Let’s talk about racism | Don’t call us ‘chinky, momo, chowmein,’ says a Northeastern woman
We never met, I never heard your name and have not even a single clue to recollect if I have encountered you in life. I learned about your death through NE SOS WhatsApp group while on my way to meet a rape victim who is also from Manipur. While I was reading this heartbreaking news, I met one of your nieces wiping her tears and on her way to see you where you were found dead in mysterious circumstances. But without proper investigation, concerned authorities concluded that your death was natural, after all you cannot speak anymore or tell about what happened to you. If I have to count the statistics you are number 11 of NE women found dead in their rented accommodation in Delhi/NCR in 2016. Many women in the past years have also met the same fate. Let this be the last and I’m praying for safety and justice for all the women in the world. In life, you may not have fulfilled your dreams but in death you will be fondly remembered by your near and dear ones, they will love you still, and in their hearts you hold a place no one else will ever fill. You are in safe hands now, in God’s hand. Rest in Eternal Peace!
Everyone from the North-east who is based in Delhi and other Indian metro cities must face discrimination. I wrote the above letter on Facebook last year to honour a victim of a particularly violent kind of persecution. Since I come from the North-eastern part of India myself and belong to a minority race, I too have suffered from racism, at least in its milder forms. I’ve been called “chinky”, “momo”, “chowmein”, and more. If I am thought to be from South Korea, China or Japan, I’m treated very well, but once I am identified as a North-easterner, the problems begin.
Stereotyping of North-eastern Indians is common. If you are a young man from the North-east India who wears tattoos and sports a certain hairstyle, then you are tagged as an alcoholic or a drug addict. If you are a woman from the North-east wearing shorts and a half-sleeve shirt, then you are automatically considered “cheap”, which provokes unwanted advances. Even polite smiles from such women are often misunderstood. All sorts of different people from the North-east are also typecast as some sort of insurgent. Yet it is not possible for North-easterners to stand up to discrimination if it means risking their livelihoods; economic opportunity is normally what has brought them to a place like Delhi in the first place.
In 2007, I responded to this situation by helping to start the North East Support Centre & Helpline (NESCH), an initiative run by human rights activists, social workers, students, journalists, and lawyers. Our aim is to prevent the harassment, discrimination, and molestation of people from the North-east living in Indian metros. Since this helpline was launched, I have intervened in numerous physical assaults, hate crimes, and even rapes and murders.
I face lots of challenges trying to protect human rights. Members of the NESCH support us with money from their own pockets. We do not have pro bono lawyers, but most victims are from poor families and have no money to pay for legal fees. Court procedures are long and tedious; victims frequently have no faith in the system or get discouraged in the process. That’s the reason why 90% of NE victims never get justice. Dealing with the police in Delhi, meanwhile, often requires our team staying awake all night, sometimes without food, to coordinate between officials and victims.
While writing this piece, I am recalling many cases I handled in the past. There was Reingamphi, a young woman from Manipur who was suspected to have been raped and brutally murdered at her rented accommodation in Chirag Delhi in 2013. She was the main breadwinner of the family, her parents being rice cultivators with meagre incomes back in her home state. Then there was Mary Ezung from Nagaland, who was found dead in Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave. Her post-mortem report clearly stated that she was brutally assaulted and murdered. Julie, a young woman from Mizoram, was murdered in her rented flat nearby in Munirka. One 19-year-old girl from Assam was raped at a guest house where she was working.
It has almost become a daily affair to hear of North-eastern women being subjected to such abuse in Delhi and the rest of the National Capital Region. Other women suffer similarly, but these women from the North-east, hundreds of miles away from home, often face the extra burden of fighting their cases alone. Most of the women are hard working, the backbones of their families both financially and emotionally. Losing their daughters shatters a family’s dreams: it means life will never be the same again.
Stereotyping of North-eastern women continues even after their deaths. Every year, approximately 10 to 15 women from North-east India are found dead in their rented rooms in Delhi-NCR. Unfortunately, for all these cases there is not even a single genuine and proper investigation. Most of these women are not well known and they are not from influential backgrounds, so what does it matter to anyone? Police reports tend to conclude with causes of death like alcohol consumption, suicide, and natural causes.
Had there been no racism in this country, Nido Tania, a 19 year old from Arunachal Pradesh, would not have died because of his hairstyle. Akha Salouni, a 29-year-old man from Manipur, would not have lost his life due to his looks. A student from Arunachal Pradesh would not have been beaten up and forced to lick his landlord’s shoes in Bangalore while the man shouted, “You deserve it only because you are a dirty tribal from the North-east”. Two men from Nagaland would not have been beaten and had their hair chopped off by local attackers in the Sikanderpur area while being told by their attackers, “We want to send a message to all of you in the North-east. If you guys from Manipur or Nagaland come here, we will kill you.”
Hate crimes against North-eastern people are being treated as isolated cases by law enforcement and are being ignored by most Indians, but what I’m recounting here is only the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of incidents, many of them unreported. The list goes on and on.
Dr Alana Golmei is general secretary of North East Support Centre & Helpline, launched in 2007.
This is the second part of Lets Talk About Racism, a new HT campaign that addresses deep-rooted prejudices and discrimination in India. If you have faced racism, tweet using #LetsTalkAboutRacism or write to email@example.com. HT’s earlier series, Let’sTalk About Rape and Let’s Talk About Trolls, focused attention on crucial issues.