On the Murder of Nido Taniam
While the murder of the 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, Nido Taniam, powerfully foregrounds the issue of racism, in the resultant cacophony, issues concerning the continuing neglect of the north-east and the severe state repression unleashed over there, irrespective of whether such omissions and commissions are due to racism or not, have been swept under the carpet.
Anand Teltumbde (email@example.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.
10 march 15, 2014 vol xlIX no 11 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
Nido Taniam, a 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh was beaten to death in Delhi in broad daylight on 29 January by some young men in a trivial altercation. The impunity with which the crime took place was alarming enough but the indignation of the north-easterners accusing mainland India of racial prejudice against them caused huge consternation. Unlike others, they saw it not as an isolated crime, but one falling in a pattern of several such incidents of discrimination and assault on young women and men coming from north-eastern states for studies and jobs to Delhi and other metros. While this incident has powerfully foregrounded the issue of racism, which was, of course, denied by the ruling establishment, including a minister from the north-east, in the resultant cacophony, the issues of continuing neglect of the entire north-east and its repression, irrespective of whether they are due to racism or not, were totally lost. If the north-east had got its dues in terms of development, Nido and his ilk would not have come to Delhi and fallen prey to the hatred of hooligans there. Before one jumps on to racism, this root cause of the problem needs to be seriously looked into.
A Saga of Neglect
North-east India, a landmass bigger than the United Kingdom and many other countries would rank around 78th in the world by area and 30th by population. It shares a 4,500 km border with ﬁ ve different countries of south Asia, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, but connects to the heartland with a tenuous 22 km Siliguri corridor. This landlocked hilly region of approximately 8% of its landmass, but with only 3% of its population, has immense developmental potential. The region is richly endowed with biodiversity, hydro-potential, minerals like oil and natural gas, coal, limestone, dolomite, graphite, quartzite, sillimonite, etc, and huge forest wealth. It meets over 10% of the demand for forest products in the country. Moreover, it possesses about 80% of the total hydropower potential in the country. Arunachal Pradesh alone is expected to generate nearly 3 lakh MW hydel power, nearly 30% of the total available in the country.
Imagine the export potential of such a richly endowed region with its geographical proximity to the markets of six bordering countries if it had deployed its resources in setting up industrial infrastructure. Paradoxically, the region is industrially the most backward in India.
Only Assam, and to some extent Meghalaya, have some degree of industrial development centred on tea, oil and timber, which has largely been a colonial legacy. If India had decided to industrialise this region, it could have been one of the richest and most developed regions in the
country. With less than half the population density of the country, it would have given employment to many people from the mainland. But alas, the government decided to continue the colonial policy of taking away its wealth and keeping the region backward, forcing its youth to
migrate for education and employment.
With this colonialist mindset, the government blames the problem of insurgency in the region for its backwardness, the very same argument it makes against the Maoist-controlled areas. But it does not realise that development and insurgency constitute the chicken or egg syndrome; if there had been development there would not have been any insurgency as such. It does not realise the hollowness of its argument that the insurgency in the north-east or for that matter anywhere is basically a product of its own myopic attitude.
For instance, what prevented the government to develop the extraordinarily endowed Bastar for ﬁve decades after Independence? If this was done, Maoists would not have been able to enter Bastar. The fact remains that the government essentially followed in the footsteps of the
colonialists, which is at the core of much of the discontent and notion of being colonised in the north-east.
The government's response in terms of repression only sets into motion a vicious cycle which would push ethnic groups inhabiting this region, undisturbed for centuries, to take up arms. This is the root cause of insurgency and the secessionist movements, either for sovereignty or for separate homeland, in the north-east.
Tyranny of the AFSPA
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), the government's draconian response, clearly exempliﬁ es its colonial mindset. This Act appeared early in the history of the republic as a revamped version of an ordinance – Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance – issued in August 1942 during the second world war to deal with the Quit India Movement, and was formalised in 1958 as AFSPA by the Nehru government. It was initially supposed to have remained in operation for one year to tackle the Naga problem but it still continues as does even the Naga problem, which clearly proves its uselessness.
Still it has been in force over the last 55 years in north-east India and for 20 years in Jammu and Kashmir, despite persistent demand by the people for its repeal.
