AAP, Racism and Delhi – Perspective from a ‘North Eastern’ Citizen of Delhi: Anuraag Baruah


The recent ‘AAP’ state of affairs in the National Capital brought about by a dharna led by the Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has indeed shaken up the nation. Instead of judging and delivering a verdict on this so called ‘anarchism’, I stress upon something else here. The inherent racism prevalent in the mindset of our people actually found a shameless outlet through the antics of the new law minister of Delhi. The minister’s actions and words only reflect the mindset of the people of the concerned neighbourhood. His own words confirm that he was acting upon their complaints. This particular neighbourhood again reflects the mindset of any middle class neighbourhood in Delhi.

Delhi is almost a mini India with a plurality in terms of demography resembling the variedness of India. People from every region of India and the world populate the city, arriving every year in multitudes to become part of the greater Delhi population. Delhi always has been a difficult region, with its plethora of migrants that have accumulated over the ages. From ancient times, it has attracted hordes of settlers that have ‘coloured’ the region with plural identities and cultures, physical features and eating habits. It has a history of being hostile to every subsequent set of migrants that arrived here. Right from the ancient times subsequent invaders came upon the city. Many of them decided to settle and grow rather than loot and plunder to leave. A complex union of races has dwelled upon the city over the decades.

Delhi is easily one of the oldest cities in the world. But majority of its present inhabitants have roots in the region only about half a century old. This is perhaps the greatest irony of the ancient city. These relatively new inhabitants carry a constant air of suspicion for the newcomers who try to make the city home. Just as the traditional Urdu-speaking elitist section of Old Delhi regarded the Punjabi immigrants a set of loud, ill-mannered people, the present set of dwellers look down upon the new migrants with suspicion and disbelief.
Right from my first year days in Delhi University, I used to feel an uncanny comradeship with foreigners especially, Africans. We are somehow same, same because, we are the victims of the same racial prejudices of the so called localities of Delhi. The small difference is the fact that their skin colours draw unwanted attention while our small eyes! The big difference ofcourse, is that we from ‘northeast’ are fellow Indians while the so called ‘blacks’ are foreigners. Did this ‘difference’ make any difference? Sometimes yes, but in most cases no. The experience of a ‘northeast’ migrant in Delhi is predominantly haunted by racism. We too are aliens in this part of the country.

Any small neighborhood in Delhi has been a witness to these racial slurs and abuses. The cosmopolitan nature of the city faces a stark contrast from these intolerant racial behaviors of Delhiites. Most of these ‘racially prejudiced’ belong to the middle class who are undergoing a deep insecurity amidst the rapidly changing urban scene over the last decade. Delhi’s history with migrants who turn into permanent settlers over the years perhaps acts upon their mind.

The urge to identify with the mainstream, with the predominant can be easily seen in the behaviors of the migrants too. My days in the University made me witness this strange phenomenon. One section of fellow Assamese of supposedly caste Hindu origin having distinct similarity with the typical north Indian features- big eyes and sharp noses often showed reluctancy in identifying with fellow Assamese who have characteristic mongoloid features common to the northeastern people. This is a very interesting human behavior which reflects the inherent human urge to go with the majority, to be on the safer side. I don’t think northeasterners will make any progress asserting their Indianness in Delhi unless they are able to understand this stereotyping of the mainstream which compels a fellow Assamese to give up his own identity. While ethno nationalism may prove to be a definite counter against hegemonic nationalism, it definitely does not threaten cosmopolitanism. In the case of northeasterners in Delhi, cosmopolitanism only helps in affirming ethnic identities in a positive way.

I knew a ‘white’ African in the University who had relatively less problem roaming around in the city without being subjected to racial slurs. She was happy being a white in India, she would often tell me. ‘White foreigners’ are often treated better in Delhi according to the common belief. One of my fellow caste Hindu friends, who can easily pass off as any north Indian boy, faces no such racial slurs. So, is physical feature then the main problem?
Delhi has been a cosmopolitan city all along, its subsequent settlers often refusing to acknowledge this inherent nature of the city that has been bestowed upon it by history. From Afghans and Turks to Mughals, Delhi has embraced everyone and all. And the question lingers, who then is this ‘Delhiite’ hurling racial abuses at the new migrants? In a city where almost everyone is a migrant, or descended from migrants, how does anyone become what he defines as – a ‘localite’ of Delhi? What is the mainstream identity of Delhi that a ‘Delhiite’ finds the ‘other’ to be different from?

Anurag Baruah has done his post graduation in English Literature from Delhi University. He currently lives in Delhi.

11 thoughts on “AAP, Racism and Delhi – Perspective from a ‘North Eastern’ Citizen of Delhi: Anuraag Baruah”

  1. AND ‘somehow’ you found to articulate your thoughts at the time when people are in the flow of racism. Nice timing my friend.


