Of racist attacks on northeasterners, rage and retrospection

The death of 19 year old Nido Tania, a student from Arunachal Pradesh pursuing his studies in Chandigarh and on vacation in Delhi, as well as rape and attacks on people of the region in the Union capital, has shocked India’s Northeast.

Although several other students have reported similar incidents of discrimination, of being the butt of sordid jokes because of their ‘looks’, of young women being considered easy game merely because they are not diffident about talking to the opposite sex, what happened to Nido seemed to have been a case of extreme rage leading to unrestrained violent acts on a helpless young man.

Nido was apparently taunted because of his blonde (artificially streaked) hair. Techni-coloured hair ranging from blue to blonde to silver are a craze among youngsters in the Northeast. Here, no one really takes notice and no one cares what colour hair you have or the kind of clothes you wear. The process of socialisation is also more liberal in the region. Girls and boys grow up together, socialise in churches, social and educational spaces and can romance without raising any curious eyebrows.
In Meghalaya’s matrilineal society, cohabitation (a man and woman choosing to live together) is customary, has societal approval and the children born of such a union are legitimate. Since the practice of dowry is unknown, the caste system unheard of and marriage is a free choice, not arranged. Life is less burdensome and more carefree, if one might use the term.

For a first time visitor to the Northeast accompanied by a baggage of caste and hierarchy, these cultural practices are seen as imperfect or half civilised tribal traits. For us in the region it is a way of life. We too see the caste system, dowry and khap panchayats deciding on who an individual should or should not marry, as blots in the tapestry of the ‘Indian’
social mooring.

India’s Northeast is peopled by Tibeto-Burmans who migrated from the Tibetan regions via Burma and settled in the Northeastern parts of India and by the Austro-Asiatic or Mon Khmer groups from Cambodia. Racially we look different. And just as we all have our mother tongue pull while speaking English, our behaviour too is determined by our own social conditioning.

Hence, our internalised worldview also decides our behaviour outside the region. This huge cultural dissonance is bound to cause friction when we interface with people of other cultures who expect us to behave in a certain way and vice versa. Perhaps this is something that we in the region have not learnt to adjust to. Adjustment and adaptation are integral parts of the civilisational process. Sometimes we import our cultural norms including our deep-seated prejudices with us when we leave the region to study outside.  And then we find it upsetting when people react rudely, often out of ignorance about our cultural mores. Should we be upset about that?

Political pitch

The Nido tragedy has prompted the students of the Northeast in Delhi and other metros to raise a political pitch. Words such as ‘racism’, ‘discrimination’, and ‘injustice’ rent the air as rage turns to recrimination. Political parties are dragged into the imbroglio. They are asked to take a call on how to deal with the aftermath of Nido’s alleged murder. The perpetrators of this ghoulish act have been rounded up and the law will possibly ‘take its course.’ But what after that? Will the murderers pay for their crime committed in a fit of rage?

There are sections of the law to deal with murder. One hopes that there are no demands for some more laws on how to deal with racism within the country because that to my mind is only an attempt at obfuscation. You cannot have a law to deal with every human perversion, indiscretion, and misdemeanour. Laws, as we have seen, have consistently failed to protect us!

The Nido Tania episode, however, has some lessons for us in the Northeast. Are we in the region completely innocent of racial profiling? Each state and ethnic group has a name by which it refers to the outsider and the word has a pejorative tinge to it. Vai in Mizoram, Mayang in Manipur, Dkhar in Meghalaya are discordant notes that suggest a complete ‘otherness’ or non-belongingness.

Every time an issue assumes political undertones, the non-tribal, outsider (no matter how long he has lived in a particular state) becomes the unwitting victim and justice is never delivered. Racial profiling leading to hate crimes against people of a particular race, religion or creed therefore is a two-way street.

Even as we demand justice for Nido and a better understanding from fellow Indians, it is also our duty to show a reciprocal deference to people who are not like us. Recently, I addressed the students of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi on the politics of ethnicity and identity in the Northeastern states and also the problems and prospects of the region. I could see the interest in the students as they bombarded me with a range of incisive questions.

It has been my firm belief that sessions on India’s Northeast must be a compulsory part of school and college curriculum in this country. That’s the only way to a cross-cultural understanding and also the way to ensure that another Nido does not have to die in this crossfire of hate and revenge.

(The writer is a senior journalist and a member of the National Security Advisory Board, New Delhi)

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