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Racial Discrimination against People from Northeast India during COVID Pandemic

by Anshuman Tripathi


This essay is part of Aruna 2023 Publicly Engaged Fellowship Program. Anshuman is one of the 2023 fellows at Aruna. He developed this project, under the guidance of Aruna member Cheryl Yin. 

During the Pandemic, news about racial abuses occurred from different corners of the country. A girl from Manipur was spat upon with a pan by a man in Delhi. In Gujarat, a young man from Nagaland was forced to quarantine even though he was not COVID-19 positive. [1]


Meiyang Chang, an Indian Actor and Television Host of Chinese descent also shared a video on the social media platform about an incident he faced on the streets of Mumbai. He said that while coming home at night two men on a bike passed him by saying “Corona.” [2]


Rinzin Dorjee and his daughter were reportedly denied entrance to society in Mulund, Mumbai on 16th March 2020. He was a 74-year-old cancer patient who rented an apartment in the society and was stopped by the security guard who thought he might be infected with COVID. [3]


The above incidents were just the tip of the iceberg.

In India, people from Northeast India have faced racial discrimination even before the COVID pandemic. Why are we talking about this now? It is because these incidents are not being reported and also not being covered by the news channels.

People from Northeast India may be perceived as Chinese because of their phenotypic features distinctive to the majority of Indians living in Northeast India, but they are not Chinese. These events of racism occurred due to the lack of awareness about the culture, history, cuisine, religion and lifestyle of those who are from Northeast India.


Northeast India and Its Peoples

Northeastern region of India which consists of eight states Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. All these states are also popularly known as “Seven Sisters and One Brother” because these states are dependent on one another. The only road which joins them with the rest of India is Siliguri Corridor, situated in West Bengal. These states cover an area of 2,63,179 sq km about eight per cent of the total geographical area of the country. It shares the International borders with China in the east, Myanmar in the southeast, Bangladesh in the south, and Nepal and Bhutan in the North. Surrounded by hills and beautiful rivers, these states fall in the category of eastern Himalayan ranges and Patkai-Naga hills along with Brahmaputra-Barak river systems and valley plains. The hills and basins are a mixture of mountain ranges, plateaus, low hills and valleys. Rich in natural resources and flora and fauna, the region is a gateway to East and Southeast Asia. [4]


Map of Northeast India (Image Source: www.examrace.com)

The states have distinct cultures and multiple ethnic groups and are a fine example of unity in diversity. The variety of ethnic groups, languages and religions reflect the multicultural character of the states. The region houses over 200 of the 635 tribal groups in the country, speaking a variety of Tibeto-Burman languages and dialects. States like, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are predominantly inhabited with a certain degree of diversity among the tribes. States like Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim are inhabited by people of various religious denominations like Hindus, Christians and Muslims and a combination of local tribes and communities. [5]


The reason we need to focus on this region is because of a lack of awareness which I mentioned above. [6] They migrate from their home state to Delhi for jobs and higher studies because their state does not provide a high package of jobs and higher education. When they migrate to the city, they face discrimination due to their stereotyped racial features.

It is common but mainland Indian people may not be aware of the fact that Northeasterners are also Indians not Chinese.

I took on this topic to communicate with Northeasterners and try to understand the issues they face in the city of Delhi.


Lado Sarai and Safdarjung Enclave

I chose Lado Sarai and the nearby Safdarjung enclave as my research sites because I have been living in Lado Sarai for the past six months and saw many people from Northeast India migrate to this area for jobs and higher studies.


Lado Sarai is a village which is situated in South Delhi. It is close to the famous World Heritage Site Qutub Minar and its Complex. The most populated community of this village is the Sejwals. Sejwal is a surname of one of the Jat communities who originated from Rajasthan and live in Delhi. They migrated from Rajasthan to Delhi for better jobs and business opportunities. One of their specialities is Hookah. It is a tobacco pipe with a long, flexible tube that draws the smoke through water contained in a bowl. This village has a population of 28,111 with an area of about 1.42 square kilometers. In this village, there are also people from North East Indians, Nepal, Leh and Ladakh. But the population of the Northeast Indians is below 100. [7]


In Lado Sarai, people from Nepal also come here for jobs. Some people are working as chefs in restaurants. People from Leh and Ladakh also come to Lado Sarai for jobs and higher studies.


