A Preface To Racial Discourse In India: North-East And Mainland

Racial ideology in Indian society, though not recognized by the government or academic circles, is experienced on a daily basis by people from the north-east in mainland India. With the deaths of Richard Loitam in Bangalore and Dana Sangma in Gurgaon in April 2012, the accumulation of experiences and the availability of strong informal communication channels catalyzed protests for justice and against racism. These articulations need to be strengthened, deepened and sustained through scholarly attention. At the same time, the north-east needs to examine mainland cultures through its own lens, to create fundamental transformations in the relationship between the two.

After the mysterious and controversial deaths of Richard Loitam in Bangalore and Dana Sangma in Gurgaon in April 2012, a debate on racism opened up on primetime news channels, social media and traditional news platforms. It gained traction and intensity in May. The debate was a denunciation of racism faced by the north-east in mainland India. The north- east – rarely north-east Indians but often north-east persons or people – is now a popular handle used to describe the 39 million people, according to the 2001 Census, who belong to over 200 ethnic minority groups and originate, live or migrate from the eight states comprising the north-eastern part of India that ­borders China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Mainland India is the handle used by the north-east to refer to the dominant ­political, social and cultural landscape of India.

One outcome of this debate was that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) sent a letter to all the states and union territories, asking them to book offenders guilty of atrocities against people from the region under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) (SC/ST) Act since a significant number of persons from the north-east belong to the scheduled tribes (STs). ­According to a report in India Today, the letter stated (Sharma 2012):

A sizeable number of persons belonging to the North-Eastern states are residing in metropolitan cities and in major urban areas of the country for education and employment. It is reported that people originating from these North-Eastern states are facing discrimination as they are addressed with derogatory adjectives or face discrimination in the form of targeted attacks, assault, ­molestation and other atrocities.

The report goes on to note that ­(ibid):

According to a provision under Section 3 of the SC/ST Act, an offence will be committed if any member of the SC/ST category is ­‘deliberately insulted and humiliated in public view’.

The letter from the MHA was an offshoot of the feverish debate on racism. But the vocabulary of the Indian government carefully wielded the social categorization of the north-east as a group of STs and used the existent machinery of the SC/ST Act to address the “reported” “discrimination” faced by the north-east as one of the many communal pathologies that demoralize the cultural principles of the country. The language of the letter is blank on the terminology – racism – used in the debate. It is silent on the historical emergence of the debate. The mainstream Indian media made racism an explicit issue and picked up cudgels to fight racism against the north-east. However, it has not questioned the government’s categorical blankness on the point of racism, nor has it pondered the muteness of Indian academic ­researchers and scholars on this debate.

Race Thinking

How did this debate on racism emerge historically? Contemporary Indian poli­tical and social sciences have remained mute on the process of racialisation of the north-east. No extensive literature exists that explores and studies it. I will therefore try to answer this question from observations and reflections gained through personal experiences and a measured reading of contemporary texts on racism developed by western researchers.

Mainland India has, for years, exhi­bited one core characteristic of race thinking in its social interactions with the north-east. The mental and moral behavior of the north-east has been related to their physical structure (Barzun 1937). This biological distance-marker (which is now irrelevant in contemporary studies of racism) transformed ­itself into a social fact by the formation of strongly-held stereotypes of the north-east, especially its women, and the usage of racial slurs against them. The ­racial slur chinki is persistently used by mainland India to categorize the north-east (and any person with an east Asian physical structure). The majority of ­users defend the usage as handy in identifying who is what in this country. This usage is an ideological process to define an unclassified populace who have become the nation’s citizens but do not share, in the popular imagination of the country, its biology, historicity and cultural values.

Whatever the nature of its alleged utility, it is grossly wrong to believe chinki exists as a neutral term. It has resisted neutering because it is often and deliberately used as a hostile verbal act, in public, private, educational and professional spaces, to “otherwise”, offend, humiliate and taunt. Other than the north-east, the victims of such a corrosive act of naming and shaming include persons with an east Asian physical structure, residing in or visiting this country. However, if a person is from the north-east but does not have the east Asian physical structure that functions as the immediate distance-marker, it is highly unlikely that she would be subjected to racial naming and shaming.

The racism debate seemed a conflation of region and race but on further investigation, what is happening in India right now seems to reflect the racialisation of great sweeps of human variation (Downing and Husband 2005) that share a common geographic location and ethnic minority status. As a contemporary society, many forms of discrimination charge our social dynamics. Discrimination based on caste, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation, age and physical disability interact in the same environment and complicate our understanding of racism (Downing and Husband 2005). This dense complication disorients current public discourses on racism in India. In the absence of potent theories on the emergence and practice of racism in India, we do not have the specific political and social idioms to ­critique the country’s racist practices.

