Virus of racism

Racist prejudices against people from the north-eastern region in India come to the surface in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Published : Apr 18, 2020 07:00 IST

Two students from Nagaland, who were denied entry in a supermarket in Mysuru. A screen grab from a video of the incident.

Two students from Nagaland, who were denied entry in a supermarket in Mysuru. A screen grab from a video of the incident.

PEOPLE from India’s north-easternregion have been facing racial abuses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Union Home Ministry’s March 23 advisory has asked the Chief Secretaries and Director Generals of Police of all the States and Union Territories to ensure sensitisation of security forces so that appropriate action is taken when such abuses are reported. However, it does not seem to have taken the edge off social prejudices reflected in this kind of behaviour. People with Mongoloid features have been facing racial taunts, public humiliation and even physical assaults on an almost daily basis.

Alana Golmei, founder of the North East Support Centre and Helpline, is a lawyer and activist who works for people from the region. There has always been some hostility towards people from the north-eastern region, but the prejudice has become more pronounced in recent weeks. Alana Golmei gets phone calls from people facing abuses all over the country, at least four a day. She got some100 calls in March alone, a figure that she believed to be representing just the tip of the iceberg. Describing how stressful it was to listen to these stories of harassment and abuse, she said: “Like the virus, the racial attacks have also become a pandemic. We are called ‘corona’, ‘momo’, ‘chowmein’ or ‘Chinese’. People are refusing to share transport vehicles with us, they refuse to entertain us in grocery shops, we are forced out of public places. It is humiliating. How long do we have to go on clarifying that we are not Chinese, that we are Indians, that we too are human beings and need to go to shops to buy essentials?”

The abuses, she said, were not restricted to any one geographic region of the country. “There are people who are reaching out to me from across the country, but there are many more across India who have not contacted me.”

Recalling some prominent cases that have made news in recent weeks, she spoke of an M.Phil student from Manipur in Delhi university who faced public humiliation in Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar area while she was on her way back after buying groceries on March 22. A middle-aged man, riding a scooter, had passed lewd comments and when she objected he spat a mouthful of paan on her face and called her “corona virus”. When she tried to file a complaint with the police, they advised her to “ignore” the incident. Only after the North East Students Union pressed for action did the police agree to register a first information report (FIR), and that too under some mild sections of Indian Penal Code (IPC). The offender has not been arrested yet.

In Karnataka’s Mysuru, two engineering college students were asked to leave a grocery shop as they were “not Indians”. The students tried to persuade the shop staff that they were Indians and showed their Aadhaar cards, but to no avail. “ But even if one is Chinese, shouldn’t they be treated with at least the dignity due to a human being?” Alana Golmei said. She herself has been called “corona” inside the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) campus in Delhi and has come across people who, after spotting her walking towards them, suddenly covered their nose and mouth as if she carried some contagion.

She narrated the story of her niece being forced to book an entire e-rickshaw for herself in an upscale locality of Delhi after people refused to travel with her in the same vehicle.

Suhas Chakma is the director of the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), which has recently published a report on the problem, and heads the Asian Human Rights Commission. He said: “India’s Mongoloid-looking people have been facing discrimination on a daily basis, but it does not make news. Apart from being called ‘corona’, ‘Chinese’, ‘chinkey-eyed’, people are being spat on and in some cases forcibly quarantined despite showing no COVID-19 symptoms only because of their looks.” He described the various forms of discrimination that people from the north-eastern region face: being denied entry in apartment complexes, forced to leave apartments, threatened with eviction from apartments, forced to leave restaurant to make others comfortable, and finding themselves in situations where no one is willing to share transport with them.

The RRAG report, entitled “Coronavirus Pandemic: India’s Mongoloid Looking People Face Upsurge Of Racism”, cited 22 reported cases of racial discrimination or hate crimes from February 7 March 25, including the abuse faced by the M.Phil student from Manipur. Such incidents have taken place even on the campuses of prestigious institutions such as the Kerri Mal College of Delhi University and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. Suhas Chakma said there were displays of prejudice in Gujarat, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, West Bengal and Maharashtra.

According to Chakma, the Home Ministry’s advisory to the States has not had much impact because there is no law against racism and racial discrimination in India. “Police usually invoke Section 354 [assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty] and Section 509 [insult to the modesty of women] if the victim is a Mongoloid-looking woman, but there are no provisions when the victim is a male. None of the racially discriminatory terms used against Mongoloid-looking people such as “momos” and “chinkis” are defined as offences under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. Further, not all Mongoloid-looking people, such as the Meitis or Tibetans, are listed as Scheduled Tribes. The police are helpless because they do not know which sections or laws to invoke, given the legal vacuum against acts of racism and racial discrimination,” he said.

The RRAG report cited the case of 24-year-old Cathy Chakhesang and eight of her colleagues at a dental insurance company’s call centre in Ahmadabad who had to spend the night in a government quarantine facility meant for suspected patients of the coronavirus disease. None of them had any physical symptoms of the disease, history of foreign travel, or any apparent contact with any laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 patient. They were all from Nagaland.

Apparently, the police landed up at the call centre and said that they had received an anonymous complaint that these nine young people resembled the Chinese and that they carried the COVID-19 infection. The police then allegedly summoned an ambulance, which ferried them to a sports club that had been turned into a quarantine centre by the Ahmadabad Municipal Corporation. Chakhesang and her colleagues were allowed to leave the place only on the midnight of March 21.

Ahmedabad Police Commissioner Ashish Bhatia confirmed the incident.

The report cites the case of 74-year-old cancer patient Rinzin Dorjee and his daughter Tsering Yangzom who were denied entry in their apartment complex, Shree Sainath Housing Society at Mulund (East), Mumbai, on March 16, on the suspicion that they were Chinese and might be infected. Dorjee was a frequent visitor to Mumbai for his cancer treatment and had been staying at the housing society for the last three months.

Also on March 16, a girl from Shillong, Meghalaya, was made to leave an upscale Delhi restaurant as other customers objected to her presence. A prominent anchor from CNN-News 18 who witnessed the girl’s humiliation reported the incident.

Chakma felt that the silence of the Prime Minister and the Home Minister on the issue did not help matters. He said that statements by political leaders from the north-eastern region such as Kiren Rijiju and Tapir Gao were welcome but inadequate. “Public rebuke needs to come from the Prime Minister himself who can reach out to the masses,” Chakma said.

Alana Golmei felt that there was “no sense of urgency to do anything” about the situation. She was a member of the Bezbaruah Committee, which was set up after the 2014 murder of a teenager, Nido Tania, in Delh. The committee has since submitted its report. In 2018, another committee was set up after a Sikkim advocate, Karma Dorzee, filed a writ petition demanding a committee to monitor the implementation of Bezbaruah Committee report. Nothing has been heard on this yet. Alana Golmei said: “One of the major recommendations [of the Bezbaruah Committee] was to amend the Section 153 of the IPC to the effect that calling anyone ‘momo’, ‘Corona’, ‘chowmein’ or ‘chinki’ should be made a cognisable offence. But the correspondence has simply been going on and on, back and forth between the Centre and the States and the law department of the Home Affairs Ministry.”

She filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in 2015, but even that case is dragging on.

Chakma said that in the absence of institutional mechanisms to tackle the problem, a stern and categorical warning from the Prime Minister or the Home Minister was the need of the hour.

Meanwhile, in Kolkota, which, surprisingly, has become the hotbed of such attacks, people from the north-eastern region have started wearing their nationality on their sleeves, with t-shirts proclaiming “We are not Chinese, we are Indians.”

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