Racism: India and the Northeast
|courtesy The Hindu|
“Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are,” said a nationalist demagogue in Michael Dibdin’s novel, Dead Lagoon. Elaborating on that view, Samuel P. Huntington said in his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, “For people seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential.”
I lived in Meghalaya for a decade and a half. As an enemy in the sense Huntington means. Dkhar was one of the first Khasi words I learnt. It is a pejorative term for the ‘outsider’. I was a dkhar in Shillong just like thousands of others there who hailed from ethnically different backgrounds. In the latter half of 1980s I witnessed people of Nepali origin being hunted and driven out of Shillong. I lived in a part of Shillong where people of Nepali origin abounded. I witnessed people being beaten up brutally. I saw people being loaded into trucks and driven away. My landlord, a Khasi gentleman who smelled of whisky most of the time, advised me to stay away from his house where I stayed on rent. It was a friendly counsel for my own safety. He moved away with his family to some other part of the town that was not affected by the riot. I had no choice but to seek the hospitality of a friend. When I returned a week or so later, assuming that the riot was ebbing away, my landlord’s apartment on the first floor stood empty. They returned a week after I dared.
A few years after that I witnessed a similar riot. It was people of Bangladeshi origin that became the target this time. On both the occasions, the town of Shillong remained under curfew for many days. One had to survive on whatever resources one had already stocked. I survived on rice and pulses.
Very few days passed without my being reminded that I was a dkhar.
I left Shillong in 2001 and have been living in Delhi ever since. Delhi has never made me feel like an outsider, my hilarious Hindi notwithstanding. Nobody in Delhi has so far called me anything like “Madrasi” or whatever. Nobody has treated me as an alien. I have lived my life in Delhi with all the freedom that any Indian citizen enjoys in the city.
Today’s Hindu magazine carries a smorgasbord of articles by people from the Northeast living in Indian lands they seem to consider alien. With the exception of one person living in Chennai, every writer seems to be a victim of ‘Indian’ racism.
Is India so racist? I can’t speak for the whole of India. But I have noticed that in my school where many students are from the Northeast, particularly Manipur, there is no such thing as racism. True, students sometimes use words like “Chinki” in jest. But that usage reaches nowhere near the “dkhar” in racist feeling. The spirit of camaraderie that exists among the students is commendable. It is palpable given the fact that it is a residential school.
I have been provoked to write this by the lead article in the Hindu. Aruni Kashyap, author of The House with a Thousand Stories, taunts people outside the Northeast for their ignorance or stereotypes about the region. Ignorance and stereotypes are inevitable.
Two years ago, at a petrol pump in Delhi, seeing the registration number of my scooter, the pump man asked what ML stood for. “Meghalay,” I said making it sound as good Hindi as I possibly could. “Kya?” he asked. I repeated the name and asked him whether he had not studied about such a state in school. “If I had studied would I be here filling your scooter with petrol?” was his prompt response.
Such ignorance is rampant anywhere in India. But ignorance is not racism.
However, if the people from the Northeast really feel that they are being discriminated against racially, there must be some reason for that. Could it be that they don’t try to integrate themselves with the others?
I made that mistake while I was in Shillong. I kept myself aloof. But the people were as friendly as anyone could be when I made the effort to extend my friendship. If I didn’t make more friends, it was my failure. The racism I experienced in Shillong was in fact the fear of the outsider. It was more or less what Huntington calls a necessity: the necessity of an enemy for the forging of one’s identity and reinventing one’s ethnicity. Today, I hope, the situation in Shillong or elsewhere in the Northeast must be different.