Racism and the NE – Exclusion and prejudice: Arjun Rajkhowa

Guest Post by Arjun Rajkhowa

I read with interest Lawrence Liang and Golan Nauluk’s piece in The Hindu (4 February 2014, ‘Cultural ignorance and prejudice’). They rightly point out the various gaps and fissures in our understanding of racism and its impact on those whose identities are often placed outside the “rubric of Indian nationhood”. They also suggest, insightfully, that the “complicated history of the northeast with its various self-determination movements and armed struggles requires a slightly different imagination of multicultural citizenship”.

Using this as a point of departure, I’d like to discuss another dimension of the “cultural difference” they foreground in their piece – the manner in which Indian nationhood is constructed in the northeast. Manifold exclusionary tendencies manifest themselves in northeastern politics and, for someone who is from the region, it is impossible to disentangle these from current discussions on racism. While it is important to interrogate the existence of prejudicial attitudes towards northeasterners in a city like Delhi, such questioning cannot be extricated from the larger context of the conceptualization of nationhood and identity within the northeast, for the two are closely imbricated issues.

If ‘Chinese’ is used pejoratively for northeasterners, ‘Indian’ is also used as a term of derogation in the northeast. It signifies a mainland culture that is derisible and unwanted; a relinquishing of common bonds. I have heard it used innumerable times to refer to shopkeepers and residents who have lived in the region all their lives – despite their established provenance and lifelong acculturation, they remain ‘outsiders’. Those who have lived in the northeast understand the implications.

Nor is this paradigm (of exclusion) merely discursive in scope and content. It has an active socio-political and economic component. I am not going to discuss the various (ongoing) movements for autonomy that mark the history and politics of the northeast. Instead, I am going to focus on a specific contemporary agitation that brings to light many of the issues that, I believe, are pertinent to our understanding of racism and race-based differentiation within the “rubric of Indian nationhood”.

Between September and December 2013, Meghalaya witnessed an agitation for the introduction of the ‘Inner Line Permit’ (ILP), a travel permit (conceived in colonial times) that all ‘outsiders’, i.e., residents of other states in the country, would need to enter Meghalaya. (The demands for the ILP are ongoing.) The agitation was led by ten pressure groups, including political parties and the powerful Khasi Students’ Union (KSU). Arunachal, Mizoram and Nagaland already have the ILP and various organizations in Manipur have been demanding it as well. The basis of these demands is the “menace of illegal influx”, according to Mukul Sangma, the chief minister of Meghalaya, whose opposition to the ILP galvanized pro-ILP groups and precipitated the recent agitation.

The agitation turned violent early on. In September, two clothes shops belonging to a family called Chokhani in Police Bazaar, in the heart of the city, were set ablaze. The owners of the shops lived one floor above; one man was beaten with a sharp weapon and a woman died from suffocation. In October, a man called Vikash Nandwal, the owner of a machineries store, was set ablaze. He was sitting at the counter of his shop when some miscreants entered, poured petrol over him and set him alight. He died of burn injuries in hospital a few weeks later. In November, tea-stall owner Bisheshwar Das was set on fire inside his store. Police made arrests relating to each of the cases but several demands were made for the release of those detained. Various cases of arson and torching of vehicles were reported during these months. Paramilitary patrol parties were attacked with bombs. At the crux of the violence was the question of the ‘outsider’.

In an interview with the Shillong Times, to a question about the unwillingness of the government to “curb [the] influx [of outsiders]”, Chief Minister Sangma responded:

“First of all there is no major influx of outsider Indians or foreigners into Meghalaya unlike in some other states of the region. In fact, even Indians from other parts of the country cannot come and settle in Meghalaya because of the existing Land Transfer Act which prohibits transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals. Non-tribals, and that too mostly indigenous ones, can purchase land only in very limited pockets in Shillong. Now my Government is also introducing the Tenancy Bill which will make even taking a house on rent by (undesirable) outsiders very strict.”

This is, in fact, true. The population of ‘non-tribals’ in Meghalaya has declined from 20% in 1971 to 13% in 2011. This institutionalized policy of exclusion, in ownership and tenancy, will only ensure further decline. Now not only are ‘outsiders’ prohibited from purchasing land or property, they are not even welcome to live in the city. Moreover, the term “undesirable outsiders” evinces a kind of pathological hatred. It falls squarely within the discursive domain of another term used in common parlance, “illegal influx”, which deems the movement of Indian citizens to this region even illegal. Few have questioned the legitimacy or desirability of this kind of institutionalized discrimination. Many in the mainland have missed its import. As a minister-member of the so-called ‘High Level Committee on Influx’ spelt out, it is only through the regulation of tenancy and ownership that the “problem of influx” can be solved.

