The problem with extrospective activism in India and elsewhere
“Where is it?” my friend who works in a city-based IT company quipped when I asked if he’s been to the city of Aizawl. “Is it in Japan? Sounds like Japan! I have been to Tokyo, not sure I visited this place.” I stared at him in disbelief. I wanted to ask him if he had heard of Kohima. Fearing he might think it is in Indonesia, I decided against it.
Some might argue that Indians are simply ignorant of the various cultures and ethnicities that comprise its vast landmass. Even if that were true, it does not absolve us of our apathy and prejudice towards the states and the ethnicities that reside at the fringes of our nation.
Last week, I spotted that friend and many others posting a black profile picture on social media as a gesture of solidarity with the “Black Lives Matter” protests against systemic racism in the U.S. The death of a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, triggered mass reactions from around the world. Of course, sensitive netizens collectively amplifying voices against oppression helps. Unless it is oppression that won’t offer an immediate validation for challenging it outside of Instagram, or if it is oppression that we help perpetuate. In which case, will it even be called as such?
No matter who you support, or which oppression you deem worthy enough to graciously change your profile picture for, it’s gross hypocrisy when you refuse to take a peek inward for a moment. In 2020, our modern lives still uphold archaic, post-colonial segregation in the form of class, caste and regional racism in India.
While we agitate about the history of slavery and mass incarceration of Black Americans, we snigger at calls to action towards aboriginals and people belonging to lower castes as per India’s caste hierarchy. We think they had it coming. “These Chinkis,” right? WRONG!
“I was denied entry to a hotel. The manager demanded that we prove our nationality,” Ngurang Reena, a feisty professor from Delhi, shared about the ill-treatment that northeast Indians receive, in an op-ed. “How could we? Through a passport? We didn’t realise we had to carry it while travelling in our own country. We argued for hours, but to no effect. We had no choice but to leave.”
This is true for many citizens from the northeast, who travel to metro cities of India to either pursue education or a career. There have been cases of violence against them over piffle but one can notice it being racially motivated. A Manipuri student was asked to “get out” of the southern city of Bangalore if he couldn’t speak the Kannada language. A student from the state of Arunachal used water for just five minutes and had to apologise to the house owner for the same. The house owner started beating him and humiliated him by forcing him to lick his boots.
Some victims don’t live to tell the tale, like the young student from Arunachal, Nido Taniam, who was murdered in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market because of his ethnic identity. Many north-eastern men are bullied and harassed beyond measure with sexist and racial slurs like “pussy,” or (the latest) “coronavirus!” When men are called pussies, you can imagine how they regard women.
Social media and connectivity have helped amplify and connect global movements like never before. Yet all activism that we see across the world have one glaring deficit in common to them – the missing women. Be it in the U.S., or India. I bet the BMW-sporting Indian celebrities are wearing “George Floyd” t-shirts and hats by now, or have his “last words” as their “pinned tweet.” But I wonder if they know who Breonna Taylor is.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Professor of Law at University of California, Los Angeles, who coined the term “intersectionality” and worked tirelessly towards achieving it, said: “Black women have the highest rates of homicide in the country, I have repeatedly seen the killings of Black women go unnoticed.”
Crenshaw also pointed out that “even when there have been past videos of brutality against Black women, they didn’t permeate the news cycle or spark a major outcry for accountability and action like we saw in Floyd’s case.”
Natasha McKenna, Michelle Cusseaux, and many other women are forgotten and their plight pitifully erased. “During slavery in the United States, Black women endured endless labor, sexual assault and being torn away from their children. Black men also bore inhumane treatment during slavery, but oftentimes their stories became the center narrative,” and this poignant conclusion that Crenshaw drew about Black women within the BLM movement is the centre argument I hold about the hypocrisy of Indians when it comes to our own garden variety oppressions; one that is especially brutal to its women.
“On the first day of my film school, I was mistaken for my Korean classmate. It was funny in the beginning but when people started retelling that incident as a joke, again and again, it stopped being funny,” Tribeni Rai, a filmmaker from Sikkim state said to me during one of our conversations.
