New Delhi: January 29 was like any other spring day in New Delhi. And as it prepared to pass into oblivion those of us in the news business habitually went about the day’s top headlines in our heads.
However, on the evening of that very day in 2014, Nido Tania, a 19-year old from Arunachal, got into an altercation in a busy market in a South Delhi neighbourhood after someone from among a group of people hanging outside a milk dairy passed snide remarks on his hairdo. As the argument escalated, members of the accused in the group attacked him with iron rods. The injuries suffered by Tania proved to be fatal.
Tania was studying in Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar. The initial post-mortem did not reveal “much injury or aberration”. However, tissue samples were retained for further examination to help determine the cause of death. Delhi Police later registered a case of murder and nabbed the two accused.
The young man’s killing was widely covered by the media across the country. With general elections just a few months away, leading Indian politicians extended their support to the bereaved family. Then Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi promised the deceased’s family speedy justice. Tania’s father was himself a Congress politician. Prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi who was then on the campaign trail touched upon the issue several times in his speeches, terming it “a matter of national shame”.
“The way police picked him up and then again dropped him to the same spot needs to be looked into,” Aam Aadmi Party spokesperson Dilip Pandey said.
Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley later tweeted, “The death of a northeast student in New Delhi after being beaten up is barbaric and condemnable.”
Lok Sabha MP and then Arunachal Pradesh minister of state for minority affairs Ninong Ering alleged that police did not file a complaint initially and said there was a compromise reached between Nido and the accused.
Meanwhile, people from the Northeast started vehement protests against the homicide demanding stringent punishment for the guilty.
Feeling the heat, the Central government constituted a committee a few days later to examine the concerns of people from the Northeast living in other parts of the country. Headed by a former bureaucrat from Assam, MP Bezbaruah, the body was tasked to recommend suitable remedial measures to prevent the occurrence of such crimes in the future.
“The unfortunate incident helped shed light on the struggle of people from the Northeast living in other parts of the country. Suddenly, everyone from political parties to media was keen to reach out to us,” said Mavio Woba, who closely worked with the members of the Bezbaruah Committee.
Woba and others like him set about identifying the key areas of concern in consultation with a cross-section of the community across the country over the next five months. Based on the data collected, the recommendations were then compiled and presented to then minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju on July 11, 2014.
“One important aspect of the report was to ensure that such an incident doesn’t recur through awareness creation and effective policing. We also suggested sensitisation of the police forces, provision of legal assistance wherever required and quick redressal of grievances,” the committee chairman MP Bezbaruah told EastMojo.
Like the waters flowing down the River Yamuna that bisects the national capital into western and eastern halves, there have been notable developments since. However, a lot of ground still remains to be covered.
Need to sensitise ‘Mainland India’
One of the first things to be initiated following the outcry over Tania’s death was the launch of the dedicated helpline number 1093 for the members of the Northeast community in the national capital. As per the information available with EastMojo, presently around ten calls are day are received on the number. Although no official census figures are available, sources put the number of people from the Northeast living in the city-state at one million. Therefore, given the size of the population, the number of calls made to the helpline is seen as abysmally low by some.
The other noteworthy development was the creation of the Special Police Unit for the North East Region (SPUNER).
“Several sensitisation programmes are organised by SPUNER, district police and training institutes of the Delhi Police. For better mobility, two more vehicles have been provided to the North East Assistance Team (NEAT) to augment the working of the SPUNER team on the ground. Regular patrolling is conducted in areas that have a high concentration of people from the Northeast,” informed additional commissioner of Delhi Police and co-head of SPUNER, Hibu Tamang.
A common refrain that one heard while interviewing people for this story was about their being singled out on account of their appearance. This not only leads to people from the Northeast often being publicly ridiculed but also reinforces the feeling of alienation from the rest of the country, referred to as ‘Mainland India’ by most of the community.
Recently, noted legal rights activist Dr Alana Golmei was on a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra with a couple of her family friends. At the ticket counter for Indian tourists, her friend was asked to produce identification papers. Feeling slighted, the lady reportedly asked the booking clerk why he had singled her out. “He said that he could figure out the other people were Indians by merely looking at them. So, she asked him what were Indians supposed to look like. He curtly told her, ‘They certainly didn’t look like you!’,” recounted an appalled Dr Golmei.
New Delhi-based communication professional Parashmoni Deori had a similar experience at a historical monument a mere few kilometres from the heart of the city. “I often have a tough time convincing people that I am Indian. I had to produce my id at the ticket window at Humayun Tomb as the booking clerk refused to take me at my word,” declared Deori.
