The tragic incident of the death of NidoTaniam, a 19-year-old student from Arunachal has suddenly caught the imagination of mainstream media. The news actually came in on Thursday afternoon. Yet, it wasn’t until another 24 hours when the news media picked it up and started repeating that racism was the reason behind his death.
My first reaction to the story was to question why newsrooms across Delhi concluded it was a racist attack before any confirmation had come in of the reason behind his death? The details of the incident were sketchy and based on what one heard from eyewitnesses, the student was teased because of his hairstyle. A brawl followed and the police were called in. Nobody is clear about what happened after this and how Taniam died. His friends allege he was beaten up with rods and sticks. He reportedly also paid compensation for breaking a glass inside the shop where he had the altercation.
Prima facie the story looks like a street fight which turned ugly and caused grievous injury leading to death. Newsrooms which otherwise have scant interest in the northeastern states (they have little time and interest for most places other than Delhi) took it upon themselves to stand up against discriminating against people from the north east. That in itself is a misnomer. Northeast India has 8 states with multiple ethnic groups, many of whom are tribals, and a large non-tribal population. The primary distinction to be made is whether the victim was a tribal or a non-tribal. In this case, he was a tribal from Arunachal Pradesh and a son of a Congress MLA.
Discrimination is prevalent amongst every section of our society and it is not only against people from the Northeast. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena targets Biharis and earlier they campaigned against Tamils. Similarly, in almost every state there are incidents of anti-outsider campaigns. The most violent xenophobic attacks have been recorded in Northeast India where systematic ethnic cleansing has been practiced from Meghalaya to Arunachal Pradesh. In most of these incidents, people have been killed and maimed. Recently, two non-tribals who were permanent residents of Shillong were murdered with petrol bombs in Meghalaya – only because they “looked different”.
The violence was the result of a long campaign to implement an archaic inner line permit system which restricts outsiders from entering the state. In the Eighties and Nineties, Meghalaya witnessed years of killing “outsiders”. In Assam too, such movements have claimed lives and displaced thousands of families.In Manipur, Hindi-speaking people are routinely targeted and even killed. Militant organisations have used the anti-outsider plank to gain currency and have killed residents who have been there for generations.Nagaland isn’t known to welcome outsiders. In Mizoram, local groups call for bandhs meant only for non-tribals. Therefore, while this attack and death must be condemned, it may not be correct to stereotype it immediately without confirmed causes of death or the reason for the violence.
Racial discrimination is an ugly fact of our society. It is a form of abuse like any other abuse.It is more pronounced against some communities including tribals from the Northeast. For example, if a student from the Northeast wants to rent a house in Delhi, the usual preconditions are – “I hope you don’t cook smelly things” or “I hope you don’t have parties and drink” or “No boyfriends will be allowed”.
If a racial slur was the cause of this fight which resulted in the young boy dying, then the people involved should be booked and severely punished under the relevant sections. The bigger question though, is that given the location of the crime it is disturbing to know the reaction time of the police. Lajpat Nagar Police Station is a stone’s throw from the market where the incident took place. Police presence in that market is more than adequate. Given such policing how did this happen? Why did the policemen instead of registering a case make the boy pay around Rs 10,000 to the shop he allegedly damaged? Was the police complicit in it as well? I haven’t heard anybody ask these questions.
Given the fact that Delhi’s new chief minister and his cabinet colleagues are very sensitive to police inaction, it is extraordinary that in this case he hasn’t reacted. They are unlikely to lay siege on Lutyens’ Delhi demanding the removal of the policemen involved in this case. Is it only because the student doesn’t belong to a community which they go to while asking for votes? Whatever be the reason, media’s relentless racial attack peg could have been broken down into policing, government action or inaction and then discrimination – if the evidence supported the allegation. Jumping the gun and grabbing attention by claiming a sensational racism angle is another form of stereotyping. One which only perpetrates further hatred.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @kishalay