However, this “problem” is not without its economic benefits. According to the Shillong Times, locals allotted stalls at places such as MUDA shopping complex for Rs 1,200 per month lease it out to “non-indigenous” people for Rs 12,000 or more.

These political developments have affected people’s lives in various ways. Someone who has friends or family living in Shillong would undoubtedly hear of the many ways in which ‘outsiders’ are targeted. I have heard from one professional in Shillong who described to me her sudden isolation at her place of work. Her parents were born in Delhi but lived all their lives in Shillong. She’s lived all her life in Shillong and has her work and family there. As the leader of her team at work, she has always enjoyed a warm and close relationship with her coworkers. But now, since the beginning of the agitation, she has experienced a great deal of hostility and antagonism and has overheard barely-concealed demands for the replacement of all senior-level ‘outsider’ employees by ‘locals’.

While we discuss the racism and violence that students from the northeast face in Delhi, let us not neglect to discuss the discrimination and violence that ‘outsiders’ face in the northeast. Not analyzing one end of this continuum of exclusionary politics only weakens what is clearly a contentious debate. Some would argue the opposite; that juxtaposing the two obfuscates the debate; that we ought to focus now on one form of racism and deal with the other separately. I do not agree. If we are indeed talking about questions of nationhood and belonging, let us deal with all its myriad elements exhaustively. Let us not pretend that some forms of discrimination and violence are somehow more ‘legitimate’ or ‘justified’, or that they may be dealt with at some indeterminate point in the future. Indeed, let us not ignore these phenomena just because they occur in, and concern, a ‘remote corner’ of the country. Some of the vitriolic invective underpinning these discourses of exclusion in the northeast has gone completely unquestioned. We need to examine all sides of the question (in this case, of belonging and identity) and challenge discrimination and violence everywhere – in Delhi or in the northeast.

Arjun Rajkhowa is a PhD scholar in Media Studies and Politics at La Trobe University, Australia

15 thoughts on “Racism and the NE – Exclusion and prejudice: Arjun Rajkhowa”

  1. As outraged as I feel about the Nido issue, I think you have presented here a very well-balanced view of the problem regarding the NE states. Having first-hand experience of such a situation as you describe it – north-easterners’ prejudices against mainlanders, I think your point of view an extremely valid one. Compliments…



    Alas! Poor Nido Tania is no more. A youngster, who came from Arunachal Pradesh to fulfill his dreams for a better tomorrow, killed brutally by racist hands. A nation failed to protect her son, a state failed to respond to his desperate cries and ultimately police also failed to reach on time to stop those murderous hands.

    This happened in Secular Socialist Republic of India. Is our nation true to her logo? The answer is already given by the death of Nido Tania. This case is a case of racism in a very ugly manner. All the state organs remained totally mute because they were also had race in mind. The killers belong to a big fanatic vote bank. All the state organs remained silent, fearing to loose that vote bank.

    It was some students from Jawahar Lal University and University of Delhi who raised this racial murder which awakened the nation. Otherwise poor Nido Tania’s death would have gone unnoticed. Then reached scion of Gandhi dynasty and ruling Congress Vice President Shri Rahul Gandhi, Chief Minister of Delhi reached after five days of murder, all sleeping Neros and Toms.

    This is India which counts votes even in coffins. No shame. Nobody can shame a shameless. Although here all claim India is a secular republic and there would be no discrimination on the basis of one’s race, caste, religion, region, region and gender. All lies. What a big farce? Total hypocrisy! There is discrimination at every step. Race is a reality in this nation in one way or the other.

    This division is the true spirit of the constitution, justice system, system and secular democracy. Back to the home of departed Nido Tania, Arunachal Pradesh and other six states, better known as seven sisters, are also notorious in their racist hate for Hindi speaking people from other part of the country. Hindi speaking people, Biharis, Marwaris, Punjabis etc., bear the burnt of racism in northern states. But all the states organs so far miserably failed to rise to defend them and so far there is no law against racism.

    North Eastern states are not alone in practicing racial discrimination. In Jammu & Kashmir Hindus and Hindi speaking people are treated very badly and they are repressed in all walks of life. In Kashmir valley all the Hindu population has been wiped out. Large number of Hindus and Pundits has been living in refugee camps in Jammu, Delhi, Chandigarh etc., and places for decades as refugees in their own country and still there is no concern for them. Article 370, which gives special status to the state, is mainly responsible for encouraging racial and divisive forces in the state.