  2. hmm… i m an Assamese myself. I have been living in Delhi for close to four years now. I can identify with your experience with racism at the hands of Delhi locals. I faced similar issues too. Being a woman, my (initial) experience was worse. But let me tell you, such “feelings” of people/treatment meted out to be have changed for the better over a period of time. Let me mention here that I also lived in Bangalore (for over 5 years in a rented apartment in Basavangudi, the so-called Kannadiga bastion), my initial experience there was no better. However, things changed there too, for the better.

    When I think of the reasons for change in perception, I feel my behaviour and attitude (towards life in general) have lots to do with this positive change. (Mind you, in both instances, my language and food habits remain(ed) different from locals.) If I were to be a drinking, sleeping around, drug addict that we northeasterns are “perceived” to be, I would have been, am sure, thrown out of my rented accommodation in Bangalore and now in Delhi. In any locality you stay, you have to maintain the sanctity of that place. This is a basic social norm. After all, man is a social animal (remember Class IV textbooks). If people come to our state, don’t we expect that immigrants atleast maintain that outside their homes? Another question: will any Indian spit or chew paan in London? (I hope you understand my import, paan is an essential item for almost every Assamese) Can I demand that I be treated differently on account of my being Assamese/Indian?

    Now coming to the issue of the group of Nigerians and Ugandans staying in Khidki extension. These people were indulging in (and have been indulging in for over 3 years) flesh trade and drugs. No resident or police can deny this fact. News stories of the past would only corroborate this (unfortunate) fact. [How do I know: I stay close to Khidki. Khidki is very close to Select City Walk, Saket). Innumerable police complaints yielded nothing.

    I am not here to argue for one group over another. But I sincerely feel, before we comment on “racism” (alleged or otherwise), we should evaluate our own prejudices and responses. Man is and will continue to be a social animal.


    1. The problem is when you use the words “these people”. Really? Are you sure that all or even the majority of “these people” indulge in these activities? Talk about individuals, not groups.


  3. Thank you Suddhabrata for your zealous defence of racially oppressed, be it Africans or other groups. Many in the Indian progressive circles does not even know that Indians are racist and mistake it for castist outlook. Our peculiar modernity makes everyone a European, which make one look at dark skin as the other.


  4. This piece by Anuraag is important because it takes up the issue of race in India. The majority of the mainstream Indian left not only know that such issues exist but not even understand. See for instance, when Paul M.Sweezy(whom I admire great) passed away, many western as well as Indian Marxist scholars were vaxing eloquent on how handsome he was. This is not as simple as it seems, since this handsomeness is underlined by racial prejudice and denial of same status to some other features attributable to the other. How many would have said the same when C.l.R James or Mandela passed away. How many in the Indian left can vaguely recognise Paulin j Hountondji. Though many including intelligentsia, take pride in marrying white westerners, it would be interesting to do a statistical survey of Indian marriages to the Africans.


  5. I feel sad and sorry that you have been subjected the receiving end of racist behavior. It is absolutely condemnable and whatever I say can not be used to defend this behavior. You have hit the nail right on the head when you use the word “inherent”. The discrimination that you have felt in Delhi, has been faced by people from Bihar and Bengal in the North Eastern states as well. The discrimination felt by whites in Zimbabwe is also well documented – you can argue that “white” people repressed “blacks” but still, discrimination is discrimination.
    Discrimination is a human tendency. If not skin color or eyes, people discriminate on the basis of region, religion, caste, sub-caste, gender, sexual-preference, political affiliation etc etc etc. The only solution that I can fathom is education and exposure. This takes time, but sadly this is a challenge that our generation will have to take up and endure.
    Maybe I am meandering, but let us look at the Marwari and the Parsi communities – they face literally no discrimination. The reason is their immense contribution to the society. I am hard pressed to remember when was a Marwari arrested for a rape or when was a Parsi arrested for drug trafficking.
    The solution lies in being above suspicion and punching over one’s weight in contributing to the society. Even the recent round of racial abuse against Africans was set off due to the smoke of drug-abuse and prostitution against the African community. Events like this can set off a chain of claims and counter-claims which only further the divide and polarise the society. All the middle-class uncles and aunties are not going to change their view points after this series of exchanges – whether in Delhi, Kohima or Kampala.
    In U.S, the blacks have their own culture – and a degree of discrimination still persists. In a way, racism as defined by you is here to say. It is not a one-day problem. It will have to be solved in a consistent manner over a sustained period of time by exemplary behavior and magnanimity.
    The North-Eastern Community will similarly have to try harder to integrate and mingle with all. Breaking stereotypes is the best way to fight racism. It might sound biased, but sadly, this the simple reality. It is way too idealist to hope for the majority to turn around and be magnanimous. I hope my thoughts have some rational bearing on the debate that you have initiated.


    1. You are right that the differences in skin color or look can create suspicion, but a person in government must not be carried away by this. In my own experience in Zambia bordering Zimbabwe. I was taken by a local guide to meet a village queen. Seeing me, a six year old son of Queen started crying. When I questioned the guide, he explained that the boy thought I was a ghost. This perception by an African boy because I was not dark enough, being from north India, is understandable. But if the queen starts doing the same, then there is a serious problem. The Delhi Law minister cannot act as a child, based on his prejudices.


