Round Table India
You Are Reading
The root causes of racism against North Easterners

The root causes of racism against North Easterners



Haineube Newme

HaiRacial discrimination against North Easterners by the Non-North Easterners (I will use N & Ns hereafter) in India’s metropolitan cities is paradoxical. This article will focus only on its root causes. In a survey released by The Washington Post, India was ranked among one of the most racist countries in the world today. What can be the root cause? What can be the remedies to resolve the issue? The main root causes are, inequality of opportunities, irresponsiveness of the native state’s government, social profiling, and problem of mind-sets.The impetus for my writing on this topic emerged from the need to analyse the root causes of racism which will give the heads of the government and the governing institutions of the North-eastern states as well as the Centre to think deeper and step forward to deal with it practically.

Generally, racism is the belief that another person is less than human because of the skin colour, language, customs, traditions and place of birth or any factor that supposedly reveals the basic nature of that person. Whenever it is agreed that racism is present, it is usually agreed that something ought to be done to eliminate or lessen it. Thus this is an expectation that, if people or the institutions understand they are agents of racism, they will change their unjust behaviour; and if others understand they are victims of racism, they will be better able to resist injustice. However, the issue of racism between the N & Ns cannot simply be blamed on the basic nature of a person like skin colour, language, culture, traditions etc. but it is rooted indirectly in ‘institutional racism’. The North Eastern regions have been neglected economically and socially. The ‘institutional racism’ can be in the form of ineffectiveness of the functioning of the political system and the problems of the social structure that lead to lack of development, poor education, or politicization of political functions in the regions; which gradually carry along the line racial differences to make racial discrimination more intense. According to James M. Jones, ‘institutional racism’ refers to the intentional or unintentional manipulations of toleration of institutional policies that unfairly neglect the opportunities of particular groups of people. Thus, I assert that it is institutional reasons that directly or indirectly influence the recently emerging issue of racism in India.

Roots of Racism

It is said that, racism is there in every society and was there since time immemorial. Surprisingly, however, racism between the N & Ns is very new and is growing very rapidly day by day. According to the report released on 6 December 2014 by NHRC Chairperson Justice K G Balakrishnan, “54 per cent persons feel that discrimination is a reality. The highest number of 67 per cent respondents said that they were victims of ethnic/racial discrimination followed by only four per cent saying that they faced gender related discrimination while three per cent said they were discriminated on basis of their religion,”. The common problems faced by the people of the India’s North Eastern states can be listed down, among many as, as physical assaults, harassment, racial comments, noisy brawls, non-payment of salaries, issues of rental accommodation, forced to pay extra for a rental agreement, bias, stereotyping, being called chinki, momo, Nepali, comments on hairstyles etc. etc. The death of 19 year old boy Nido Tania, from India’s North Eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, in 2014 is one loud instance that gives a clear picture of racism. Imagining all these ugly pictures of racism, one cannot stay still without finding its roots. The root cause of racism is indirectly from the collective failure of institutions (such as institutional law, social customs or practice) to provide appropriate measures of treatment and services to all sections of society be they of any race, religion, region, caste or class. The North Eastern people are the victims of such failure. Four types of roots of racism or institutional racism are briefly discussed below.

First, opportunities as equal to those available in the rest of India are very limited in the Northeast. Who is to be blamed for this inequality? Narendra Modi once said, “Due to lack of attention and lack of governance, the region is suffering. Policies of the Central government since independence have not been aligned within the growth of Northeast. Everyone should get a chance in development”. Without the attention of the government over this region, the problems of racism seem to grow more and more and the fight against racism between the N & Ns seems hopeless. Equal attention is one way that will lead to creating equal opportunities in the context of a diverse country like India.

Peter Singer, in his book ‘Practical Ethics,’ said that we do accept that equality is there in all human beings as social beings. Everyone is born with equal human features and we are supposed to be free from any kind of unequal treatment to anyone by anyone for any reason. But as we go beyond this, equality seems to be different especially in the case of racism. He further asserts that, it is not true that all humans are equal- “some are tall, some are short; some are good at mathematics others are poor at it….” I am citing these lines to present that all humans cannot be equal. But alternatively, there is a possibility to make all human to have equal opportunities irrespective of any background. What’s important is the formal ‘equality of opportunity’ has to be made effective. It is already obvious that there are circles within the circle in the Indian phenomenon of political and social exclusion. There are the dominant section of classes that hold the reins of power, and those that are merely under dominations and are groveling in abject poverty and discrimination knowingly or unknowingly. The notion of John Rawls ‘range property’ suggested in his book “A Theory of Justice” is quite relevant in the context of India. Suppose, in ‘range property’, we draw a circle on a piece of paper. Then all points within the circle – this is the ‘range’- have the property of being within the circle and they have this property equally, some points may be closer to center and others nearer the edge. Geographically, North Eastern states are points to the edge of the national border, but are equally within the range. Thus, we see that every responsible citizen of India should have access to opportunities equally.The whole point of argument here is the question of justice. The distribution of justice is not up to the mark.

