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COVID-19: A new reason to discriminate

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Satvik writes how the COVID-19 pandemic has started a new wave of blaming and harassing our brothers and sisters from North East India based on their appearance.

The COVID-19 pandemic is disastrous for humanity. Bad for some, dismal for others. Countries are locking down, finances are crumbling and yet, we see hope in how people are uniting in the face of this grave danger. I’m optimistic that these effects of the viral outbreak will be dealt with in the short-term to medium-term, and we might emerge with a more humbled view of our existence and greater compassion for our fellow workers functioning at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid but keeping the whole structure alive.

On a more balanced note, we are bound to face some severe challenges, one among them, which is perhaps the most bothering one, yet also the most neglected one, is the increased discrimination of our fellow Indians hailing from the North-east.

Discrimination against people from north-eastern regions is apparently quite common in mainland India. I was almost entirely oblivious to this because of my upbringing in Mumbai and having coming in contact with a few north-eastern Indians. It was quite saddening for me to read about the racial slurs thrown at them such as “Chinky, momos, nepali” and what not. The present scare of the pandemic has only widened these cracks in the mainland-northeastern psychological landmass.

In a recent, a girl hailing from Manipur was spat on and called slurs like ‘corona’ by a man in Delhi before he fled on his scooter. Such cases of discrimination have been on the rise since the COVID-19 outbreak and a growing anti-Chinese sentiment in large parts of the world. By extension, this sentiment has crept into the minds of Indians as well, putting our fellow brothers and sisters with mongoloid features as scapegoats to this bigotry. I write this article to understand why the distance between the mainland and north-eastern communities exists, and perhaps what solutions could be offered to reduce the psychological distance between the two communities.

 

Factors at play

Race. Yep, it is hard enough to admit that racism may exist in a country like ours where a major chunk of us were subjected to racist discrimination for almost two centuries by our fair-skinned, civilised, colonial masters. Yet our collective ignorance has once again led to the more ‘civilised’ mainlanders discriminating against the ‘barbaric tribals’. It is a running undertone in almost all prejudices held against the north-eastern Indians that they perhaps eat cockroaches, continue to live in jungles, have no gods or “modesty” among their women – all of which are apparent indicators of lack of civil organisation but more importantly a sign of ‘inferiority’ for a decent proportion of mainland Indians.

It is true for a majority of us that despite being Indians, we’re ignorant of our national geography and cultural diversity and can hardly distinguish Madras from Karnataka, or Mizoram from Meghalaya and this only adds to the neglect and ignorance we already had regarding the north-eastern citizens.

 

Distance. However romantic it may sound, there’s nothing great about long-distance relationships. It’s a similar case for the two landmasses held together by the chicken’s neck or the Siliguri corridor that is merely 22kms broad, which has limited our movement between the two landmasses. The problem is further compounded because Purvottar bharat (that’s the Hindi lingo for those not watching Ramayan yet) is entirely landlocked and transportation of goods by sea route is nowhere possible without added costs of transporting goods to the Kolkata port. Earlier, this wasn’t an issue as the Dhaka port was part of British India but after the formation of East Pakistan, the economic lifeline of purvottar bharat has been relying on the chicken’s neck.

 

Xenophobia. Xenophobia, not only in racial but also cultural differences. The difference lies in the cause that the major part of India was slowly but steadily Aryanised since the birth of the vedic culture, purvottar remained to be an exception. Even the largest of empires such as that of the Mauryas, which stretched from Mysore to Kashmir, Kalinga to Afghanistan – failed to push eastwards due to the hilly terrain and the harsh conditions to march an army into. This cultural isolation has presently led to a demand for preservation from “foreigners” in the north-eastern states – which has been a driving factor in the xenophobia experienced by the citizens in North-east – formation of radical separatist organisations which continue the cycle of alienation and fear.

 

What can be done?

Prejudice and discrimination are some of the stickiest impediments in national integration. Lucky for us, dismantling prejudice has been a rather highlighted point of study in social psychology – from which I wish to draw upon the conclusion of this article.

 

The prime points of focus must be at educating kids early on about the different cultures of the country, their histories, and their contribution to the national struggle for independence – including that of the North-east. Educators must actively try to inculcate the values of tolerance, respect and empathy among their students, highlighting individual identity over group identity must be stressed upon regularly. Increasing inter-group contact among people of both constituent entities, through trade, businesses and marriage allow for intermingling of cultures and peoples at a community level and fast track national integration such that a truly pluralistic and tolerant society can be established as was dreamed of by our nation builders.

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