Racism not ignorance
As I mentioned, I come from a military family, wanting to follow in their footsteps, I had applied for entry into the army as an officer once. I got through the written part of it and got called for the interview in Allahabad. Therein I met this guy, who had cleared all his interviews and was awaiting his medical examinations, and we got talking. He incidentally was from Delhi, with an honours degree in Geography, and he asked me where I was from. I told him, Darjeeling. He looked at me funny, nodded his head, and with the airs of someone who knows what he is talking about said, “Oh! Nepal se ho.”
Coming from a small village in Darjeeling, this was the first time, I had ventured so far outside, and I did not know how to react. But I had the presence of mind enough to ask him in return, “Man did you lie to me about your degree in Geography?” he got furious and said, “aabey kyaa bak raha hai [what the heck did you just say]?” and I politely said, “forget geography, your General Knowledge seems to be so poor, how did you manage to clear your interview?”
He did not talk to me after that, which was fine by me, but it really got me thinking. If someone who is on the verge of becoming an officer in the Indian army, with an honours degree in geography to boot, is so ignorant about my place how ignorant would an average Joe be?
Well, let me put it this way, I have had about 10 years between that interview incidence now, and I can tell you with confidence. The average Joe may know things, but he will pretend not to, and it is not out of his ignorance that he asks us polite question like, “do you need passport to come to India?” or “do you guys eat dog meat?” to outrageous and blood cuddling “I have heard that women from your parts are easy, can you arrange one for me.”
Average Joe will ask questions like these because he knows he can get away asking us these questions. Without any fear of repercussions, fear of legal action, or fear of how we feel, the average Joe Indian will tell us to our face, things which he would never tell any other people. Why? Because he knows – no one really cares when it comes to people from the north-east and hence he can do what he pleases.
Systemic and systematic racism
The racism that has continued to foster in India is both systemic and systematic. Let me give you examples to highlight what these two terms mean. My girlfriend and I were on a visit to Delhi and we went to see Qutb Minar. After getting our tickets done, as we were entering, the CISF personnel who had been entrusted with the security of the monument, checked our tickets, looked at me, and without blinking an eyelid had the audacity to ask, “maal acchi hai, kahan se mili? (the goods (referring to my girlfriend) look good, where did you find her).” Being used to such utterances by now, I smiled back and said, “aapki behen jahan se mili thi, wahin se” [from the same place where I found your sister]” and we walked in, I was expecting a confrontation, but I think the guard was I think, too stunned to react. On our way back, we saw the guard again, but he refused to even make an eye contact with us.
In that same trip, we went to visit Taj Mahal – yeah that monument of love, we Indians are so proud of – and we were in the process of getting our tickets done, and the person at the counter asked us for our passports. We said, we are Indians, and the person asked us for our identity cards. I wonder how many Indians carry their identity cards with them? Thankfully we had our PAN cards with us and showed it to them and got our tickets, but as we were entering the Taj another CISF guard again asked us for our Passport.
By now we were livid, and we scolded the guard and said “have you never seen Indians like us?” and he says, “We have to ask as many come from Nepal and China, pretend to be Indians and enter by paying less money.” So we said then “why did you not ask those in front of us for their IDs? They could have been from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives and other places too?” He did not reply. He could not reply.
Funnily enough, a friend of ours who is originally from Nepal and is a shade darker than us had visited Taj a month before, so we asked her if she had to pay the rate charged for foreign nationals. And she said, “No, we just went in, asked for the tickets and went in, no one asked us for nothing.” This is what systemic racism is all about - a system that has allowed racism to foster through and through based on how people look, dress and talk. A system that has done nothing to curb such instances and incidences, and in fact promoted such forms of racism by not acting to stop it.
Every first year student across India is anxious to make a positive impression on their teachers, so did my friend, who had joined the North Bengal Medical College in Siliguri, which incidentally is in the district of Darjeeling and is only about a half-an hour drive from the foot hills of Darjeeling. He told us that in the first class, one of the Professors asked the whole class a question, and when others did not answer correctly he raised his hands to answer, the professor pointed at him, and when he answered correctly, the Professor looked at him incredulously and said, “Oh!! How come you know the answer?”
This was not the only such incidence, his ordeal continued all through his medical school, notwithstanding the fact that my friend went on to graduate at the top of his class with admission for Master in Surgery confirmed, the Professor continued to believe that it was all because my friend had a “quota” that he succeeded. This is systematic racism. When people all through the system believe that you are inferior and thus treat you with disdain.
The most common form of racism is stereotyping someone, portraying an individual or his community in a particular light. People from north-east India are seen to be: a) addicts - who are always on a lookout for drugs, b) prostitutes - who will sleep around readily, c) good for nothing louts, who party a lot and will amount to nothing, and are hence deplorable and thus open for racial abuse.
This is how India continues to look at people from north-east and sadly even people from north-east India look at each other with lenses coloured by racism. The Kukkis don’t like the Chakmas, the Nagas don’t like the Mizos, the Apatanis don’t like the Nishis and nobody seems to like the Gorkhas. Recent manifestation of which was the murder of 10 innocent people along the Arunachal-Assam border.
Amongst the various forms of protest and outrage, which followed Nido Tania’s murder, one stood out because it forced many people to think and think hard was a picture, which showed India without its north-eastern parts. It had a simple question, “how does it feel like to have no sisters? Do you care?” Well from what I know of the rest of India, no they don’t. Sadly women in India like the people from the north-east, have always been treated as the “other” and thus less than equal. Women are seen more as a liability instead of as an equal, women are treated as a commodity to be exchanged for dowry, instead of a part of one’s being.
Perhaps this is what fundamentally differentiates the north-eastern part of India from the rest of India. The women in north-east are treated as equal and in some societies the right to property passes down to the daughter instead of the son, because of which our women are empowered and they display their independence and equality. This is taken to be brazenness by the mainlanders Indians. Our young men and women are allowed to be their own person, without society imposing much restriction on them, which is taken to be the sign of insolence and insubordination by the mainlanders. Our young men and women are allowed to intermingle from a young age so that they learn to respect each other, not just as friends, but as their peer, their equal, and sadly that is a complete no-no in the mainland.
Perhaps it’s this fundamental difference in how people from the north-east v/s. the rest of India approaches life, that has lead to the continued stereotyping, racism and insistent discrimination the people from North-East have had to face.
The way forward
You cannot solve a problem that does not exist. Hence, the first step the government needs to take is to accept the fact that racism is not only prevalent, but also a menace that needs to be curbed and eradicated. Just like polio or leprosy. Ignorance breeds intolerance, the best way forward is to make people aware of other cultures, traditions and customs.
The easiest and best way to do so is to include north-eastern studies as a mandatory subject in all schools across India. Therein the students should not just be taught about merely the food, the language, or the geography, but also about the “world views” and why what is seen as a norm – say caste system or arranged marriage – in the mainland, is not prevalent in the north-east.
The government needs to come up with better mechanism to address the issue of racism. It cannot be merely cured by imposing stricter laws, for racism to be eradicated. We need to change how people perceive each other and that can only happen if we spread awareness and sensitize people across the nation.
It will definitely take time, perhaps at least a generation or two to curb the menace that is racism, but with concrete and deliberate steps and sustained initiatives towards educating the masses, in the day will come when people across India will stop being so intolerant towards each other.