A heart-breaking incident from the night of March 22nd sends a chill down the spine. A girl from Manipur in Delhi’s North Campus had stepped out with a friend to get groceries. On her way back, a man in a scooter allegedly called her “corona” and spit paan on her face. The scariest part was that the paan juice entered her eyes including bits of tobacco. How can human beings be so cruel, how can empathy be missing at this juncture, when practically all lives are at stake?
A couple of days later, it was 8:30 AM on my side of the world when I logged on to listen to a live conversation on Facebook, something that I wouldn’t have otherwise done so early in the morning. Anchored by Raga Olga D’Silva, entrepreneur, speaker, and author of Untold Lies, the session was titled Looking “Chinese” In the Time of Coronavirus and centered around discrimination against Indians hailing from the North-East. Actually, the topic was of great interest to me since I am from Assam The discussion had actor and supermodel Dipannita Sharma, ultra runner Ankita Konwar (both originally from Assam), and actor/lyricist Bijou Thaangjam from Manipur as the key participants.
The COVID-19 has plagued the world, and along with it, racial discrimination has reared its ugly head. Apart from President Donald Trump calling the disease the “Chinese virus”, we have people of India targeting those from the North-East and calling them the Corona virus. Unfair remarks have surfaced not only in the wake of the current situation. It’s just another name given to us. As long as I can remember, people from the North-East on countless occasions have been called chinky, momo, chowmein, and many other such names, and the speakers in D’Silva’s session shared their experiences.
Dipannita Sharma has made a very impressive mark in her modeling career. She recounted how in the early days of her journey, she was told that she did not look like someone from the North-East. Looking back now, she says that she does not regard that as a compliment. She’s proud to be an Assamese woman and happy to look like one. The actor laments at the loss of community feeling and the lack of inclusiveness in India. She is glad that these days we have some representation of the North East in Indian ad films and digital shows but maintains that cinema still has a long way to go on that front.
Ankita Konwar shared how in social media the word “corona” was written underneath her picture and those of others from the North-East. She recounted an incident from the past how once upon her arrival from the Maldives in Bengaluru airport, she was asked to go to the counter of “visa on arrival”. Because of her ethnic features, the immigration officer made up his mind that she was not an Indian.
Bijou Thaangjam shared how during his transit at Kolkata airport he was given those wild looks as though he was the corona virus. He says that he had always brushed off racist comments directed at him with sarcastic humor but nevertheless has always made his point clear that those statements were offensive and were not acceptable.
As real life stories of typecasting ring loud, we also see Bollywood foraying into this territory, bringing the reality of the North-East into focus. I’d like to refer to Pink (2016) and Axone (2019) which had its world premiere at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival.
The very talented duo of Shoojit Sircar and Ronnie Lahiri had casted Shillong based model and singer Andrea Tariang in Pink . It was done deliberately to make a statement about the discrimination faced by people from the North-East in other parts of the country. The film was based on working-class women, and Sircar and Lahiri wanted to show that a woman from the North-East could equally fit into that class of the independent working woman. In an interview , they said that actors from the North-East are usually not selected for major roles in Bollywood and that they wanted to set a precedence.
In a very engrossing court-room scene in Pink, lawyer Deepak Sehgal (played by Amitabh Bacchan) makes it a point that Andrea’s home state should be named as Meghalaya instead of referring to her as someone from the North-East. This is indeed a very valid point to draw attention to: the fact that very often, all the 8 states are clubbed as the “North East” instead of acknowledging the identity of each.
Purely a comedy, Nicholas Kharkongor’s Axone shows the cultural stereotyping people from the North-East face in the big cities of India. The story revolves around a group of youngsters who get together to cook a special dish called “axone”. The notoriously pungent smell of this traditionally fermented dish gets them into trouble with their landlord and neighbors alike.
Continuing along the same stream of thought, it is worthwhile to mention that it’s not just the rest of India stereotyping the North-East. We just don’t think of ourselves as belonging to one India. What gives us the authority to throw filth at other nations and talk about their racial discrimination? We are doing it amongst ourselves. The moment someone crosses the border of his or her state, there looms the feeling that one does not belong there.
We have such a long list of ethnic slurs. Those from Kerala are trolled as Mallus (mallu meaning an ape or monkey in Hindi), Maharashtrians are called “ghaatis’ by non Maharastrians, and Marwaris are mocked as being “kanjoos” (stingy) . We have people from the North stereotyping those in the South and vice versa. For Heaven’s sake, all South Indians are not Madrasis that eat only idli and sambhar. And not all Punjabis are loud and heavy drinkers!
It’s time we learn the values of acceptance, celebrate diversity, and educate people. Technological or economic progress is meaningless unless we cast aside our prejudices, practice kindness, and look beyond differences. Let us think that we are members of one great family and that we are all Indians!
( This article was a featured post in Women’s Web )