Racism lives and flourishes in India’s own backyard.
Over the decades, India has cried out against racial prejudice. Years and years ago, Gandhi fought against that in South Africa, and since then there have been several leaders in India who shouted from their rooftops every time an Indian had been attacked in America or Britain or Australia.
But sadly and most shamefully, racism lives and flourishes in India’s own backyard.
The men and women who hail from India’s north-eastern states have been ridiculed and discriminated. The primary reason for this being as silly as their physical features, which are mongoloid.
Called and even abused as “chinkys”, the north-easterners – who have in recent years left their homes to study or work in other parts of the country, their own country – have had to face insults and hostility. Often, these have been covert. I have seen them being ignored in restaurants, in shops and in other public places. I have seen them isolated and friendless on college campuses and in offices.
Given this history of antipathy and intimidation, it was only to be expected that thousands of north-easterners would flee Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Pune when a malicious rumour made the rounds. It is not clear why the exodus, which began on Aug 15, the day India was celebrating its Independence Day, happened only from these cities.
The rumour – uploaded on websites or sent as texts on mobile phones – was that Muslims would kill the north-easterners. This was to be an act of revenge against the violence perpetrated on Muslims by tribal Bodos in the north-eastern State of Assam.
In Assam a month ago, 70 people were killed and thousands displaced; both the Bodos and the Muslims suffered. Later, a rally called by Muslim organisations in Mumbai to condemn the Assam killings led to mob fury and a couple of deaths.
It was in this vitiated atmosphere that the rumour fuelled a panic so unprecedented that the exodus of north-easterners, according to some, was as huge as the one seen in 1947, when the British partitioned the Indian subcontinent into two nations.
The recent exodus went on for several days forcing the Indian Railways to run special trains from the southern cities to Assam and elsewhere in the north-east.
Several restaurants and beauty parlours in Bangalore had to pull down their shutters because they found themselves without any staff. In recent years, north-easterners have been steadily migrating from their homes to southern India in search of a livelihood, and many were working in eateries, beauty parlours and other commercial establishments.
It took some days for the government to assure north-easterners that they were safe anywhere in India, and there are now the first signs of the people returning to the south.
But the administrative guarantee was merely one part of what needed to be done.
Although the bulk of the hate texts and the inflammatory messages/pictures (morphed from visuals of terror and natural disasters in Tibet, Thailand and Myanmar) on the Internet came from Pakistan, the people of India and the government must understand that such dread and alarm might not have occurred had the north-easterners been comfortable in states outside their own. If they had been made to feel welcome and safe, they would not have fled in fright. Certainly not in such large numbers.
The incident was awfully disturbing because it confirmed in no uncertain terms that the north-easterners had little faith or trust in the Indian state.
And the north-east has been a tragic story of neglect, insurgency and militarisation. Lack of infrastructure and jobs has been forcing the north-easterners to travel to other states to look for a source of livelihood.
If New Delhi’s “gross mismanagement” of the north-east over the years has been largely instrumental in making the people of the area feel alienated, the rest of India’s bias towards them has only added to their sense of discomfort and distrust.
Can you believe this? In 2007, the Delhi Police is said to have issued a booklet which asked north-easterners not to wear “revealing dresses” and avoid cooking “smelly food”!
After all this, India calls itself a tolerant, secular nation opposed to racial bigotry.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at[email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.