The nation’s capital has tested 20-year-old Delhi University student James Haokip from Manipur in ways he wasn’t prepared for.
Haokip’s east-Asian physical traits – narrower eyes, smallish nose, wider cheekbones, fair complexion and shafts of straight hair – have rendered him vulnerable to a more nefarious form of discrimination, one that is blatant, not subtle.
Although most Indians would decry any racism abroad, a large community of people from India’s Northeast says bias against them is growing, amid fresh concerns over safety.
The suspicious death in 2012 of Manipuri student Loitam Richard in Bangalore, the suicide by Meghalaya girl Dana Sangma in Noida in 2012 and the January 29 fatal attack in Delhi on Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh are grim reminders of India’s very own problem of race relations.
“I don’t find friendly attitudes anywhere. My landlord took six months’ rent in advance, instead of the standard two months, saying that was the rule for guys from the Northeast,” Haokip says.
Over 1 million people from the Northeast stay, work or study in major cities, according to the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (CNESPR) at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. Their problems are now in national focus, with Facebook campaigns like the popular page: “Stop Discrimination against People from the Northeast”.
Women often face abuse. A National Commission for Women-funded study by the CNESPR found 81% of Northeast women faced harassment in Delhi, according to the centre’s director Sanjoy Hazarika, who authored the iconic 2003 book on the Northeast, “Strangers of the Mist”.
Meghalaya girl Linda Sangma, who formerly worked at a south Delhi mall, says she is frequently taunted. “I always got extra attention. A customer once pressed for my contacts.” The man turned up again a few days later and asked if Linda enjoyed “friendship and parties”.
Society in the Northeast, a rich mosaic of over 300 ethnic tribes, is more egalitarian, less feudal and even matrilineal in states, such as Meghalaya, where only women can inherit property.
With a large Christian population, popular culture has been highly westernised since European missionaries first arrived in the early 18th century.
More assertive of their freedoms, hip and fashionable lifestyle of young tribal women tend to be misconstrued as promiscuous behaviour, according to Gempu Ao, a Naga activist. Sanjay Barbara, an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, disagrees.
“This is just pure racism. They are targeted not because of any promiscuity but because they are thought to be at odds with accepted cultural values. Let’s call the spade a spade.”