Map of Lado Sarai (Source: Google Earth)

Safdarjung Enclave is also a Jat-dominated urban village in south-central Delhi, which is now home to the largest population of migrants from the northeastern states. It is seven kilometers away from Lado Sarai. The situation of Safdarjung Enclave is almost similar but there's a difference from Lado Sarai. In Safdarjung, Northeasterners and Nepalese, Bhutanese, Tibetan, Leh and Laddakhese have opened businesses, especially their respective ethnic restaurants, resulting in Safdarjung as a multicultural hub of people from the northeast. One can find Assamese, Naga, Arunachalese, Tibetan, Nepalese, Manipuris Leh and Ladakese Cuisines in one area, which is hard to find in Lado Sarai. [8]


Fieldwork

I decided to conduct a survey research on the incidents of racial discrimination faced by people from Northeast India. I initially chose the face-to-face interview and photography as primary data evidence for my survey. I chose Lado Sarai for my research project because it was populated with the Northeastern people but also people from Leh and Ladakh and Nepal. I met a woman named Ms Marry [9]. She was working here as a hairdresser in the beauty parlor. I explained to her about my research project and she agreed at that time but when I called her a week later she replied that she was having a fever and wouldn't be interested in giving me an interview. She did not explain to me the reason why she said this. After that, I met two other people (both men and women were from Mizoram). I went and explained my research project. The man replied that “I wanted to help you but I don't have time for this because I am very busy”. The woman asked for my contact number and said she will let me know if she has time to give me an interview or not. But I did not get a phone call from her.


On another day, I met a momo [10] maker named Sherpa while I was trying to buy some momos from him, and then I started a conversation with him regarding my thesis. His name was Jackie, from Tripura. He was ready to give me a face to face interview. He was the first person who was interested in the interview. I then met another momo maker who owns the shop named Tamang Momos. He not only sells momos but also noodles and fried rice. I went to buy noodles for dinner. I came back to that later when he was about to talk about my project. Sherpa was born and brought up in Lado Sarai originally from Darjeeling. He asked me to note down his contact number. He first agreed to give me an interview but later he refused by saying that he has no time for this.


After this, I thought about changing my research approach. Because I then realize that people would be uncomfortable doing face-to-face interviews. So, I chose the Google form as a form of data collection. After two weeks of the survey, I met with only twenty people. Out of which I only got responses from five people. One of my respondents suggested that I should go to Safdarjung Enclave, where I can find more northeast people. So, I decided to head to Safdarjung Enclave next.


I spent the next day surveying Safdarjung. I visited seven restaurants, five retail shops, two salons, three clothing shops, and two supermarkets. But I did not get any responses from them.


Inside the Manipuri Restaurant The Categorial Eat-Pham, Safdarjung Enclave (Source: author)

I realized it was difficult for me to collect the data or communicate with the people because they viewed me as an outsider. Especially in Safdarjung Enclave, it was more difficult because I am not from Northeast India. I am from the state of Uttar Pradesh [11]. Because of that, they think I might not understand what they are going through. I faced most of the rejections whenever I approached them for my research project even when I had a letter from my mentor as a proof of evidence to conduct the survey. Some of them were also too shy to give me a response.

It was hard to convince the people of Nagaland about the project because they might not want an outsider like me to understand or be a part of the issue they face.

I faced the same issue during my M.A. thesis where I explored the topic of “Religious Life of Meitei People of Manipur.” I asked one of my respondents to help me to share my Google form with her friends or neighbors. She tried to help me but it was unsuccessful. Although she responded to my response. Even though I had a knowledge of their culture and traditions, I was still perceived as an outsider who could not be a part of their community and/or is not able to understand the issues they face.


Analysis

The survey focused on collecting data on the people who faced anti-Chinese discrimination in the Lado Sarai and Safdarjung Enclave of South Delhi. I went through my Google form responses and I found common responses, that all five of the respondents faced discrimination. They were facing these things even before the Covid pandemic. It was the pandemic which triggered most of the racist incidents. They are all being bullied with these words like Chinese, Momos, Ching Chong and etc.

Ms Arti [12], one of the respondents said she was being stared at by people because of her racial features. Random staring is common in Delhi but the way people stare at these people make them feel like a foreigner.

Ms Sita [13], another respondent said the same thing but also added that she feels like she has no right to stand against this discrimination.


Before the survey, I thought the news related to this incident is the only few examples in the country. But when I surveyed my locality [14] I found through my respondents that they do face racial discrimination Mr Jackie who said he was mistreated by his local friends and his landlord but he didn't explain to me in detail. The same goes for other respondents. As they heard the news on the channel, they felt very worried and speechless. They exclaimed to me, “How could they do this?” One of my respondents said she had a harsh time during the pandemic.


The social segregation between people form the northeast and those from the other states are stark. People from the Northeast tend to stay with their fellow statemates. They don't want other people from other states to be a part of their life. They don’t usually communicate with people from other states if there is no reason to. Perhaps, it is due to the linguistic and cultural affinity they share with people from their home states. For instance, one day, I saw that Ms Mary was with Mr James and another woman who was from Mizoram and they were coming from somewhere. They introduced me to Mr. Jackie as someone from Tripura. They are comfortable being with their fellow state person as they share similar cultural practices and speak the same language.


Lesson Learned

I learned from this research that it is very tough to gain trust from people because the northeast region is still not considered a part of India [19]. As a result, this segregation and exclusion in national discourse makes them feel like they are outsiders. We have to include them in our society so that we are also able to get to know them and their cultures more.


