Targeting ‘the Other’

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Students from the north-eastern States stage a protest in New Delhi against the killing of Richard Loitam, a student from Manipur, at the NAV School of Architecture in Bangalore. A file picture. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Activists of the All Assam Minority Students Union demonstrating in Guwahati on May 6 against the killing of Muslims in the Bodoland area of Lower Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

North-eastern India figures prominently in the Sangh Parivar’s new scheme of things. While poor Muslims there and in many other parts of the country are branded as Bangladeshi infiltrators, people from that region living in other parts of the country are subjected to various forms of moral policing.

IN the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi declared in Silchar, Assam, that all the Hindu migrants from Bangladesh should be welcomed and accommodated in India. The BJP, on the other hand, campaigned against the infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims into India. The double standards employed by the party through low-intensity canvassing in crowded metropolitan towns and States bordering Bangladesh has evolved into a full-fledged political strategy of the Sangh Parivar after the BJP assumed power.

The xenophobic campaign against Muslims, in which Hindutva outfits brand any poor Muslim as a Bangladeshi immigrant, has resulted in widespread socio-ecological disruptions in many regions of the country. This campaign, which demands immediate eviction of Muslims, is most intense in Assam, West Bengal and Bihar and in the slums in Delhi and Mumbai.

Recently, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) linked the Bardhaman blasts in West Bengal to the “infiltration” of Bangladeshis. Praveen Togadia, the VHP’s international working president, demanded that Muslims who had come from Bangladesh should be treated as infiltrators. “Any Muslim from Bangladesh is an infiltrator and should be pushed back into that country. Infiltration should be finished in India,” he said at a recent meeting in Kolkata. While he could not give any scientifically gathered data on the extent of Bangladeshi infiltration, he claimed that infiltration was a national issue and that there was a security threat to several States due to infiltration. “There are about three crore infiltrators living in West Bengal, Assam, Delhi and Mumbai. They are using India’s resources,” he said.

In the same platform, he said Hindus were migrating to India because of the persecution they faced in Bangladesh. “Any Hindu [coming] from Bangladesh has been persecuted [there]. They should be accorded refugee status and given Indian citizenship,” he said, adding that nearly 50,000 Hindus, who had come from Bangladesh, should be granted citizenship.

Similarly, in Bihar and Assam, the BJP and other Hindutva outfits have been carrying on campaigns against native Muslims by branding them as Bangladeshis who have come to India to use resources that are not rightfully theirs. In one sweep, the Sangh Parivar not only links Muslims with terrorism but also promotes xenophobic tendencies against Muslims by infusing sentiments of Hindu entitlement over Indian resources.

“As a result of this campaign, a secular balance that the agrarian economy, despite being exploitative, had achieved over the years is on the brink of disruption. Because of the porous borders, movement of people from both the countries has been there for centuries. People have relatives on both sides of the border. To say that Bangladeshi Muslims are infiltrating into our country for terrorist activities is a political campaign of the BJP to vitiate the atmosphere,” said Kunal of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist-Liberation). Many political observers believe that in its constant effort to depict Muslims as the “other”, the Sangh Parivar resorts to the twin strategies of cajole and threaten. “The cultural affiliates of the Sangh Parivar first try to win over Hindus by opening camps that offer them various types of sops. At the same time, they exert indirect pressure on Hindus to become submissive to the Hindutva agenda, constantly identifying them as the ones who are in power. The methods of persuasion vary from time to time. They can use threat as a strategy only when they are in power. Right now, it may prove to be one of the most useful tactics,” said a senior political observer in Delhi.

The demolition of a slum in New Delhi on November 25 is a case in point. Israil Camp in the Rangpuri area of the national capital was demolished by the Forest Department without prior notice. A department official said that the slum was demolished because of “encroachment by land mafias”.

This encroachment was highlighted to the forest officials in May by Nagendra Upadhyaya, the local Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leader, and Satya Prakash Rana, the BJP legislator of the area. Both Upadhyaya and Rana had written to Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung stating that slum dwellings were being sold illegally by Bangladeshi infiltrators and the Muslim community of the area. “If this is not stopped immediately, a large Bangladeshi community will settle here. Since the area is close to the airport and the aeroplanes are really low while landing, there is a threat of a terror activity on the planes [sic],” said the letter, which was quoted in a news website.

Almost one-third of the population of Israil Camp is Muslim. In the past few months, RSS shakhas have mushroomed in the region. While the local shakha has upped the ante for Muslim residents by branding them as Bangladeshis, it has also tried to create tensions between the various Hindu caste groups and communities. The RSS has converted a local Hanuman temple into a shakha venue and has been campaigning against the more accessible Kali temple in the area. Many residents of Israil Camp told this correspondent that the Hanuman temple had become a place for extortion. Some of the residents also believe that their colony was demolished because they did not vote for the BJP in the last election. “First, they tried to win us over, now they are threatening us to fall in line,” said Hema.

Almost every resident this correspondent spoke to said the trouble began after the shakha came up. Muslim residents said they lived in constant fear as in the past few months some Hindutva activists had been trying to pick fights with them.

Delhi is witnessing a slow but sudden process of communalisation in the run-up to the Assembly elections scheduled for 2015. The Sangh Parivar’s cajole-and-threaten strategy is bound to polarise votes. In the past few months, schools and temples in Delhi have been converted into shakhas, and Hindutva cultural activists have become much more prominent than before in Delhi, especially in slums. In the riot-torn Trilokpuri, this correspondent noticed that Metropolitan Corporation of Delhi (MCD) schools had removed the images of Gandhi and Nehru from their buildings and have displayed large pictures of Hindutva ideologues such as Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. In the aftermath of the riots, the school, which has become a shakha, rusticated some Muslim pupils just ahead of their examinations on inane grounds. Clearly, the BJP’s agenda of “development” conceals more than it reveals. While attacks on people from the north-eastern region have occurred in the past, increased attempts at moral policing by the Hindu right-wing in recent times have intensified existing prejudices in several cities. Institutionalised racism against people from the north-eastern region is assuming violent forms, coupled with increasing policing and surveillance by the Hindu Right, in an attempt to “assimilate” diverse cultures into a uniform notion of what it considers the authentic and permissible version of Indian culture.

