Monday, 30th October 2017

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Racial abuse returns for Northeast migrants

While police have largely ensured their safety so far, these people fear a bleak future

By Pheroze L. Vincent in New Delhi
  • Published 29.03.20, 3:17 AM
  • Updated 29.03.20, 11:49 AM
  • 3 mins read
  •  
Children at Tezu hospital in Arunachal Pradesh. File picture
  • A Manipuri girl was spat upon in Delhi and called “coronavirus”.
  • Police in Ahmedabad took nine people from Nagaland to a quarantine facility merely on the suspicion of being Chinese.
  • In Mumbai, a 74-year-old cancer patient from Arunachal Pradesh was refused entry into a residential complex.

People from the Northeast are no strangers to racial bias but the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have left migrant workers from the region worse off than many others.

While police have largely ensured their safety so far, these people fear a bleak future.

L. Yantsothung Lotha, president of the Naga Students Union Salem, Tamil Nadu, who studies at the Government College of Engineering there, said shopkeepers have been shooing away northeasterners, mistaking them for Chinese.

“Our college has shut the hostels in the wake of the pandemic, but we were able to convince them to let 19 of us Nagas stay back as there were no tickets for us to go home. As the messes aren’t functioning, we have to cook our own food. A kilo of rice earlier cost us Rs 33; now, if at all shopkeepers agree to interact with us, we get lesser quality rice for Rs 60 a kilo,” he told The Telegraph.

“Shopkeepers now chase us away, and we are ostracised and called ‘corona’ if we go out. Those northeasterners who stay on rent are under pressure from house owners to vacate. For those looking for homes outside campuses, it is impossible. I recently received a call from some Nagas stranded in Coimbatore. They’ve lost their jobs in hotels and spas because of their appearance and have no place to go.”

A delegation of Naga students met Chennai police commissioner A.K. Viswanathan last week, asking for a helpline to report racial abuse, and for his intervention to allow them to remain in hostels — even if messes are shut.

The abuse has been widespread. A girl from Manipur was spat upon in the national capital and called “coronavirus”.

In Ahmedabad, police took nine Nagas to a quarantine centre merely on the suspicion of being Chinese. None of them had shown any symptoms or have a history of travel from virus-affected places.

In Mumbai, a 74-year-old cancer patient from Arunachal Pradesh was refused entry into a residential complex.

The tweet by Union minister of state for youth affairs and sports Kiren Rijiju on Centre’s direction to states on racial discrimination
The tweet by Union minister of state for youth affairs and sports Kiren Rijiju on Centre’s direction to states on racial discrimination

An officer in Mumbai police’s special branch said the police had “assured” residents from the Northeast of two things. “One, they don’t have to worry about food. The police are coordinating with NGOs and the state administration, and if anyone needs food we will provide for it,” the officer told this newspaper. “Two, if someone troubles them, we are mediating.”

Wungramthing Huileng, president, Naga Students Union Mumbai, said the police had not taken their complaints seriously till last week.

“Yesterday (Friday), a DCP contacted me and assured immediate help if any of us are in trouble. There are more than 5,000 Nagas and almost 80,000 northeasterners in Mumbai, many of them workers in the informal sector,” he said.

The police assurance came a little late for at least one migrant. “A Naga girl was recently fired from a hotel in Chembur as her employers feared she is infected, merely because she ‘looks like a Chinese’. She naturally can’t go public as she needs to find a new job,” Huileng said.

Several northeasterners call up Delhi police’s 1093 helpline, even if they are not in Delhi. “We are the only police department with a special unit for the Northeast region. Our priority is to respond to emergency calls — someone who needs to go to hospital, or is in danger. For calls from other states to the helpline or my personal number, we put them in touch with the respective police department,” additional commissioner of police Hibu Tamang told this paper.

“Uttar Pradesh police have just rescued a girl from a northeastern state, who was stranded in a car at the Nepal border, and shifted her to a guesthouse. A group of northeasterners in Hyderabad were being called corona and said they were unable to even step out to buy rations. After we contacted Hyderabad police, their commissioner immediately took action, and officers brought them food, and resolved the situation there.”

Tamang, however, said the police can do little about victimisation at workplaces. “The unorganised sector has no proper appointment letters. Most youths from the Northeast are employed in this sector. At the moment, not much legal action can be taken as there is a lockdown, establishments are not functioning and people are supposed to stay home. The whole country is suffering and the problems affecting the northeasterners are also a part of this.”