Aung San Suu Kyi is racist and so are we! 

Aung San Suu Kyi’s remark in the UN that she is unaware about the reasons for the Ronghiya Muslims leaving Myanmar is highly disgraceful. She knows exactly why they are leaving the country but does not want to admit it. There are some people I know who would defend her stance on the grounds that she cannot risk the gains her movement achieved over the last few years on an issue which does not have domestic support. I don’t believe that’s the real reason. This is not a case of real politick. The reason is much simpler. She is not defending the rights of the Ronghiya Muslims because they look different and follow a different way of life from mainstream Burmese. In short, Aung San Suu Kyi is a racist! But how is that possible? Isn’t Aung San Suu Kyi a Noble Peace Prize recipient who suffered a lot of hardship in her struggle for freedom and democracy against the military junta in Burma. How can someone who had fought so long for noble ideals become so despicable? The answer is given by Richard Kamei’s earlier piece ‘How Should the Northeastern States of India Respond to Rohingya Refugees?’ and the reactions that it generated.

For me more than the piece, the responses to it were very illuminating. Among those who responded some tried to separate the issue of morality from rational political decisions while others used fear of being overwhelmed as a tactic to argue against admitting the Rohingya Refugees into the North East. The first argument is very weak. Suppose in the future, like China is doing in Tibet, the Indian state decides that settling large number people from the mainland into Manipur, Mizoram or Nagaland may give rise to violent repercussions but in the long run it will subdue the nationalist movements in the region. Strategically this makes perfect sense for the Indian state. In fact the move to give citizenship to Hindu refugees in Assam is a ploy in this direction. We may resist such attempts on the basis of our assertions as being indigenous and the threat that such large scale migration may bring to our existence. That, however, is a moral argument and not a political one. Taking recourse to separation of political decisions from moral issue as the basis of our opposition is fraught with great dangers. The second argument though is more pertinent.

The fears of being overwhelmed by an alien population are actually not unfounded. The case of Tripura is very well known for what happens when people become strangers in their own land. Few days ago there was a murder of a Bengali journalist in Tripura by a tribal body. This unfortunate incident cannot be divorced from the Bengali (immigrants) hegemony in the state of Tripura which creates resentment among the tribals in the state. The case of Assam is a little complicated. It has to be remembered that Assam always had a very substantial Bengali Muslim population from a very long time. In fact agriculture in Assam owes a lot to these immigrants who were brought by the British to improve food production in the region. This does not mean that immigration has not taken place after India’s independence. But the scale (for me) is debatable. The case of Sikkim and Darjeeling is another good example of indigenous people being marginalized by the immigrants. Chakma issue in Arunachal Pradesh is a major flash point in the recent debate over the refugee crisis. In the context of the North East the second argument is very strong. But this argument makes a very important assumption which is the basis of all the fears – if allowed unhindered the immigrants will one day become more powerful than the indigenous population with the latter being consequently condemned to second class status. This actually seems to be the case when one looks at Tripura. However this line of reasoning shifts all the blame on the immigrants and their (future) haughty attitude and takes away all focus from our own behavior. We are actually afraid of allowing immigrants into our territory not because of what they might do in the future but because of what we are presently. Once they grow in number we fear they might become just like us, i.e., racist.

We are a racist people and we have been practicing racism on our own minorities for a very long time. On April 30, 2017 there was a news item in the local daily newspaper reporting of a law being amended by the Mizoram government which reserved 100 per cent of the higher technical education seats in the state for Zo-ethnic (Mizo) people. This is despite the fact that there are Kuki, Mara, Man, Mikir, Naga and Synteng tribes in the state and it was alleged that the non-Mizos have been facing similar kinds of discrimination for years in the state. Through personal experience, many other newspaper reports and accounts from friends I have no difficulty in believing that there is extensive discrimination of non-Mizo people in the state of Mizoram.

