Indian Racism in the time of Corona Virus

In the year 1832, the British first came into contact with the Naga tribes while exploring the region to construct road between Manipur and Assam. Since that contact, the Nagas were slowly overwhelmed by the expansion of British colonialism. As a part of colonialism, the colonisers brought in diseases and medicines along with them. Uncontacted Naga tribe barring its periodical interface with the Ahoms, the Kacharis and the Manipur Kingdom got exposed to new diseases. The medicines they brought along with them among other factors and colonialism processes, convinced Naga tribes to accept their unsolicited presence in their lands. The British see to it as a part of the beginning of civilising the savages. Almost two centuries later in the last week of March, 2020 during lockdown in regards to pandemic spread of Coronavirus, Naga youth living in Mysuru, Karnataka were denied access to a More departmental store on the ground that they were suspected as potential carrier of coronavirus simply for bearing Mongoloid features. Today, indigenous people have come a long way by coming out of their villages and they are studying or working in cities, yet the blatant racism in this time conveys that they are still unwelcome and unwanted which continue to reduce their existence as an unequal being. The colonial rule under the garb of civilising project initiated in the past to present is littered with violence, ethnic tension, acculturation, loss of lands, dilution of identity, assimilation etc. These experiences left behind a scar in the memories of indigenous community and for them, racism remains a familiar enemy since the time their villages were compelled to open up to outside world.

Racism and its constructions

A magnitude of racism with the emergence of Covid-19 or commonly known as coronavirus, is a continuity and manifestation of existing racism towards indigenous people from northeastern states, Ladakh, and Northern part of West Bengal in India. The rise of racism in India aligns with experience of people of Asian origins where they are being subjected to racism in various countries across the world after the outbreak of coronavirus in China. They are being racially discriminated on the ground that they could be potential carrier of coronavirus for bearing Mongoloid features. Likewise, in India, people with Mongoloid features are repeatedly taunted and intimidated by calling them, coronavirus. One Manipuri girl was spat on in Delhi, some beaten up in Kolkata, a female from Meghalya was coerced to leave restaurant in Delhi, a student from Nagaland was hounded as Chinese and suspected for coronavirus in Mumbai etc. These are some of the many racism cases coming out in recent time as early as February with a common slur in coronavirus. This new label is one of the many racist slurs directed against people from northeastern states and Ladakh, and Northern part of West Bengal. More than not often only an outrage on social media catches the attention of media and concerned authority leading to condemnation from civil societies and intervention. Incidences of racism have become so rampant that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on March 23 released an advisory to all the States to take stringent action against harassment and racial discrimination against people of northeast in the backdrop of linking them as potential carrier of coronavirus.

Racism in India is beyond ignorance and socio-cultural gap. It is structural in nature which enable people in power positions to racially discriminate the other. The Other here is people from northeastern states. In the words of Robin DiAngelo in his book, “What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy”, published in the year 2016, wrote, [su_quote]Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and institutional actions and beliefs, which sys-tematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between whites and people of color.[/su_quote] He takes it further on the notion that the targeted group in racism can also be discriminatory towards the dominant group. He discussed this aspect by dissecting ‘reverse racism’ by stating that

Racism does not move back and forth, one day benefiting whites and another day (or even era) benefiting people of color. The direction of power between whites and people of color is historic, traditional, and normalized in ideology. The critical element that differentiates racism from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination is the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and to enforce discriminatory behaviors in systemic ways with far-reaching effects. People of color may hold prejudices and discriminate against whites, but do not have the social and institutional power backing their prejudice and discrimination that transforms it into racism; the impact of their prejudice on whites is temporary and contextual. Whites hold the social and institutional positions in society to infuse their racial prejudice into the laws, policies, practices, and norms of society in a way that people of color do not.”

This holds true to existing relation between people of northeastern states and the rest of India where existing system like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the terminology ‘northeast’ devoid of different states and diverse characters of inhabitants, and the history of the formation of states like Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, are indicative of looking at them from top down approach. Protective provisions like Inner Line Permit, Sixth Schedule etc are steps taken to ensure autonomy and value diverse identities and differing background of communities from the states of northeast region. It is in institutional mechanism and socio-cultural factors that privileged people from outside northeast region to attain the position of power, and provide a sense of superiority in relation to indigenous communities from northeast region, and treat them as unequal beings through the process of othering. This is structural in nature and the gap here provides a ground for racism and racially discriminate them.