On 29 May 2012, Yengkhom Jilangamba published an op-ed in The Hindu, “Let’s Stop Pretending There’s No Racism in ­India”. As timely and well-intentioned as it was, a fundamental failure of the article was the assumption that the Indian population as well as Indian social science comprehends the phenomenon of racism. The stories of racial discrimination in the article, institutional as well as social and ideological, do not yet have an ­accompanying racial discourse in India. Like in any other society where the study of racism is backward, racism in India is misapplied to cultural rejection and looked upon as an individual pathology which must be expected in some proportions in all societies (Downing and Husband 2005). The country also has a general skepticism of the term racism because of its western historicity. The majority of society believes the terminology has no relevance in India. The article ­denunciates the evil, but does not really analyze it (Wieviorka 1995).

In a response to Yengkhom’s op-ed, Ashley Tellis (2012) made a telling ­remark in his piece:

Mr. Yengkhom’s article unfortunately reasserts an Us and Them equation when dealing with racism. The fact is that Northeasterners from all eight States are racist themselves. […] The point is simply this: we cannot ­afford to only point the racist finger at others. Several fingers are pointing back at us.

This assertion that “everyone, including the victims of racism, is capable of racism” underpins how racial discourse in any nation state is a complicated, provocative process. A postmodern analysis of racism in India, hinted by Tellis in this quote, stresses the complexities and paradoxes we must always remain alert to in our arguments and explorations of race thinking in India. However, we must also be acutely aware of the danger of demonizing the victims and reducing the discourse to an idiotic binary crisis of victim/aggressor. Many of my friends (north-east as well as mainland) dismiss the debate on racism using this ­binary crisis as their shtick.

The Price of Assimilation

When a person from the north-east (or a person with an east Asian physical structure) is named, shamed and abused as a chinki in India, protests against such racist practice get counter-attacked in public as well as private discourses by the majority cultural communities of ­India. They posit that the labeling of various communities is a communal patho­logy that a diverse society like India has to live with. A familiar line of argument one hears is this: Chinki is an endearing nickname in north India. South Indians are called madrasi by north ­Indians. What’s the big deal with calling you chinki?

First, chinki as an endearing nickname might just be an Indian anomaly. Second, madrasi is a term for cultural rejection used by one dominant cultural player against an equal opponent; it is cultural politics, not racial ideology, and both are equally poisonous. Third, when you call me chinki and abuse me for ­being chinki, it is a racist gesture and practice that carries a historical baggage of hostility, subjugation and oppression; you are naming and shaming me from a position of power while I have no power to respond to you as your equal. The naming, shaming and abuse is not your human foible. It is a social ideology you have inherited from a social order that has never been challenged for its race thinking.

I left Imphal in 1998 to study in Delhi. I assimilated – I learnt to speak Hindi, cook north Indian food, and understand north Indian etiquette and custom so that my friends’ families would not be offended when I visited them. I was making things easier for people interacting with me. Assimilation was a one-way street at that time, and based on reports of current experiences, I do not think it has changed much. I assimilated into the Delhi norm. My investment into the Delhi identity was uncritical. I applied the ­homogenizing logics of Delhi to my speech, body language and clothes. I never challenged Delhi. Assimilation meant I adopted the political, social and cultural stories of Delhi so that I could have conversations with my friends and classmates. They never thought they sometimes needed to adapt my political, ­social and cultural stories to have a conversation with me. When comments appear about how some north-east people do not assimilate in Indian cities, and ­reinforce their difference by rejecting the majority culture, we have to remind ourselves of this: uncritical assimilation into the ­majority culture is too huge a price to pay for a marginalized person who comes from a minority ethnic community. It creates a schizophrenic existence where you annihilate memory to be accepted. The politics of difference argues for the essential compatibility of a common obligation to participate in civil ­society as equals, and a commitment to negotiating cultural coexistence (Downing and Husband 2005).

The entrenchment of such racial ideo­logy in our society, though not recognized by our government or academic circles, is experienced on a daily basis by the north-east in mainland India. When Richard Loitam died with a bloody head and Dana Sangma committed suicide ­after she was accused of cheating in her exam and allegedly humiliated by the invigilator, it was the accumulation of such experiences and the availability of strong informal communication channels that catalyzed protests for justice and against racism. In the past, collective experience had been shared as incoherent narratives. For the first time, a sustained articulation sprung forth after the violent deaths of two young students. The mainstream media participated and projected the articulation of racism in India. In the present context, the articulation is limited to personal stories of racism, limited examples of ­institutional racism and a modest call to include chapters on the north-east in the National Council of Educational ­Research and Training (NCERT) books. This articulation needs to be streng­thened, deepened and sustained by scholarly attention.

