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THE UGLY FACE OF RACE

The death of Nido Tania, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, after an alleged racist attack in Delhi on January 29 has triggered widespread protests from people of the Northeast in general and activists in particular. Indeed, the fatal assault on Tania caps a series of attacks, including rape, murder and molestation, on Northeast people not only in Delhi but elsewhere as well.

Many see this as nothing short of a racial attack and there is now a growing demand for the passage of an anti-racism law to deal with such crimes.

Tania died after being beaten up by a group of men in a market in south Delhi. Since he belonged to a tribal community, the accused were booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. But Northeast activists and legal experts point out that the provisions of the law do not cover racial attacks.

“The existing laws are not enough to protect our people who routinely face discrimination and harassment in all spheres of life. It is high time we had a stringent anti-racism law to protect not only the people from the Northeast but also those from other regions,” says Ninong Ering, Union minister of state for minority affairs and an MP from Arunachal Pradesh.

The proposed law, Ering says, must define racial discrimination and prescribe stiff punishment for the guilty.

The Supreme Court too has taken note of the growing incidence of racist attacks in the country. Responding to a public interest litigation on Friday, the apex court directed the Centre and the states to frame guidelines to protect the people from the Northeast against racial discrimination.

A Delhi High Court division bench comprising Chief Justice N.V. Ramana and Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw too took suo motu cognisance of the matter and asked the Union home ministry to consider changing the existing Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act or introducing a new law to allow provisions for deterrence against alleged racial attacks on people from the Northeast.

However, even though there seems to be a groundswell of support for an anti-racism law, some experts feel such a law has inherent problems in a country like India. Yengkhom Jilangamba, assistant professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Guwahati, points out that to have an anti-racism law India has to first accept the existence of racism in the country.

“Just framing a new law without acknowledging the problem will be of no use. I think we need a uniform law that will be applicable not only to the citizens of the country but also to foreigners. Africans are regularly harassed in India but there is no law to protect them,” he observes.

Most countries in the West, including the US and the UK, have anti-racism laws. Even Australia, where Indians, especially Sikhs, have been targeted recently, has a law against racism. Racial discrimination involves treating someone unfairly due to his or her race, hair texture, skin colour, or certain facial features.

Vijay S.T. Shankardass, a barrister who practises both in India and the UK, finds it surprising that despite being a party to the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, India does not have an anti-racism law. But he cautions against any knee-jerk reaction to the Nido Tania incident.

“While it is important to protect the civil liberties of the people, our lawmakers need to think really hard whether we need a new law. Most countries that have implemented anti-racism laws have found that rather than helping those for whom they are meant, such legislations have led to segregation of people, fuelling a culture of animosity towards each other,” he says.

Shankardass suggests that instead of using only legal means, a sustained campaign be initiated to disseminate information and knowledge about the Northeast to the rest of the country. “This has been proved to be highly effective in the UK where the police launched a ‘Stop The Hate Campaign’ to crack down on hate crimes. The campaign was first launched in Essex, a predominantly white area, and was later successfully replicated in the rest of the country. Sometimes, criminalising an act is not enough, you need to create proper mechanisms to achieve your desired goals,” says Shankardass.

Adds Sanjoy Hazarika, director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, “Though laws are necessary to end racial discrimination, it cannot happen in isolation. Inclusion of information on the history, cultural heritage and identity of the Northeast in the curriculum will go a long way in dispelling ignorance about the people from the region.”

But Colin Gonsalves, a senior Supreme Court advocate and human rights activist, feels just changing people’s mindset is not enough. “You need a tough law to instil fear in the hearts of the people. It is only when the people get prosecuted that they will refrain from such acts,” he observes.

He cites the example of the US where racism is considered a criminal offence. “Words like ‘nigger’ are banned in the US and anybody who utters such a word is jailed. Similarly, we need to act tough against those who use the word ‘chinky’ — a derogatory form of expression against people from the Northeast because of their mongoloid features. We need a law than can specifically deal with hate crimes,” he adds.

Some feel that rather than an anti-racism law, an anti-discrimination law would work better in a multi-cultural country like India. “Discrimination takes place not only on the basis of race but also on caste, creed, religion and other factors. An anti-discrimination law will be able to tackle all forms of discrimination,” notes Anand Grover, senior advocate, Bombay High Court.

But will such a law be able to offer justice to those who feel discriminated against? Jilangamba of TISS, Guwahati, doubts it. “We have several laws against casteism, dowry, discrimination on the basis of religion, among others. Have they been able to tackle the problems effectively? What you need is the social and political will to implement the laws of the land. That is what is lacking at present,” he says.

Implementation of any law is, of course, always critical. But perhaps the need of the hour is for the government to admit that racism does indeed exist in our country and take the necessary legal and socio-cultural steps to fight it.