Above: A protest by young people from the Northeast against racial attacks and violence in Bengaluru/Photo: UNI
A recent study shows that Racism tops the litany of complaints from hundreds of people from the Northeast in Bengaluru
By Stephen David in Bengaluru
A few years ago, an SMS that was circulated mostly in Bengaluru threatened imminent attacks on people from the Northeast. It triggered a sudden exodus of people wanting to flee the city for their homes in the Northeast and it was estimated that nearly one lakh people left the city, fearing for their lives.
Following this, nearly 40 non-profit organisations came together to help the Northeast Solidarity (NS)—a society engaged in helping people from the Northeast—helpline reach out to a wider community of people who remained in the city. To stem the tide of the exodus, both the central and state governments pitched in to defuse the tension by getting the local police to redress the issues connected to the fake SMS.
Racism tops the litany of complaints from hundreds of people from the Northeast in Bengaluru even as calls for a strong anti-racism law in India grow from affected community members.
A 2012-19 engagement by NS in Bengaluru has also found that most of the victims were students or contractual workers in the unorganised sector. Most of them were subjected to lewd comments, physical attacks and abuse by locals who seemed to have some sort of support from the powers that be. While touts took advantage of students regarding admission to educational institutions, many of the victims were yet to be paid accumulated wages by their local employers. Young girls complained of sexual harassment and were prime picks for human trafficking, according to the study by NS.
Of the nearly 700 people the organisation reached out to help, students topped the list at 232, followed by 184 nurses, and 115 security guards. That was followed by 97 who were working in restaurants, 34 as domestic helps and 27 as beauticians, among others. The highest number of victims hailed from Manipur (133), followed by Assam (128) and Sikkim (87). Mizoram and Nagaland accounted for 78 and 77 victims, respectively.
NS President Dr Rini Ralte told India Legal that her engagement found that attacks against Northeast people took place in over 100 locations in Bengaluru: some areas like Ejipura, Electronic City and Kammanahalli reported more than a dozen incidents while Koramangala—a seedbed for start-ups and giants like Flipkart— reported the highest at 61. “Nearly 700 people were beneficiaries of our help in nearly 252 cases that our team was involved with,” said Ralte, a theologian and activist for women’s issues. “More than 125 FIRs have been filed in various police stations in the city and we believe that the institutions of law and order will render the necessary justice to the innocent victims,” she further said.
The United Nations defines racism as a “theory of races hierarchy which argues that the superior race should be preserved and should dominate the others. Racism can also be an unfair attitude towards another ethnic group. Finally, racism can also be defined as a violent hostility against a social group”.
India has been at the forefront of campaigns against racism on the global arena. The country was an outspoken critic of apartheid (the white nationalist government’s anti-black policy of distinction) and racial discrimination in South Africa.
India, a United Nations (UN) document reveals, was the first country to raise the issue in the UN (in 1946) and played a leading role in the formation of a Sub-Committee against Apartheid set up by the General Assembly. When the Convention on Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted in 1965, India was among the earliest signatories.
Thus, to find almost 142 young people not paid accumulated wages in a city like Bengaluru was astonishing. Further, the Bengaluru study found that 218 people were subjected to cheating, extortion and threat while 118 were subjected to physical attacks.
Most young girls from the Northeast who work in the unorganised sector—beauty parlours, restaurants or hotels—are afraid to go public with complaints of sexual harassment as most often their bosses are the harassers. They are afraid to lodge a complaint with the police for fear of losing their jobs.
Most of the Northeastern states face huge unemployment problems, leaving the youth with no other choice but to come to cities like Bengaluru in search of livelihoods and economic sustenance.
“I have never witnessed such a chaotic situation involving students and people from the Northeast,” says Ralte. She laments that it has been a continuous struggle to find the financial resources to meet the expenses, especially for those who require continuous and critical medical care. For example, a victim of gang rape who is now recuperating in a rehab centre requires approximately Rs 25,000 every month. “Right now, we rely on public support and donations but those who are not able to pay for their medical treatment have no choice but to go back to their home states where they are confined to their homes,” she said.
In January 2014, after a 19-year-old Nido Tania from Arunachal Pradesh was thrashed to death in Delhi by local goons, an 11-member committee was formed headed by retired IAS officer MP Bezbaruah to suggest measures to address these concerns. His July 2014 report to the Ministry of Home Affairs, among others, recommended suitable legal/legislative measures, quick action by law enforcement agencies and guidance for these people whenever they are outside their respective regions.
A special police unit in Delhi to help people from the Northeast has registered more than 500 cases of rape, molestation, eve-teasing and harassment at workplace and by landlords in just five years. A 2009 study in Delhi reported that over seven lakh people from the Northeast live and work in the NCR. The same study found that almost 10,000 young people leave the Northeast every year for studies and work, and a good majority of them have said that they face racial discrimination.
With helplines across India still getting distress calls, it is high time the entire recommendations of the Bezbaruah Committee be implemented in letter and spirit, such as promulgation of a strong law and amendment of the IPC, whereby such offences are made cognisable and non-bailable, and including completion of investigation into such cases, by an officer not below the rank of an ACP or SP, within 60 days.
As Bezbaruah noted, the key is to influence the minds of the general people about the “ethos of the Northeast. This can be achieved by amending the school curriculum and university syllabus, making study of the region mandatory”. Maybe then the cries for help and complaints that jam the helplines may see a dip and eventually dry up.