Coronavirus is not the only monster that Northeast people are fighting with

Northeasterners are more vulnerable to Covid-19 as it shares international borders with China, Mayanmar and Bangladesh

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Racism would be the last topic of discussion at a time when humanity is staring at one of the worst survival challenges. But as India walks the tightrope during this crisis, a group of zealots, some of them apparently benign citizens, has made sure that the topic remains as pertinent as counting deaths.

Several incidents of racism against people from the North East, working or studying in various cities in the mainland, have been reported since the outbreak of the virus in the country. Northeastern students faced harassment and were called “corona virus” in Pune, Delhi and even Kolkata. Some were blamed for spreading the virus. This is because for an average Indian, any person with Mongoloid features has to be from China or Korea.

The ignominy suffered by the northeastern youths apart, the incidents are proof of the ignorance and prejudices of the mainland citizens.

The northeastern part of the country with critical international borders has always remained a lesser known territory. All we know about the people of the seven states, together known as the North East (NE) in mainland parlance, is that they are forest-dwelling head-hunters who eat anything that walks or crawls and that they are closer to China, India’s second bête noire after Pakistan, than Bharat. We also know them as big dopers.

First, the tendency of mainland India to cluster the states and the tribes of the region in one identifiable group is absolutely misleading and a blunder repeated for decades by policymakers. The pernicious effect of this practice is that the tribes in each of the seven states have lost their identities to become a bunch of ‘northeastern people’.

Second, the constant demonisation of China by our wily politicians has a diabolical impact on the Indian society as a whole leading to castigation of the NE people with oriental features. There were instances of racism, some fatal, even before corona landed in India. The ‘chinky’ or ‘chinks’ from the region have always been secluded and there has been no effort in policymaking to bridge the yawning gap.

Third, the BJP government’s ‘food fascism’ has only aggravated the innate hatred and xenophobia in many regressive and insensitive Indians.

All this combined has made it easier for mainland citizens to profile any northeastern person in a different light. The deadly virus has only stoked this disposition to distance them. This is why when a Manipuri man goes to a supermarket in Pune, the shopkeepers panic. Or, a conductor in a public bus in Kolkata refuses to take money from a student from Shillong. Or, a man spits on an Assamese girl studying in Delhi. Be it a casual reference to the virus at the sight of a northeastern person, a serious allegation of being the carrier of the virus or denial of basic rights, such racial isolation has become a common phenomenon.

It is distressing and dangerous to encourage racism at a time when people are living in fear of an unseen killer. Putting a face on the unknown enemy will only lead to violent attacks and lynching, if we go by the sequence of events across the country since 2014.

NE’s vulnerability

What we do not understand is that the people of the region are as vulnerable, if not more, to the viral infection as any other citizen anywhere in the country or the world. That the region shares international borders with China, Myanmar and Bangladesh puts it in more peril.

Adding to the woes is the appalling healthcare system in most of the states in the region. Primary and community health centres in rural areas are largely non-functional and the hilly terrain and remoteness make it difficult for villagers to have easy access to reliable health service. In case of an outbreak of the viral infection in the NE, small states like Meghalaya have to struggle to save their citizens.

Also, the consumer states in the NE will suffer a big blow if the supply chain from the mainland dries up owing to prolonged nationwide lockdown. Prices of essentials will rise as demand will exceed supply and poor and landless tribal families will be the worst sufferers.

The economic vulnerability is even more. Most of these states like Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh survive on earnings from tourism. With complete restriction on travelling, the number of tourists has already touched nadir and private tourism promoters are feeling the heat. If the situation continues like this, the economies of these states, which barely earn any revenue as tribals are exempted from taxation in sixth scheduled areas, will crash.

If we add racism to the list, then many youths from the NE working in the mainland will be forced to come back adding to the already uncomfortable rate of unemployment in their respective home states.

Not a time for racial ructions

The central government with its myopic vision as always should not have underestimated the hatred of the mainlanders and should have taken law and order measures to nip the problem in the bud in the wake of the Corona outbreak. Instead, we saw instances where police men too became harassers. The incident in Pune where a Manipuri man was taunted for not being a ‘local aadmi’ is an example.

The embers of racism were still burning and the government failed to see that. Tall claims of ‘Act East’ and inclusive development become rhetoric when racial hatred scars a fellow Indian.

What the government should have done is to ensure safety of the northeasterners, besides taking steps to fight the crisis.

The impact of Corona virus will be more than just uncountable casualties. The economic ramifications will be humongous worldwide. The global economy, which is already being pummelled by the emergency, will see a huge slump. Indian economy, in particular, which was wobbling before the virus outbreak, will go into coma if proper measures are not taken in this hour of crisis. And the North East will not be spared from this economic mayhem.

The crisis can be fought with the support of all states and people, cutting across caste, creed, religion and tribe. Racism and superstitions will weaken the fight against COVID-19 and slow down the process of socio-economic recuperation. So this is not the time to encourage bigotry but take exemplary action against it.

If we at all survive the lethal impact of the Corona crisis, then the government must make a holistic effort, and not a piecemeal one, to educate citizens about the region, which already has its share of problems like insurgency and has suffered a great deal thanks to wrong central policies. All we need now is social distancing to break the chain of infection and not racial seclusion to destroy the unity in diversity.

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