Racial Discrimination against people of Northeast India is not a new phenomenon and has been a matter of concern for those who work and study across the country. Time and again incidents of racism has come to the fore, however, they were treated as isolated cases by law-enforcement agencies and were being ignored by most Indians. Although the discrimination is a regular affair for the people from Northeast, in present times the issue has resurfaced after an MLA from Arunachal Pradesh has to face the brunt of racism.
This article by Arup Jyoti Das published in 2017 in the magazine Northeast Today, speaks volume of the present-day scenario in context of racial discrimination towards people from the Northeast India.
“I was a complete Indian before coming to Pune from Nagaland, but now I am half Naga and half Indian”
This is what one Naga student studying in Pune city of Maharashtra said while speaking about his experience in a seminar titled ‘Problems of Northeast India’ organized by North East Students’ Society (NESS) in the late 90s. That Naga student made everybody smile for a moment, but he was definitely pointing towards a serious issue.
Why did he say so? Was he anti Indian? Definitely not. It was because of the treatment he received in. From shopkeepers to doctors, from lecturers to IAS officers, everybody treated him as a Japanese or a Chinese, but not as an Indian; only because of his Mongoloid physiognomy. Even Nagaland was not there in the Indian imagination of the city. He had been always treated like a foreigner in Pune, like his other counterparts of Northeast India. He was asked to show his passport while taking admission in a renowned college like my classmate Biju Hazarika of that time. Even though Biju does not have a distinct Mongoloid look, yet that did not help him to escape from facing a strange situation in Fergusson College. When he was in the row along with me to take admission in the MA program of that college, his surname ‘Hazarika’ evoked curiosity.
“Hazarika?… what kind of people use such surname,” a representative of the college authority asked him. Biju replied with a smile that people from Assam use such a surname. But soon his smile disappeared as the college authority asked him to show his passport. Why? Because he was from Assam, a place somewhere in Himalayan mountains or China, where people use different currency.
On the same day of the above-mentioned seminar titled ‘Problems of Northeast India’, I encountered an interesting incident. As an office bearer of the organization, I reached the venue early along with the publicity secretary Rohan Gogoi for arrangement of the seminar. When I put up the banner bearing the sentence “Problems of Northeast India” in front of the seminar room, an elderly person noticed it. He came forward and told me that he was interested in Northeast India. He told us that he was a Professor in Pune University and that he could understand the Northeast Indian people. Rohan explained briefly about insurgency and other problems of the Northeast and also pointed out that there is no proper understanding about Northeast in the rest of India. The person said sympathetically, “I don’t know why people can’t understand Northeasterners. I think I can understand Northeast Indian very easily, I know Japanese language, hence the Northeast Indians won’t be a problem for me”.
I think almost every student from Northeast India has faced some silly situation in places like Pune, Mumbai or Delhi. “Excuse me, you are from which country?” My Dimasa friend Kulendra Daulagupu was once asked this question by an elderly Maharastrian. My friend, who was already familiar with such situations because of his Mongoloid look, answered, “I am from India”. The elderly person said sorry. There were many like Kulendra who had faced such situations, who could easily smile at such a situation. But then again there were many who could not.
NESS in those days annually organized a cultural evening named ‘Confluence’ where students from almost every Northeastern state used to participate. I still remember that in ‘Confluence 99’ we used the Indian tricolour as the stage backdrop. There were also a few local participants in that programme including some journalists and our non-Northeast Indian friends. Our intention to use Indian national flag as backdrop of the stage was to create an impression that we share same feelings with the fellow Indians. But it was not so easy. In that night of ‘Confluence 99’, after the programme was over a reporter from Nava Bharat Times asked me, “You have used the Indian tricolour as the backdrop of the stage. Will people from your place not punish you for this?” He made me almost speechless, but somehow I managed to ask him, “Why?” The reporter told me confidently, “Because the entire Northeast is anti-India.”
Should a Northeast Indian complain against this kind of misunderstanding or non-understanding? Should we think ourselves as half Indians? Definitely not. We are not half Indians, we are Northeast Indians. If there is room for South Indians, North Indians, there should be room for us too. There is a gap between the Northeast and the mainstream India. This is debatable. Even the term half Indian is not that bad. After all two half Indians can make a full Indian. “Why don’t you think that your country is such a big one that few people of this country even look like Chinese”, said a minister of Arunachal Government in a meeting held in Dadar, Mumbai, around 1997. ‘Come to Arunachal Pradesh, people living in the border areas of China will greet you by shouting ‘Jai Hind.’