Narendra Modi. Rahul Gandhi. Arvind Kejriwal. Manmohan Singh. A common platform. A common cause. Utopian? Not quite. It took a death and assault to catapult the Northeast into the conscience and consciousness of mainland India.
Nido Tania, a 19-year-old college student from Arunachal Pradesh, died after being beaten up in New Delhi in another instance of racial profiling and hate crime. Two Manipuri women were assaulted by a group hurling racist abuses, also in the national capital.
On Sunday, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, extended support to those protesting the alleged lynching of Tania. On Monday, it was the turn of the Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, to appear at Jantar Mantar and express solidarity with those gathered there for a candlelight vigil in Tania’s memory. On Tuesday, the Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, joined the bandwagon. His angst against the Delhi police was given fresh impetus by the cops’ inaction in Tania’s case.
Finally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, elected to the Rajya Sabha from the Northeast, joined the condemnation brigade. “The attack on Nido Tania, the student from Arunachal Pradesh, is most condemnable. While the actual cause of Nido’s death will be known only after the autopsy report is received, the violence, which preceded his demise, is tragic and shameful,” Singh said in a statement on Tuesday. Even President Pranab Mukherjee and the former governor of Arunachal Pradesh, J.J. Singh, offered their condolences. The Union home minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was silent on the issue for five days, has moved the proposal for a committee, and on Wednesday, Parliament unanimously denounced the incident.
When elections are near, the scramble to appropriate political space comes as no surprise. On Monday, the demands centred around Tania’s death. The protesters sought a magisterial inquiry into the incident, legal prosecution for the police for not taking action, a fast-track court for speedy trial and a stringent anti-racial law in three months. The remaining demands were mainly intended to safeguard those who live outside the region, such as a committee to study cases of violence against people from the Northeast, a civil nodal officer in all metros for people from the Northeast, the appointment of personnel from the Northeast in Delhi police, inclusion of the history and cultural heritage of the region in school syllabi and stricter penalties for perpetrators of racial crimes.
Residents of northeastern states, who step out of the region for academic pursuit or to earn a livelihood, are often gripped by a sense of alienation. They attribute this to the discrimination they face, based on their distinct Austro-Asiatic or Tibeto-Burman appearance. In cities across mainland India, they tend to live in groups, the safety in numbers gesture apparent even in Calcutta, a city they generally consider to be safe.
But this is also true of those from mainland India who are posted in the Northeast or run businesses in those states. The non-tribal habitations are just as clearly demarcated and incidents of violence are common. Graffiti like “Non-tribals, dogs, go back” are still visible in states that are clamouring for a permit to keep away ‘outsiders’. Recent instances of ethnic cleansing in Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur prove that racial profiling is not a myth.
What appals the ratiocinative process is how politicians, who are jumping onto the protest bandwagon, will weave a reconciliation and ensure national unity. Can the breach of trust on either side bridge the Northeast’s persecution complex?