India with a population of 1,210,193,422, as accounted by the March 2011 population census, is a unique assimilation of ethnic groups of varied cultures and religions. However, the vastness of India’s Hindu religion, accounting for a plethora of cultural extravaganza, is the reason why the country is seen more as a seat of a major world civilisation then a mere nation state.
The cultural diversification from state to state is so immense that it often feels and looks like the people might be belonging to different nationalities. Every year, thousands of young people from the North East migrate to New Delhi and other cities for higher education and jobs. The seven northeastern states, known as “Seven Sisters”, are connected to India by a silver of land over the top of Bangladesh. These states are plagued with chronic underdevelopment and separatist conflicts.
It is common for the people from northeast to be called ‘chinkies’, a word so common that many have became immune to it, but derogatory enough for the government to punish its use with five years in jail. Harassment from landlords, employers, and assaults on the streets are common for the northeastern youth. All this leads to feelings of alienation and discrimination. Indians have deep-rooted racism against the northeastern people and after the outbreak of the coronavirus, the racist comments have only worsened.
Recently, Alana Golmea, member of a monitoring committee, wrote a letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs (NE division). In her letter she wrote how the northeastern people are now being called “coronavirus”. To call a people by the name of an epidemic is not just cruel, it is barbaric. Similar crude racism was witnessed in 2014 when people from the northeast were mugged, harassed, and even killed due to their ethnic identity.
Alana pointed out in her letter that northeastern people have for long been at the receiving end of racism by all sorts of Indians. However, most of the cases of racism reported are from Delhi. The national capital is home to a number of well-known educational institutions where youth from the northeast come to study. India basically has a racism problem that goes unnoticed in the garb of casteism. This inherent racism builds walls and creates barriers between people.
A student of Delhi University, Noihrit Gogoi, has encountered various types of name-calling everyday just because he looks a certain way and speaks Hindi with a different accent. Coronavirus was largely seen as a Chinese disease as it started in China. Since most of the students from the northeast have Mongoloid features, resembling the average Chinese national, they have to bear the brunt of now being called coronavirus.
A lot of other students from colleges of Delhi University echo similar problems. Neha, a student from Assam, said she is being called coronavirus and people keep telling her that the virus spread to India from China via the northeast. She says, “This is quite sad and ridiculous at the same time. But there is nothing we can do.”
Reema, another student, recalls how she and her friends were called “bearers of coronavirus”. She said it was one of the worst days of her life. “My friends and I were walking to a metro station when three men threw a giant water balloon at my friend’s breasts. I was completely drenched. The minute we got inside the metro, someone frowned upon us and said these Chinese people are so shameless that they walk around spreading coronavirus everywhere,” Reema said.
Young techie Hming Teichhangta, who comes from Manipur, narrated that it was just last week when she visited a grocery store where a few men said at her arrival, “coronavirus aa gaya” (coronavirus has come).
Namguilingpanmel hails from the same state, Manipur. He said that while returning from a friend’s place he took off my helmet and hung it on the two-wheeler he was riding. A traffic cop stopped him and asked for his documents and licence, all of which he provided. “I paid the fine for not wearing the helmet, but commented that he had let all other helmetless riders off except me. His response left me shocked. He said, ‘Wo log to local log hai, tum to China se ho na. Kis ko pata tere paas coronavirus hai ki nahi (They are locals, but you are from China. Who knows if you are infected with coronavrirus or not).’”
It is indeed depressing to hear such stories, to know that there are still people roaming around who think of this as funny. The northeast of India has always been isolated and the people there are termed aliens. It is time to change that attitude.
In the midst of an epidemic as this, it is important for all of us to come together and help each other, instead of targeting people. There have been many cases of racism that surfaced after cases of coronavirus began to be reported. In many countries, there has been a rise in anti-Chinese racism. Many businesses are known to be outrightly denying entry to Chinese people.
Maybe stories like these will lead people to think before they speak or act. Here’s hoping we get a solution for coronavirus as well as for racism.
The writer is a student of political science at Aligarh Muslim University.[email protected]