    In Tamilnadu too, Brahmans face all type of discrimination, abuse and insult. Due to high percentage of caste reservation (69%), Brahmans hardly get any government job and denied admissions in government colleges and institutions. In UP, Bihar, also Brahmans and other high castes people face all type of discrimination due to caste politics.

    In India secularism has become minority communalism and social justice becomes caste-ism by quota castes. Now one can see caste and communal institutions in every street and corner established and financed by governments. Even now budget is allocated on caste and communal basis. Scholarships, grants, contracts, agencies, permits etc., are allotted on caste and communal considerations. Same is the reality about admissions, employments, promotions, elections, etc., where caste and religion are the most important merit.

    Now some states are identified with a particular religion or caste groups. Practically Kashmir is an Islamic state, the Punjab is a Sikh state and Mizoram and Nagaland are become Christian states. Similarly U.P., Bihar, and Tamilnadu are become predominantly OBC states. Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are become ST states. In these states one religion or one caste groups are recognized as state religion or caste.

    On the same patter there are caste and communal political parties. Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samajwadi Party, Janta Dal United, DMK, AIADMK, NCP, NC, PDP, Akali Dal, Muslim League, etc., etc., almost all the political parties’ nurture and support one or more religion or caste groups. But irony of this is all swear by secularism and equality.

    Caste and communalism are realities in this country. Now the situation is so grim that no body has the courage to speak against caste and communal racism. One can see schools, colleges, universities, hostels, commissions, constituencies, states, ministries, departments etc., which have been established to look into the caste and communal interests. Now these privileged caste and religious groups repress and harass non privileged groups.

    So some how, the death of Nido Tania has shattered the peace of the nation. But there is every possibility that people will soon forget this death as they have the tendency to forget every thing very quickly. UP alone has witnessed more than 100 communal riots but all have forgotten them. Jammu & Kashmir has seen the elimination of entire Hindu population. But all have forgotten it. Similarly nation has also forgotten the three decades of terror in Punjab. No body pays any attention to the racial violence in North Eastern states where intruders from Bangladesh are welcomed but our own countrymen are repressed.

    If nation wants to give true tribute to Nido Tania and wish to stop such type of racial deaths, first she must do away with all the caste and communal based laws and provisions. Similarly a tough anti racism law must be enacted to stop any type of caste, communal, race, region and language based discrimination. Otherwise only name will be changed and some other unfortunate Nido Tania will meet the departed Nido Tanis in heaven and racist hands will keep on playing their game of death.


  3. Those who criticise the people of North East for resentment against ‘Indians’ or ‘outsiders’, let me pose a question to them: If China speeds up the migration of mainland Chinese into Tibet (it is already doing so slowly) and the people of Tibet have the fear of being massively outnumbered in their homeland with all the consequences for their cultural, linguistic, religious and national identity, and start protesting against ‘Chinese’ and ‘outsiders’, whose side would you be? With the people of Tibet or with the Chinese/’outsiders’ and the Chinese state.


  4. My question too is similar to one asked above – I am wondering if the author is not confusing examples of provincialism/protectionism – a blanket opposition to all “outsiders” – with a more specific racism? Is it similar to Shiv Sena’s opposition of all sharmas-and-vermas in mumbai, which was more of an economic and territorial opposition than necessarily a discrimination based on appearance, language and perceived cultural differences…


  5. There is just one thing I would like to add as an alternate view to the “racial discrimination” issue present at large in our country. In my Sociology class, we came to discuss something very general, yet interesting. The entire issue has been discussed and portrayed as racial discrimination, but technically, it is an issue of ethnicity. Also, I have taken into account that Racism as a term has a wider understanding among people, and so the media constantly calls it racial discrimination. But it is funny, how I have rarely come across articles which even mention the word “Ethnicity:. We say NE states have ethnic clashes within them, but this is too an issue of ethnicity and not racism. The believe on the parts of the people in terms of “outsiders” and “insiders” do have implications that are similar in both the terms. i.e. racism and ethnicity. But I also believe that we must look into this terminology, in depth.


    1. It’s very simple Das, let it be ethnicity or racism, call whatever you want. Take any one of your NE friends (hope you have one) to a place anywhere other than NE, and ask the people what they think of this person. First thing that comes in their mind is Chinky, imagine what this friend of yours would have in mind!!!


