Sunday, February 23, 2014

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.


And I wish the people of Northeast find the ‘other’ India less ‘alien’.


Top post on IndiBlogger.in, the community of Indian Bloggers


32 comments:

  1. Very thoughtful, and beautifully expressed without malice.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Amit. After all, I can't forget Shillong which gave me a lot of interesting experiences. The Northeast is quite a fabulous place to live in. The people are good too, in many ways better than people elsewhere :)

      Delete
  2. It has been my long time dream to visit Seven Sisters in the North East India. However I met many people – locals and outsiders – who lived and worked there. I lived and worked in Gujarat for some years. I pen down one of my experiences. Here is a link: < http://remidesouza.blogspot.in/2008/11/my-enemy-within-me.html >

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the link, Remi. I loved the poem. The real enemy is within us. We externalise it very conveniently in the name of caste and creed, language and race...

      Delete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It feels sad that we are still fighting the battle with racism in India. There have been certain instances when I faced discrimination too being a North Indian and from a Hind speaking state.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some prejudices and stereotypes are unavoidable, Namrata. But racism is a very serious affair.

      Delete
  5. this is truly an issue ignored yet rampant.written very heartfelt .i have tried to write something similar.http://pastiche.webnode.com/news/the-facade-unity-in-diversity-/

    ReplyDelete
  6. Well Written post Sir.
    A serious issue well handled and nicely written.

    ReplyDelete
  7. A very well written post. And sane. I am from north east (Assam) and have lived in various places. Made a lot of friends and never faced any racism. Yes, there are some ignorant people but you cannot blame the whole state for the ignorance of a few.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad to hear this. It's consoling to know that not everyone faces racism outside Northeast. Ignorance plays a vital role in this regard. There are lot of 'Indians' who still don't know anything about the Northeast and hence mistake the people from their as Chinese!

      Delete
  8. Very true Matheikal Sir. There's much more racism in that part of the world. I've seen in Kohima as well, when i visited a friend. But then people out there live in kind of closed shell out there. They are not much exposed to the outer world. But such things could be little intolerable in a cosmo city and also the national capital. For me, the entire world is racist and I really don't have any problem with that, as its human nature and we can't change it much !!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can understand what you say, Jahid. Sometimes the very name of ours attracts racism!

      I agree with you also about the clannish mentality one sees frequently in the NE. I don't know if the situation is the same today. But I did witness quite a lot of it when I was there. But I'm not accusing them. From a distance today, both physically and temporally, I can understand it in terms of what Huntington called the necessity of enemies. I referred to Huntington intentionally in the post.

      Delete
  9. Sir, I believe being taunted just because you look different is racism. Whether a North or South Indian, one can hardly make out much difference. That must be one reason why you don't feel an outsider in Delhi. I feel the same in any of the 7 states in NE. Swap places and I've experienced the same what you did in Shillong and that must have been about 20-25 years back but it's a shame that the same is still going on in the national capital even today.
    We look more Chinese than Indians. Maybe Arunachal should be a part of China, at least the 'dkhar' and 'chinky' words will stop. No taunting because of looks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your frankness, Padi, though your view is slightly extremist.

      Being seen as different because of your physical appearance or other such factors is nothing new. It has existed throughout human history. One factor that drove colonialism was precisely this. I'm sure you understand what is meant by the white man's burden.

      But India does not assume the kind of superiority that the burdened white man assumed. Here it is more out of ignorance and the usual human biases. There's no need to look for extreme solutions. And, do you really think, China would be any better option than India? Are the Chinese half as free as the Indians?

      Delete
  10. Hi Tom, your post was an interesting read. When I finished it, I want to know what do you mean by racism or being racist?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Racism in simple words is a superiority complex possessed by people on account of their race. For example, the people of Northeast India may be feeling that the Indians elsewhere consider them as inferior or "the other" (otherness is part of the complex).

      Delete
    2. Which means people feel what I possess is superior to what others possess or have and hence I/we are superior to others.

      Yes I agree, if so I would tell you, more than 80% of Indians are racists. They cross oceans does not make any difference. Even in South Africa Indians are racists and it is well known. They consider others as impure. The other day an Indian lady told me,'oh they are dhobies (washers), They are not equal to us'. May be they had settled in South Africa long time ago.

      But there are Malyalis they show it to you, we are believers of this church or that church, the others are inferior, also we are high caste Hindus the others are low castes.