The Politics of Naming

The coronavirus label being given to people with mongoloid features in India, adds to existing racist slurs directed towards indigenous people from northeastern states, Ladakh, and Northern part of West Bengal. Naming things are inherent in any society as a way to simplify complex order around us. When there is interface and intersection between two communities, the naming is not without politics and its ramifications adds more ground to widen unequal power relation. Here, Jean-Jacques Weber in his book, Language Racism, published in the year 2015 argues on the politics of naming, [su_quote]…such categories are useful to help us cope with the complexities of our social world. At the same time, however, we need to make a conscious effort to resist and deconstruct stereotypical categorizations and attributions. Categories such as ‘black’ and ‘white’, or ‘foreign’ and ‘native’, as with all binary oppositions, are socially constructed, and the most important question is perhaps the one of power: who has the power to impose his or her categories? who defines where the boundaries between categories lie? This brings us back to the important point…that the process of identity construction always involves a negotiation between how I see myself (achieved identity) and how others see me (imposed identity).[/su_quote] The politics of naming is often loaded with stereotypes which adds injury to targeted people with consequences beyond one’s control. It is in this that racism as an outcome of social construction need to be brought in to indicate that the construction is possible with institutional structures which empowered certain historically dominant communities to define and name the others. While exercising this authority, the unknown, especially indigenous people are usually stereotyped with negative connotations to remind them of their positions in the everyday world. In the same way as dominant communities, the racially oppressed people also have labels and names for people who do not belong to their community. There is a distinction in naming here between the historically dominant people and indigenous people which lies in power and institutional support.

To illustrate the politics of naming, an example of Manipur state is considered where different communities like Meitei, Naga, Kuki, Marwari, Bengali etc inhabit the state. One common label commonly used by Meitei community is mayang which is meant towards Hindi speaking people. The word ‘mayang’ is used to identify people who are not either Naga, Kuki, other tribes or Meitei. Considering the power equation and history of the region overwhelmed by waves of colonialism and post colonialism, this label is not a counter or equivalent to racist slurs given to indigenous people. Just like ‘mayang‘, Rongmei Naga in Manipur have terms like ‘taimei‘ for Meitei; ‘panganmei’ for Manipuri Muslims; ‘khongsaimei‘ for Kuki; ‘tajongmei‘ for Hindi speaking people etc. The operational word ‘mei‘ (people) attached in them means people and Rongmei Naga tribe address them by attaching ‘mei‘ to identity people on their own terms in the past when literatures of outside world were yet to seep into their villages, hills and nation. Yet they give a dignified name by attaching people in contrast to how people from mainstream societies with access to almost everything in knowing different societies across the world, label them with names of food, virus, stereotypes, and other derogatory names. A distinction existing in this form rarely finds in popular discourse, and they rather superimpose their belief, notion, and ideological stance on indigenous people by disregarding their agencies and aspirations. The refusal to see indigenous tribal people as people can be inferred from the stereotypes and labels they have been given. In literature and academic too, there is an effort to homogenise the lifeworld of tribal communities into universal values and often portray them as ahistorical community including the unacknowledgement of their rich oral histories in the same status which written form of history enjoys. Epistemic violence or say ‘epistemic racism’ is a challenge faced by indigenous tribal people in academia.

Taking it further on the politics of naming in the case of mainstream societies, one can state that a position as such has a tendency to mischaracterise context happenings in tribal communities, and perceived any ill treatment towards people from outside as racism. These terms synonymous in Meitei, Rongmei Naga and other indigenous communities in northeastern states of India, are in no way can be equated with derogatory terms emanating from communities privileging from power positions, like ‘naked people’, ‘savage’, ‘barbaric’, ‘uncivilised’, ‘unthinking’, ‘jungli‘, ‘jingalala‘, etc and another set of racist slurs in present time, coronavirus as the latest addition to this, which all continue to define indigenous people from northeastern states of India. Likewise, even the name ‘Naga’ is given to several tribals inhabiting in the present Nagaland and Manipur, parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Myanmar. One must note that indigenous people take to only one name in identifying the dominant community unlike how dominant community takes to multiple names and stereotypes to define indigenous people. It is clear that power plays a key role in determining which name gets to define the other with unprecedented consequences unlike the names constructed by indigenous people which is contextual, and in contingent with their lifeworld, and without the support of power structure and mainstream culture. Even in the case of mainstream societies in India, they turn to names like ‘firangi’, ‘gora’, ‘angrezi’ etc to label and identify the white people.

This reality points toward the fact that racism is not just about discrimination and ignorance, it is more than that. Power structure and sense of cultural superiority, and historical basis of dominance are central to racism and its perpetuation in various forms. It is on this regards that as much there is nothing as such as ‘reverse sexism’, ‘reverse casteism’, or ‘reverse homophobia’, there is also nothing like ‘reverse racism’. This is not to say that a form of ill treatment towards the other (non-local) doesn’t exist in Manipur or adjoining states. It does exist which is contextual and specific to particular circumstances. We must discuss that as well, but not by cancelling out racism experiences of people from northeastern states which has its historical basis and power dynamics. This kind of balancing by inventing concept like reverse racism does equal harm and gives an impetus to racism to thrive and continue to perpetuate without holding people accountable for its existence and practice.

