The Unending Plight of Northeast Indians: From ‘Chinese’ to ‘Chinki’ to ‘Coronavirus’
By Satakshi Singh
This article focuses on how the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated racial discrimination against the Northeast Indians in India. It includes the instances of racism during the pandemic and response to the same. It discusses the legal provisions and the combined efforts by the legislature and judiciary to eradicate such racism. It also suggests the measures that are necessary to remove racial discrimination and violence against the Northeast Indians from Indian society.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified COVID-19 as a ‘public health emergency’ of international concern. The pandemic has posed serious health, environmental, economic and social challenges throughout the world. Racism and stigmatization are one of them. A new narrative has appeared on the internet where the virus is being termed as an ‘equalizer’ as it has equally infected the whole mankind. However, various incidents that have been reported have suggested otherwise. Certain communities are suffering more than others. The responses to the pandemic have been disproportionate. Following the spread of COVID-19, discrimination towards the Chinese people has increased. Similarly, people from the Northeastern states of India are being profiled as carriers of the virus in their own country. This systemic racism is more dangerous than the virus itself.
Scenario in India
In the past year, the Indian media has been bombarded with myriad visuals and disturbing incidents of racial attacks against the Northeast Indians. One such disturbing incident was reported in Delhi on the 22nd March 2020, where a girl from Manipur was spit on and called ‘corona’ by a man on a two-wheeler. A report titled “Coronavirus Pandemic: India’s Mongoloid looking People Face Upsurge of Racism” released by Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG) on the 26th March 2020 revealed that the Northeast people were discriminated against in popular restaurants and prestigious educational institutions including Kirori Mal College, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). Such reports highlight the sorry state of affairs in our country.
If a person is discriminated against on the grounds of racial features, place of origin, customs, culture or other such grounds, he/she can seek protection under the following laws:
- Article 14 of the Indian Constitution ensures Equality before law.
- Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
- Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code penalizes the promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony.
- The Criminal law (Removal of Racial Discrimination Act, 1949)
- Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955
- Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989
- Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993
Apart from these laws, various efforts have been made to make the current legal framework more efficient against any kind of discrimination.
The Ministry of Home Affairs constituted a committee headed by MP Bezbaruah on the 5th February 2014. The committee proposed to make amendments to the Indian Penal Code by adding Section 153C (penalizing act of violence on the grounds of race or place of origin or such other grounds relating to racial features, behaviour or customs) and 509A (penalizing use of words or gestures intending to insult a person belonging to a particular race). The committee also suggested some specific measures to fight racism and such hate crimes in India.
Broadly, the suggestions are as under:
- A team of lawyers, half of whom should be female lawyers from Northeast India, should be appointed to provide legal aid to vulnerable northeast Indians.
- Law enforcement agencies including police personnel should recruit a sufficient number of Northeast Indians.
- The Special Police Unit of Northeast Region (SPUNER) should have the same powers as vested in other police stations. A Special helpline number should also be launched. Along with this, records of all crimes reported against the northeast Indians should be established.
In Karma Dorjee & Ors V. Union of India & Ors, Writ Petition(Civil) №103 of 2014, the Supreme Court gave the following guidelines to curb racial violence and hate crimes in India:
- A panel should be set up consisting of a Joint Secretary level officer and two members nominated by the Government to address such crimes.
- Strict monitoring and redressal measures should be taken by the Union Government to curb issues pertaining to racial discrimination and violence.
- All other measures will fall flat on their faces if people are not sensitized and educated regarding the issue.
Another effort to curb racial discrimination was the introduction of the Anti-Discrimination and Equality Bill, 2016 by Dr Shashi Tharoor. The bill aimed to ensure protection against all forms of social discrimination to every citizen of the country.
India is also a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). ICERD aims to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination, promote understanding and unity between different races thereby creating an international community free from racial differences and discrimination.
On the 7th February 2020, The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced in Rajya Sabha. The bill seeks to amend the Indian Penal Code by introducing Section 153C (penalizing the use of words or representations intending to cause fear or alarm to a person belonging to a certain race, religion, sex etc.) and Section 505A (penalizing the intentional use of words or statements containing rumour or alarming news being threatening or derogatory in nature)
Response to Racial Discrimination during the COVID-19 Pandemic
The WHO’s report has warned that stigmatization and harmful stereotyping could lead to more severe health issues, transmission and thereby causing difficulties in curbing the spread of the disease.
Earlier, the Ministry of Home Affairs directed all the States and Union Territories to take strict legal action against the harassment being faced by the Northeast Indians linking them to COVID-19.
On the 11th April 2020, N. Biren Singh, Chief Minister of Manipur brought the issue of harassment and discrimination against the Northeast Indians to Prime Minister Modi’s notice during a video conference. He also requested the PM and Chief Ministers of different states of India to take proactive measures to curb racial discrimination against the Northeast Indians.
- Creating awareness- One of the major causes of racial discrimination and harassment against the Northeast Indians is the lack of empathy and sensitivity in the minds of the so-called ‘mainland’ Indians towards them. The COVID-19 pandemic has just exposed the persistent racial prejudice and non-recognition of the Northeast Indians as Indians.To put an end to this racism and achieve national integration, it is important to create awareness among people regarding the Northeastern culture, customs and practices.
- Anti-racism law- The treatment of the Northeast Indians and the stereotypes clearly indicate the inability of the current legal framework to eliminate racial discrimination. The current situation demands for an anti-racism law that criminalizes all sorts of racial practices prevalent in the country.
- Efficacious monitoring mechanism- Strict action must be taken against those who indulge in racial discrimination, violence and such hate crimes.
- Sensitizing law enforcement agencies- One of the major concerns raised by the Bezbaruah committee regarding the prevalent racial practices was the discrimination and harassment faced by the Northeast Indians by police personnel. Even if a strong anti-racism law is made, it is impossible to ensure its implementation unless the law enforcing agencies are sensitized to take immediate and appropriate action.
- Social activism- In recent times, social media has become a platform for creating awareness and raising voice against racism. The photos and videos of racial abuse and harassment shared online are a mechanism of protest these days. Digital revolution and social activism have proved to be effective mediums to prompt the Government to take necessary actions against racial discrimination and violence.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed enormous challenges for the Northeast Indians. From being slandered with derogatory terms like ‘momos’,‘chinki’, ‘chinese’ to ‘coronavirus’, the Northeast Indians have always been victims of racial discrimination in India. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the harsh realities of racism and xenophobia in the country. The current circumstances call for active policy interventions by the Government and an indispensable requirement to create awareness among people, sensitizing them towards the issue of racism and the impact it has on the victims. It is hoped that these measures deliver the results they intend on delivering. However, all these measures are just a beginning of a long struggle to eliminate racial discrimination and achieve national integration in India.
Satakshi Singh - The Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala - New Delhi, Delhi, India |…
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(Author: Satakshi Singh, BA.LLB Student, NLU Patiala. Find her on Instagram)