  6. Kavita makes an interesting response.
    Would the readers like to go through Rajiv Malhotra’s talks on youtube, or better still read his book ‘Being Different’. Perhaps his book ‘Breaking India’ would highlight how people in India believe in their current views given so much of ‘conditioning’ since their childhood.


  7. Kavita, not everyone is so lucky like you to have the option to be freed from racial abuses/treatments by ‘correcting’ oneself. Do you mean to say these racist incidents happen because the victims are ‘drinking, sleeping around, drug addicts’? I have been living in Delhi for the last 7 years now. My experiences with racism like many of my friends from Northeast have not changed for the better. I also believe that I don’t have a ‘behaviour and attitude (towards life in general)’ that has changed or needs to be, which will make me any different in the eyes of the abuser.

    I can assure you that my initial years in Delhi in a PG accommodation like many of my friends from Northeast comprised a daily life that had no drinking, sleeping around, drug addiction that as you say ‘northeasterns are “perceived” to be’ doing all the time. Even now as a working professional apart from drinking, I don’t commit two of the ‘three sins’ that you have related with being a northeastern. So what have I done to destroy the ‘sanctity’ of the place I live in? Like many of my friends, I face/see racial abuses/discrimination every other day.

    Rather than discussing on the morality issues that need closer probing than juvenile stereotyping, I would like to ask you what kind of society permits ‘racism’ on one hand while ‘moral policing’ with the other? Is this how the so called ‘sanctity’ of a place guarded? And does the so called ‘society’ believe in punishing one by racism if he/she does not conform to the particular society’s beliefs and lifestyle in general?

    My last 7 years in Delhi have been spent in various small and big neighbourhoods of Delhi. Vasant Gaon, Vasant Enclave, Vasant Vihar, Lajpat Nagar, Hari Nagar, Vijay Nagar, Mochi Gaon, Satyaniketan, I have lived in all of these places that are strewn all over Delhi, South to West, East to North. And you know what I have seen? While bored aunties blame the ‘kalus’ and the ‘chinkis’ for destroying the ‘sanctity’ of a place, uncles drool over their bodies passing indecent racist remarks. I have seen the same story replaying again and again, only the villains changing.

    The point you seem to be missing is that when we demand not to be racially targeted, we are not asking for some special treatment. Equality is a fundamental right, you should know since you are quoting Class IV textbooks to explain social norms and social nature of man. I don’t think I need to quote the constitution to cite other corollaries to the right to equality. Instead, I would like you to find me a line in these textbooks where racism is said to be a corollary of man’s social nature.

    I would also like to tell you that flesh trade and drugs are not what all Africans are doing in Delhi. I have met lots of scholarly ‘kalus’ who have no relation with these things. And if you want to justify the racial discriminations in Khidki for flesh trade and drugs, then unfortunately you will have to support every other issue of racism happening every day, almost every hour in Delhi. Flesh trade and drugs are rampant in every other locality of Delhi nowadays, which is ofcourse alarming. A close survey will reveal if all these are done only by ‘Nigerians and Ugandans staying in Khidki extension’ without the support/aid direct or indirect of Indian nationals. Should we judge the migrants about spoiling the ‘sanctity’ of a place before cleaning up our own dirty linen? I doubt it.

    Another thing that I find quite funny is the fact that supporters of ‘Khidki cleansing mission’ sound as if the ‘medieval place’, as someone even took the pain of going through history books to reveal the ‘sanctity’ of the place’s historical and ‘pure’ residents, has been invaded forcefully by the ‘Nigerian and Ugandan’ migrants. The hundreds of so called ‘property dealer shops’ that can be witnessed in any middle class locality of Delhi is the answer. The property dealers promise the landlords that they will ‘get them’ rents much higher than the true rates. They look for people whom they can dupe easily by quoting absurd rates. The real purpose of a property dealer lies in fact checking and background checking of the supposed tenants which takes a back seat in the whole process. The result is before us.

    If you don’t stop your men from ‘socializing’ (read ‘feasting’) with the flesh trade and drugs run by a section of foreigners as well as Indian citizens, you will never succeed in ‘cleansing your neighbourhoods’ and restoring the so called ‘sanctity’ of the place. You might ofcourse argue that “Man is and will continue to be a social ‘animal’”.


  8. Nicely written, however, can’t actually generalize. Had been living in Delhi for last twenty years. Never been subjected to any such incident. However, racism exists in Delhi. Be it ‘North Easterners’, ‘Tamilians’ ‘Bengalis’, ‘Gujjus’ etc. etc. it is there however you try to deny it.


  9. Great article. You may be discriminated in Delhi by locals even if you are a North Indian visitor to this cosmopolitan town. But supporting the racially motivated, unlawful acts by a Law Minister makes the discrimination institutionalized and is very unfortunate.


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