The New Label, Coronavirus, and the Way Forward

Racism issue in regards to Coronavirus is happening since early February in India, and no one bats an eye till today. It is disturbing and extremely worrying to think the extent of racism happening to people from northeastern states living in various parts of India. Existing provisions like ILP, Sixth Schedule, reservations, etc are meant to undo injustices meted to tribes and to preserve and practice their socio-cultural identity. However, this move is also a way to have their representation in decision making bodies, and the larger goal in power sharing still remains a distant dream. The non-recognition of UN declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, and non-ratification of ILO Convention no. 169 – Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989, in India deny indigenous people to fulfilment of their rights and living with dignity. Add to it, there is no legal mechanism or a law to address racism in India. Even in existing SC/ST Atrocities Act, racism is nowhere mentioned in it, discrimination practised against tribes is largely counted under caste discrimination. The lack of mechanism to identify racial background in the SC/ST Atrocities Act and how racism affects people from northeastern states get subdued and diluted by legal language which sees discrimination from the point of caste discrimination. A situation here puts indigenous tribal people in precarious situation where experiences of racism based on their social and historical location and cultural location are replaced by an episteme which is alien to them. This gap does disservice and obliterate them and deprive their rights and the path to fulfilment of rights is filled with obscurity. It is precisely on this non recognition that the existing structure enable people from upper caste, upper class, and minority group and lower caste to practice racism against indigenous people from northeast region. This is not to indicate that people from lower caste to minority are in position of power, it is to highlight that in addition to overarching structure, the culture they are being subsumed into or part of it also plays its role in perpetuating racism towards people with Mongoloid feature. Even if racial discrimination gets included in the SC/ST Atrocities Act, other indigenous communities from northeast which do not come under ST category will be without protection from racism. A specific legal remedy is required to address and curb racism in India, possibly in the form of specific law pertaining to racism. A framing of law must happen with active participation and decisive take from indigenous communities of northeastern states, Ladakh and northern part of West Bengal. In the same wavelength, community effort must also be initiated to be sensible and respect differences and imbibe a conducive space in cultural practice. This can be a start to tackle racism with active support from civil societies and the state authority.

There is also a line of thought around citizenry like ‘how can they be racist to fellow citizen’, which often surfaces whenever people from northeastern states and other parts of India, were racially discriminated. A notion of racism tied to nationalism fervour is misleading as racism is committed against any people from other race perceived as less superior. It trivialises racism committed towards the Blacks, or people from Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet etc in India.

The prevailing situation of racism in India is indicative of how a label coronavirus easily gets manifested into societies subjecting people with mongoloid features to go through humiliation, intimidation, trauma, and violence. In the case of women, they are more vulnerable and face multiple discriminations- racism and sexism.  When it comes to media houses, in addition to writing report and opinion pieces on victims’ racism experiences there must also be a writing on the institution and enabling socio-culture with tough questions by holding them accountable of their power positions. At the current juncture, the concerned authorities must take it further from advisory from MHA and see to it that every perpetrator of racism is put to task with stringent action and penalty. Every authority must reach out and work closely with civil societies including student bodies representing northeast communities, Ladakh etc to streamline and identify racism cases and take strict actions effectively, and ensure that people from northeastern states, Ladakh and Northern part of West Bengal are getting basic essential items and other access in this time of coronavirus. A move in this manner can instil a sense of security and trust in the system, and find means to maintain social and physical distance to contain the spread of coronavirus.


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Richard Kamei Written by:

Richard Kamei, PhD Candidate, School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

One Comment

  1. Aribam Uttam Sharma
    April 8, 2020

    Thanks Mr. Kamei for an insightful commentary. Though one cannot deny that there is asymmetry that power relation dictates, when it comes to rascist slurs, I find that there is a problem in your treatment of the word ‘mayang’. The devil is in the details, I heard someone say. It can’t be truer here. All words are contextual. Corona, a virus in some context, crown in some other becomes a rascist slur in this difficult times. Mayang in some context could be innocuous, but we should not overlook that we use it more often with blatant rascist overtones. To sidestep it, which I feel you are doing here, is to put ourselves in peril — the peril of denial. We also have rascist words for the people of the hills of Manipur. In the direction of your writing, an argument can be afforded that they are contextually rascist, for the fact is that we use them without any shade of rascism in some important cultural contexts. Are we in a position to do that? I am against erasures of words from a language by any diktat: I should not worry for no one can. But I find this celebration and ease with which we the use the word mayang to be nothing more than a perversity.

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