If we are serious about tackling the existent racial ideology in our society, our scholars need to go beyond sympathizing with the victims and overcome their resistance to mapping racism. We need to diligently create the tools necessary to understand Indian racial ideo­logy. We need to develop ideas and research to create specific political and social idioms to critique our society’s race thinking so that the media can do a more sophisticated job with debates on racism and project critical thinking about race in the country to its audience. Thorough sociological studies on racism are needed to effect a change in government’s policymaking vis-à-vis the social interactions of mainland India with the north-east.

If the muteness of academic circles on the racism debate is an indication that it is not a field worth studying, it would be necessary for scholars to ­explore and create a relevant framework to understand the expressed dissatis­faction of the north-east people in their social ­interactions with mainland India, and the otherisation they routinely face in private, public, educational or ­professional spaces.


Thinkers, artists, writers, activists, journalists, professionals and students from the north-east have to realign the representation of the region. We have to challenge the triad representation (that those from the north-east also often ­endorse) as “sportspeople, women and entertainers”. The North East Blog on IBNLive is perhaps the first of its kind in mainstream media; it presently acts as a platform to “develop an informed perspective on matters related to this part of India”. I appreciate the effort and the bloggers involved in this articulation. Over the next few months, it would be important to parse the quality, depth and diversity of the articulation.

As the dialogue occurs between contemporary voices from minority ethnic groups and the media, extra efforts should be made from both sides to transcend the majority guilt of the media and the valorizing of good ethnicity. ­Using this blog as a starting point, we should look into the possibility of building independent platforms to discuss, dissect and develop social interactions between the north-east and mainland India. A model we can examine is the now folded Sepia Mutiny.1

I am an admirer of the commitment, irreverence and doggedness that the blog demonstrated in battling and ­discussing the identity and place of the south Asian American diaspora in North ­America. Sepia Mutiny brought attention to the political economy of south Asian Americans in the United States, highlighted violence against south Asian Americans and broadened discussions beyond simple hate crimes, discussed south Asian literature, music and the arts with nuance and panache, and celebrated and critiqued the emergence of a south Asian American diaspora. Are we at a place where we can build an erudite, informed and self-aware platform like Sepia Mutiny to transform perceptions and enrich dialogues?

Yes, we create Facebook pages and groups to discuss our issues. We tweet and blog our thoughts. We go on the streets and protest; we write letters to our governments and register our dissatisfactions. We now go on TV debates. These activities are important in creating the necessary noise. But if we want to create fundamental transformations, our present articulations need nuance, comprehension and awareness of international racial studies, political depth and philosophical strength. As much as we fight against the abuse and homogenizing of our existence, we have to guard ourselves against valorizing our ethnicity, and examine the ever-present campaigning of our uniqueness. We need sophisticated arguments and astute thinking on our condition.

We are at a much better place than our parents’ generation to voice our ­issues. We can speak, write and argue in English. We have easy access to informal and independent social media platforms that can broadcast our stories. What gets knocked about in social media directly affects the course of social interactions now. Our storytelling need not be ­inward-looking all the time. Perhaps it is time for us to examine mainland cinema through our lens, review mainland literature through our sensibilities, discuss mainland arts through our aesthetic ­values, and critique mainland writings of our region through our perspectives and experiences. Perhaps it is time to turn the gaze around.


1 Sepia Mutiny (www.sepiamutiny.com) is a blog and a discussion forum that ran from 2004-12. It was initiated by a group of young Indian Americans to discuss and dissect issues they were facing as immigrants in North America. It expanded to include discussions on the cross-pollination of desi literature, music, arts and cinema. It also, very importantly, focused on the political emergence of south Asian Americans in American politics and actively criticized racist attacks and the racist attitude of prominent American political as well as media personalities towards south Asian Americans.


Barzun, J (1937): Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (London: Taylor and Francis).

Downing, D H J and C Husband (2005): Representing Race: Racisms, Ethnicity and Media (London: Sage Publications).

Jilangamba, Yengkhom (2012): “Let’s Stop Pretending There’s No Racism in India”, The Hindu, 29 May.

Sharma, Aman (2012): “North-East Racial Slur Could Get You Jailed for Five Years”, India ­Today, 3 June.

Tellis, Ashley (2012): “Racism Is in Your Face, Not under Your Skin”, The Hindu, 7 June.

Wieviorka, M (1995): The Arena of Racism (London: Sage Publications).


*The paper was originally published August 11, 2012

*The paper is written by Swar Thounaojam

*The author is a playwright and theatre director based in Bangalore and can be reached at swar@feweremergencies.in

*The author acknowledges the contribution of Dilip Chowdhury in interpreting the massive data contained in the schedules of the Singur Act.

(Courtesy: Economic and Political Weekly)


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