Then there are other stories. Dr M Ramananda Singh, a teacher in physical chemistry in a leading college of the University of Delhi, averred, “People with Mongoloid features are often looked down upon. This is totally uncalled for as in recent times sports persons like MC Mary Kom and Bombayla Devi Laishram have won laurels for our country.” Hailing from Manipur, Singh was often derisively asked if he was from Nepal when he moved to the city to pursue higher education in 1996. In his opinion prejudices still persist.
“A few weeks ago, I had gone to fetch my children from school when I suddenly overheard their classmates telling each other they (his kids) were from China! That was quite disturbing but then I decided to not take up the matter with the school authorities. There is a definite need to build up awareness about the Northeast,” he added.
Other than appearance, variations in cultural practices also make people from the region vulnerable to discrimination. As is the norm in most hill societies in India, it is not uncommon for people from opposite genders to be just friends and hang out together. However, in some parts of North India, this might attract unnecessary attention. Similarly, their love for the latest fashions – especially Western attire – often leads women to be targeted for harassment.
Like, on the very first day of her arrival in Delhi, Deori was stalked by a group of men in a car who invited her to join them for a “good time”. And during her last five years in the city, some of her friends from the Northeast were even accosted by well to do middle-aged men who asked them for their “price”!
“Before taking a flight out of the Northeast for another part of the country, young people are coached by their families in dos and don’ts. It is for this reason that we often end up calling the rest of the country as ‘Mainland India’ because somewhere deep inside us there’s a feeling that we are yet to find acceptance,” claimed Deori.
So, what more needs to be done to strengthen linkages between India and the Northeast? In Dr Golmei’s opinion, there is a dire need to educate people on the ethnic, cultural and historical diversity of the region to enhance inclusiveness. “There is a need to include Northeast in school textbooks towards large-scale sensitisation of people in the rest of the country. Similarly, the conviction of those found to be involved in crimes against people from the region is negligible. This needs to change.”
Dr Golmei would know for she witnessed first-hand a definite change in the perception of Delhi Police personnel towards people from her part of the country after classroom sessions conducted by her.
Informed Bezbaruah, “Some efforts are being made in that direction, particularly in the school textbooks published by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). However, a lot more is required in terms of recommendations made by our committee.”
Manoshi Sinha, the author of the book Saffron Swords, observed, “The stories of heroes of the Northeast must be effectively highlighted to inform those living outside the region of their contribution in the making of modern India.” Her 2019 bestseller includes stories of ten such individuals and has been widely appreciated by critics and readers.
“During my lectures in various places across the country, I often narrate anecdotes from the lives of Raja Prithu of Assam, Rani Roipulliani of Mizoram and Matmur Jamoh of Arunachal Pradesh. Most of the time the audience hasn’t even heard of these names! This ignorance needs to be tackled,” demanded Sinha.
At the same time, community leaders emphasised on the need for people from the Northeast to learn more about the culture of the place where they might be relocating. “In daily life, language can be a barrier, especially while out shopping or using public transport and can often lead to unnecessary complications. Such issues can be avoided if we acquire at least a working knowledge of Hindi,” revealed Tamang.
Review of 2015 recommendations
Around 90% of the respondents that were approached for comments during the drafting of the Bezbaruah Committee report confirmed that they had faced violence or discrimination in some form or the other, informed Woba. However, he felt there was a definite improvement in awareness about the Northeast from the time he moved to the city in 2005.
“Things have improved greatly since the 2012 violent clashes in Assam that led to an exodus of people from the Northeast living in other parts of India back to the region due to a mischievous rumour mongering campaign and Nido Tania’s death. However, there is a need now to extend concepts like SPUNER to other major metropolises of the country,” he said.
He also felt that as the pioneer in the area, Delhi Police must now examine the possibility of hiring personnel above the level of constables from the region.
But what about the other gaps that were required to be plugged?
In Dr Golmei’s opinion, the best way to do so was through a complete implementation of recommendations made by the Bezbaruah Committee. “Unfortunately, certain key recommendations of the committee are still work in progress. They need to be implemented.”
The Committee’s proposal to change the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2014 to make racial slurs such as ‘chinki’, ‘Chinese’, ‘momo’, etc., punishable is pending with the home ministry since 2015.
“A comprehensive review of the recommendations is now required,” opined Bezbaruah. “Although the Ministry of Home Affairs is doing something that’s not sufficient. Perhaps a push from someone at a higher level like the home minister might help expedite matters,” he added.
Overall, the community members approached for this story were optimistic about the inevitability of change.
“If there were people who made life difficult for me initially there were many more who fought them back on my behalf. And that is what I choose to remember,” said Deori.