By Chitra Ahanthem
Having missed out on so many Sunday pages of Imphal Free Press, it sure is a relief to be able to write again: the blame lies entirely with the Electricity Department in between. Meanwhile, a lot has been happening in Manipur all this time – regular surrender ceremonies that armed groups say are staged and security forces tout as successful initiatives for peace; the hide and seek game of picking up children for recruiting as child soldiers take v/s children leaving homes on their own accord to join armed groups take despite the fact that those under 18 as not having gained adulthood cannot make decisions on their own and guardians have to step in to do the same; the regular MLA tours of their constituencies accompanied by photos in papers and nothing much happening afterwards et el. But the burning topic is a huge issue called “racial discrimination” that has popped up in the national media in a twist of irony.
The ‘ironic’ bit comes in because Manipur and other states in the North East region are often blanked out in national newspapers and TV channels: so if highways are blocked for months on end, some media folks (on the national level) may pontificate on their social networking avatars about it but not give much coverage or raise the issue; if fake encounters are happening left, right and center the statistics will end up as tickers on the TV screen and has 1 paragraph reports but not go further than that. At best, the national media has only looked at the region as ‘exotica’ and surface reporting, not bothering enough for analysis or understanding of the region, its issues and its people. So, there will be generalizations: “so, one person in every 100 in Manipur is HIV positive?” That was someone in a mainstream news outlet asking me and I merely wanted to laugh out loud at his ignorance. For him, it did not matter that 4 other states in India (Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland) have the same HIV/AIDS epidemiology trends. He was much too intent on making a story out of it without getting into the details. There are just too many generalizations about the region than I would care to write here.
It took two unfortunate deaths of two young people from the region in two metro cities to get the media panting with feverish zeal. The bit of where the deaths happened is critical to the story. If the deaths had happened in the region, the media attention would not have happened and neither would the buzz over ‘racial discrimination’ threaten to become a rousing bandwagon. The discussions on social networking sites are currently adrenaline fuelled with outbursts of being “racially discriminated”. Only a few voices call for internalizing the issue and ask whether the same persons are also not discriminating of other minorities within their own groups. Predictably enough, these voices are shut down with vitriol.
Everyone on the bandwagon has stories of being called names by other people, of being teased. The convenient amnesia is over the bit of these same people using names for other people different from them, over how over-zealous males strut with ‘how dare our women change their surnames when they marry outsiders’. With regard to how police are dragging their legs over the death of Richard Loitam, no one wants to talk about the real thing: that the legal and police system is greatly flawed and that it takes either power and position or public protests to make sure that even a complaint is registered regardless of the nature of the crime and who commits it. Richard Loitam belonged to a lesser power position as someone not from the state (Karnatake) but that does not mean ‘racial discrimination’ was the only root cause as it is made out to be. Many other people in the country and the NE region have died without getting justice while many others languish in jails because the legal and police system plays into the politics of power, pull and position. But it took the chest beating over ‘racial discrimination’ to get the media all excited. Then came the hangers on: political posturing (for brownie points) and certain people getting their moment(s) of fame on national media time and space. More power to them but has anyone thought about the core issue of whether the charge of ‘racial discrimination’ is true at all?
That infamous manual for people from the NE region released by the Delhi Police some years ago was a serious issue of discrimination. It asked people from the region to follow certain codes of dressing and what sort of food to eat (“non smelly”!!). But apart from this uncalled for guideline that was meant for everyone in the region, the rest cannot be called as discrimination upfront. Let’s go back to history and look at the Black’s Civil Rights Movement: when public transport systems had separate seating for Blacks and whites, when there were separate and segregated spaces for the Black people. That was racial discrimination: when everything boiled down to race and the rights of the Blacks were not considered at all. Do people from the NE region have a segregated space in public life? In getting their due when they have merit? The answer is a big no for people from the region have made it to the top in various professions and can sit in Competitive Examinations. Racial discrimination is a civil and political issue whereas the current outpourings over not being made to feel to belong are emotive ones. The sooner we realize this and the national media gets it, the better mind-frame we can get in to engage on the various layers that confront us today.
Unfortunately, the innate nature of minority voices being shut down has also meant that the juggernaut on ‘racial discrimination’ is drowning out saner voices though a few have stood out. Swar Thounaojam a young playwright and a theatre director based in Bangalore raises some core issues: “Why are the prime time news channels, all based in New Delhi, enthusiastically taking up the Fight Racism against the North East cudgel? Because it is the most lightweight of cudgels to pick up and you can use it to pontificate on national integration and the diversity of India. Another offshoot of this debate is the sporadic growth of a stereotyping of the Mongoloid population from the NE as a bunch of people with attitude and victim complex issues. The greatest problem with the current racism debate is conflating region with race. India doesn’t yet have a full-fledged articulation of the discrimination faced by its minority Mongoloid population. No contemporary Indian philosopher, intellectual or social scientist has contextualized the stratification of this particular population – from NE, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China etc – and we are all struggling from the lack of specific political and social idioms that would have helped us examine the state of the nation critically.”
As this piece ends, I can almost sense the amount of hate filled comments that will emerge from within my own community. But if we had no space for debates and discussions, aren’t we falling prey to the “either you are with us or against us” phenomenon that is the root cause of all forms of discrimination? Discrimination is not of race alone, it has also got to do with minority voices. I end with another sane opinion made by a young friend Devakishor Soraisham : “TV channels and prominent members of the `civil society` of Manipur, enough with the discussions about `racism discrimination of NE people by the rest of India` for now! Please! Let us not divert from the real problem here, that of justice denied to a student killed! And before we accuse others of being discriminating, let us look at ourselves first.”
Just a note again: Anyone remember the names of the 18 migrant labourers who got killed a few years ago? The diktat by an armed group asking ALL migrant labourers to leave the state, failing which they would be killed? Now, what was that? And what did we do?