Racial attacks on people from the north-eastern region occurred in Delhi and Bangalore this year. In October, Michael Lamjathang Haokip, a 22-year-old engineering student from Manipur, was attacked following a brawl in Bangalore. Shortly after this incident, two men from Nagaland were attacked by a group of 15 people in Gurgaon, Haryana. In February, Nido Tania, a young boy from Arunachal Pradesh, was fatally attacked in a market in Delhi following a minor scuffle.

A month after this horrific incident, an 11-member committee headed by M.P. Bezbaruah, a member of the North-Eastern Council, a government agency, was formed. It submitted its report in July. The report suggested that the use of derogatory terms for people from the north-eastern region be made a crime. It also observed that the law enforcement agencies were unable to take action against such crimes in the absence of a specific law against them. Apart from the rising violence against people from the north-eastern region, incidents of moral policing and censoring of cultural practices of these people have been reported in Delhi and Bangalore.

Rituparna Borah, a queer feminist activist who hails from Assam and has lived in Delhi for the past 15 years, said: “There is an overall atmosphere of hate and intolerance, which is only intensifying. With a right-wing government in power, the fascist forces have only become more powerful and intolerant of any form of cultural diversity. This is manifested in the attitudes towards people from the north-east.”

She told Frontline that various forms of moral policing were deployed against women from north-eastern India, both from within the community and by outsiders. She observed that there was an increasing tendency among people from the north-eastern region to fit into the mainstream when they come to big cities such as Delhi. She said: “There are various ways in which landlords in Delhi exert vigilantism vis-a-vis the cultural norms of people from the north-east. This is only steadily increasing. For example, the food that people from the north-east eat is considered bizarre. Then there is the stereotype of girls from the north-east as being loose and wearing improper clothes. There is a lot of policing around this, too. What is happening now is that people from within the community are also doing a lot of self-censorship and are internalising this kind of policing. There are attempts by the people to assimilate into the north Indian culture. I have heard women saying that we should try to speak good Hindi and not wear short clothes. This is a dangerous trend as it only shows a lack of respect for diversity and only helps in the Hindutva project of creating a uniform country. The Hindu right wing has a specific problem with women from the north-east who are seen as not conforming to the stereotype of the mother and the wife and transgress the boundaries of roles fixed by them in the Hindutva discourse. Also, one needs to note here that the community itself begins to do a lot of self-censoring and policing on women who are seen as transgressing the bounds of social norms.”

Rituparna Borah suggested possible ways of countering this problem: “The state has to provide protective measures and not just engage in a protectionist rhetoric about what women should not do. For instance, in Delhi there should be strict regulatory mechanisms against landlords who tend to abuse or harass women from the north-east. Also, we need to look within the community to resist forms of policing and discrimination against women who do not fit in.”

Swar Thounaojam, a Bangalore-based playwright from Manipur, who has also lived in Delhi, said there was a definite increase in incidents of violence and xenophobic tendencies against people from the north-eastern region. Institutional racism and everyday racism are highly entrenched in Delhi. The entrenchment is not new. The evolution of the racism in Delhi against north-easterners into highly violent and fatal acts of racism is a new phenomenon. In Bangalore, every day racism is on the rise. But institutional racism—at police stations, educational institutions, etc.,—is deeply entrenched and toxic. Many of these incidents have been reported in the media. But there are the unreported ones where the victims are mostly students and low-income members of the community, such as security guards, restaurant workers, and beauticians. In Bangalore, they get beaten up and molested regularly on the streets. Many walk back home from work late in the night and are victims of stabbing and mugging that are racist in nature. They are called chinky, ching chong, chowmein, or mary kom [This is a new development. Women from the north-east are called Mary Kom in a derogatory tone in Bangalore]. My north-eastern women friends get spat on regularly in a place called Koramangala in Bangalore.”

She added that moral policing of women from north-eastern India was highly visible. “Moral policing happens in different forms of micro-aggressions. In some educational institutions in Bangalore, there have been instances of some staff members telling students not to mingle with students from the north-east because ‘they are not proper people’ and are ‘wrong influences’ because ‘they wear improper clothes, eat stinky food, party too much’, etc. The social behaviour of north-eastern students is constantly picked on and used to demonise them— clothes, food, socialising—and this demonisation is used by the police to dispute genuine complaints of racist violence against them.”

She also highlighted the creation of a highly questionable “assimilation” programme by the Hindu right wing for people from the north-eastern region. She said: “The Hindu right wing exploits the helplessness of the migrant north-eastern community and creates dubious platforms of highly problematic assimilation programmes. One recent example is the north-eastern conclave organised by the BJP in Bangalore in October with the help of the north-eastern sampark cell [a BJP wing]. I went to observe it. BJP leaders uttered platitudes about national integration, but it was mainly a ‘join BJP’ campaign focussing on the recent racist attacks against people from the north-east in Bangalore. Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju made some apologist’s statements. He asked the people from the north-east to be model citizens so that no attack will happen against them and he insinuated that many victims might have brought the racist attacks upon themselves. For a conclave that claimed to be a platform for addressing issues faced by people from the north-east, no proper slot was allocated for questions. There was only a 15-minutes slot for a crowd of about 200 people. Even victims of recent attacks were not invited to air their grievances. Many people who came to the conclave realised it was a soft recruitment project for the BJP.”