Asked to vacate hostels, racial slurs: Northeast Indians in Delhi deal with daily COVID-19 'hatred'

Being called names such as ‘Chinese’, ‘Momos’, Chowmein’ and ‘Ch***I’ is nothing new for people from the Northeast residing and settled in Delhi. However, a new label 'Coronavirus' has been added.

Published: 30th March 2020 09:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th March 2020 09:00 AM   |  A+A-

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Express Illustration by Amit Bandre.

Express News Service

Tens of thousands, forced into quarantine or lockdown to keep out a deadly contagion turning cities into graveyards across the globe, and, struggling to fetch essentials at a time their nearest grocer has downed shutters, maybe wondering could anything be worse. Well yes, there is. While the coronavirus has doubtlessly unleashed a wave of terror and left a grim trail of death and desolation across the world, an even deadlier virus maybe sweeping our streets unchecked. One which makes a section of our populace put unsolicited and unflattering labels on people who have nothing to do with the global pandemic.

Life under lockdown has been even harder to bear for students and working people from the Northeast, so much so that some have second thoughts about setting foot outside their homes to buy groceries fearing racial slurs or attacks.

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Easy targets

In one such incident, a Manipur girl, studying at Delhi University, lodged a complaint against a 40-year-old man claiming that he spat on her at Vijay Nagar, near the North Campus, and passed a racist comment — “Corona is here.” The incident drew anger and contempt from fellow settlers from the Northeast. However, the expression of anger did little to put a check on racial profiling and discrimination, as more such incidents in the city came to light in the subsequent weeks. Videos of name calling and harassment of people from the Northeast flooded social media platforms and went viral.

Slurs such as ‘coronavirus’, ‘Ladakhis’, ‘Mongoloid faces’ and ‘squinted eyes’ are clearly audible in these videos. Seized of the rising cases, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) asked Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to identify the perpetrators and act against them. The 40-year-old, who spat on the 25-year-old Manipur girl, was arrested and identified as Gaurav Vohra, a resident of Model Town.

Unsavoury experiences

“Being called names such as ‘Chinese’, ‘Momos’, Chowmein’ and ‘Ch***I’ is nothing new for people from the Northeast residing and settled in Delhi. However, a new label — ‘Coronavirus’ — is being put on us in the wake of this viral outbreak. What’s scary is that we’re even being harassed. The other day, I was on the Metro when some passengers stood behind me and started talking about coronavirus the moment they realised I was from the Northeast. Not done, they even made fun of me. I was eventually forced to get off the train and take another,” said Lembi, a media professional from Khundrakpam in Manipur, who resides at south Delhi’s Chittaranjan (CR) Park.

“I have been living in Delhi for the last ten years and, yet, whenever I step out, I am made to feel like an alien. It feels uncomfortable to have people gawking at you,” she said. Alana, an activist who has been working extensively to raise awareness on racial discrimination, said she is been hearing about 4-5 incidents of name-calling and harassment faced by Northeast people every day, from across the country, since the deadly contagion hit our shores. In several other incidents, Northeast people, especially students and professionals residing in Munirka and Safdarjung Enclave, have been asked to vacate their rented accommodations for fear that they may be taking the disease next door.

In another incident, a student, out recently to fetch groceries and essentials in Noida, was turned away by a vegetable vendor as she was from the Northeast. Sharing her unseemly experience, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who hails from the Northeast, said, “I was walking to the campus from Ber Sarai when two girls spotted me and started muttering under their breath about coronavirus. They even made a comment that was downright racist. Often, when I’m walking, I get stared at so much that I start checking if my clothes are in order. I’m made to feel that there’s a problem with me.”
“However, it isn’t just now that we are facing such issues. There’s hardly a time of year when we are not mocked at or harassed. People, including the so-called learned ones, make us feel like we don’t belong here by passing racist comments,” she said. Earlier this month, a DU student was harassed and allegedly molested by a group of men during Holi celebrations in Kamala Nagar. The men allegedly threw balloons at her and shooed her off, saying, “Go away coronavirus”.

Treated like aliens

“It’s sad to be targeted in your own country even after so much sensitisation and awareness. Many of my friends have been asked to vacate their apartments. Where will they go? People should show more sympathy and help us, as we’re living away from our families. We’re targeted day-in and day-out. How many complaints can we file? It may be a ‘lockdown’ for others but for us, it’s curfew,” Ngipwem Rebecca Chohwanglim, a 1st-year PhD student at JNU, told this correspondent.

“Since the virus started spreading, messages flooded my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages, asking if I have coronavirus. We’re not even considered Indians. Since we have Mongoloid features, we’re often mistaken for Chinese people. We may look like them but it doesn’t mean that we’re carrying the virus. People chant ‘corona’ the moment they spot us,” Arpita Dutta, a DU student from Assam, said.
Also a lawyer, Alana said, “A number of cases have been reported from Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai, Gujarat and, of course, Delhi. On an average, 4-5 cases are reported daily. However, not all cases come to light.”

“Recently, a group of Northeast people went to shop for groceries and food items in Noida when they were told by a shopkeeper that he won’t sell to them as they’re behind the corona outbreak. I was getting my niece home from college after clearing her exam formalities and hailed an e-rickshaw. However, the passengers refused to sit next to her, as she’s from the Northeast. We waited at a bus stop for 15 minutes when an elderly woman drove up to them and offered them a lift. However, that was before she realised where my niece is from and drove off,” Alana recalled. “I have been witness to several incidents where people put on a mask or covered their faces with a dupatta and changed course the moment they spotted a person from the Northeast,” she added.

Prejudice in time of unity

Ramananda Sen, a professor at Kirori Mal College, which is affiliated to DU, said, “Cases of harassment and racial discrimination are on the rise. Students are being told to vacate rented accommodations.” Also the president of Northeastern Teachers’ Union, Sen said he has written to chief ministers of Delhi, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, urging them to take up the rising harassment of Northeast people with the Prime Minister and MHA.
“Law enforcement agencies must act swiftly against anyone accused of racial discrimination. Social awareness programmes in the city could also help dispel myths around Northeast people,” he added.
Police help at hand Delhi Police and the Special Unit for North Eastern Residents (SPUNER) issued an advisory on March 23 for ensuring the safety of Northeast people in the city.

“We’re not just receiving complaints from Delhi but also from elsewhere in NCR. Such behaviour towards Northeast people can’t be tolerated. We’ve asked them to remain indoors and step out only in the event of an emergency. The Delhi government has opened a helpline number and we’ve set up a separate cell for Northeast people. We’ve also launched helpline numbers through which they can seek assistance in procuring essential items,” Hibu Tamang, ACP, Delhi Police, said.

‘Deliberate acts’

MP Bezbaruah, former secretary in the Union tourism ministry, who headed a panel monitored by the MHA and Supreme Court, said, “Those spitting on Northeast people and calling them names are infected with the ‘virus of hatred’. These incidents can’t be attributed to ignorance about the Northeast people. These are deliberate and targeted acts. I believe firm and swift action is needed against those behind such incidents.”

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