With the recent incident of a young YouTuber from Punjab uttering racist opinions on a provincial legislator from Arunachal Pradesh, one is reminded of a flurry of similar incidents occurring not too long ago. As the novel Coronavirus stealthily made its way into India in the first quarter of 2020, it did not take very long for racist violence to occur against a section of India’s own people. The violence, limited to verbal in some instances, was directly attributed to a fear of contracting the virus from persons standing apart on account of their appearances. Soon, various social media platforms were flooded with live visuals of infuriated Indians in metropolises across the country accusing Northeast Indians to be potentially wilful carriers of the virus. These incidents were easily a non-medical crisis engendered by the virus, once again highlighting the psycho-somatic precarity of the Northeast Indian in the imagination of the normative Indian, with the emphatic difference that this time it was on an unusually large scale.
COVID-19 and racism: A lesson ignored?
The incidents occurring last year in India have to be located in the larger context of a general prejudice against the appearances and food habits of East Asians abroad, in places like the US. For example, social media acted as an amplifier in strengthening the narrative of the Chinese “eating almost anything”, this being an apparent reference to the now disputed theory of the virus originating or spreading from the wet marketplace at Wuhan.
These narratives, bolstered by the social media, led to repercussions on Northeast Indians, mostly of the, to use a problematic term-“Mongoloid” phenotypes with the epicanthic fold as a distinct facial feature. In fact, the continuity between the global prejudice against persons of East Asian origin or nationality and the racist incidents back home in India signalled towards a transferability of East Asian foreignness onto the bodies of many ethnic communities of the Northeast, usually on account of appearance and dietary habits.
The fallout of the coronavirus pandemic in India has been noted for related non-medical crises like the questionable lockdown as far its timing and totality were concerned and the ensuing migrant worker’s exodus with disastrous consequences for not only the economy but basic civil-socio rights as citizens. However, the spurt of racist incidents against peoples of the Northeast is hardly recollected when talking about COVID’s first landfall into India, leading to their marginalisation in the broader Indian COVID-19 experience.
One can only wonder if this amnesia is a consequence of the already existing marginalisation of most Northeast related experience in the collective consciousness of the normative mainlander residing in peninsular India or a larger discursive marginalisation since the racist crimes were not a result of direct state policy, unlike the migrant crisis.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in India, many observers and commentators were quick to point out fault-lines of class and caste inherent in the popular response to the pandemic. A middle classist presumption was already manifested in this response that included behavioural changes like physical distancing and the intensive usage of kits and goods like masks, sanitisers and soaps. Caste too played a part in driving narratives of who could be a likely spreader of the virus.
An advertisement provoking outrage by a water purification company became the example of an apt synthesis of these twin prejudices, and ironically, to its credit, also brought in the aspect of gender. The prevailing political climate also managed to force a religious angle in the response to the pandemic. However, all these different categories of being were insufficient in either anticipating or responding to the fate of the Northeasterner living outside her home turf, as the roots of such occurrences primarily lay in racist imaginings.
The twin excuses to prejudice
Two dimensions help us see clearly why the base of the young YouTuber incident or the COVID-19 hate crimes committed a year ago is race and its tenuous relationship with what constitutes the national face, the Indian face. The first dimension is facial appearance. The young YouTuber wondered whether the MLA belonged to India at all, before cancelling him as a “Chinese”, immediately after a photo of the MLA popped out in his video.
He tried to locate Arunachal Pradesh on the map of India, and having located it, shifted his gaze towards what lies near the state, China. It is also interesting to see what source he used in arriving at his prejudiced conclusion: a satellite Google map where territorial borders of sovereign nation-states begin to flicker or disappear.
We do not know if Paras (the YouTuber’s name) might have made the MLA or the state’s people his object of racist ire if he knew that the lingua franca of Arunachal Pradesh was overwhelmingly Hindi. Some aggrieved residents of the state, hurt by Paras’ unacceptable opinion, had also articulated similar responses in their defence by proclaiming their Indianess.
According to sociologist Duncan Mc Duie-Ra, emphasising a “we/they too are Indians” reasoning is a common response of both Northeastern Indian survivors of racism and anti-racist commentators in India. Countering racism against Northeastern peoples in India then is done by putting oneself within the framework of the Indian nation and its dominant features: language, culture, standard national anthem and song, and now increasingly, religion. These performances of resistance are as much a grim reminder of finding oneself outside the pale of the nation, as much as a desperate reclamation of one’s Indian identity.
