I joined as an assistant professor at the University of Delhi in the summer of 2016. I was ecstatic when I received the news and immediately called my father, expecting words of congratulations. But instead, I was met with an unanticipated silence. "Are you up to some kind of a joke? Are you sure it is you, and not a case of mistaken identity?" Waiting for me to respond, he sat quietly across the phone, overwhelming me with startling silence.
That silence was a story—a poignant recollection of his own lost life, of his friends' and many generations' lost opportunities. It was an acknowledgement of our continuing years of social injustice and India’s political betrayal, towards the North-East region and its people. I am a first-generation graduate from my family, and one of the first few to avail formal higher education.
Systemic Racism In India
The notion of social justice guarantees us equal opportunity, and our Constitution affords us this right, taking into account the country's chequered past. However, the prevalent systemic racism and oppression are something that many are unfamiliar with. Covert, everyday acts of racism are destructive and it impedes people like me from the marginalised-ethnic communities from living a healthy, prosperous and dignified life. It is sometimes enforced by violence, like assaults and murder, and often with casual bigoted attitudes such as racial slurs or gaze.
During my teaching days, the social structure in my class was clearly visible in the seating arrangements: In the front rows were the fluent “only English speaking” students, the top scorers, and the extremely confident. And towards the back and in the corner were the not-so confident ones, reluctant to even say their names aloud. The latter were mostly from India’s North-East states along with the so-called “Hindi-speaking” students. I knew I had to do something about it. I would occasionally change the seating arrangement in the class, encourage the students to share their stories, and distinctly urge the ones in the back to speak up with confidence and without fear. Conversations can break barriers, or even change perspectives, and if nothing, builds empathy.
When I moved to Delhi from my home state Arunachal Pradesh in 2009, I was oblivious at the time that my trials with racism in this country were going to be perpetual, and that it would be just the beginning of a relationship that I never would have imagined.
I always took an interest in student politics and so, had decided to stand for the post of the president for the Political Science department, in the third year of graduation. On knowing this, a professor reproached me during the campaigning; she warned me that I should reconsider my candidature as I had no chance of winning the election. I remember running to the washroom and sobbing. The results of the elections were soon out, and I'd won! In retrospect, this incident is puzzling to me. On one hand, I was struggling to prove my merit, while on the other, I had found a sense of solidarity with strangers in a new land.
January 2015. I was in Rajasthan for the Jaipur Literature Festival, but my friends and I were denied entry to a hotel. The manager demanded that we prove our nationality. How could we? Through a passport? We didn’t realise we had to carry it while travelling in our own country. Or by speaking Hindi? We argued for hours, but to no effect. We had no choice but to leave.
Last year, I was invited for a three-day Tribal Writers' Meet in Ranchi, Jharkhand, organised by Sahitya Akademi. But when we got there, we saw that we were made to stay in filthy conditions—beds had no pillow covers, the bathrooms were muddy and disgusting, some rooms had no running water, and some men and women were put together in the same room. Baffled by this reception, we asked the organisers the reason behind such sloppiness. They responded that they couldn’t tell our gender because of our weird names. It was only after we protested that we were transferred to a nearby hotel. Because most of us couldn't speak Hindi fluently, it was quite frustrating. "Is it because we are tribals that they have mistreated us?" one senior writer asked.
Such traumatic events corroborate old wounds, and these insecurities I know from experience impede us from living freely. Together, they often compel us to have a distorted view of the world, and look at it as unfair and unjust. We fear to express our desires, we fear our aspirations, we dream with inhibitions.
Acknowledgement is the Key to Resolve
In the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have heard of a series of attacks on people from the North-East. While some were spat on, many were sent away from grocery stores and evicted from their homes. A few others were kept in detention and quarantined for looking “Chinese”, even though they had no COVID symptoms.
At a time when there is a global uproar after the murder of George Floyd, and there is a call for dismantling the culture of systemic racism in the U.S., India still lives in denial.
I am called a “Chinki”, a slut and asked for my price, in hotel lobbies, on the train, even in the middle of the streets. I have been denied accommodations because I am assumed to be a prostitute. Men from the North-East are ridiculed and mocked too, often called pussies and assaulted. In my 12 years of Delhi life, I've lost count of the number of phone calls I've made to the NE helpline number 1093. Owing to the rise in crime against the people from the region, this special helpline number was recently created in Delhi along with the Special Police Unit for North Eastern Region (SPUNER).
I try not to anguish over the little things, but I am exasperated as it happens on an everyday basis.
India is still living in the remnants of its colonial past of class, caste and systemic racism. Just as the history of slavery and criminalisation of the Black race is part of the American political system, India's political system is incomplete without the marginalised histories of the Schedule Tribes, Schedule Castes, Other Backward Castes, Dalits, Adivasis and religious minorities. And any denial of that is a denial of civil, social and political rights to us.
Another tragedy is the continuing prejudiced cultural representations of minorities in films and popular culture like Bollywood. People from the region are often shown as criminals, servants, prostitutes, and other insignificant characters. To add to the ignorance and insensitivity, North-East history and culture is often missing from school textbooks altogether.
In the past, many cops have turned away my complaints because of my ethnicity. My association with men from the North-East has been seen as a part of an immoral crowd, only indulging in drugs and other substances. My relationship with any non North-Eastern men is primarily perceived in sexual transactions. This political strategy of criminalising the entire race is what we can see the Indian State doing to the North-East region as well. Most of us are seen as insurgents waging war against the state.
It is uncanny how India and the US, two supposedly free nations, are employing the most undemocratic methods—massive incarceration, the prison system in the US and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). In both countries, despite years of freedom and legislation aimed at addressing inequalities, educational institutions and the workplace have no legal accountability to address racist incidents.
Today many right-wing people and other conservatives are uncomfortable with the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement. They say, it’s not the right way to protest. I ask them: What is the right way to protest then?
By dying under the knees of the system, like George Floyd and Nido Tania?
In January 2014, Nido Tania, a 19-year-old boy from Arunachal Pradesh died at the hands of three bigoted-racist men after a few hours of assault in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market. Nido was murdered because of his ethnic identity.
The greatest fear is the fear of exclusion and marginalisation, to be killed and erased as if we never existed. To deprive us of our freedom is to deny our rights and hope of building a better world. Everybody has the right to live with freedom and dignity. Everybody.
Follow Ngurang Reena on Instagram.