Covid 19 Focus Front Page

COVID-19 and Intensified Racism in India

Experience of racism for the Northeast Indian people.

By Jahida Ibtesam Rahman

At a time when there is global uproar over the murder of George Floyd, and there is a call for dismantling the culture of systematic racism in the US, India still lives in denial.”
Ngurang Reena

The notion of social justice guarantees us an equal opportunity, and our constitution grants us this right. However, the prevalent, systematic racism and oppression are something that many are unfamiliar with. Ever since COVID-19 broke out in China’s Wuhan, the virus is leading humanity to a tremendous hardship across the world. Amidst this hardship, if we encounter the stigmatization of a certain race or ethnicity, it would turn out to be quite unfortunate. It is uncanny how the two largest democracies of the world are employing the most undemocratic methods: massive incarceration, the prison system in the US and the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) in India. Despite years of freedom and legislation aimed at addressing inequalities, educational institutions and work-place of both countries have failed to address the racist incidents with any proven accountability.

In India, once again the stigmatization of the people from Northeast (NE) Region has flared up in the midst of the pandemic. While there is a certain level of tolerance and understanding towards the people from NE, still many from the  ‘mainland’ India, consider them as outsiders or lesser citizens of the country either due to ignorance or other discriminatory reasons. So, in the ongoing pandemic, we have heard a series of attacks encountered by the people from NE. While some were spat on, many were sent away from the grocery shops and evicted from their homes. A few others were kept in detention and quarantined for their mongoloid features, even though they had no COVID-19 symptoms. 

Rameshwori, an MPhil student of Delhi University, was racially attacked (spat) on by a man when she stepped out of her house in North Delhi’s Vijaynagar to get some groceries. This incident, unfortunately, turned into one of the most traumatic incidents of her life. Another girl from Manipur was on her way to Sarojini Nagar in Delhi market, and there she was tagged as ‘gandi virus’ by a group of men passing her. Rachungailiu Gonmei, a Master’s student at Hansraj College, was on her way back home and took a shared rickshaw as she has usually been doing for years. But, this time nobody wanted to share, and the people silently moved to another rickshaw. The girl had to book the entire rickshaw privately for herself. This may be indirect or subtle but still counts as racism. Now it seems people are more insensitive and ignorant. 

According to Mercy Thiemneihtai, manager at a medical clinic in Mumbai, the virus has just given an excuse to express people’s latent racism. She was pointed by two boys as corona on her way to the market. Even in her housing complex, her sister was taunted by a group of children who pointed and called her the Chinese virus. Alana Golmei, founder of the North East Support Centre and Helpline was called coronavirus by a staff member at the NCERT office and therefore, recently wrote an open letter to the General Secretary of Ministry of Home Affairs NE Division about the growing racism in the wake of COVID-19. 

In some places, people were even forcefully quarantined. For example, in Ahmedabad on the 22nd of March, police arrived at a company and took nine employees away from Nagaland for COVID-19 testing, and despite negative results, they were forcefully quarantined. On the 28th of March, a student from Nagaland who stepped out of his flat in Mysuru was denied to enter the grocery shop, saying that they were not Indians. Many NE people, especially students and professionals, have been asked to vacate their rented accommodations for the fear that they may be taking the disease to the next door. The physical and verbal racism aside, COVID-19 has also brought a spike in online racism. For instance, an activist and former General Secretary of the National Students Union of India, Angellica Aribam, tweeted ‘any quiet colony I can move to?’ She was confronted by people telling her to go to Wuhan (on the 22nd of March).

Apart from this racism faced by the people of NE in the mainland, another tragedy that we can’t deny is the racism that is faced by the people within NE itself. Nurses employed at a private hospital in Assam’s Guwahati city have alleged that they have been verbally harassed and called “coronavirus” by people on the streets. Later on, when they were asked, they replied,“This act is particularly disconcerting that they had to face such discrimination in Guwahati. In Delhi, they don’t understand that people from NE and China are different, but in Guwahati at least they should understand”. So, here comes the question of how the indigenous communities of NE can feel safe in mainland India and within NE itself when their fundamental rights are threatened? It is sad to be targeted in your own place even after so much sensitization and awareness. Apart from the Northeastern people, others who have been tested positive, who are in close contact with COVID-19 positive cases, or returning from affected countries, are also facing societal harassment and abuse. 

History has shown us that a large-scale disease or outbreak is almost always accompanied by stigmas and prejudices against certain people. There’s always one community that bears the brunt of it. Sanglipong Lemtur, a research scholar at the center of social medicine and community health at JNU, mentions that “When it was AIDS, people targeted the gay community. Tuberculosis is nowadays associated with the working-class of our society; they become the targets of people’s fears and irrationality. And now with coronavirus, people from China or East Asian-looking people are targeted and discriminated against. Yengkhom Jilangamba, an Assistant Professor of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, wrote in The Hindu, “Racism is most often felt, perceived, like an invisible wound, difficult to articulate or recall in the language of the law or evidence. In that sense, everyday forms of racism are more experiential rather than an objectively identifiable situation.”

Individuals hailing from Northeast India have faced pervasive racism from fellow Indians since the country’s foundation, and India is still living in the ideas of its colonial past of class, caste and systematic racism. Just as the history of slavery and criminalization of the Black race is part of American political environment, India’s political system is incomplete without the marginalized histories of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Class, Dalits, Adivasis and Religious minorities. The report titled Coronavirus Pandemic: India’s Mongoloid looking People Face Upsurge of Racism, released on the 26th March 2020 by the non-governmental organization Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG), documents that racial discrimination took place in some popular restaurants and reputed educational institutions, including Kirori Mal College of University of Delhi, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

The authorities, including the law of the country, had taken certain measures to deal with the heights of racism, such as accepting a complaint or making an arrest. But, the continued incidents prove that such steps are not enough to counter the racist incidents. Many people have also come forward to project racism faced by the NE people in the mainland, for instance, the recent movie, “AXONE”. But here I would like to point out that, even though the movie says that yes that Racism is encountered by us, on the other hand, it also tries to portray that the problem is within us the Northeast people, that we are not able to mingle with the mainland Indians (blaming the victim). So, more robust and comprehensive steps are necessary to address the larger issue of racism. And if strong measures are not implemented, the virus of racism will inherently remain in the mindsets of people, which can be a threat to peace and solidarity of society and humanity.

The leaders and people who have racial segregation in their minds or discriminatory attitude towards certain sections or groups of people, should remind themselves that a disease like COVID-19 has no boundary, race, ethnicity, or nationality. Everyone is susceptible to the virus. The world must stand together against the deadly virus rather than stigmatizing each other over the place of origin. Collective consensus and efforts to fight the virus must be at the top priority since the number of infected countries and deaths are surging by the day. Racism should have no place in a civilized society. 

Cover photograph by SiamlianNgaihte.

About the Author

Jahida Ibtesam Rahman is from Guwahati, Assam. Currently she is pursuing a Masters Degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She did her Bachelors ( Sociology Honours) from St.Edmund’s College, NEHU, Shillong. She is interested in Human Rights, Women’s emancipation and Peace Building. Jahida also works with an NGO ‘U&I’ which works for child rights. This year she’ll also be working on the Research project entitled “Regional Cooperation, Conflict Management and Peace Building: Lessons from Hajo, Assam”.

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