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Bigotry and Racial Discrimination in India

Racial discrimination against the North-East Indians is perhaps one of the lesser focused-upon, yet parlous problems that our country struggles with today. To racist minds, they share the mongoloid features of East Asians and are subsequently labelled as ‘foreigners’ by many.

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“…remember, my forefathers were headhunters. I was born out of a clan of warriors. Remember the battle of Kohima, perhaps one of the cruelest battle in the history of World War II. Yes, it was fought in my backyard.I will narrate you the folk tales which were passed down to me by me grandfather and which were passed down to him by his great-great-great–grandfather.…All I ask from you is dear, please do not judge me on the basis of my feature or of my dress.” 

-Vinatoli Yeptho

Racial discrimination against the North-East Indians is perhaps one of the lesser focused-upon, yet parlous problems that our country struggles with today. To racist minds, they share the mongoloid features of East Asians and are subsequently labelled as ‘foreigners’ by many. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to stir panic across India, racist attacks and discrimination cases against them have spiked. Recently, a video went viral on social media where a middle-aged man called a Manipuri woman ‘corona’ and then proceeded to spit on her. In another case, several Naga youths were forcefully quarantined for twenty-four hours, merely on the grounds of their physical features, despite showing no symptoms, history of travel or contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) conducted a study which revealed that as many as 54% of the North-East Indians in Delhi do not find it a safe place to live or work in. In another survey, as many as 74% of the respondents in Delhi said that the capital is the “most unsafe place” in terms of ethnic and racial discrimination. The reality, however, may be even more serious.

No matter how strong our legislation is, the laws enacted and institutions established are overwhelmed by prejudices that are entrenched in our society. Some say that this long-drawn, pernicious practice finds its roots in the caste system, and therefore to combat such bigotry, we need to renovate “differential treatment” and deploy positive discrimination strategies to bring them up on the same pedestal (in other words, the very founding theory of Article 14 of the Constitution of India). However, this argument hardly makes a compelling case. Claiming that this discrimination is historically linked to caste is true, but is not sufficient. Far from it, there is another layer of discrimination that is entangled in this, the rather deceptive scenario- race. This second and most disruptive layer that has caused this earlier social discrimination to turn “racial”, is the so-called “Mongoloid” features of our brothers and sisters in the North East.

A large section of the Indian populace would believe that for a country that has faced crippling communal tensions and seemingly insurmountable political challenges and has faced most of them staying united and strong, racial discrimination should not be a problem.

This is the precise reason why we have been unable to eliminate racial discrimination in our country, despite of it having existed since independence, and before. It is unfortunate, but we have always downplayed and underestimated its seriousness in our country. It has always existed, crippling India from within, gradually distancing our fellow citizens from each other, and ultimately compelling them to believe that the State has, in all effectiveness, left them behind.

The inescapable consequences of our general attitude towards this pressing problem now present before us an intriguing situation. Our India has made considerable development in the field of reducing social inequality, both in terms of policy and practice, or at least to some degree. Even in the worst-case scenario, the Indian State, owing to immense deliberation over the years, from the Mandal Commission Recommendations to the creamy layer doctrine of the Supreme Court on reservations, knows a great deal about the approach towards reducing social inequality. In other words, we understand this to a considerable extent.

In 2014, following the death of Nido Tania, a young man from Arunachal Pradesh who was murdered in Delhi, the Home Ministry and the North Eastern Council (NEC) formed the M.P. Bezbaruah Committee to probe into the nature of these incidents and recommend suitable policy changes in order to successfully solve the problem.  Point 5 of the Committee’s Recommendation, also reiterated by the Supreme Court in Korma Dorjee v. Union of India, reads as under:

“…(v) … socio-economic initiatives to handle the wider issues of educating people, creating awareness and removing wrong perceptions..”

This Section appears to hit the bull’s eye. Throughout the report, it has been acknowledged that though legal policy formulation should be a priority (the role of which cannot, and must not be ignored), it must be accompanied by substantive measures to address the real reason why such a situation exists in the first place. Education, spreading awareness among people about the rich Northeastern culture can serve as important means to address the problem at the grassroots level, given the fact that the region in consideration has always been distinct, and unique- both culturally and politically.

Humanising education to become more inclusive, updated and collaborative is the precursor to combating any social difficulty. However, the intricate infrastructural changes required to bring about this innovation is perhaps not “lucrative enough” for political parties. A shift in this paradigm that would motivate the political spectrum to move towards constructive, progressive ‘social reform’ (as opposed to the much-exploited bargain chip ‘social welfare’). But we must remember that political leaders focus on issues which are important to us i.e. public opinion influences political practice to a considerable degree. Often we underestimate our own roles in a democracy- Democracy is what the citizens make of it.

The analysis in this article aims to do just that- attempt to explain a pressing issue that has unfortunately been downplayed and brushed aside by the media.


  •  Excerpt from “Five Rules to whomever it may concern” – Slam Poetry – Vinatoli Yeptho
  •  National Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2014-15
  •  “Delhi NCR Discrimination Survey 2014” – Reachout Anti Discrimination Project
  •  Karma Dorjee & Ors. v. UOI, (2017) 1 SCC 795
  • M.P.Bezbaruah Committee Report – Ministry of Home Affairs, 2014

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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