[avatar user=”Chitra Ahanthem” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]CHITRA AHANTHEM[/avatar]
The other day, my younger sister living in Delhi was speaking with our mother on the phone back in Imphal regarding the stock of food supplies at our respective homes. A familiar refrain between the two was: ‘as long as we have rice, salt and ngaari (fermented fish), we will survive. This lockdown is another extension of the curfews and the situation brought about by economic blockades in Manipur.’ Both were also talking of the plight of desperate migrant labourers in Indian metropolises walking hundreds of miles back to their home states.
Interestingly, migrant labourers in Manipur have not quite made the exodus back home: either the idea of walking home across the terrain in the region and for longer hours is a factor or having faced lockdown like situations in Manipur’s curfews and shutdowns, they know they can survive. Either way, the migrant population in Manipur is in a better situation than their counterparts elsewhere as there is a business community who are Manipur domiciles with their roots in other parts of the country that need their services and hence look out for them. Additionally, they have not been subjected to any discrimination in terms of getting aid, certainly NOT racist attacks.
With the lockdown, many migrants from Manipur and other states in North East India have not been able to head back to their home in many places across the country on one hand with many racist attacks being reported against people with mongoloid features: from name calling, to being denied entry to shopping marts and stores, to being spat upon. Yes, racial slurs and attacks have happened before the Corona-19 epidemic but never have they been this regular. If we look at what has brought about this turn of events, there are some factors that come to play. The crisis brought upon by the lockdown has added to a collective anxiety over who gets access to food supplies leading to earlier notions of treating people with mongoloid faces as the ‘others’ come into play and hence, being targeted. It has not helped that the Covid-19 has been called the Chinese virus time and again in popular media platforms.
Those who have migrated for work have it a little better for their privilege insulates them by way of them living in better housing arrangements than say, students or those working at the lower bottom of the work sector as security guards, staff at shopping outlets etc., for they end up living in cheap and cramped quarters. The former will have their support systems in place and by virtue of moving in similar social and economic status with others around them while the later end up as outsiders, as the minority with no protection.
I happen to belong to the more privileged section of migrants living in a metro (Delhi) and I am aware that I am in a much better situation than a student from my own home state living in a rented place. I live in a gated Society made up of some 80-90 apartment flats which is the equivalent of a Leikai where other residents have one or more members who are employed. There is a small park inside the society and the nearest market even though it is small is less than 10 minutes of walking. Muck like the Leikai Clubs back home, there is a Residents Welfare Association (also very similarly, the RWA is an all male body) that looks into matters related to the Society and we have not faced any discrimination at the home front.
Yet, I was caught in three situations that left me reflecting on how they could have ended differently had it not been for the privileges I had. In the beginning of March, when Covid-19 and the China factor was being talked about with the first cases in Kerala, I was on an assignment for a video documentation for an agency that had hired a camera and sound person. We were in an official vehicle and the two men were under my supervision. This detail is important for at the end of the day, they only asked me, “Madam, how is the Corona situation in your country China?”. One week later, I was on another assignment to Chhatisgarh with the same agency. When I checked in to the hotel in a remote area, the receptionist asked, “When did you come to India from China?” Both instances showed their ignorance, their profiling of my mongoloid features and both questions were asked courteously. I had the protection of my position by way of the agency’s association with me.
The third experience? I ran out of medicines for a tennis elbow like condition and I turned to online order with delivery options but the nearest pharmacies that I knew had no stock. I took to Twitter and my friends from Delhi shared it further and within minutes, two women from the city were reaching out to me. One connected me to her regular chemist who was told to deliver it to me. Here, I had the connection that was forged because of the people I know in my circle.
What if these same situations happened to a student, a security staff from back home? They would have played out totally differently. So yes, racism stems from ignorance, from othering but it also plays out from a position of power and the matter of whether the ‘other’ has a supportive system or not. And because we are talking about racism: that thing about ‘Mayang’ ? During British rule, Indians termed Britishers as ‘gora’. Both ‘mayang’ and ‘gora’ are terms to describe a certain population. It is no derogatory slur. Using ‘Chinky’ or now ‘Corona’ is racist because you are associated with a different nation.