Northeast and the Fraught Question of Racism in India

06 Mar, 2014    ·   4324

Thangkhanlal Ngaihte says that while racism is a social problem, it has to be tackled through law-governed, secular institutions

The death of Nido Taniam, a 19-year old boy from Arunachal Pradesh in Delhi on 29 2014 after a racially-inspired assault has put the issue of racism within India in the spotlight. Historically, India was loath to countenance the fact of racism within its borders. This reluctance to face up to the reality of racism assumes a different character when it involves the ‘Mongolian fringe’ in the Northeast. Some TV panelists in recent days have argued that the term ‘racism’ cannot be used to describe the recent attacks simply because, in their mind, to do so would somehow impinge on India’s national security and integrity. This lazy stereotyping has been common. But this sits uneasily with two present realities. One, the Northeast is currently enjoying perhaps the longest spell of relative peace since independence. Nobody believes in secessionist movements anymore. Most insurgent groups in the region are in some ceasefire arrangements with the central government. Amongst the people generally, the momentum for peace has never been stronger. Two, while Delhi and some other cities witness angry protests by the Northeasterners against racial violence, their main demands, as shown in their slogans and placards, have been to be accepted as Indians, and that they are not outsiders.

The ‘mainland’ Indians’ attitude towards the Northeast people is, therefore, marked by a deep paradox. On the one hand, there is this deep-running insecurity about the region; that while the region – at least the geographical spread – belongs to India, there is a perpetual threat of the region separating from India. On the other, there is an equally deep feeling that the people of this region never belong to India, cultural and racially.

This sense of a cultural distance between ‘mainland India’ and the ‘Northeast’ has a long ancestry. The question of Indianness has always been a fraught question in India’s history and was also an issue for India’s founding fathers. Two contrasting strands dominate. The first, championed by people like VD Savarkar sought to trace Indianness from the Vedic past, Aryan in race, Sanskritic in culture and language and Hindu in religion. In this conception, the Northeast was excluded, territorially, culturally, racially. This idea of Indianness was rejected by independent India, but it still dominates our cultural imaginings of this nation.

The second, which was adopted by independent India and championed most famously by Nehru, visualised an Indianness which is open-ended and not culturally closed. This conception of Indianness did not attempt to reassure itself by relying on a settled image of the culture, nor did it tried to impose one. Its most important trait was simply that it did not monopolise or simplify the definition of Indianness. Nehru, in his own time, had the insight that, India being what it is; it is only this extemporised and secular conception of nationhood that can keep this nation together. At the same time, Nehru was aware of Indians’ deeply religious and conservative nature. That’s why he had believed that this conception of Indianness can be constructed and sustained only with the power of the secular state and its secular institutions, like the police.

What needs to be done? In their recent article, Lawrence Liang and Golan Naulak made a distinction between two levels of racism, viz. ‘footnote racism’ and ‘front-page racism’. Footnote racism implies racial prejudices experienced in subtle forms in everyday life.  Most of the time, this type of racism is more felt than directly experienced, but is no less unsettling. Headline racism refers to overt physical, racist hate attacks which occupy newspaper headlines and hence the characterisation. Racist attacks are usually perpetrated by miscreants individually or in groups, who may have been emboldened by deeply embedded ‘footnote racism’ of the locals against these foreign-looking people. However, the distinctiveness of racial prejudice against the Northeast people in mainland India is that the experience is not confined to the two levels of racism mentioned above, but is actually felt most acutely at the third level, which may be called institutional racism.

Institutional racism comes into play when victims of racist attacks seek to take remedy through the law. The racist prejudice is experienced here in the form of attempts by the police to suppress or make light of the crime, the tendency to cast aspersions on the character of the victims or complainants and refusal to register FIRs, or of putting unnecessary pressures on the victims to withdraw the case, etc. It is interesting that all the recent protests are as much against police apathy as they are about racial prejudice at the mass level. It is time to worry when the institutions of law-governed societies like police, courts, hospitals, etc. themselves become sites of racism.

Therefore, for the immediate term, institutional reforms are the key. Large numbers of youths from the Northeast should be recruited to the police force and other law enforcement agencies. According to a recent news report, there are only 43 Northeasterners in the Delhi Police out of total personnel strength of 90,000. This should change. Racism is a social problem, but it has to be tackled through law-governed, secular institutions. Other measures like syllabus restructuring, mass awareness, education, etc can then follow.