[ Yutan Sunya ]
‘Honesty is the best policy’ is sine qua non in our handbook of morality. Interestingly, though, we are more dishonest than honest. The perpetual urge to be seen and accepted as being better than what we actually are, ironically, makes us only lesser. Imagine a world where we are brutally honest with one another. Would it be a better place where there won’t be a facade of politically correct statements or a worse one with more animosity because we can’t handle the truth? This series of articles by Yutan Sunya, a former APCS officer, is an attempt to widen the scope with which we view ourselves as a society, and talks of issues all of us know exist but don’t acknowledge.
Chapter 1: Are we racists, too?
A group of young men stand at a shop somewhere in Arunachal, sharing a cigarette. They see another group of young men at a distance doing the same. They are not ‘tribals’. One of them says, “Yeh haaring log bahut over-smart ho gaya hai.” The other young man adds, “Sachi ka, yeh nyipak party ko theek she dhulai dena chahiye.”
The others nod. They finish their cigarette and leave.
To be prejudiced, to discriminate, or to antagonize someone of a different race with a belief that your race is somehow superior is racism. Sometimes this sense of superiority comes from age-old cultures, but most of the times it is pure ignorance. We are skeptical of people who don’t look like us or behave like us. This is not endemic to a particular race or region; it is universal. In India, we look different, talk, dress and behave differently, depending on where we come from. Our historically discriminatory social fault lines of class and caste, boosted by ignorance, make racial discrimination in India inevitable. It’s not a question of who discriminates who, but more of who doesn’t?
Incidents of discrimination against Northeasterners living in other parts of the country, mostly metropolitan cities, are frequently splashed across our social media platforms. In the event of the coronavirus pandemic, our Mongoloid facial features, which make us look ‘Chinese’ to ignorant Indian public, coupled with fear of the pandemic, have made us even easier targets. The number and severity of these incidents increased so much over the years that the government of India had to constitute a committee to study these cases in 2014.
The committee, which came to be known as the Bezbaruah Committee, submitted a number of recommendations, which included an amendment to the Indian Penal Code; addition of subsections 153C and 509A, wherein “word, gesture or act intended to insult a member of a particular racial group or of any race would be punitive with 3 years imprisonment and fine.” Other steps taken following the committee’s findings include advisories from the MHA, and setting up of dedicated helplines and police cells for Northeasterners in metropolises like Delhi.
As and when an incident of racial discrimination against one of us comes to light, we have always unequivocally raised our objections. Our voices are so united that one might be led to believe that it is in our social consciousness to oppose the very idea of discrimination. One might even be awed at the sense of hurt and collective outrage we display as a community. But once we peel back the layers of moral rhetoric and arguments, we stand exposed as an equally racist community, entangled in our own set of communal differences.
For those who have just frowned at the statement, take a moment to close your eyes and answer the questions: Do I behave differently with people who don’t belong to my tribe or state? Have I used words like ‘Bihari’ or ‘Baganiya’ for people based on how they look? Do I consider my tribe to be better than others? If the answer is affirmative to one or more questions, you should reevaluate your understanding of racial discrimination.
We are a big melting pot of tribes, cultures and traditions, with different dialects spoken, a few kilometres apart. Diversity brings differences in equal measure. It is true that our communities are more equal and egalitarian, compared to many others across the country. Women are largely treated better. Economic status is hardly a cause of disparity. But there is a palpable communal undertone – not just between the tribes but also within a tribe. This is evident from a growing chest-thumping sense of superiority in sections of some of the major tribes.
Recently, a non-Arunachalee Muslim man tested positive for Covid-19 in Tezu. Although the state hospital in Naharlagun is designated as a Covid-19 treatment facility, there was pushback against admitting the patient in Naharlagun. To make matters worse, the health minister in his statement said “critical patients from the eastern parts of Arunachal Pradesh like Tezu would be treated at the Dibrugarh Medical College (DMC) in Dibrugarh, Assam, and not brought to Naharlagun.”
The logic behind the statement was widely questioned, claiming it needlessly created a divide in the state. Then the organization leading the pushback clarified in a Facebook post that the opposition was not against indigenous brethren of eastern Arunachal but was only for that one particular patient who was a non-Arunachalee. Needless to say, the clarification was worse.
Imagine a reverse case of a Northeasterner being turned away from a hospital in Delhi, or if organizations in Delhi opposed the treatment. Would we cry racism? Of course yes. It is easy to dismiss incidents as this easily, especially with the pandemic scare.
One could argue that it’s just one incident involving one person; what’s the big deal? What is missed in the argument is the fatal precedent it is setting. One seemingly harmless incident today could potentially lay the groundwork for a much bigger disaster in the future. Many supported the pushback, saying it was done with a good intent to save our people. The danger lies when the enthusiasm to fight for a cause becomes so blind that it becomes part of the problem. We are so caught up in the fight to protect our indigenous rights and culture that we by default alienate the world on our own. We even have a binary view of people as either ‘tribal’ or ‘non-tribal’. When we don’t seem to apply the same standards to us, why do we cry racism when we are discriminated against? Isn’t that an exhibition of double standard on our part? What is even more disturbing is the casualness with which we diss out racism. Using words like ‘haaring’, ‘nyipak’, ‘Bihari’, ‘Baganiya” or ‘non-tribals’ in conversations to describe a certain type of people is as much a racist behaviour as someone calling us ‘Chinkis’ or ‘Momos’.
A small amount of discrimination has always existed from the earliest human civilizations. Haryanvis face racial taunts in the southern parts of India; Biharis are usually called out with derogatory terms everywhere, including in Bihar; Sardars are the butt of some very wicked jokes. It becomes more pronounced in our case because we have a latent feeling of alienation, and rightly so. But that doesn’t mean we are any less racist than the next person.
The argument here is not to justify or condone racial discrimination against us but to critically examine ourselves before raising alarm bells of racism. We call out those who discriminate against us while discounting our conduct against others. It is hypocritical, to say the least.
Let us fight the racist in others; it is a war. But before that, let us kill the racist in ourselves and win this battle first.