Race and racism

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There can be no doubt that the ugly incident at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, on July 9, in which an immigration officer bullied and harangued a woman from Manipur travelling to Seoul, was racist in nature. It is graceful that the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has now personally apologised to the harassed woman and indicated the immigration officer concerned would be punished as per law. If the taunts had come from any plebeian on the street, it may have been better to allow the matter to pass as a boorish behavior that exist everywhere, including in the Northeast and indeed Manipur, as so many have been with glee citing in the present circumstance to soften the crime at the airport. However no matter what the excuse, this one will have to be different, for it came from an officer of the Government of India. Not only this, the woman traveler had also shown her passport, and yet the mock show of doubt of her Indianness did not subside. If he believed that the authenticity of the passport too was dubious, his job and responsibility was to scrutinise the passport and its records, and not proceed to do a silly and insulting Indianness test on the person he was targeting. He should have known better that being an Indian has nothing to do with knowledge of how many states constitute India, or how many other states Manipur borders with. Maybe what is needed is for the officer in question and others like him to be made to undergo a refresher course on the Indian Constitution and the chapter on what makes a subject an Indian citizen.

Having said this, it must be taken note that many in the discussions that followed the Delhi airport immigration case, presumed any misidentification of people from the Northeast as a possible East Asian, or South East Asian, is a racist insult. This cannot be further from the truth. It is understandable that people in other parts of India would sometimes mistake people of mongoloid stock from the Northeast as foreigners, and no offence ought to be taken at this, just as it would be difficult for people from the Northeast, or for that matter anywhere, to distinguish a north Indian from a Pakistani or a Bengali from a Bangladeshi. India being a vast country, its people belong to many different races. Race difference is a given, and cannot be altered, and indeed beautiful too. This difference on its own cannot and does not amount to racism. But this misidentification should promptly end the minute the reason for the difference in physiognomy is explained. Just the mention of Manipur should have done this, and ironically it was the immigration officer who betrayed his ignorant of India’s geography if this did not register in him. If the perception and prejudice persists in spite of this identification, there can be no other way to describe the behavior than as racism.

There are of course larger structural problems. The image of an Indian person projected by the mainstream Indian culture to the world has very little other than those of the Gangetic plains. The result is, any culture deviant from this standard is viewed with doubt, and on this scale of deviation, the Northeast is at the farthest pole, therefore the continuing alienation process. This has been there all along. The infamous, often quoted 1952 letter from Deputy Prime Minister, Sadar Vallabhbhai Patel to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, quite insightful anticipating trouble with the Chinese in the coming years, but also cautioning Nehru to be wary of the Mongoloid people beginning from Kalimpong eastwards saying their loyalty to the idea of India was suspect, defined this Indianness very loudly. It is unfortunate that Nehru’s contrary and more liberal beliefs were battered in 1962, although not for the reasons that Patel cited. The 1962 war had other political dynamics at play and they did not relate to race. Nonetheless, unfortunate though it may be, the mainstream definition of Indianness would have crystallised even harder after this. The truth also is, rather than this definition being softened, the current state of politics seems only to be reinforcing it even more. This is the mainstream that the Northeast is asked to join. But this depressing state of things may have an answer to its cure inherent in itself. Rather than ask those outside it to join, perhaps it is time for this mainstream to broaden so that those outside it can be part of it without having to give up their identities and traditions, beef eaters and pork eaters included.

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