On the positive side, I have learned that not all act so strange to me, as most of them wanted to help me but they were too busy. Some of them were too shy to give me an interview. Those who helped me to fill out my questionnaires were kind and generous. One of them even tried to help me to communicate with a girl whose incident was covered in the newspaper.


People are now slowly understanding that it is not good to call Northeasterners with a racial slur. In conversations, they now ask Northeasterners their name first and the place they belong to. When I visited a Manipuri Restaurant in Safdarjung Enclave, I asked the owner of the restaurant if he faced any racial discrimination there. He replied that he did not face such things as he was brought up in Delhi and people made him feel as if he was one of them. This suggests that the racism against the people from the northeast might have something to do with their cultural integration into Indian society or lack thereof. There is also a change coming in Bollywood [20], where actresses from the Northeast are not being typecast anymore.


I learned from doing this research that as researchers, we have to be patient and dedicate ourselves to eradicating the systemic racism against people from Northeast India while continuing to build trust so that they could cooperate with us in the future without fear.


Notes

  1. https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/news/story/literacy-rate-in-india-bihar-lowest-at-618-kerala-highest-at-94-2346672-2023-03-14.

  2. https://www.hindustantimes.com/music/meiyang-chang-features-in-powerful-video-on-racism-my-name-is-chang-and-i-am-not-coronavirus/story-W53LBpZvbRRcHQSJEq5zCK.html.

  3. https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/03/28/coronavirus-pandemic-fuels-racism-against-northeast-people.html?fbclid=IwAR1iifOIo0fUe8osjO-9nA9_KtYbswLjzQoSvua3LnaHprp_2zulDG2Rzvs.

  4. North East India: People, History and Culture by NCERT Publications.

  5. North East India: People, History and Culture by NCERT Publications.

  6. North East India: People, History and Culture by NCERT Publications.

  7. https://geoiq.io/places/Lado-Sarai/X4yTXxRqgT

  8. https://www.livemint.com/Politics/MBqTS5hqRAGkg56G8TwY0J/Welcome-to-Humayunpur-Delhisnortheast-outpost.html?facet=amp

  9. This is a pseudonym.

  10. Momo is an Indian term for the dumplings which are commonly sold in the streets of Delhi.

  11. The state of Uttar Pradesh shares the border in the east of Delhi.

  12. Pseudonym.

  13. Pseudonym.

  14. Lado Sarai.

  15. Pseudonym.

  16. People from other cities like Delhi, Mumbai, etc.

  17. People from other states like Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, etc.

  18. The one who took my contact number but did not respond.

  19. https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/03/i-am-not-a-chinky-so-i-am-not-a-northeastern/

  20. Indian Film Industry based in the city of Mumbai which makes films in Hindi.


References

  1. Welcome to Humayunpur, Delhi’s  North-East outpost. https://www.livemint.com/Politics/MBqTS5hqRAGkg56G8TwY0J/Welcome-to-Humayunpur-Delhisnortheast-outpost.html?facet=amp

  2. Dixit, Rekha. 2020. “Northeast people battle racism amid coronavirus pandemic.” The Week. https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/03/28/coronavirus-pandemic-fuels-racism-against-northeast-people.html?fbclid=IwAR1iifOIo0fUe8osjO-9nA9_KtYbswLjzQoSvua3LnaHprp_2zulDG2Rzvs.

  3. “Lado Sarai, South Delhi | Locality.” n.d. GeoIQ. Accessed June 7, 2023. https://geoiq.io/places/Lado-Sarai/X4yTXxRqgT.

  4. “Meiyang Chang says 'My name is Chang and I am not coronavirus', watch.” 2020. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/music/meiyang-chang-features-in-powerful-video-on-racism-my-name-is-chang-and-i-am-not-coronavirus/story-W53LBpZvbRRcHQSJEq5zCK.html.

  5. Mukhim, Patricia. 2020. “Spit Personality: With the Covid-19 pandemic, people from the Northeast are facing a rise in racial attacks across the country.” Bangalore Mirror. https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/bangalore/others/spit-personality-with-the-covid-19-pandemic-people-from-the-northeast-are-facing-a-rise-in-racial-attacks-across-the-country/articleshow/74867081.cms.

  6. “Punjab: How One Northeastern Woman is Countering Racial Abuse With Compassion.” 2020. The Wire. https://thewire.in/rights/north-east-woman-racism.


About the author:

Anshuman Amitabh Tripathi (he/him) is from Mumbai, Maharashtra, India. Anshuman has completed his Undergraduate Degree in Ancient Indian Culture from Sathaye College in 2019 and Post Graduation degree in Archaeology from University of Mumbai in 2021. He is interested in Southeast Asian Studies. He enjoys reading about Southeast Asian history and culture, and how it's connected to India in the context of maritime History. He is proficient in Bahasa Indonesia (intermediate level) from KBRI-New Delhi. Anshuman currently works as an Archivist and Researcher intern at Siddhartha Das Studios New Delhi.

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