh, and are plagued with chronic underdevelopment and separatist conflicts.

It is common for the people from the northeast to be called “Chinkies” – a word so common that many have become immune to it but derogatory enough for the government to punish its use with five years jail term. Harassment from landlords, employers and assaults on the street are commonplace.

Now India’s northeastern community is campaigning for an anti-racism legislation. But they say most Indians including the government are in denial that Indians are racists.

Some of them speak to Al Jazeera, sharing what they are forced to endure for being from India’s northeast:

Kim, Call centre worker from Manipur, now working in Haryana

“Men in Delhi treat us as if we are loose women. Just the other day, I was standing at the pickup point for my office cab to take me to Faridabad. There was another woman next to me from northern India working for a tech company; we both were in formals. A car pulls up and the man asks, ‘Madam do you need a ride?’ His look and his voice made it clear what he was looking for.

“But the point is why he asked me and not the other woman?

“At our workplaces, the men always invite me and other girls from northeast for any party they are having. As if we are party girls. They keep nagging us saying, ‘Lets go grab a beer, a drink.’ Why don’t they ask other women and why ask only for drinks and parties? Even when we say no, they don’t give up.

“It becomes very difficult because most of the time they are our managers. If the rent is 5,000 rupees ($80.42) for any normal Indian, for us it is 7,000-8,000 ($112 – $128)

“When we ask for a rent agreement to get a phone connection etc, they make us buy it in black for 300-500 rupees ($4.83 – $8.04).”

Bruce K. Thangkhal, Journalist, Delhi

“When people call me Bahadur, China, etc, I ask them politely, ‘Why do you call me this? I am also an Indian.’ But in response they pull my shirt, twist my arms or grab my neck.

Bruce K. Thangkhal, Journalist [Supplied/Al Jazeera] 

“A few months ago my sister and I went to Sarojini Nagar Market in Delhi. Someone called me King-Kong, Chow-chow, momo in a low tone voice but loud enough for me to hear.

“When I confronted they roughed me up. A crowd formed and they enjoyed the show. They pinched my cheeks. The men tried to pull my sister’s hair, touched her back.

“Last year, I was travelling in the metro in the general compartment. Two seats to my left were reserved for ladies and physically challenged people, where some men were sitting. I was at the third seat.

“A woman, who was wearing formal clothes, so it was clear she was an educated woman said, ‘You stand up.’ I did not hear her because I was listening to music so she shouted. I asked, “Why don’t you ask them who are sitting at the wrong place, why me?”

She said, “You don’t respect women?” I was so embarrassed, a crowd gathered and they made me feel as if I was harassing the woman.

This same incident happened to me five times last year. To them I am an easy target.

D. Yirang Jimbe, Call Center worker, Haryana

“Two years ago, I was with my brothers and sisters in my rented apartment in Gurgaon.

India Page: Racism Vox Pops: Yirang Jimbe [Supplied/Al Jazeera]

“The landlord and his son came to our room at midnight to ask for rent.

“They kicked our door, so when we went out they beat my brother. ‘All we said was why are you asking for rent at midnight and we have never been late in paying.’

“But we had to be quiet because our sisters were with us; we were scared they would do something to them.

“We can’t complain to the police. Then no one will rent us rooms in the locality. The police don’t even take us seriously. It is only a waste of time.

“Even when I am with my sisters or girlfriends, they look at our women and say, ‘It will be so much fun to be with you.’ 

“We avoid confrontation; they will only beat us and maybe kill us like Nido.”

Jackson Gonmei, Student, Delhi

“I was working at call centre in Delhi associated with a California-based company since 2012. In June, they asked me to stop coming with no notice. But till date they did not clear my last month’s salary.

Jackson Gonmei [Supplied/Al Jazeera] 

“Every time I call they challenge me saying, ‘try and do whatever you want.’ They are rude and misbehave.

“I have started the legal process through the northeast helpline.

“For months I asked for an employment letter but they refused.

“Because we are treated as outsiders, they get away with suppressing us. I am not chasing the money; I think it is time that I have to speak up.

“On the streets people comment, ‘Are you from Nepal or China?’ Do you know Karate, Kung-fu? Do you eat snakes, dogs?”

Phurpa Tsering, Northeast India Forum Against Racism

“Our demands are the enactment of the anti-racism law and that the pending cases of violence against northeasterners be put in fast-track court.

Phurpa Tsering, Northeast India Forum Against Racism [Supplied/Al Jazeera] 

“We recognise that there is racism in India not only against northeast people but also against south Indians, adivasis (tribals). That is why we want a cohesive  and comprehensive law that addresses racism in the country.

“Even the prime minister, uses the word prejudice, which is a very milder form and does not address racism. The media is biased. For example, when the police lathi-charged protesters on February 14, the media said it was mild. But I was
there and I have seen people with broken limbs, bones; it was not mild at all.

“Prior to the post-mortem, the Asian Age newspaper wrote on February 4 saying Nido Tania died of drug overdose. This falls in line with stereotyping. Northeastern women are seen as morally loose, easy to get.

“Men are portrayed as drug addicts, drop outs, good for nothing, scumbags. These events, like Nido’s killing, rape
cases are very polarising. It makes you very conscious of your race. Who you are? What you are? This will result in isolation.”

Alana Golmei, North East Support Centre and Helpline (NESCH)

“We receive an average of 20-30 calls a month. Most are related to non-payment of salaries to northeasterners working in BPOs and physical assaults.

Alana Golmei, North East Support Centre and
Helpline (NESCH), Delhi [Supplied/Al Jazeera] 

“When we call the employers, most of them are in Haryana so they say, ‘I am Haryanvi. I am a local man. You are an outsider, what can you do?’

“Verbal abuse is something very small because people encounter this everyday.

“They keep it to themselves and don’t complain. We are little immune to it. We have been facing it and not speaking up and this has led to more serious assaults like the death of Nido Tania.”

Binalakshami Nepram, Activist, Manipur

“I have handled five dead bodies of young people from the northeast. A week before Nido Taniam died, two women from Manipur were molested in broad daylight in south Delhi. A 27-year-old woman from Manipur was sexually assaulted and
murdered in her own flat by the landlord and his brother-in-law in Chirag, Delhi.

“A young boy died in Safdarjung hospital because he was denied a bed in the hospital. Now we say: enough is enough. We don’t want to be treated as second-class citizens.

“They call us chinki. Who is making us feel different? Is it us? Or the people of the other parts of India?”

Aruni Kashyap, Author, Assam

“The word remote is a problematic modifier to stand in front of ‘Northeast.’ 

 Aruni Kashyap, Author [Supplied/Al Jazeera] 

“Remote – for whom and from which standpoint? Do people in Delhi use the word remote to describe Chennai or Kottyam?

It shows the psychological disconnect people of mainland India has with our region.

“Prejudice against Biharis/outsiders in northeast should be condemned no doubt, but this is often a topic that comes up when we talk about racism against northeastern people and often used as a conversation blocker.

“It is like saying Indians in the western countries have no right to complain about racism because Indians are racists themselves.”