Indians from the northeast face intensified racism as coronavirus fears grow

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, northeasterners have been reporting a spike in racist attacks and discrimination. Caisii Mao / NurPhoto / Getty Images
03 April, 2020

A 24-year-old woman arrived at KPC Hospital in Jadavpur, in Kolkata, on 28 March, complaining of intense abdominal pain from a pre-diagnosed urinary-tract infection. She was denied entry to the emergency ward, and directed elsewhere to undergo screening for COVID-19, despite having no symptoms of viral infection or any known exposure to the novel coronavirus. The woman headed to MR Bangur Hospital in neighbouring Tollygunge—among the places she was directed to from KPC Hospital—and approached a doctor saying she was suffering from a UTI. Again, she was told she had to first undergo COVID-19 screening, but that the hospital did not have the required equipment. 

She left for a third hospital, farther away—the Beleghata ID and BG Hospital. There, she was told she did not require screening, and was finally treated for her UTI. When she got back home, at around 7 pm, she got a call from the police, demanding that she return to MR Bangur Hospital to be put in isolation. The hospital had lodged a first-information report against her, she told me, accusing her of having run away. Her pleas that she was only suffering from a UTI were ignored. 

Once the woman entered the hospital, she said, the gates were locked behind her. She showed her medical papers detailing her treatment for a UTI, and a certificate from the hospital in Beleghata that exempted her from COVID-19 screening, but was told, “Being a responsible citizen of India, please cooperate with us.” She was taken to an isolation ward, where she was kept for the night with at least a dozen patients suspected to have COVID-19. 

“I tried to explain to them that I had no symptoms,” the woman said. “I felt like I was being treated like a dog. I was hungry and in pain so I asked the nurse for medicine, but she just ignored me.” A doctor came to check on her on Sunday morning. His first question was, “Are you from China?” 

The 24-year-old woman is from Sikkim, though she has been living in Kolkata. Her mother appealed to ministers in her home state for help. After they intervened, along with the company where the woman works, she was finally released, after spending over twenty hours in the hospital.

The woman was convinced that the way she was treated was tied to her appearance. Across the world, fears of COVID-19 have fuelled a rise in racism against people tracing their descent to East Asia, where the coronavirus pandemic began. In India, the main targets of such reasoning have been people from the northeast who, to racist minds, share the “mongoloid” features of East Asians. Northeasterners across the country—who have faced pervasive racism from fellow Indians since the country’s foundation—have been reporting a spike of racist attacks and discrimination.

“I am trying to calm myself, I have been psychologically affected and I am worried because I have an online examination on 5 April,” a 20-year-old student from Nagaland said. A few days into the countrywide coronavirus lockdown, on 28 March, he stepped out of his flat in Mysuru to buy groceries with a friend. “On Saturday evening, we went to our neighborhood grocery store to restock our food supplies, and stood in line for 25 minutes until our turn came. But the staff refused to let us in, saying that we are not Indians, and that we are foreigners.”

There were around fifteen other people present, he added, but they “stood there the whole time watching us, like it was a show.” The two showed their Aadhaar cards to prove their identity as Indians. In a video of the incident that went viral, one of them says, as the shopkeeper chases them away, “We have Aadhaar cards, why are you discriminating us? We too are Indians, we too have needs, we too need groceries like you as human beings.” After the incident received national attention, local police registered a case against the accused offenders. 

A Manipuri student in Delhi was spat on and abused on the day of the Janata Curfew. “This man was deliberately aiming at my face and shouted ‘corona,’" the student said. "He could clearly identify a ‘chinky,’ a race deemed inferior than that of the mainland Indians."

The 20-year-old student told me they were daily customers at the store, so the shopkeeper should have recognised them. “Me and my friend were offended. We look different, but it does not mean that we are different.” 

In some cases, people have gone so far as to make official complaints against northeasterners. In Ahmedabad, on 22 March, police arrived at the office of a dental insurance company to take nine employees from Nagaland away for COVID-19 testing. The police said they were acting on a complaint, one of the nine told me, and alleged that the employees were from China.

“We cooperated with them because we know the current situation and we know that everyone is afraid of us because of the way we look,” the employee said. The group was tested, and the results came back negative. Even so, the authorities refused to release them, and placed them under forced quarantine, along with others who might have the coronavirus. “We showed them our Aadhaar cards as proof of our nationality but they still admitted us,” the employee said. “We were scared that if we continued to stay for a longer period of time, we may get infected. We asked them who would take responsibility, but they couldn’t answer us.” The group made a video that went viral and reached authorities in Nagaland, who intervened with municipal and police officials in Ahmedabad to have them released. 

Rini Ralte is the founder and president of Northeast Solidarity, a Bengaluru-based support organisation that runs a helpline. She told me she has come across at least three cases where landlords have told people from the northeast to vacate their homes. In Chennai, two shelters have been opened to house over eighty individuals from the northeast in urgent need of accommodation. 

