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The Monika Khangembam Incident Is Part Of A Much Bigger Indian Problem

Sensitizing an immigration desk is one thing but how do you sensitize a country?

13/07/2016 8:25 AM IST | Updated 18/07/2016 8:58 PM IST
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Earlier this year I was in Manipur. Almost every other Manipuri I met had some story of being treated as non-Indian in the "mainland". They told the stories without rancor, almost resignation. It was accepted as inevitable but it does not alleviate the sense of being the "other" to see the Indian Army patrolling the streets, to feel the pinch of AFSPA.

There would be sudden strikes on some grievance or the other and the little towns along the highway would look like scenes from an old Western film -- a dusty street, a makeshift roadblock on it, perhaps a log, patrolling soldiers, and small clusters of ordinary Manipuris, standing quietly and sullenly just watching.

Yet it was here that Subhas Bose's Indian National Army first raised the tricolor during the heady days of World War II. But Manipur today exists on the fringes of our mainland imagination.

The immigration official who apparently harassed Monika Khangembam at the New Delhi airport was just reflecting the larger reality of India. That's not to let him off the hook. As a government official it's simply unacceptable if he did what Khangembam is accusing him of doing. He has no right to tell anyone "Indian toh nahin lagti ho (you don't look Indian)" because his job is passport control, not looks arbiter. His colleagues might benefit from a dose of sensitization. He needs more than a slap on the wrist if investigations bear out Khangembam's accusation.

Sure, this is not as physically violent as some of the incidents of harassment north-easterners have faced in India. Nido Tania from Arunachal Pradesh was assaulted and killed by shopkeepers in Lajpat Nagar. Two Manipuri boys were beaten to death amidst racist taunts while a minor girl from Manipur was raped by her landlord's son in Munirka. A UPSC aspirant from Manipur was bashed and ended up with a broken skull because he complained about someone who spat on his foot.

As a government official it's simply unacceptable if he did what Khangembam is accusing him of doing. He has no right to tell anyone "Indian toh nahin lagti ho (you don't look Indian)" because his job is passport control, not looks arbiter.

None of this happened to Monika. It's also true the immigration officer did not call Khangembam names or accuse her of being a slut – slurs routinely hurled at north easterners. But by taunting her, he was doing what Indians routinely do – turn her into the other, the not-quite Indian.

But then again this is a country where Priyanka Chopra with the help of a little prosthetics gets to play Manipuri boxer Mary Kom. It's not like Manipur has no actors. Rattan Thiyam's famous theatre company has been around in Manipur since 1976. Kom was gracious enough to say "Any actress is good enough to play this role. They are all talented. I am happy that Priyanka is doing my role." But it does not change the fact that even a Priyanka with prosthetics cannot be sensitization enough. We still make the 'chinky' jokes. We still target other north-easterners and discriminate against them and complain that they are not Indian enough.

In this case the government, to its credit, responded with alacrity. Sushma Swaraj tweeted her apology. Rajnath Singh was apprised. Kiren Rijiju, himself a north easterner has said "There will be a probe in this matter. Action will be taken as and when details are given to us." "It is for all of us to realize that the people of the North East are as much Indians as any of us," said Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in the PMO's office.

These are worthy sentiments and there is a much touted Look East policy but it's an uphill task to change perceptions on both sides. The BJP itself ended up with its foot in its mouth despite its protestations. In 2015, before the Delhi elections, it tried to paint itself as the saviour of northeasterners in the capital who were facing harassment. It proposed special cells in police stations and guardianship for northeastern students with local families. But its vision document for Delhi headlined that section as "North Eastern immigrants need to be protected". It was a slip but a telling typo, speaking volumes about how we really feel about the North East.

Where do I owe my allegiance when I am not wanted even in my nation? When we are not provided electricity and basic infrastructure but only the utter negligence of government for over half a century breeding little else but discrimination? Have you ever wondered that you might be responsible for the growing insurgency in North East India?

As Ningreikhan Wungkhai writes in Youth ki Awaaz "Where do I owe my allegiance when I am not wanted even in my nation? When we are not provided electricity and basic infrastructure but only the utter negligence of government for over half a century breeding little else but discrimination? Have you ever wondered that you might be responsible for the growing insurgency in North East India?" The seven sisters are still the seven step-sisters as far as much of the rest of India is concerned.

The immigration officer at the airport is part of this larger society and reflective of its biases. In an attempt to test how "pakka Indian" Khangembam is, he demanded she tell him what states Manipur shared borders with. That was to be her litmus test of belonging. The irony is that if the tables were turned and random Indians on the mainland were asked to point to Manipur on a map in India, most of us would fail.

One wonders if the immigration officer himself would have managed to do it.

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