      I am not discrediting your experiences,

      But i have seen racism staring into my eyes and into others eyes when I come to Kerala.

      Delete
  11. This is a slightly different view from what I have read so far. Thank you for writing it. It has set me thinking. Which is why I always return to your blog, there is always something new.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jeena, for the thumbs up. It is very encouraging.

      Delete
  12. Thoughtful blog. Ignorance and xenophobia are manifest in racism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ignorance and xenophobia drive racism. thanks, Aditi.

      Delete
  13. I have never been to north-east but your post makes a lot of sense to me.

    I think there is an unnatural and avoidable hype on this whole imbroglio.Only yesterday's paper mentioned a girl from north-east had been sexually assaulted by two guys from the same end.When girls from any and every part of the country are being assaulted where was the need to mention the domicile of these three?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps, Indu, the girls from NE are more vulnerable than the others. One reason is the Indian obsession with white skin, I think. Then, perhaps, the exotic look of the Northeasterners... So it may have little to do with racism.

      Delete
    2. Oh,but so many other wheatish complexioned girls too are victimized..

      Delete
    3. No doubt, Indu. But in Delhi the NE girls are more vulnerable, it seems. Hence my comment.

      Delete
  14. I've lived all my life in Ahmedabad and I've never seen such blatant racism. The only riots I've see is between Hindus and Muslims, and that too always ignited by our esteemed political leaders. Whenever Congress takes power in Gujarat, there's riots every six months. Thankfully under BJP, I'm not seeing that bar 2001 riots.

    ReplyDelete
  15. The article is an interesting eye opener. Many things are not revealed or many things are hidden from Khasi history. The usage of the controversial word 'DKHAR' carries a history long past. Of course, there is no serious discussions nor the same is entered in Khasi dictionary. There are various Khasi titles carrying the word 'KHAR', like Kharkongor, Kharsynti, Dkhar, etc. Actually 'Khar' is a generic term in Assamese language. 'Khar' is a traditional 'BASE' extracted from plantain tree. Banana trees are cut into pieces and dried and after that burnt into ashes. This ashes are preserved and whenever required a part of it is soaked with water and drained to get distilled red coloured water called 'Khar' - the base just opposite to acid. Khar is priority in almist all Assamese dishes. That is why the peopel' particularly, the Khasis called them 'Khar khowa Asomiya' or Khar consumer Assamese. Khasis also had marital relationship with with the people of plains. The children born out of such relationship were given new titles joining 'Khar' with them. It was done just to differentiate Pure(?) Khasis and Mixed Khasis. In course of time they become part and parcel of Khasi society. But till today they do not get priviledge in local administration particularly in politics. 'Lyngdoh's and 'Syiems' are considered highest among all. But it is ironical that today the so called educated Khasis use the term 'Khar' or 'Dkhar' to differentiate the non-tribals which is mixed with racial hatred. It is also to be learnt that Khasis never call a white foreigner a 'Dkhar', rather they call him/her 'Phareng'. When you compare both the words 'Phareng' has lots of priviledges than 'Dkhar'.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I don't think this article is fair. Just google South Indian discrimination and "Madrasi" is a word not used in Delhi! I've been to Chennai and people refuse to speak in Hindi. Just because you got discriminated in Shillong, you want to deny the little downs you may have encountered in Delhi. Go easy on those people. After all, Shillong is now bombarded by migrants and immigrants, their once rich culture is evaporating just like any other Northeast tribal society but I bet this is not in your capacity to understand because you are plagued by your experiences.

    ReplyDelete
  17. There is a stereotype that people have in their mind for how an Indian should be and anyone who doesn’t fit in the stereotype, face this problem of weird questions being asked every time andthen the long never ending explanations that one has to give. Sometimes it is just ignorance that people have about India and other times it’s just bigotry, especially when it is coming from a fellow Indian.
    I have written an article titled 'How Do You Define an Indian? – Stereotypes and Identity Ignorance' at the link
    http://­www.blaberblogger.com­/2015/08/­how-do-you-define-ind­ian-stereotypes.html

    with opinions from various people who don't fit the stereotypical indian defination living in different parts of India.It would be great if you would take a look at it

    ReplyDelete

Utmost Happiness

Book Review The world today resembles the macabre settings in the gothic novels: horror, death and a little romance. Unlike in...