Notwithstanding the government's claim of its constitutionality, it is clearly at odds with the democratic rights enshrined in the Constitution and the UN Convention on Human Rights to which India has been a signatory. With a simple notiﬁ cation from the representative of the central government (the governor), any area, state, or parts of the state, can be declared as "disturbed" to enforce AFSPA that empowers the armed forces to make preventive arrests, search premises without warrant, and shoot and kill civilians. More than 1,500 extra-judicial killings had taken place in Manipur alone over the last 30 years.
The judicial enforcement of fundamental rights is effectively suspended; court proceedings are made contingent upon the central government's prior approval.
The AFSPA's continued application has led to numerous protests. The epic fast of Irom Chanu Sharmila, the "Iron Lady of Manipur", now in its 14th year, had started as the protest against an encounter by Assam Riﬂ es which had led to the Economic & Political Weekly EPW march 15, 2014 vol xlIX no 11 11death of 10 people in November 2000 at Malom village, demanding the repeal of AFSPA. Already the longest in history, this fast has shaken the world but not our republican government! As her fast continued, another unusual form of protest was adopted by some members of the Meira Paibis against the gunning down of a 32-year-old, Thangjam Manorama, by troops of the 17th Assam Riﬂ es, allegedly after raping her. They shocked the nation by publicly stripping themselves in front of the Kangla Fort on 15 July 2004 with a banner "Indian Army Rape Us". They too shook the entire world by the degree of their desperation but could not shake the Indian government.
These are just extra-heroic protests, among numerous others, by the ordinary people of the north-east. Controversy over Racism There has been a spate of reports in the recent past of discrimination and attacks against north-eastern Indians in certain metros, particularly Bangalore and New Delhi. In 2007 the North East Support Centre and Helpline (NESC&H) had to be started to deal with prejudice and attacks against people from the north-east.
In Delhi, they (excluding Assamese) are humiliated as "chinky" by people, in reference to their Mongoloid features.
In April 2012, the death of a 19-year-old Manipuri boy Richard Loitam, under suspicious circumstances, in his college hostel in Bangalore sparked protests demanding justice for the student. In August 2012, rumours of threat to their lives saw a large-scale exodus of these people from Bangalore.
As the furore over the murder of Nido was still alive, two young women from Manipur were thrashed in full public view by local goons in Delhi. Hundreds of people from north-east India have been protesting against the "racial" discrimination being practised against them.
Expectedly, the government and the political class acknowledged the discrimination but denied its racial preﬁ x as they did in the case of dalits wanting to bring caste within the purview of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Tolerance, which was organised by the United Nations in Durban in August-September 2001.
The government had then projected an un tenable excuse that castes were its "internal matter". While technically caste may not be race but in the context of discrimination and xenophobia, particularly applied to dalits, there was hardly any distinction between them; rather, caste would turn out worse than race.
But in the case of north-eastern people of the Mongoloid race, there could not be such a deﬁ nitional argument. Praja Rajakiya Vedike (PRV), a Bangalore-based non-governmental organisation, had compiled a case study of 150 people from the region, demonstrating that they suffered "racism" in Bangalore.
India has been in the forefront at international conferences in condemning racism, colonialism and apartheid.
But suddenly when her own people raised the issue of racial discrimination, she went into denial mode. The Indian government succeeded in keeping the issue of caste out of the agenda of the
Durban conference but did not realise that she can still be incriminated by customary international law and other UN Charter bodies.
The general image of the people of the north-east in Indian society is that they are tribes of an alien race. In tune with this depiction, they are expected to – just like dalits are also supposed to conform to this image as backward, illiterate, clumsy and ugly people. But most migrant north-easterners are exactly the opposite; they are well-educated, speak better English, are smartly dressed, and good-looking, enough to invoke envious hatred in our caste-entrenched society.
A minor tussle ﬂ ares up with the smallest provocation into an atrocity quite like in the case of dalits. It is a pity that there are no ripples created in dalit circles with regard to the plight of north-easterners!
The issue, as to whether the discrimination is racial or not, can best be cleared by the victims themselves and not by others. If dalits feel that they are subject to racial discrimination, so be it; so also with respect to north-easterners.
Technicalities apart, the stark fact is that India is racist. It is better she admitted to it in order to do away with this continuing ignominy.
Published in Economic and Political Weekly