The state of racism and the road to follow

 

Mumeninaz Zaman

At the onslaught of the pandemic, thousands of migrants from different parts of the country are heading back to their hometowns after the resumption of train services was announced by the Government. The move may be a sigh of relief for those who have lost their jobs, kicked out of their rented apartments or have no money or food to survive the lockdown. However, the people of Northeast have an extra baggage to carry back to their homes- ‘bitter memories’ of racial discrimination.

In the wake of the growing racial discrimination Union Minister Kiren Rijiju on March tweeted, “I’m sad to see such racial discrimination in many parts of India. Anyone whoever discriminates people of other community, region, religion or race are the real enemy virus. All State Govt must take strict action as per the direction of the Govt of India.” This was followed by a directive issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs to take stern measures against any case of racial discrimination. Similarly, political leaders from the Northeast also put up the issue during a video conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Earlier, MPs- Tapir Gao from Arunachal Pradesh and Jamyang Tsering Namgyal from Ladakh also raised the issue in the parliament. Despite the call against racism, most of the cases remain unreported or only get the coverage on certain social media pages. Depending on the seriousness of the case a tweet from a politically influential person comes forward, followed by certain directives/advisories and the matter gets buried with due time. However, it does not serve the purpose of eradicating racism entirely from society. A lot has to be done from the national perspective, to educate the people about Northeast.

Following the COVID-19 outbreak, we have come across several cases of racial discrimination being meted out to the people of Northeast. Some youths were not allowed to enter a supermarket, and others were spat at. The recent case was the physical assault on a 20-year-old girl from Gurugram, who was beaten black and blue just because she passed through a locality.

Alana Golmei

Alana Golmei, a lawyer and activist who runs the North East Support Centre and Helpline NESCH says, “The instances of racial discrimination are indeed unfortunate. We the people of India are always on the verge of blaming someone, this exemplifies the ‘racist’ mindset we endure.” Golmei adds when the coronavirus emerged in the country since then people with Mongoloid features have been the victims of racial slur. They are being called as ‘corona’ or ‘carrier of virus’. Surprisingly, even the educated lots of the society indulge in racism this also includes some of the reputed institutions of the country.

“People are not aware they are not being educated or sensitized enough to understand about the virus, so there has been a lot of misinformation. There is also a stigma associated with it, as the virus first emerged in China, anybody who looks like them has to face the brunt of racism. Not only abuses or harassment, but physical gestures are also a form of indictment towards the people of Northeast. So misinformation, lack of awareness and mindset are responsible for this growing discrimination,” says Golmei.

No Proper law

Golmei has been a part of the Bezbaruah Committee, which was formed to look into various kinds of concerns of the people hailing from North Eastern states of India who are living in different parts of the country, especially the Metropolitan cities and to suggest suitable remedial measure which could be taken up by the Government.
The measures include :

  • New law against discrimination,
  • Fast-track courts and special police squads,
  • Interventions in Education,
  • Social media outreach and legal awareness campaigns and
  • Bonding power of sports.

However, it is not clear, up to what extent these recommendations have been respected and implemented. The Committee recommended the insertion of Sections 153C and 509A in the Indian Penal Code, these provisions were made to deal with offences of promoting enmity on the grounds of religion, race, residence or language. The provisions would help in dealing effectively with the offences involving racial matters and words,  gestures or acts intended to insult a member of a particular racial group or race.

“For example, if someone calls ‘chinky’, ‘momo’, or ‘chinese’, the police are unaware under what provisions, action should be taken, and since there is no appropriate law that’s why there is no exemplary action. People know they will get away with it. As such, it is important to include these two major sections in the IPC,” asserts Golmei.

 

Alana Golmei with M.P. Bezbaruah, Chairman of the Bezbaruah Committee

The way ahead

Golmei launched NESCH in 2007 to prevent harassment, discrimination, molestation and abuses meted out to people from Northeast India, living in Delhi and NCR particularly women. She was awarded the “DCW Achievement Award” by Delhi Commission for Women in 2016 in recognition of her efforts towards spearheading the cause of women. She has been working for more than a decade with some like minded people who have faced discrimination. The NESCH is entirely funded by volunteers and have a reach all over India.

Golmei, has been in the forefront in tackling the rampant problems faced by people from Northeast India. Some of the distinct measures that she suggests against racism are as follows :

  • There are Bhawans for states in various metros and cities when people from NE are facing discrimination, as in case if the landlords force the people to vacate their homes, these Bhawans can open up their doors, to facilitate the homeless people. Moreover, there are several Northeast (NE) units who can come together and coordinate with the distressed people in terms of legal formalities or medical help.
  • As per the Bezbaruah Committee, a special unit like that of the NE Police Special Unit or Helpline 1093 should be in place in metro cities, so that when distress calls are received immediate action can be taken or reach out to the person. In this case, Delhi, where most of the cases are reported has been doing a great job.
  • Setting up a multipurpose NE centre: During the pandemic, a lot of boys and girls are kicked out by their tenants in the middle of the night and they have to stay on roads. We also come across many people who survive physical or sexual assaults, that affects them psychologically, in such a case a multipurpose NE Centre can accommodate the boys and girls on an emergency basis if required and provide them with shelter, food and medical attention.
  • A public prosecutor from NE should be provided to the distressed people: Earlier we have asked for a designated court which was not possible, so we have vouched for a fast track court. Again in the fast track court, it is important that the public prosecutor should from the Northeast who is sensitive enough or well versed with the region. These are some of the prominent measures which should be implemented in letter and spirit.

On being asked whether the issue of racial discrimination is not getting the due emphasis in the national scenario, Golmei asserted that the Government should take the issue seriously and not as an isolated case. “There has to be a political will to change the system. The Prime Minister of the country is treated as an icon or the most influential leader. When he asked to clap for the health workers or light a candle the entire country followed him. So if he can come out and say that do not discriminate our brothers and sisters from the Northeastern region and blame them for COVID the situation could have been different. Only some directives issued by the MHA is not going to help in the long run. Moreover, the media can also play a constructive role in raising the issue on the national front and educate the masses,” states Golmei.

Like Golmei there are a lot of unsung heroes, groups and organisations who are fighting against the cause, without any help or recognition from the government. Whenever an unfortunate incident is tackled, a tweet from a leader is mostly highlighted in the media, whereas these heroes remain behind the scene.

“The warriors who are working from the ground are doing a commendable job, from coordinating with the police officers to filing a complaint and then getting medical help for the victim. We admire and appreciate the diversity of this country and we are working for its integration. We are not working here to get an award, but it is sad that our work is never acknowledged by any political leaders, not even from the Northeastern states,” says Golmei.

A message to those in power

All the political leaders and specifically the Chief Ministers of the Northeastern states must address the issue of racism sternly. The outbreak has revealed a dark chapter of discrimination. The young people, who come to study and work in the metros and face discrimination in their own country, are only left with ‘bitter memories’.

If this situation creates a negative image of the country in the young minds, the leaders are equally responsible. If they talk about the integration of the country, it’s high time to act. Moreover, political leaders and CMs from Northeast should start creating employment opportunities for the unemployed youths so that they don’t have to go to metro cities and face discrimination.

Chief Ministers of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland