In this crisis when Northeastern people are being racially attacked, a misleading article by Maneka Gandhi could potentially add fire to the already existing discrimination
The article, 'Corona’s Animal Connection' by Maneka Sanjay Gandhi, published in Kashmir Observer on March 29, 2020 has been doing the rounds for quite sometime now and I have been observing quite a number of people, especially those from Tamenglong district, sharing and commenting with so much disappointment and frustration about the way the article has defamed the people and their culture with such misleading information.
The appalling particular paragraph in the said article states, “Now the Chinese have been officially asked not to eat every species on the planet, but what about India? In just Manipur alone, there is a terrible market in a district called Tamenglong, where dogs, pangolins, snakes, bats, monkeys, and everything you can imagine, are sold daily. Smugglers come from Myanmar daily to buy this meat. These markets should be stopped immediately.”
This statement is all the more shocking because it has come from someone of known stature, someone I have looked up to, admired and respected, not only because of her political career, but also for her personality and strong determination which any woman would consider as the qualities of a role model.
There are two factors which this article runs the risk of instigating -- one is racism, and the other is a gross misunderstanding of the culture of the inhabitants of Tamenglong.
Racial abuse linking to coronavirus
The outbreak of coronavirus was followed by racism against people with Mongoloid features, like in the case of Northeast people in India, who were linked to this dreaded virus solely based on their race. They have consequently faced racist taunts and abuses in the metro cities in India.
Almost everyone from the Northeast have been called "coronavirus" in schools, colleges, universities, markets, neighbourhoods, streets, etc. They've also faced discrimination in public transport, physical abuse, water balloons, getting spit at while being called Corona, illegal and forceful quarantine based on misinformation and false reports, they've been denied entry to supermarkets and refused essentials at shops, and evictions by houseowners on suspicions of spreading the virus have happened.
The fact of the matter is that, alongside all these false and harmful ideas, Northeast India, including Manipur, was a green zone and the first person who tested positive had returned from abroad and she recovered instantly. And the rest of the active cases started only when Manipur government started to bring back their citizens from different parts of the country since they were in dire livelihood situations due to the lockdown
In this pandemic crisis when Northeastern citizens are being racially attacked in these ways, a misleading article such as this particular one by Maneka Gandhi could potentially add fire to the already existing racial discrimination, especially among other Indians who have zero to little knowledge about the region, a lot of whom often already have wrong perceptions about Northeastern food habits. Also, it only goes without saying that someone of her stature ought to do thorough fact checking of the information she receives before writing and sending out such an outrageous article.
Intrusion and misunderstanding of the culture of the local inhabitants
In the first place, Tamenglong district does not have a wet or "terrible market" like she has mentioned “where dogs, pangolins, snakes, bats, monkeys, and everything you can imagine, are sold daily”. This seems to be an exaggerated imagination stemming from a crude racial profiling of the traditional and indigenous lifestyle of the local people.
On March 5, 2020, The Rainforest Club Tamenglong (a non-profit organisation), whose sole objective is protection of wildlife and environment in and around the Tamenglong district issued a notice that false information pertaining to illegal killings of domesticated and other wild animals for consumption is openly practised in the Tamenglong Bazaar area has been circulating. “That this act has led to the District being implicated in serious violations of laws in practice in the country. That despite the fact that some people may still discreetly consume prohibited meats in their homes, there are no wild meat market/s nor has there been a supply and order for birds and animals at any point of time. Tamenglong has the most forest covers in the district and there is no doubt the abundance of wild animals, but in conservation and protection of wild animals Tamenglong is considered one of the best amongst the hill district of Manipur. And the claim that mafia are running wildlife trade in the district are false and baseless,” the notice stated
In the article, Maneka Gandhi also claims that “smugglers come from Myanmar daily to buy this meat. These markets should be stopped immediately”. Tamenglong district does not share borders with Myanmar and hypothetically speaking, if smugglers were to come to Tamenglong, they would have to travel hundreds of kilometres and cross many high-security check posts. In other words, it is an impossible feat, even for the imagination.
This article by our honourable MP could possibly instigate enmity between communities because it has already misled some readers, defamed the people of the state of Manipur and inhabitants of Tamenglong in particular, and has also falsely alleged the Myanmar people for illegal trading, terming them as smugglers. For the interest of upholding communal harmony, peaceful coexistence and respect towards another human race, the author should retract her statement and the article should be removed. She ought also to be more careful in the future about proper research and fact checking of the information she receives before writing or stating anything publicly about the place and people, a place she has not set foot in even once. It is also the subsequent responsibility of the concerned news outlet, website or media house to conduct a fact check before publishing sensitive content of this nature. Publishing unverified information and claims is unethical and eventually constitutes ignorance and disrespect of the people, culture, identity or place concerned.
(Dr Alana Golmei is a humanitarian, lawyer and general secretary of the North East Support Centre & Helpline. Views expressed are her own)