Ralte started the helpline in 2012, after rumours of impending violence against migrants from the northeast sparked a mass exodus of them from cities including Bengaluru. “The phone continues to ring till today,” she told me. The helpline gets roughly fifty calls a day, she said, from people facing racism or people stranded far from home and struggling to make ends meet. In one tragic case, on 30 March, a young man from Meghalaya working at a food court in Agra committed suicide after posting on social media that he had been fired, had nowhere to go and saw no hope. 

“We are distributing food wherever we can,” Ralte said. The government, she added, had provided no help at all. “The ministry of home affairs is not a living department, it is a dead department. They interviewed me and I presented them with so many complicated cases but nothing was done. The government has no interest at all.” In the nine years that the helpline has been running, she rued, “the central government has not come up with a single help.”

Ralte told me she was especially shocked to learn of how a friend of hers had been called “corona” by a small child at a grocery store in Bengaluru. “It makes me wonder how far this racial discrimination has taken root,” she said. The incident echoed the widely reported case of a Manipuri student in Delhi who, on 22 March, was spat on and abused with the same slur by a stranger on the streets. 

That day, after the end of the “Janata Curfew,” or people’s curfew, the student stepped out with some friends to buy groceries. On the way back to her paying-guest accommodation, a middle-aged man pulled up before her on a scooter. “I was wondering why he slowed down his vehicle,” the student recalled, “when all of a sudden he spat his tobacco paan directly at my face, like I was a pile of garbage or a roadside drain where he could spit the dirt off from his mouth. He then shouted ‘corona’ and drove away quickly.” 

The student said she tried running after the man, but could only shout at him as he fled. “My phone records 9.21 pm with the first picture of my favourite but unfortunate black T-shirt, splattered with the pungent thick tobacco remains over the neck and chest area.” She said the paan-laced spit also got into her eyes, her hair and the mask she was wearing. “This man was deliberately aiming at my face and shouted ‘corona.’ He could clearly identify a ‘chinky,’ a race deemed inferior than that of the mainland Indians. He must have thought, ‘Oh, here’s a chinky girl, let me just spit on her face, because they are lower than human, they are just a pile of garbage where I can spit.’” 

The accused was arrested, and has been charged under Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code, which covers intent to insult the modesty of a woman. “The arrest is bailable,” the student told me. The charges erased “racism, assault against women and even the possibility of spreading any infection or disease.” 

India is a signatory of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, but does not have any laws specific to racism. In 2014, following the death of Nido Tania—a young man from Arunachal Pradesh murdered in a hate crime in Delhi—the home ministry and the North Eastern Council set up a committee to suggest legal steps to combat racism. Of the five main measures the Bezbaruah Committee recommended, listed in order of priority, the first was, “The existence of a clear, stringent law, that makes such acts/incidents of varied nature punishable.” 

The Manipuri student in Delhi said it is long past time “for the Indian government to accept the question of racism in India. This is not just a question of an individual like me, this is the question of all the northeastern people who have been abused by the mainland Indians.” From incidents of spitting and beatings to cases of murder, she wondered, “how many horrific racial attacks is the Indian government waiting to see happen?” 

Alana Golmei, an activist and lawyer who sat on the Bezbaruah Committee, told me, “When the incident happened in 2014, the larger demand was passing of an anti-racial law, but that is very difficult on the part of the government,” So, the committee pressed for the addition of two provisions in the IPC, penalising incitement to hatred on the basis of race and the use of any word, gesture or act intended to insult member of a particular race. These were to be non-bailable offences, threatening imprisonment of up to five years for the former offence and three years for the latter. “Right now they have not done it yet,” Golmei said. “The home ministry said they have sent recommendations to the eight northeast states and they will look into it after the states respond. It is really taking time, and no concrete steps are being taken.”  

The committee’s report also stated,

The Central Government should give thought to the possibility of bringing a legislation for preventing the natives of one state from harassing in any manner the migrants of any other Indian states or from indulging in hate crimes against them, by Amendment to the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act (Prevention of Atrocities), Act, 1989.

Golmei emphasised the need for such laws. “In the recent case where a girl was spat on, only Section 509 was invoked,” she said. “This is a disgusting incident where severe action should be taken, but we don’t have a law so he got bail in 24 hours.” In this case, the victim was a woman, but, Golmei wondered, “if it was a man, what kind of IPC would they have invoked?” But even in the absence of ant-racism laws, Golmei said, she encourages people to complain about offensive incidents even if this leads to no action, to add pressure on the government to act.

Golmei thought back to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on 24 March, at the start of the lockdown. “When the prime minister announced the lockdown, just one or two lines from him saying we should not discriminate against northeast people would have spoken volumes,” she said. “It is not uneducated locals, but the middle class, educated people and children from reputed schools who are perpetrators of these racial attacks.”

Correction: This story has been amended to state that the Bezbaruah Committee was set up by the North Eastern Council and the home ministry, and not the North Eastern Council alone as it earlier stated.