Second, respective North Eastern states have failed in providing economic stability and employment to the growing number of youths in Northeast. It’s an undeniable fact that it is the problems of poor economic conditions and lack of avenues and employment opportunities in our respective home states that have pushed us to other parts of India for different types of educational, career and employment opportunities. In most of the Indian cities the populations of the North Easterners comprises of students, workers (skilled and unskilled) and drop-out school students who can together be clubbed as migrant populations. The relevant question would be: why have so many people fled their villages or towns and come to live in the metropolitan Indian cities? Comparably, if greater opportunities of living were being provided, North Eastern states can be better places to live than the other cities of India. One can enjoy better environment, beautiful landscape and better sanity in the North Eastern region. But, the region suffers from a dearth of employment, development and better education opportunities. The reason as to why many people have fled to various cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai etc. is nothing but to search for better educational scope or survival as they do not see any hope in home states to fulfil their needs. In the process, racism evolved between N & Ns due to cultural gap, behaviors, attitude, food habits, beliefs, socialization and ways of dress. This contradiction, thus, resulted into racial discrimination and hatred leading to murder, rape, molestation, physical atrocities, and sexual harassment and so on and so forth.

india future

In order to change these present critical scenarios, it is essential that respective state governments in the Northeast must seriously ponder an act on generating employment and avenues. States should focus on corruption-free, good governance, principled administration, transparent and accountable institutions so as to prevent flight of youth to other Indian cities for livelihood. Whenever one is economically or socially backward, he/she naturally gets discriminated or alienated (as the society itself is already constructed in such a way) and then being counted on the basis of their ‘racial difference’ which eventually leads to racism. Better living of the people depends upon the level of the concern shown by the government to its citizens.

The same problem is being faced by the students – no good schools or colleges are being provided to the students. A study conducted by North East Support Centre and Helpline reveals that the lack of higher educational infrastructure are the main factors for the people to migrate to the metropolitan cities in various parts of India. Thus, in order to address this issue, the authorities concerned should reason out all the flaws and the weak points of the educational system and look forward to provide productive and quality education to the students. Anwar, in his book, “Race and Politics”, concluded that “firm immigration control for future is essential if we are to achieve good community relations”. The Bezbaruah report (First Post, 23rd August 2014) estimates that over two lakh people from the North East have migrated to Delhi between 2005 and 2013 and that about 86 percent of them have faced discrimination.

Third, social profiling of the people of Northeast is another root cause of racism. On this problem, many attempted to put blame on Northeast people’s lifestyle instead of condemning the crime. The notion of social profiling; the opinion formed upon one’s appearance, culture and levelling everyone equal with some opinions formed upon some experiences. It is a well-established fact that in our country, racial discrimination is a pure reflection of Indian caste system.This kind of racism generates particular mistrust, alienation and ignorance; and it becomes particularly difficult to react to discrimination as the effect is evident but the cause is hard to prove.

North Easterners are considered as outsiders ‘polluting’ the existing Indian culture. North Easterners are considered outcaste (always looking from caste system perspective) because of coming from Mongoloid stock. Especially, women have always been subjected to racial and sexual discrimination in a male dominated society. This is purely a reflection of the deep-rooted caste system practices.The cultural difference of the North Eastern Region and the Indian mainland is not a secret; both are to be equally blamed for its failure to integrate.

Finally, next to social profiling is the mind-set of people on North East communities which has become a major cause of sexual abuse, social discrimination and economic exploitation. For example, the racist public of Delhi always count North Easterners as strangers, cheap and doing whatever they like. At home there is a mingling between the genders in a way that is not seen much in Non-North Easterners. This freedom is often misunderstood by them. The local police have similar mind-set when they insult, deceive, ignore and deny the complaints and have connived with perpetrators in many cases.

Social and Political implications

Recently, the government recommended a provision of the report of Bezbaruah Committee (pdf) in Section 153 to provide for imprisonment up to five years with a fine, to “whoever, by words either spoken or written or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise attempts or promote to attempt on the ground of race or place of origin or such other grounds relating to racial features or to racial behavior and culture or to racial customs or participates in such activity intending to use criminal force or violence…” This is one good legal step that the government has taken from the top level for the safety and security of the people of North East living in Delhi and other metropolitan cities in India. However, looking at this provision from the lens of its practicality, it becomes difficult to react to such acts. For example, verbal abuse or other discriminatory signs as the effect is evident but the cause is hard to prove. What is needed is to change the mindset. How we perceive and respect people from other parts of the country needs to change. The basic steps needed to be taken are to address the root causes (as discussed above deliberately). After much debate on the issue of discrimination has happened, the initiative of the Delhi Police issuing a “Zero Tolerance” policy in respect ‘of’ crime against women including the violence faced ‘by’ the people from North East India is another big corridor opened ‘for’ the people of North East to breathe freer. But the problem of ‘mindset’ among the local police towards the North East people is an undeniable factor present even today.