  6. Also, I’d like to add, that when people say “chinese” or “chinki”, it appears as treating the other as belonging to a different Race. But here, I think, even the people engaging in such discrimination does not have a clear idea of the meaning of Race and ethnicity. And if we club everything under the banner or “Racism” and forget “ethnicity”, then we are re-enforcing the idea of the existence of a different race that north-easterns belong too, which is not entirely true.
    Also, their has been a lot of debate on the classification of races in India.


  7. I shall begin by stating that racism and ethnic discrimination are abhorrent and nothing can ever be said to justify such acts. However, India is a country that is very different from almost all other countries; in every part of India, there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. And as long as differences exist, discrimination will persist. We cannot wish it away, however much we’d like to.
    Lately, there has been a lot of focus on discrimination faced by the people of the northeast in the so-called mainland. And while I agree that racism exists there and it should be dealt with strictly, I wish to bring to the notice of all concerned the rampant racism and ethnic intolerance that exists in the northeast. I’ll give a few examples.

    1979: Qualapatty is a locality in Shillong which was predominantly peopled by the Bihari community who kept cows and were in the dairy trade. That year, the riots went out of hand and over fifty people were drowned in boiling vats of ghee. Their fault: they were ‘foreigners’, ‘dkhar’ in Khasi land. Needless to say, there was mass migration after that.

    1988: Gauri Dey was pregnant with her second child when she was dragged out of her home and tied to a tree. The onlookers included members of the Dorbar, the local panchayat, and her neighbours. She was stripped, raped and impaled through the vagina with a bamboo as her little son looked on. Her crime was that she was a Bengali in a Khasi neighbourhood. The crime took place in Malki, just a stone’s throw away from my house. Till date, not a single person has been arrested, let alone convicted.

    That same year, in Pynthorumkhrah, near Polo, Shillong, a non-tribal family of nine was locked in their house and the house was set on fire. Not a single person survived; all of them were roasted to death.

    Just last year, several crimes under the label of ‘arson’ took place, whereby fuel was poured on people and they were set alight as crowds looked on.

    While I’ll never say that racist crimes committed by one set of people justify those committed against them, it is necessary to see the complete picture if any conclusive discussion is to take place in this context.

    How many of us who lived in Shillong in 1990s can say that we have forgotten the slogan, “Khasi by birth, Indian by accident”?


  8. Does the writer realise that the north east region is an indigenous region that India – not unlike a colonial power – annexed using brutal power and is bent on transforming it into a settler colonial border (the Tibet example pointed out by Pritam Singh above is very apt)? Does the writer also realise that his argument is not very different from a right wing Hindu troll who always bring up the Kashmiri Pundit exodus or terrorism to pathologise the anger of Kashmiris, and exonerate the Indian state and mainlanders from the systemic abuse of Kashmir?

    I am really tired of these ‘reverse racism’ charges from mainlanders (and mainland sympathisers) who demand perfection from tribal victims, pathologise our anger but never question their mainland privilege and cultural imperialism and let the racist colonial Indian state off the hook by saying things like, “I am not going to discuss the various (ongoing) movements for autonomy that mark the history and politics of the northeast. Instead, I am going to focus on a specific contemporary agitation that brings to light many of the issues that, I believe, are pertinent to our understanding of racism and race-based differentiation within the “rubric of Indian nationhood”.”

    Your ‘specific contemporary agitation’ doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from tribal extremism that rose (and will keep rising) against India’s systemic annihilation of the rights of the tribals in NE (AFSPA anyone? Tripura anyone? Air bombing of Mizoram by Indian Air Force, anyone?). NE is not an equal part of this country. So it will be good for mainlanders to think very carefully and introspect before their waving equal citizenship card in NE without calling out their own and their central government’s complicity in making the region a hellhole of internecine warfares.

    Using only the Meghalaya example to bolster your right wing argument is disingenuous. The same insurgents who bombed Bihari labourers in the middle of Imphal have killed (and will keep killing) n number of tribals and natives of Manipur. The same tribal extremists who kill mainlanders do not spare the natives either.

    In Manipur, Nagaland, wherever AFSPA rules in the NE, every tribal/native is a potential militant in the eyes of the Indian Army and the Indian state machinery. The non-tribal mainlander is not seen as one. So you see, even in their own land, the NE tribals are not free from racist profiling and they get regularly killed for how they look or behave by none other than the Indian state (please refer to the list of 1528 extrajudicial killings submitted to the Supreme Court by AAVFAM and Human Rights Alert.)