Mizoram however, is not alone in practicing racial discrimination. In Manipur the Meitei-tribal animosity is a product of the long history of racial discrimination practiced by the dominant community (Meitei) on the tribals in the state. I have friends on both sides and it is fascinating to listen to their side of the story wherein they blame each other for the problem. According to some of my Meitei friends the enmity started with the adoption of Hinduism and the caste system along with it which created the divide between the hill and the plain. Once they became Hindus, Meitei starting practicing discrimination in forms which eerily resembles those observed in the mainland. For example, if a tribal visited a Meitei home he would not be allowed to enter for fear of polluting the sanctity of the place. That however, my Meitei friends argue, is a thing of the past. It is the tribal’s, they complain, who are creating the problems now. On the other hand, one of my tribal friends from Manipur said to me once “if these Meitei try to show their supremacy over me (in Shillong), I will show them that this is not Manipur, i.e., the valley”. The very first day one of my Meitei friend joined the hostel he got in a fight with some of the tribal students from Manipur. The divide still exists and with the passage of the three ILP bills (which the tribal bodies contend is intended against the tribals rather than the outsiders) in the Manipur Assembly it only seems to have gotten worse.

In 2015 the country was shocked when news broke that a mob in Dimapur (commercial capital of Nagaland) had got Syed Farid Khan (accused of raping a Naga women) out from the jail, paraded him naked through the streets and finally killed him in full public view. Since then there have been conflicting reports of whether he had actually raped the woman or was it consensual sex. Whatever maybe the case I remember Naga student Union leaders going on national television and asserting that women are respected in Nagaland and sexual crimes are actually the handiwork of outsiders. I knew that it was not true because my Naga friends (female) themselves had told of some very violent crimes against women in the state. Then I came across the book by “Life and Dignity: Women’s Testimonies of Sexual Violence in Dimapur (Nagaland)” by Dolly Kikon which had multiple accounts of sexual violence on Naga women by Naga men. But even before I got the book I knew that the mob lynching was not to avenge the dignity of Naga women but to punish the outsider for daring to having a relationship (forced or consensual) with their women. It was a racist attack and nothing less.

The formation of the state of Meghalaya itself is derived from Assamese chauvinistic policies (imposition of Assamese language over the tribes in then undivided Assam). There are many reasons, which include discrimination and neglect, as to why the Karbis and Bodos are demanding separate states for themselves. They may yet get their wish in the future but the prospective status of the other minorities in those new ethnic homelands can already be gauged from what is happening in Meghalaya. Immediately after the formation of the state, ethnic clashes starting taking place. These were mostly against the non-tribal population of the state, viz., Bengali, and Nepali. In 2013 ILP agitation took the lives of two non-tribals in the state capital of Shillong. Apart from physical intimidation the non-tribals in the state face systematic discrimination in terms of job opportunities. A few years ago, one non-tribal friend of mine (who was born and brought in Shillong) was appointed as a tenured professor in one of the prestigious college of the state. However, due to pressure from the local pressure group my friend had to resign from the job. As a result of the various discrimination, there has been a continuous out-migration of the non-tribal population from the state which consequently increased the Schedule Tribe population from 85.52% in 1991 to 86.15% in 2011. This may look small but it amounts to an out-migration of thousands (of non-tribal population) every decade.

I have visited Arunachal Pradesh a few times and in the few occasions I have been there I immediately realized that the non-indigenous population out there is also living under some strain. The most striking examples were when I had gone to visit my friend in one of the most beautiful place in the state. One day I got out of the house to get a shave and went into a shop which was run by a non-indigenous person. After the shave when I expressed my dissatisfaction with the work the barber immediately folded his hands and asked me if he had made a mistake. Some may argue that it was a polite gesture. But that perception was banished the next day itself. The next day I went to the hospital for some checkup and there was another non-indigenous person who was sitting in front on us (me and my friend). He was sitting in a hunched posture and looked a little apprehensive. When his turn came he promptly offered his turn to us with a nervous smile.

The reason most of the people in North East do not want to admit the Ronghiya Muslims is because they understand the repercussion of what might happen if someday the immigrants grow in population. Right now we have the authority to oppress but if we allow outsiders to grow in number we will then become the oppressed. We understand this very well because this is exactly what we have been doing to our own minorities. It is for this reason that we believe that as long as the power remains in the hands of our own people we are safe. How genuine is that sense of security, though, is debatable. Notwithstanding the future implications of immigrants on the social fabric of the region, we cannot deny that the main reason we don’t want to admit any new group in our region is because of racism – knowledge of our own racism and the fear of being at the receiving end of the same from the others in the future.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a racist and so are we!


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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

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