"I get stared at and have to handle a lot of eve teasing," says Christine (name changed on request), a 21 year-old from Manipur in North-East India who studies at a south Delhi college.
Racial discrimination against people from the North-Eastern states is widespread and ranges from the casual use of "chinky" as a descriptive label to outright assault as in the case of Nido Tania, the son of a Congress MLA from Arunachal Pradesh, who died after being beaten in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. Tania's death has touched a raw nerve with North-Eastern migrants to the capital voicing their protest at Jantar Mantar.
Indian Express columnist Pratap Bhanu (PB) Mehta expressed it succinctly when he wrote that the case "reopened the delicate question of the place of the North-East in India's imagination" and "reminded us of the subtle transitions the idea of India still needs to make for the Indian project to be complete."
Alana Golmei, general secretary of the North East Support Centre and Helpline, who often has to help fellow North-Easterners cheated out of their salaries by unscrupulous employers, feels keenly about the consequences of this incomplete transition. "In November 2013 alone, I received 30 such complaints," says Golmei, who moved to Delhi from her home town in Manipur in 2005. "Many small BPOs in the city hire and fire people from the North-East at will. They think that they are weak since they don't have the support of their families," she says adding that women from the northeast are also labelled as ‘available'.
"I was at the airport recently with my three nieces. A CRPF personnel approached them and wanted to see their identity cards. All the time he was checking them out," she says. "Would he behave like this with any other Indian?"
A college student, who did not wish to be named, revealed that finding a house is especially problematic with landlords often asking for higher rents. "Even autorickshaw drivers often charge us more, as if we are foreigners," she says.
Senti Longchar, head of the department of Psychology at the capital's Lady Shri Ram College, tells students from the North -East to avoid reacting to provocation. Longchar, who is from Nagaland, is the only permanent faculty member from the North-East at her college. "At times, I still feel like an outsider. There is no open discrimination in my immediate environment but sometimes I am not included in conversations," she says.
Social observers offer a few theories to explain the negative stereotyping of people from the North-East. "People from the Indian mainland suffer a dichotomy in their relationship with those from the North-East. At one level, they rent out their houses to them, enter into a business relationship, but because their lifestyles and culture is different, they feel threatened," says Dr G Amarjit Sharma, Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University's (JNU) North-East India Studies Programme. "Not everyone, even when educated, has the courage to allow for diversity."
His colleague Dr Manjeet Baruah believes there are two kinds of citizenship – legal and cultural. "While people from the North-East are legal citizens of India, they are still not seen as part of the cultural construct of the nation," he says attributing this to the fact that they are "generally racially different." In his column PB Mehta wrote that Indian society needs to accept that racial discrimination exists before moving towards a place of tolerance where identity becomes "more of an irrelevant fact in the background, not an axis on which we organise what rights people have and what places they can inhabit."
Baruah believes that shift will only come from dialogue. "Merely incorporating history or cultural studies in textbooks will not help. We need to discuss what we mean by the idea of citizenship. In our country there is less space given, even in the media, to discourses on racial diversities, than to diversities of caste or religion," he points out.
Others, like Sharma, speak of the need for effective laws against racial prejudices and discrimination and timely execution of such laws by concerned authorities. North-Easterners complain of the lack of action by police in cases of racial abuse. Even in the Nido Tania case, family and friends have alleged that the police was lax. Tharmila Jajo and Chonmila from Manipur, who were allegedly assaulted in Delhi's Kotla Mubarakpur area on January 25, say the police were reluctant to register a case. It was reportedly registered only after leaders of some North-Eastern organisations intervened. One way to affect change is to increase the visibility of racial minorities. "We need to increase the visibility of people from the North-East in all walks of life. We have to increase their presence among the officials and executives in the country," says Dr Y Chinna Rao, professor at the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, JNU.
The death of Nido Tania, Longchar suggests, has been "like the 16 December rape case" in mobilising people to protest against racial abuse. Whether it also succeeds in pushing Indians to bridge the gap with other Indians remains to be seen.