Racism in its simplest terms is a belief that a particular race is superior to the other. This inherent superiority comes from certain human traits and characteristics that can only be possessed by the members of a particular racial or ethnic group. It leads to discrimination, prejudice, and antagonism towards ethnic minorities. For years, people from Northeast India have faced racism and discrimination from the fellow Indians and to add to that is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in an increase in the number of cases of violence and abuse against them. This article aims to discuss how the global pandemic has aggravated the situation of racial discrimination and prejudice against the North Easterners in India. In addition, it talks about how the fear of the disease along with the pre-existing stigmatization among the people is resulting in increasing acts of Xenophobia around the world.
Racism Against North-Easterners In India
Racism against people belonging from North-East India is not a new phenomenon but the recent COVID-19 outbreak has flared up the-already-existing stigmatization and racial discrimination towards people from this part of the country. Ever since the country’s foundation, North Easterners across India have faced pervasive xenophobia and racism from fellow Indians due to their “mongoloid” features as that gives them a striking resemblance to Chinese as well as other Southeast Asian people. Many Indians consider people belonging to this part of the country as foreigners because of the difference in cultures and physical appearance. It is because of these differences and the lack of respect people hold towards diversity and different cultures, that human groups tend to engage in the practice of social exclusion and marginalization. Even after being legitimate citizens of the country, some individuals or a whole group of people are excluded from enjoying their fundamental rights that are enshrined in the Constitution of India. They are deprived of their basic human rights such as the right to live with dignity, the right to a safe environment, freedom from discrimination, etc. As an attack to their self-respect and dignity, they are subjected to racial slurs like “Chow Mein”, “Momos”, “Chinky” and so on.
Pandemic, Social Prejudice, and COVID-19
Viruses and pathogens don’t distinguish their hosts based on race, religion, caste, class, or gender, and as such neither do diseases have social preferences, but history tells us otherwise. Since time immemorial the world has seen deep-rooted racial prejudices resurface during a pandemic. Diseases and epidemics continue to be socially pinned upon the racial minorities. The first such incident that took place dates back to the 1300s Europe when during the Great Bubonic Plague, the Catholic Church was of the view that the Black Death was a result of a Jewish conspiracy to undermine Christianity and subsequently led to the torture and forceful false confessions to be made by the Jews. A similar incident happened in the 20th century New York, when an Irish woman, eventually being known as “Typhoid Mary”, living in New York was demonised as a mass murderer for infecting 51 people of typhoid and was forced into quarantine for 26 years of her life. To add to this, diseases were often being named after their place of origin or where they were believed to have originated like the Asiatic Flu, Hong Kong Flu, Rift Valley Fever, etc. thus leading to stigmatization and fearmongering among people. To prevent this WHO in 2015, recommended moving away from this practice and in accordance, coronavirus was named as “COVID-19” and not “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese Virus”. But it seems like all these efforts were futile as to this date diseases continue to amplify racial prejudices. The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in global outrage and criticism against the Chinese as well as the Asian community. They are being subjected to ethnic slurs and numerous cases of Anti-Chinese sentiments have been reported worldwide. They have been facing severe backlash from various countries. Hashtags like the “ChineseDon’tComeToJapan” have been trending in Japan. In countries like Malaysia and Singapore, online petitions were being signed for banning Chinese nationals and travelers in the country. An Asian woman wearing a mask with the headline “yellow alert” was published in a French newspaper called “Le Courrier Picard”. A lot of French Asians criticized this publication and started a twitter hashtag which translates into “I am not a Virus”. Countless newspapers and social media posts have written about Chinese eating bats, mice, and living in overcrowded and unhygienic places. Fearmongering only fuels up xenophobic behaviour leading to social ostracism. The above-mentioned incidents show how Chinese and the South East-Asians are being viewed as the public enemies and the people around the world are responding to the situation by insulting and harassing them. And due to the misperception that Northeast Indians are Chinese and outsiders, this uproar can also be seen in parts of India especially in metropolitan cities like Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai, where people from the North East migrate in search of better education and employment opportunities. People have found a new reason behind humiliating them. Numerous cases of assault have been reported, they are being spat on, victimized, harassed by police officials, thrown out from their rented apartments. Derogatory terms used against them have now been replaced by “corona” in the Indian racist lexicon. A 20-year-old from Nagaland was denied entry into a grocery store by the staff members. This comes as a direct violation of Article 15(2) of the Indian constitution. Also, this situation persists even when under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, the use of racial slurs is a punishable offence with imprisonment of up to 3 years and/or fine.
Human Rights Violations and International and National Safeguards Against Them
What may seem like a temporary situation of unease and anger amongst the people arising out of the fear of the ongoing pandemic, is a systematic process of marginalization and discrimination that can have its effects for years to follow. People fail to understand that not every individual with “mongoloid” features is Chinese and that not all Chinese have coronavirus. The xenophobia that people are developing towards foreigners, especially those from China and South-East Asia can have an everlasting effect on the minority Asian community residing in different parts of the world, as it will push them into a state of marginalization and exclusion, which can potentially lead to severe material deprivation, characterised by the inability to afford basic requirements like food, clothing, and shelter. They will always be held accountable for causing something that is not proven to be race-specific. Apart from physical injury, these incidents of assault and humiliation can cause psychological trauma to the victim. India is a signatory to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Both the treaties discourage discrimination based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin and it imposes a threefold obligation on the government who ratify them to respect, protect and fulfil the rights promised under the covenants. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to the physical and mental well-being of an individual and states that everyone has the right to a standard of living and the right to security in the event of sickness, disability, etc. Furthermore, the Supreme Court in Maneka Gandhi v Union of India held that the right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is not just a physical right but includes the right to live with human dignity and not a mere animal existence. Despite the various international and national safeguards against racism, India still lacks a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, and little has been done to alleviate the age-old racial stigmatization and discrimination of the minorities. In 2015, the Bezbaruah Committee had suggested the insertion of Section 153(C) and Section 509(A) in the Indian Penal Code. Under the proposed section 153C “any words, both spoken and written, or signs attempting to discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, or indulging in any activity intended to use criminal force or violence against a particular race will be a non-bailable offence punishable with imprisonment up to five years and a fine”. In addition, Section 509A will make “any word, gesture or act intended to insult a member of a particular race lead to imprisonment that may extend to three years with a fine.” But even after a lapse of 3 years, it is yet to be incorporated in the IPC. What the current situation requires is the development of a state policy that effectively combats racial discrimination and the setting up of legal mechanisms that can investigate and ensure the effective exercise of human rights.
The pandemic is affecting millions of lives but targeting one group can have a lasting impact on the community in general resulting in a physical, emotional, and mental breakdown for many. The harassment faced by North-Easterners and many other Southeast Asians worldwide during COVID-19 is a proof that it is because of these prejudices and stereotypes that racial discrimination and xenophobia, rather than fading away in the 21st century is still finding new ways to penetrate deeper into the society. Such social evils need to be curbed out of society immediately as a rise in racist rhetoric will only lead to an increase in racist attacks. Thousands of people worldwide are subjected to violence, beatings, threats, etc. They are stripped of their dignity, abused, and discriminated against just because we as humans let these racial stigmatizations get the better of us. Discrimination and racism not only conflict with international and national laws but also lays the ground for basic human rights violations. The Indian government needs to come up with stringent anti-discrimination laws to protect the interests of the minorities who continue to be ostracized from society due to people’s prejudicial beliefs.
Title Image Source: Times NIE
This article has been written by Ishika Kansal who is a Second-Year Law student at Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat.