Not Just America: The Pandemic Is Deepening a Racial Divide in India Too - OZY | A Modern Media Company
An Indian Manipuri girl wears a face mask in Imphal, Manipur, India.
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Indians are discriminating against Indians over appearances.

By Pallabi Munsi

It was 9 p.m., and the streets were mostly empty. A 25-year-old woman from the northeast Indian state of Manipur was on her way to her rented room in New Delhi after buying groceries with her friend, through an alley she knew well. A middle-aged man driving toward them from the opposite direction suddenly slowed down and spat in her face, “like I was a pile of garbage or a roadside drain,” recalls the woman, who has requested anonymity.

Before speeding away, the man shouted “corona” at her. 

It was one among a growing set of incidents pointing to a wave of racist taunts, slanders and attacks by Indians against fellow Indians from the country’s eight northeast states, amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the U.S., the virus has fueled racist attacks against people of East Asian origin, including American citizens. In India, nationals from an entire geographic chunk of the country — home to 46 million people — are finding themselves targeted because of their Far Eastern features.

Racial attacks on people from northeast India are not new. But the latest incidents come at a time when more and more people from the region have been migrating to the country’s big cities “in a lot more visible roles” than previously, says Duncan McDuie-Ra, professor of urban sociology at Australia’s University of Newcastle, and author of multiple books on race and Northeast India. And they could strengthen disenchantment and anti-India sentiments, he says, among a section of the population that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has otherwise tried to woo.

Like the New Delhi incident, another 25-year-old woman from Manipur was spat on in April in Mumbai (the accused men — in New Delhi and Mumbai — have been arrested). In Pune, a woman from Mizoram reported in a Facebook post how a supermarket shopper misbehaved with her. In Ahmedabad, police detained nine employees of a dental insurance company for COVID-19, despite having no travel history or symptoms of the disease. They were from Nagaland, which — like Manipur and Mizoram — is in India’s northeast. Angellica Aribam, a race, gender and democracy activist from Manipur, received lewd comments and called a “bat-eater” on social media platforms — a reference to the virus’ suspected animal origins in China.

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A mother and a daughter filling up a sack with harvested grains of rice in Manipur state’s Ukhrul district.

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Sanjib Baruah, professor at New York’s Bard College and the author the recently released book, In The Name of Nation: India and its Northeast, says he had a “foreboding that such attacks might happen when I read that Wuhan, China is where this outbreak started.” His concern was justified.

In many ways, McDuie-Ra argues, the racism people from the Northeast face from their fellow citizens is structural, and linked to the often violent military occupation and operations against secessionist groups in the region for most of the 73 years since India gained independence.

I’d rather be a Chinese national than feel excluded being an Indian national.

Sakpui Maram, graduate student

But that “othering” of people from the northeast has been accentuated during the pandemic. Baruah points out that’s in keeping with how outbreaks of new diseases through history have led to “climates of irrationality, fear and suspicion, and stigmatization of groups that are feared to be the carriers of the infectious disease or somehow responsible for it.” President Trump calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” hasn’t helped.

“It becomes normalized. It becomes ingrained into how we speak and communicate,” says Aribam. “And communities like ours which have always been targeted as Chinese and non-Indian bear the brunt.”

The cases of racism that have become public during the pandemic are likely only a small fraction of the total incidents, experts say. J Maivio was a member of the Bezbaruah Committee — a government panel that was set up after the murder of a 19-year-old man from the border state of Arunachal Pradesh to look into concerns of people from the northeast living elsewhere in India. Maivio says 80-90 percent of racist incidents aren’t reported, because people want to avoid long court proceedings.

But McDuie-Ra cautions that this frustration doesn’t endear victims to their nation. Sakpui Maram, a 21-year-old graduate student at Ambedkar University in New Delhi, who was also recently referred to as “corona” by two men, says she sometimes feels she can live with being called “chinky” — a slur often used on people from the northeast. “I’d rather be a Chinese national than feel excluded being an Indian national,” she says.

That’s worrying for Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party, which traditionally had little presence in the country’s northeast, but now is in power in all eight states. It’s a “priority area for Hindu nationalist organizations,” says Baruah. And at a time the Modi government is already facing global criticism for discriminatory laws and attitudes toward the country’s Muslims, the attacks on people from the northeast hurt the nation’s image further. “It’s not good for India to be seen as having minority populations that it can’t protect,” says McDuie-Ra.

The attacks would have also been problematic had they targeted foreigners, McDuie-Ra maintains. But for those whom India calls its own, the stakes are even higher. “It is a question of integration and acceptance that might escalate if it’s not taken care of immediately,” says Maivio.

Yet Aribam argues that any meaningful change will need India to embrace an anti-racism law, which so far doesn’t exist. The Bezbaruah panel had recommended a law to punish hate crimes against people from the northeast, but that proposal remains unfulfilled, points out Baruah.

So what does it finally boil down to? As Aribam puts it: “You either stay back at home … or you accept the racism and push forward.”

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