I just got back from India when sitting in the quiet office of my home, the news of the death of Arunachali student Nido Tania in Delhi screamed loud all over the internet. Not quite refreshing to wake up to the news especially when I just had the best six-week holiday of my life there. For days I was glued in front of the computer reading up on everything that ensued where one word ‘racism’ surfaced over debates, protests, editorials and many write ups. A glaring reality is the fact that north-easterners face racism in ‘mainland India’ but equally condemnable is also the fact that reverse racism exists in the north east where many non-tribals bear the brunt of discrimination. I dare say racism is a two-way street and rather than playing out the victim card, we must look at progressive ways of tackling the issue.

Over the past few years, I have made a few interesting observations about my Indian friends here in Australia.  One friend once said she wished she could bring half of India here as she was missing it so much. Another one said she was here for the better life of her children. Yet for another one, “They (Australians) are not like us (Indians)”, when I asked her why her parties did not have a single Australian as a guest. It was clear to me that all three did not like the Australian way of life for them to integrate fully. And that’s where I thought the problem begins: this lack of integration causes such a gap which later on assumes the tone of racial prejudice. In my recent experiences as a student at the University of Melbourne, I have also come across research that says Indians carry a cultural baggage to their new country of residence which makes integration difficult for some.

Attacks on Indian students in Australia have made headlines globally but living here, I can vouch they have been more a case of media hype. And as someone said, in the psyche of immigrants racism is one thing that lurks in the minds especially given the inability to merge, for whatever reasons, with the mainstream. This could be true to a certain extent for us north-easterners residing in mainland India. But I can also say with certainty that Delhi is a very hostile place than probably anywhere else. I lived there for more than 15 years to vouch for this certainty of thought!

When I am asked about my ethnic identity by Australians, I totally understand their ignorance. It is such a multicultural country that I could be mistaken for a Thai, a Philippine, a Malaysian or an Indonesian. I am so happy to explain in quite a mouthful that I come from the north east of India, which is a remote part of India that we are ethnically and culturally different from the rest of India and that Hanoi is probably closer to us than New Delhi in terms of distance!  I also love the ‘wow’ look on their faces when I tell them that on certain days from school we could catch a glimpse of the snow-capped Himalayas. And while I am proud to call myself more a citizen of the world now, I am also proud of my background, my roots. 

But I am most peeved when my own compatriots feign so much ignorance about the north east. To the question, ‘where are you from’ I have often alternated between Manipur or Assam or Meghalaya (anything which is easy on the ears and it is where my ancestry is sort of spread) but it still elicits “where is it?” To think these reactions also come from supposed IT engineers who I believe would have gone to school is appalling. After the initial good laugh and small talks, one thing that I am left with is how tired I feel to be the proud Indian when my north-eastern identity is so alien to many Indians. However, I have not suffered from any identity crisis in the process. I just have developed a better answer for every ignoramus I come across, one of which is “No offence but burn your degrees if you do not know the difference between Manipal and Manipur or Ceylon and Shillong”. That is tackling ignorance from a position of strength, you see I think I have studied and, therefore, know more than you do.

When tackling racism, hate culture and discrimination, it is so wrong to resort to bandhs or violence. We have to get rid of our old attitudes and focus on building what is called “progressive sensibilities”. It is wrong to call someone a ‘chinky’, ‘dhkar’, ‘mayang’ ‘vai’  etc., therefore it is time for a shift in our thinking. It does not happen overnight but at least we can begin the conversation which, of course, can be pretty daunting for fear of it losing track.

We have to view racism from how we like the world to see us and how we would like to see the world. At the basic level it all boils down to mutual respect as individuals. We cannot have a homogenised planet; it is the differences in caste, creed and religion that make us all interesting. It is important to recognise the differences and it is important as a society to inculcate a collective value of mutual respect for one another. The only way we can do this is through education and conversation. I am afraid I am doing that more often that here in Australia and among Indians!

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