COVID-19 pandemic fuels racism against India’s northeasterners


Indians from the northeastern part of the country – a vast region that borders China – have been targets of racial discrimination and abuse because of their East-Asian features, since the beginning of the new coronavirus pandemic.

Many have been spat at, called “coronavirus” and told to go back to China.

Northeast Indians have faced hate crimes, discrimination and racial slurs like “Chinky” and “chow mein” in other parts of the country for decades, but such abuse has become far more common during the pandemic.

Bordered by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, the Northeast region is a cluster of eight states connected to the rest of the country by a narrow strip of land, and is home to numerous ethnic groups.

Many people, especially the young, leave the remote area and head to the big cities of New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru in search of better jobs and education.

But they face many challenges adapting to new languages and different cultures and endure frequent racial discrimination. Harassment from landlords and employers and attacks in the street are common, campaigners say.

As Indian celebrities and politicians voice support for the global Black Lives Matter movement, northeast Indians say they should seek to tackle racism at home first.

“When people are suffering here, you don’t even raise your voice? It’s only when it’s an American issue that you speak out?” said Alana Golmei, a lawyer and activist who runs the Delhi-based Northeast Support Centre and Helpline.

Golmei, who herself was called “coronavirus” in the street earlier this year, said calls to the helpline had more than doubled to about 200 a day since late January, around the time that India’s first coronavirus infections were reported.

But she said that was likely the “the tip of the iceberg” because most victims of racial harassment or abuse choose not to go to the police, who routinely refuse to register or follow up on such complaints.

Under Indian law, the use of derogatory racist terms is punishable by up to five years imprisonment, but punishment is rare.

Women from Northeast India face a double discrimination, Golmei said. Neighbours and landlords often harass them for coming back late at night, assuming they are sex workers.

Still, the situation has improved in recent years due to increased awareness.

The murder of 20-year-old Nido Taniam, who was from the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, at a New Delhi market in 2014 sparked protests and soul-searching in India, leading to anti-racism campaigns and police-training programmes.

It also spurred the creation of a panel to look into the concerns of northeast Indians, which made a series of recommendations on police reform, fast-track court procedures and greater representation of northeasterners in state roles.

Six years on, however, Golmei – who was part of the panel – said the home ministry had implemented few of the recommendations.

The ministry’s Northeast division did not reply to requests for comment. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)