KEY POINTS

  • Most people from the remote northeastern part of India have Mongoloid features, in contrast with the Aryan and Dravidian features of most Indians.
  • Northeasterns have long endured discrimination, but the virus has worsened things
  • Many Northeasterns work in the wealthy tech hub of Bangalore.

 

While racial harassment and abuse of Chinese people have escalated in Western Europe and North America as a backlash over the coronavirus epidemic, such attacks have also occurred in India.

However, on the vast subcontinent, the victims are typically not Chinese, but rather individuals from the remote regions of northeastern India, some of whom physically resemble Chinese or East Asians.

In recent years, millions of people from the northeast have migrated to other parts of India to study or work. Although they have long suffered various forms of discrimination and prejudice, the spread of coronavirus has made things worse.

For example, Cathy Akhropele, who works in a dental insurance firm in Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, hails from Nagaland in the northeast. She was recently taken by police against her will – along with eight other Naga colleagues -- to a hospital under quarantine to be tested for coronavirus, even though none had any symptoms.

"Many people had gathered outside when we were being taken from our office. They were taking videos and it felt so weird," Akhropele said. "We were targeted just because of the way we look. We don't feel safe in our [own] country and the government should really do something about it."

Francis Yee Lepcha is a 41-year-old man in Kolkata of Chinese and Lepcha ancestry (Lepcha are one of the indigenous peoples of the Himalyan state of Sikkim). After visiting Puri, a beach resort town in the eastern state of Odisha, Lepcha and his family were repeatedly harassed by other passengers on a train returning home, some of whom refused to sit near them.

"Not that they were badly behaved but they clearly suffered from a paranoia that we could be coronavirus carriers given the way we look," Lepcha said.

Lepcha diffused the tense situation by speaking to them in Bengali. "I was able to do this because I speak their language and understand their psyche. Not everyone can do this and any such situation may easily degenerate into physical violence," Lepcha added. (Kolkata has a large Chinese community)

The Rights and Risks Analysis Group, or RRAG, a Delhi-based think tank, has catalogued numerous incidents of abuse and harassment of Indians who “look Chinese” across the country.

RRAG said victims have been denied entry into their own homes, forced to leave their homes, threatened with eviction, forced to leave restaurants and groceries, and endured an endless litany of insults and aggressive behavior. Some have even been called “corona” or “coronavirus” as a slur on the streets. Others have stated that people will not sit near them in public transport. A large number of racial incidents have even occurred on college campuses across India.

Now, as the coronavirus crisis deepens, Northeasterners’ problems may worsen.

“India’s Mongoloid looking people are all set to face increased acts of racism and racial discrimination with virtual impunity as there is neither law nor public rebuke from the key leaders of the government of India against these despicable acts of racism and racial discrimination,” RRAG stated.

Hmingtei Chhangte, a young woman from the northeastern state of Mizoram, was humiliated by other shoppers in a grocery store in Pune in western state of Maharashtra.

“The woman [who abused me] was making comments directed towards us suggesting we are Chinese,” Chhangte said. “And when I confronted her she started to scream at us. This can happen to anyone from the Northeast.”

Suhas Chakma, the director of RRAG, said these incidents cannot be easily prosecuted.

"The police are at a loss given the legal vacuum that exists when it comes to dealing with these acts of racial discrimination,” he said, adding that most northeasterners are not included among protected minority groups, like tribals and scheduled caste members.

"We need a similar specific law against racism that will empower the police to [arrest] perpetrators of racist attacks," added Chakma. "But this is a problem has to be addressed also by raising awareness about the origins and diversity of our people."

Lepcha also commented that: "Schools in India need to incorporate lessons about the diversity of our people, including the Indian-Chinese and those from the northeast. This will lead to a greater awareness about them and the contribution they have made in diverse fields."

Many northeasterners have migrated to India’s wealthy southern region.

Prerna Pradhan from Sikkim, who works in Bangalore, said: “We are stuck inside our homes because if we step out, people here abuse us. They think we are Chinese. Will our government help us? Many [of us] don’t even dare step out of [our] homes for groceries. Others have been asked to [vacate] their apartments by Mar. 31 and not return.”

L. Yantsothung Lotha, president of a Naga Students organization in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, said local shopkeepers have been turning away northeasterners, thinking they are Chinese.

“Our college has shut the hostels in the wake of the pandemic, but we were able to convince them to let 19 of us Nagas stay back as there were no [railway or airline] tickets for us to go home,” he said. “Shopkeepers now chase us away, and we are ostracized and called ‘corona’ if we go out. Those northeasterners who stay on rent are under pressure from house owners to vacate. For those looking for homes outside campuses, it is impossible. I recently received a call from some Nagas stranded in Coimbatore [a city in Tamil Nadu]. They’ve lost their jobs in hotels and spas because of their appearance and have no place to go.”

Indeed, Bangalore, India’s tech hub, is heavily dependent upon northeastern migrant laborers who work as security guards, construction workers and plantation workers. A large number of Tibetans –another ‘Mongoloid’ group -- also live in the region.

“It (discrimination) is getting worse in this coronavirus context," said Rini Ralte, president of the Northeastern solidarity in Bangalore.

While some politicians and police have vowed to protect northeasterners, some are skeptical.

“There are more than 5,000 Nagas and almost 80,000 northeasterners in Mumbai, many of them workers in the informal sector,” said Wungramthing Huileng, president of Naga Students Union Mumbai. “A Naga girl was recently fired from a hotel in Chembur [a suburb in eastern Mumbai] as her employers feared she is infected, merely because she ‘looks like a Chinese.’ She naturally can’t go public as she needs to find a new job.”

A senior police official in Delhi named Hibu Tamang said police can only do so much.

“Most youths from the Northeast are employed in [the informal] sector,” he said. “At the moment, not much legal action can be taken as there is a lockdown, establishments are not functioning [normally] and people are supposed to stay home. The whole country is suffering and the problems affecting the northeasterners are also a part of this.”

Angellica Aribam, a political activist from the northeastern state of Manipur, wrote: “I faced severe online abuse with trolls labelling me as ‘bat-eating’ and sending explicit content with the derogatory slur, ‘chinki’… While the whole nation focuses on fighting the contagious coronavirus, we have to fight an additional battle called racism.”

Aribam noted that in India, northeastern people have long been subjected to racial slurs like ‘Chinese,’ ‘Momo’, ‘Chow mein’, etc., because of their facial features.

“With the normalization of the term ‘Chinese virus’ and internet memes mocking Chinese people, it is but natural for communities like ours which have been at the receiving end of this racism for decades to also bear the brunt,” she added.

Bismee Taskin, a journalist in Delhi who is of Assamese descent, wrote: “It looks like India’s latent racism has been unleashed with full force, exposing all the underlying bigotry and the desire to treat people from the northeast states as second-class citizens.”

Taskin added: “When I tell racists that I am from Assam, they often asked me if Assam is a part of India, and this is not one isolated incident… With this comes the typical racist remark: ‘All of you look the same.’”