Northeast India (officially North Eastern Region, NER) is the easternmost region of India representing both a geographic and political-administrative division of the country. It comprises eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura.
And now, the pandemic has unleashed a slew of racially motivated attacks on the people of Northeast India. Innocent people have been subjected to awful physical and mental abuse, being cornered and viciously targeted.
From being accused of spreading the virus to being spat on and thrown out of their own homes, the list is endless.
Inspite of being well-informed about the widespread misinformation and misconstructed ideas about the NE and its people that existed in the mainland, these dreadful incidents make me ponder over the myriad of questions that are thrown at the Northeasterners daily even when the virus didn't exist.
Here are the common questions every Northeasterner is prodded with, much to our dismay -
1. Are you Chinese?
This inquiry tops the list and rightly so. Most tribes from the NE belong to the Mongoloid stock and are indigenous to the region. We have our own distinct culture and language, a similar phenotype doesn't make us Chinese by default. Its high time people stopped assuming someone's nationality based on their looks.
2. How did you get here? (Any city in the mainland)
Fortunately, modernization has dawned on us and though not as well connected as the megacities of other parts, we do have rail and air transport facilities. A friend was curious to know if I trekked my way to Hyderabad (where I currently reside) which was a blatant assumption and overestimation of my human capabilities. Another asked if we traveled via boats everywhere. The terrain of the Northeast consists of mountains and plains, boats wouldn't be a viable all-purpose mode of travel.
3. Oh, you are from Assam (or any other NE state). It is in Nepal, right?
Our nation's geography curriculum must be at fault for teaching children a distorted map of their own country. It is appalling how we can recite the names of the capitals of all the states and their geographic location but our citizens are oblivious about the presence of an entire region.
4. Do you guys eat everything? How can you eat dogs, insects, etc?
The cuisines and taste palates of each culture are unique and different. No food item is disgusting or revolting unless compared to another culture's opposing idea of what is palatable. Isn't eating a dog the same as eating a chicken? Aren't both animals at the end of the day?
Insects are a rich source of protein.
5. Why can't you speak Hindi? Are you not an Indian?
India is home to numerous ethnicities, which speak a multitude of languages, one of them in Hindi. Our Indian-ness cannot be measured by our ability or lack thereof for speaking chaste Hindi. Learning a language shouldn't be an imposition, much less a prerequisite for our nationality.
6. Why do you have such extravagant hairstyles? Why do you wear such clothes?
Clothing and hairstyle are personal choices, not to be mistaken as opportunities to make jibes or hurl derogatory comments. People from NE are often mocked for their unconventional style which is different from the sensibilities of the mainland. Women are often labeled "sleazy" or "cheap" because they wear short outfits. Only misogynistic and deranged people cam harbor the idea that clothes define a person's character. The death of Nido Tania after a violent altercation due to the mocking of his blonde hair is a heartwrenching tale of how such encounters can have fatal consequences.
7. Is it safe to travel to the Northeast? Isn't it a "disturbed" area?
Our region has fought endless battles for self-determination and justice. Insurgency and counterinsurgency operations have left both sides distraught. However, in the close comparison, it is much safer to travel here than most parts of the country, especially for women.
8. Do you guys still live in jungles?
A common racist term that is routinely used to belittle people from the NE is "junglees" (uncultured). We are labeled as wild savages who are unruly and dangerous. Our ancient culture teaches us to live in harmony with nature, to offer respect and gratitude to its bounty. Living in a jungle doesn't rob us of our human qualities of kindness and compassion.
9. "Tum log toh kisi ke bhi saath sex kar lete ho na?" ("You guys can have sex with anybody, right?")
In a society where sex is taboo before marriage, the relatively sexually liberal youth of the NE is quite an eyesore for some people. Women from NE are branded as "sluts" or "sleazy" for having an active sexual life. Many men fetishize and objectify NE women, reducing them to mere objects of sexual pleasure.
10. Do you know how many NE friends I have?
This rhetoric is often used to exude a false show of diversity and acceptance in one's friend circle. The headcount of one's friends from the NE doesn't absolve them of deep-held racial prejudices and misconceptions. If they consider their NE friends as equal counterparts are the question that remains to be asked.
Being read and experienced this first-hand, we already know that racism is a 'lived' reality of our nation. And we cannot go forward without addressing our own deeply held prejudices and discriminatory ideals. The onus is on us to unlearn derogatory notions and be better human beings.
Share with us your own experiences of racial encounters in the comments section below.