In a recent promo for the hugely popular game show “Kaun Banega Crorepati,” India's version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” Bollywood superstar and host Amitabh Bachchan asks a contestant from the northeastern states which country the Indian city of Kohima belongs to. The options are China, Nepal, India or Bhutan.
She requests to use a lifeline, and some viewers laugh, thinking the answer is obvious. Bachchan tells her 100 percent of the audience says India. “This is something everyone knows,” he tells her.
“Yes sir, everyone knows about it, but how many believe in it?” she replies.
Many people from the India's northeastern states, a region called the “Seven Sisters,” face racial discrimination in the rest of the country mainly because of their East Asian features and different culture. One commenter wrote under the video on YouTube:
I think we Indians are racist towards every region or state (of course its wrong), but just because our fellow north eastern people look unique they are easy targets.
Recent cases of hate crime, reported more regularly as people migrate to and from many states, have reawakened the country's debate on racism. Last week, a 30-year-old man from India's northeastern state of Manipur was allegedly beaten to death by a group of men in the Kotla area of South Delhi.
And in January, a student, Nido Taniam, from the northeastern state of Arunanchal Pradesh was also beaten to death by shopkeepers who made fun of his hair.
In response, the government set up the Bezbaruah Committee to explore racism and other issues faced by people from Northeast India. It submitted its report on July 11 and the Ministry of Home Affairs is studying the report but no results or new measures have been announced so far.
However, awareness about the problem is growing and grassroots activists are trying to address it using social media and Internet.
In one YouTube video, Indian prankster TroubleSeekerTeam conducted a “racism experiment” of a man in a park calling a northeastern woman “chinky” (a derogatory term for a Chinese person) and using racist language. Some passersby ignored the altercation, some intervened on behalf of the woman, and no one sided with the man.
Enxie Nemi Guite, a YouTube user from the northeast, thanked the team for the video:
I've faced uncountable incidents such like the one in the video, although I have never been defended. It gives me so much pleasure that there are people who care.
I became immune to comments like these from having received it so many times, but now…. I will not be silent.
On Facebook, ‘Stop Discriminating People From the North-East India’, which protests against such racial discrimination, has nearly 63,000 likes and features regular discussion on the page.
Elsewhere, a thread on question-and-answer site Quora looked at why people from the northeast are negatively perceived by other Indians. Vijay Singh from India advanced the following causes of discrimination:
1. Its Geographically separate from mainland India
2. They represent only 3-4% of India’s population
3. Low participation in Indian politics and agenda
4. Features of the Mongolian race – this causes them to be labeled as ‘Chinese’
5. Clothing – despite India’s huge cultural diversity; the traditional dress all over India for women would be either a ‘salwar kameez’ or a ‘saree’. Only in the North Eastern states, the traditional dress is completely different from these two forms.
6. There is also huge linguistic diversity between these states, and the rest of the nation
The ethnic and cultural differences result in a misunderstanding of the northeastern people, captured by this word cloud posted on the thread by Anup Chakraborty:
East Asian features are not the only observable traits that lead to discrimination in India. Skin color, weight and accents all play into a person’s social, familial and workplace status.
For instance, a recent article on IndiaCSR, a sustainable responsibility portal, reported violence against African students in metropolises. Editor of Delhi-based Hardnews magazine Sanjay Kapoor tweeted:
How can India be racist? reports of students from Africa getting beaten up in Delhi or Bangalore are sickening. Need to fight this mindset.
— sanjay kapoor (@sanjaykpr) July 20, 2013
Self-awareness is part of the solution. A broad, introspective examination of Indian racism on ScoopWhoop, a news and opinion portal, has resonated with many on social media:
— Sushovan Chaudhuri who is a cartoonist states, (@mesushovan) July 13, 2014
Through social media and networking, the collective conscience against racism is evolving. But there has to be many more sociopolitical campaigns and discussions from mainstream media and other agencies to tackle this grave issue. The talk has started, and the walk must follow.