There is no place for these women even during country-wide protests against a common enemy. In a recent protest before the Covid-19 lockdown, men started heckling and abusing them. In such circumstances, often, women end up blaming themselves for it and try their best to not incite/invite any attention towards them. And yet, they can’t seem to escape this systemic racism and misogyny.
“We carefully chose our outfit (loose jeans and oversized coat). I even discouraged my best friend from wearing danglers. After we reached the precinct of the Shaheen Bagh (Delhi) protest (against a controversial citizenship law), for about 20 minutes everything went well. Then we had a young man following us around; once or twice he screamed right into my ears, somebody even pulled my hair and I heard the word ‘Chinese’ here and there. I had taken all the precautions possible, tried not to stand out in the crowd and even dressed like a man. I had gone to express my solidarity but this event continues to haunt me,” said Rai.
Why should the onus be on the women? Why can’t they seek redressal from the criminal justice system just like anybody else? After all, the Constitution demands that everyone is treated equally.
Ronnie Nido, a researcher from Arunachal, doesn’t think it is as simple. “For women, in general, the tolerance is very high; we don’t complain. But I would like to argue that for north-eastern women, it’s maybe 5 percent higher. Only because we have absolutely no support systems to fall back on and whatever support systems we have in a new city can be taken away from us on the sheer basis of our identity,” she said.
“I am called a ‘Chinki,’ a slut and asked for my price in hotel lobbies, on the train, even in the middle of the streets. I have been denied accommodations because I am assumed to be a prostitute,” Ngurang Reena said in the op-ed.
While there is a special hotline number to call as well as a Special Police Unit for the North Eastern Region because such racially motivated violence has significantly gone up in Delhi alone, it’s all futile, Ngurang says. “In my 12 years of Delhi life, I’ve lost count of the number of phone calls I’ve made to the NE (northeast) helpline number 1093. I try not to anguish over the little things, but I am exasperated as it happens on an everyday basis.”
Kim, who is from Manipur and works in a different city, had similar experiences. “Men in Delhi treat us as if we are loose women. Just the other day, I was standing at the pickup point for my office cab to take me to Faridabad (city). There was another woman next to me from northern India working for a tech company; we both were in formals. A car pulls up and the man asks, ‘Madam do you need a ride?’ His look and his voice made it clear what he was looking for. But the point is why did he ask me and not the other woman?” she questioned.
On the kind of abuse women get over their ancestry, challenging their nationality with half-baked nonsense like “tribal people eat dogs and snakes,” Ale Metha from Nagaland state gave a fitting response: “I don’t eat dog meat. I love them too much to eat them. I’ve never really thought of myself as not being an Indian. Nagaland is on the map of India. Yes, I am a Naga but that doesn’t mean I am not an Indian or any less of an Indian than Indians who live elsewhere in the country.”
We are faced with a pandemic with death rates peaking every minute. And much like the Asian Americans who were bullied for having caused the coronavirus outbreak, Indians are being racist too. “Before the lockdown, they used to call us Nepali, Chinki, momo or chowmein, but now they look at me and say, ‘Go corona’ or blame me for eating animals that caused the spread of the virus,” said Chongpi Kipgen, who lives and works in Mumbai.
How can we conscientiously claim to support the BLM movement when we live amid rabid, murderous racists ourselves, without raising our voice against them? When celebrities post supportive comments for BLM but do nothing about the situation in their own country, they don’t just come across as wannabes, and their “activism” is performative. Performing as the boxer Mary Kom from Manipur state doesn’t absolve actress Priyanka Chopra when she speaks in support of government moves that are widely seen as prejudiced against a community; in fact, it makes the act even more shameful.
I guess, in the end, it is safe to say that all struggles matter; but some struggles matter more than others.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of StoriesAsia and StoriesAsia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
Vaishnavi Sundar is a self-taught filmmaker, writer and grassroots activist from southern India. She also runs a VLOG on YouTube.