    An internal discourse already exists in NE that is examining and condemning the brutal murders of mainlanders by the extremists. How come you are ignoring that discourse? Mainstream media has never been known for focusing on NE issues – tribal or non-tribal.

    You are showing a peculiar cruelty by holding innocent, marginalised, dispossessed tribals responsible for acts committed by tribal extremists and using it to justify your ‘reverse racism’ charges. That is a mainland supremacist attitude, whether you are a mainlander or not.


  9. We should not discount what is being argued in this blog. This is quite relevant and true in every part of the world. Be it the fear that Seema Andhra people have in the aftermath of creation of Telengana, be it the fear of Kurds in the Iraq or be it, be it Jews in Europe during Hitler’s reign, the Kashmiri pandits in Kashmir, this is a relevant question and will remain always. This is tragic but then this happens. Always. Everywhere.

    However, I want to deviate to another point. If we are talking and discussing it from the point of Delhi, then we should be cautious before making a general statement. In my recent write up in Tehelka on this issue, I wrote about a city that has been a melting pot, from the days of yore. Be it the Mughals, the English, or people after partition, it has accommodated. Today, Delhi is one of the most prosperous city in India and it has no resource save one: human resource. This is the result of the entire country conspiring to build this island of power, opulence and honour. So, no one can claim it is theirs and not others. Delhi is the capital of India, the focal point of Indian democracy and hence, everyone deserves his spot under her sky. Let’s not argue on this point. She has prospered only because citizens of India, irrespective of their geography, linguistic identity or religious faith, have invested in her. Let’s not deviate from that point.


  10. Meghalaya is a peculiar case. They have never made strong secessionist demands, but have bargained on its basis and have benefitted immensely from the central government. Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram were different: they have had strong anti-India sentiments due to assimilationist tendencies, colonial policies of the Indian state e.g., exploitation of oil, gas and coal in Assam without any benefits to the state, immigration, and a denial of their historic independence as nations. So there is merit in Pritam Singh’s view that we should view anti-Indian sentiments in some parts of the north-east sympathetically as arising from demands of self rule and assertion of other national identities. But the issue of racism deserves some independent treatment. Though there is no sense of mainland Indians being inferior in some way or prejudice arising from such a sense, north-Indian racism towards NE people is based on a sense of superiority: they are junglee, roam naked, eat kutta,suar and gai, are promiscuous and so forth. This amounts to judging habits as vices and even virtues like sexual freedom to be inferior (perhaps out of envy). Simultaneously, the hatred on the basis of race in places especially like Shillong surpasses the discrimination meted out to NE people in mainland India by any measure. It has been cruel, brutal, ethnic cleansing of sorts. It is mostly opportunist, and betrays a shocking capacity for violence and cruelty witnessed in caste and communal killings in other parts of India. It is a form of racism that is unique in India, but seen in other parts of the world, where the archaic idea of only your own tribe being humans is happily mated with political opportunism for rent-seeking and economic benefits from the central government. It is hypocrisy at its best and is quickly spreading to other tribal elites. Not only to other mainland Indians suffer, but also other communities in the north-east, and I suppose the central government is happy with the in-fighting taking place by throwing the crumbs. Any sense of dignity should stop the leaders of these so-called tribes from sucking up to the center and brutalising their own neighbours.


  11. The ‘problem’ of the North-East is not one that is going to be wished away that soon. Its genesis in fact, may be in the years when one Morarji Desai was minister for home affairs.

    It may help if people took out a few books by a Delhi-based Assamese journalist, the late Nirmal Nibedon, which gives one some idea of the roots of the problem.

    The books, now out of print I believe, but once published by Lancer Books, are ‘Nagaland – The Night of the Guerillas’; ‘Mizoram – The Dagger Brigade’; and ‘North East India – The Ethnic Explosion’.

    When we understand the troubled history of this region, we may just change the way we look at it.


  12. Arjun Rajkhowa HAS RIGHTLY POINTED OUT THE ISSUES OF Meghalaya, My grandfather was a soldier and veteran of 60 china war and father was in Army and was involved in first Hill-borne operation of India in Syllet , he was from 5GR, but its strange to hear that when i was in college in 1987 just after father’s retirement , we had to leave Shillong , coz of massive riot against gorkhali people in Meghalaya and shillong, till now i cud not understand what wrong did Gorkha people did till now i cud not understand why my fore fathers were lying blood for a nation which calls them foreigners and make them face riots.


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