Racism, Our Dirty Secret

Prejudice based on one’s regional origins
 is deep-seated among Indians, including the police
-Indrajit Hazra

Article 14 of the Constitution deals with ‘Right to Equality’. It tells us with the straightest of faces that ‘The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.’ The very following sentence in the country’s operations manual is Article 15(1) that deals with ‘Fundamental Rights’. It says even more pithily, ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.’ 

    Last Friday, Delhi high court pulled up the police and the state government for lack of progress on the case of 19-year-old Nido Tania, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, who died in the city following a racist attack. 

    Now, you can take your pick from all the constitutional categories mentioned above to illustrate how the real world strays from the scripture when it comes to equality before the law or when reassuring that the state is absolutely against any kind of discriminatory behaviour on its part. But with Nido’s death, the result of injuries received after a racist attack, let us stick to the statutory discrimination on grounds of race. 

    Much has been made of how ‘mainland Indians’ look upon Indians from the northeastern region bearing Mongoloid features. In Jaipur last month, a schoolteacher told a woman from a publishing house how she first thought she was Japanese and was impressed with her fluent Hindi. The teacher had no intention to offend the lady from Delhi who is originally from Manipur. Indeed, her intention was to compliment her in a strange, roundabout way. And, even as i was shocked, no offence was taken by the Manipuri lady. 

    Discrimination has two components to it: one, recognising the distinction between, say, people bearing Mongoloid features and those bearing Caucasoid features, an ability that is as helpful as that of being able to differentiate between a mosque and a temple, or an Audi and a Skoda. And two, there’s discrimination where the ability to make a distinction leads to prejudice. 

    It is this second variety of discrimination that needs to be – and can be – weeded out. This is possible not by striking at the proverbial source of the problem – ‘by changing the social mindset’ – but by addressing the problem at the spot where prejudicial discrimination comes to be redressed: before the law. 

    Almost two years before Nido’s death, 19-year-old Loitam Richard from Manipur was found dead in his hostel room in Bangalore. The local police first employed Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code to describe death ‘under mysterious circumstances’ that didn’t rule out murder, accidental death or suicide. Later, the hostel supervisor filed a fresh complaint against two fellow students who reportedly beat up Richard the night before his body was found. The police then filed the case under Section 302 (murder) of the IPC. 

    The tardy gathering of evidence, compounded by the initial suspicion that ‘the northeast boy’ was a drug-user and his death was caused by an overdose, was standard operational procedure. Richard was found dead in April 2012. The case is yet to reach the courts. And since the incident didn’t take place in, say, Australia, the media barely noticed. In any case, there is no ‘consul general of Bangalore’ to haul up and grill in television studios. 

    The law and order machinery across India is dysfunctional. But added to this is selective dysfunction – along socio-economic, caste, religious, regional and racial lines. The police, irrespective of what the Constitution says about legal recourse for ‘everyone’, behave differently when the complainant is from a slum and when he is from a highrise. A similar selective response holds true when it comes to complainants from northeast bearing physical features considered by far too many Indians, law enforcers included, as ‘un-Indian’, which in turn are hitched to stereotypes such as drug use and promiscuity. 

    This is what happened when the brutal rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in 2004 in Manipur by some armymen led to a commission of inquiry whose report was never released and no perpetrators punished. This is what happened with investigations and subsequent (lack of) legal proceedings in the Loitam Richard case. This is what is happening with investigations in the Nido Tania case, where the Delhi high court has slammed the police for failing to even submit the victim’s autopsy report more than a week after his death. 

    As a nation, we are hardwired to see racial prejudice only where Indians are victims and where ‘white people’ are perpetrators. But racism against Indians by Indians thrives. And neither is it confined to the attitudinal behaviour of ‘mainland Indians’ towards ‘northeasterners’, the latter also capable of their very own brand of xenophobia. 

    For the ‘social mindset’ to change, the law must first treat, and be seen treating, crimes – including non-racist crimes – against northeast Indians seriously. It is how law enforcers deal with cases in which ethnic or racial minorities are victims and complainants that will determine whether India confines itself to benign discrimination. Until then, constitutional exceptions will continue to prove a shameful rule. 

 The writer is an author and journalist.

Source: Times Of India, Hyderabad 10/2/2014

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