Looking Indian, therefore, is in itself a premium in the imagination of those who belong (and do not belong) to the nation. Covid-19 was not an isolated phenomenon that had brought pre-existing tendencies of racism to the fore. The Sino-Indian clashes in June 2020 had also rekindled the fears of revanchist reactions by racially minded Indian citizens against people of the Northeast thought to “look like them.”
The physical appearance determines the drudgery of engaging oneself in enacting the nation and its standard, dominant characteristics. A resident of Mizoram noted, in a widely circulated comment on social media, about the fears of the aftermath of such skirmishes between the two armies. The prospect of Northeasterners, who did not “look Indian”, being called on to demonstrate their belongingness once again, could not be ruled out.
The second aspect that drives this imagination of the Northeast Indian as an incomplete Indian national is food. A sociology professor once observed (when the author was doing his post-graduation) that one extremely popular notion of civilisational progress is food (here, civilisation is itself an oppressive frame to view a social group). The idea of civilisational progress, at least in the dominant Indian framework of the upper caste male, advocates the relegation of certain food items as non-edible.
Margins are drawn on food to mark the pure from impure, edible from non-edible. The caste critique of food, according to the Dalitbahujan scholar Kancha Ilaiah, is a difference of food as an ornamental, sacred venture for upper-caste kitchens on the one hand, and fulfilling a functional value of filling an empty stomach on the other (Ilaiah, 1996).
The latter is associated with the lower castes that are bound to treat food as a means to an end. In such a dichotomy of pure and not-so-pure food, many varieties of food from the Northeast like fermented soybean (axone), bamboo shoot, alkalines like khar, fermented mustard-like kahoodi, fermented fish like ngari etc. could well fall outside the pale of food altogether, not least due to the socially constructed response of smell towards food. In a neighbourhood dotted with shuddh shakahari (literally pure vegetarian) labels on roadside eateries, the response to what is imagined to be non-food could be well imagined, and most Northeasterners living, for instance, in the national capital could give numerous anecdotal evidence where racist prejudices stem from food.
What lies beyond the visible?
The dimensions cited above are by no means exhaustive. The two, viz. physical appearance and food, are the most common triggers in racist atrocities. Non-tangible dimensions also play a role in perpetuating the myth of the Northeastern as a racial Other. Like caste and class, underlying structural issues remain relevant. The security-minded regime at work in the Northeast for more than sixty years now, including a law that allows an ordinary citizen to be shot at and killed upon mere suspicion, needs to be linked to the greater debate on racism in India. The museumisation of what is understood to be “exotic” (often a result of tokenistic state policy) is another symptom of a deep-seated malaise. The MP Bezbaruah Committee formed in 2014 after the mass nationwide outrage (first in our living memory) following the racist murder of a young man from Arunachal Pradesh, Nido Tania, noted reassuringly in its report towards addressing what it called “institutional racism”, thereby covering a crucial distance in taking note of the structural issues.
Acknowledging the deep-seated suspicion towards the police among the people of the Northeast, it recommended sensitisation of the police forces in the cultures of the Northeast, fast and strict enforcement of the law regarding crimes of a racist nature, among other suggestions. Some of these recommendations have been followed up, including the formation of special police cells for Northeastern peoples in metropolitan cities like Delhi, but the underlying raison d’etre of the report rests in securing the integrity of the nation-state and maintaining unity in diversity. To contest racism in India, as noted above, the immediate counterpoint perhaps does not lie in submitting oneself as a firm believer in the dominant frameworks of the nation-state, but in upholding difference for difference’s sake, so to speak.
As the French philosopher Ernest Renan described a nation, in his case a homogenous cultural-linguistic one, to be an “everyday plebiscite”, we could do well to remind ourselves that India is a nation of nations. Racist incidents bursting onto the fore then and now deserve thoughtful engagements where food, appearance, and structural violence including those of the state and proponents of the dominant Indic civilisation need to be held accountable.
Disclaimer: The category Northeasterner/Northeast/Northeastern has been used in the article only for an analytical purpose. Northeast is not a homogenous space, it has a complex heterogeneity of cultures, languages, religions, ethnicities, geographies, diets, inter/intra community relations etc.
(The author is presently an MPhil candidate at the Dept of Political Science at Gauhati University)