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MPs hunt for pill to cure bias
Discrimination cry reaches Rajya Sabha

New Delhi, May 4: People from the Northeast are free to travel and reside in any part of the country and they have the right to live without discrimination, the government and the Opposition asserted today as the Rajya Sabha turned its attention to prejudices that have survived 65 years of national integration.

Home minister P. Chidambaram, who hails from Tamil Nadu, made an indirect personal reference to illustrate how such prejudices can be tackled over time.

“No one calls anyone a Madrasi now,” Chidambaram pointed out, reminiscing with a smile in the Rajya Sabha how in the past anyone from the south of the Vindhyas was called that.

Few else would have been better qualified to make such an assertion. Chidambaram's rise in the government and performance as a parliamentarian have shattered stereotypes once associated with the south where most states have made rapid strides in the past few decades. However, many people from the Northeast are still made to feel alienated in several parts of the country.

BJP MP Tarun Vijay hit the nail in the head when he said: “Are you Chinese or Burmese”, they are asked.” People of Tibeto-Burmese ethnic origins and Mongoloid features in the Northeast are often stereotyped.

In the backdrop of deaths of students from the Northeast in Bangalore and Gurgaon, the House condemned the discrimination against people from the region and resolved to take steps to do away with it.

“People from the Northeast are spreading all over India and they need to be whole-heartedly welcomed,” Chidambaram said, accepting Opposition leader Arun Jaitley's suggestion that helplines be set up at important centres across the country to help out young people and women from the region.

The home minister was confident the initial discrimination would go away. “This is a transition period,” he said.

Jaitley’s calling attention motion on the issue brought several suggestions from across party lines. MPs complained about people from the Northeast being called Burmese and Chinese even by policemen, and recounted discrimination they had faced or had been told about.

“I was alienated. I was asked (as an MP) whether I can write or read Hindi. Main Hindi likh sakta hoon, padh sakta hoon,” said Meghalaya MP Thomas Sangma.

Bodo People’s Party’s Biswajit Daimary said he had once been asked for a passport in a hotel even after he had showed an identity card.

To Chidambaram’s opening statement that citizens from the Northeast “are free to travel to and reside in any part of the country” and have a right to security and peace, Jaitley suggested an addition. The BJP leader said the minister should add “right to live without discrimination”.

Jaitley called for a countrywide campaign to sensitise people about students from the Northeast who live in educational centres and commercial hubs like Pune, Mumbai and Bangalore. “Sensitise the rest of Indian society about Northeast,” said Jaitley, calling upon the media to play a major role. Chidambaram said an advisory would be sent to all states requesting them to set up helplines for people from the Northeast. “We had a standing order of 25 October 2010 about zero-tolerance policy on crime against women in general and particularly from Northeast… that order will be modified and an advisory sent to all states,” he said.

Delhi already has such helplines: 1091, 1090 and 011-23317004.

Issues of economic and social disparities, stereotyping in the rest of India and the tendency within the administration for racial profiling of people who look different were all brought up during the discussion.

Samajwadi Party MP Mohan Singh sought reservation for Northeast students in universities and institutions in the National Capital Region of Delhi.

Jaitley suggested looking into weaknesses in Northeast universities that forced students to look elsewhere for education but also saw a "silver lining" in this, pointing out that gaps in the region had enabled students to integrate with the rest of India.

The BJP leader said people from the region holding jobs elsewhere rose 12 times in seven years from 35,000 jobs in 2005 to 4.14 lakh in 2012. But he cited a study in which 86 per cent respondents said they were discriminated against.

Sangma suggested that political parties could consider someone from the Northeast as candidate for President.