I also want to briefly argue over Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action is one of the greatest instruments to address the issue of inequality or injustice in one way but not fair enough if we look from the ‘discrimination’ perspective. Affirmative Action shouldn’t be the first tool to use in eradicating any kind of discrimination. Of course Affirmative Action seeks ultimately (under the banner of positive discrimination) to raise the standing of the targeted groups so that the basis of their previous exclusion- race, gender, ethnicity, etc. will no longer be used in determining the distribution of the desired good. In some studies the results show some declining gap between dalits, adivasis, and others in completing primary school and a little improvement in inequality at the college level as well. However, my argument is the level of discrimination or exclusion does not decrease; instead it increases due to the fact that it categorizes and marginalizes those sections of society.To some extent, the current practice of Affirmative Action will help empower the North Easterners but the problems of exclusion or discrimination still remain.

The government in the first place needs to promote equal treatment and strengthen protection against discrimination through strong and qualified professional analyses clarifying the structural challenges and propose solutions. Or else, it will need other stronger form of Affirmative Action, such as aggressive recruitment to sensitive positions in military, police, intelligence and even in the positions where substantial decisions can be made for the benefits of the lower social order – not through just quotas but as special treatment for representation, where focused measures are repeated until they reach unacceptable level.

One Possible Remedy

Education has to play a strong role to eradicate racial and ethnic discrimination. According to the survey done by the Reachout Foundation, “68 per cent respondents chose education as most effective vehicle” to handle this issue. Educational curricula should address racism and race through the inclusion of multicultural material which reflects the distinctive heritages of people from North East racial groups. Because multicultural content in curricula affirms the identities of groups subject to Non-North Easterners racism, it is believed to remedy racial bias within educational institutions and thereby support the success of Northeast students. Yehudi Webster, for instance, argues that multicultural content fails to empower minority students, because it does not emphasize critical thinking material or practical experience. We can assume that mind-set can be changed if school children were taught by emphasizing more on the moral, by promoting critical thinking, of the equality of every human kind.

On the other side of the same coin, I remember the phrase, “Be a Roman when you are in Rome.” If we don’t know how a Roman behaves, how would I act as a Roman or at least in a way acceptable to the Romans? It is quite natural that if we behave in an unruly and indecent way, then we face an equal and negative reaction. As per my experience, mostly we encounter racial attitudes from uninformed people like grocery shop keepers, auto or rickshaw drivers, and sometimes by the road side hoodlums etc. So, education and a well-polished manner with a good understanding of ethical codes of the people we live alongside are very important. And this can be learned only from a formal education.

In conclusion, I want to point out the instances of India as racist country from a general point of view. We all know that India as a country is divided on the lines of colour, race, caste, religion and gender. It is also, whether we like it or not, with the advent of globalization and concentration of capitalism, or of money in the hands of few, that we are now divided on the lines of wealth as well. We’ve come to accept that people with loads of money are better than others. Racism in India is so profound that, we are racist towards our own fellow citizens. If a guy, for instance, from Bihar makes a mistake or says something different he will be blamed for being Bihari; if a guy from Tamil Nadu has a different accent or a darker skin he will face prejudice or be teased with the word “Kaalu”, and the most popular one in North India, like in Delhi, if anyone with slightly oriental features, whether North Easterners or a foreigner (like Chinese, Korean, Japanese etc.) were seen passing by, the word “Chinki” will be mouthed often from those rubbernecks on the street or in public places. The Indian horror of calling black Africans “Blacky” or “Negro” is again typically a racist attitude. Even the white foreigners are seen as alien and, especially the women, fear for their safety, life and dignity. Thus, I believe it’s safe to say that India is a racist country. We need to look into ourselves first and find a way to change our own mindset because we might just be the racist we hate so much.

Let us imagine how beautiful it will be to have a mind-set of accepting diversity in our country—from the level of governing institutions to the level of individuals. There is a saying that ‘the beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people’. Hillary Clinton also said that “What we have to do… is to find a way to celebrate our diversity and debate our differences without fracturing our communities.” Now a question that remains open in my mind is that, are we all clubbed together under the banner of ‘Unity in Diversity’ and swimming in the lake of “blame game”? Giving a practical answer to this question may shape India’s future, its success in achieving ‘Unity in Diversity’.



Haineube Newme is doing Masters in Political Science from Delhi University. He is currently the General Secretary of North East Students’ Human Rights Organization (NESHRO: India) which is based in Delhi.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.