In the current Delhi whirlwind, between racism and xenophobia falls the shadow

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Developments in the last one week have been dramatic. At one point things verged on the tragicomic. This one pertained to a spurious video of an outlandish statement made by chief minister Okram Ibobi, ostensibly in New Delhi, uploaded on the internet by some people, and fed to various media accessible to them, including the popular news and video portal timesfeed.com, though the latter removed the video soon after, probably realizing its quite obviously dubious nature. In the video, the chief minister, in his hardly intelligible English, is quoted saying something which sounded like he thinks the current spate of attacks on people from Northeast in Delhi was nothing serious, and ones which could happen even within the family. Needless to say the video went viral on the social media, in particular facebook.

It was a no holds bar slugfest thereafter, with every Hongba, Chaoba, Tomal trying to prove he or she is the fastest gun around, littering the internet with salvos of belaboured cryptic remarks and pyrrhic clichés expressing their condemnations. Even the local media in Manipur joined in the rush to be seen as boldly politically correct, slamming the chief minister on the issue. None however thought it either prudent or in the interest of justice to try and check out the background of the video in question.

Thrown out of the window with dismissive condescension was the unwritten rule of modern jurisprudence of holding somebody innocent till proven guilty, a notion many  of these internet fast guns have cited at the drop of a hat in editorializing the notoriety of draconian laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA. The generosity of the idea of a single innocent person saved of wrong indictment, being worth two guilty escaping in his shadow did not seem to apply here. Again, shamefully for those in the journalistic profession, the other unwritten dictum of news editing and reporting carrying the same generous spirit of jurisprudence, ‘when in doubt cut it out’, was also thrown into the winds. And how wouldn’t there have been a doubt? Even if the chief minister did believed the atrocious racial rapes and murders in Delhi were not serious, he couldn’t have been so stupid as to want to publicly announce it on TV.

The video interview, as it later turned out was taken by the news agency, ANI. Imphal Free Press fortunately is a subscriber of this news agency. In the transcript of the interview which is much longer than the statement aired, Ibobi is seen answering in short staccato sentences in hardly intelligible English, but in its entirety, the interview did not at all indicate he said these attacks on Northeast people in Delhi was not serious. One single line was taken out of these sentences and used in the video twisting the meaning of what he said monstrously.

IFP readers will testify, I have personally been, and the IFP has been, one of the toughest critics of the Ibobi government, in fact all governments, not because we hate the establishment per se, but in the belief that in a political environment such as in Manipur, where democratic power is often subverted to resemble a feudal plutocracy, the best democratic contribution the media can make is by taking up an adversarial role to the power that be. I am therefore no fan of the chief minister but to give the devil his due, it must be said he was mischievously, and I would add, maliciously, quoted out of context.

I will comment on two more issues thrown up by this sorry episode. The one more grave I will do after I have touched on the lesser thought – that of Ibobi’s atrocious English. Why cannot the chief minister use a translator when being interviewed in English? It is useful and convenient to be well versed in English, a language which at least half the world speaks or at least understands, and in which most of the written treasures of all of human civilisations are available, but there is absolutely no shame in not speaking it well either. It is only the pathetic sense of colonial modernity of colonized minds which make them despise their own languages and regard the language of their former colonizers as the only symbol of dignity and self respect. There should be no hesitation in answering public interviews in English, or Hindi for that matter, in one’s mother tongue, in Ibobi’s case Manipuri, or another language he is comfortable with. This, not so much to avoid embarrassing situations as the recent one, but it would make him much more articulate in conveying his mind to the interviewers and then on the viewing public. As it is, Manipur is a recognized major Indian language listed in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. Its rich literature, as is well known today, has documentary evidences of being at least as old as the reign of King Kiyamba (1467-1508).

My apologies for taking on the most important issue last, as I do now. This is about the ongoing debate on racism against the Northeast in continental India. There have been many voices raised, thanks to the world wide web, they spread fast and easy, and would have reached all who take an interest. There have been articles with academic density, journalistic surveys, mere cacophonous noises, and in equal measures, prose that border on lyricism. For evidence of the latter, read Golan NAulak’s account of the February 15 lathi charge on NE students protestors in Delhi in the wake of the daylight murder by a mob of a student from Arunachal Pradesh, Nido Tania.

While most of these voices are unanimous in condemning as well as acknowledging the existence of racialism against people from the Northeast in most of the rest of India, some have tried to equate this with what they call is counter racism in Northeast against plainsmen Indian from mainland India, as if one can cancel out the other.

Both are bad no doubt, but as I see it, they are not the same at all. I will try and explain myself, and as is my wont, by resorting to metaphors, this time from elementary arithmetic. Two multiplied by two is four just as eight minus four is also four. The answers are the same but the mathematical functions by with the same answers are arrived at are worlds apart. Because this is so, even a slight alteration in any of the numerical factors in the two equations can make their answers exponentially different. So it is with the two social issues under discussion. If what NE people experience in continental India is racism, what plainsmen Indians experience in Northeast is xenophobia. The line dividing the two is thin, but let me try and make the distinction. I however concede the two can overlap.

Racism is about contemptuously despising the differentiated ‘other’. The attitude is “I don’t like your face puny creature. Your presence spoils the landscape here”. Xenophobia is about fearing the ‘other’. The attitude is “your stronger economy and culture, your numerical superiority can politically marginalise me and culturally obliterate my identity.” Racism is about the stronger looking down on the weaker. Xenophobia is about the weaker fearing colonisation by the stronger. This being what it is, unlike racism which is an attitudinal problem born out of an arrogant disregard of the worth of the ‘other’, xenophobia is a manifestation of a deeply embedded existential crisis.

To underscore the point, and to reintroduce the caveat I raised earlier, the two are indeed social aberrations, needing remedial measures, but being radically different in their nature and spirit, they cannot by any stretch of imagination have the same remedy. The challenge before Indian democracy today is first of all to be able to see this distinction between the two and then to prescribe appropriate and proportionate measures for both. As I see it, racialism wherever it exist has to be dealt with laws that firmly prohibits it unconditionally, and xenophobia wherever this is identified as having a legitimate basis, has to be addressed with laws designed to assuage these apprehensions.

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