A recent song from an artist from Assam, Vreegu Kashyap, titled ‘Naach baby Naach’, was in news for all the wrong reasons. In addition to complaints of plagiarism, Kashyap was accused of using a racist slur, “chinky”, in the lyrics. The disputed section reads as follows:
“Deha tur lovely lovely
Sokujuri chinky chinky”
(You have a lovely body
Your eyes are chinky)
The song animates long-standing discussions on racism, especially against people from Northeast India. It also adds some self-reflection to the debate. Traditionally, racist slurs and acts have been deployed against people from the northeastern part of India by the rest of the country, provoking legal and institutional interventions with little to no avail. In this instance, however, the slur is a form of self-profiling by someone from the Northeast. This calls for a closer look at the complex dynamics of racism, especially the kind where exoticising and/or misrepresenting one’s appearance feeds into the larger discourse on who belongs where.
The Report By Jamia Millia University
Racism is a “disease” that can affect anyone. It is broadly understood to be a form of antagonistic discrimination against ‘inherent’ characteristics of appearance, ethnicity and affiliation to groups and places. At its core, racism is an account of how we treat others and ourselves based on assumptions and internalised biases about our sense of self.
Anti-racism, then, is a lifelong and continuous process of recognising and addressing this. It begins with ourselves and is a political practice of recognising the harmful stories we tell each other about belonging, being and becoming.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, writing about Albert Memmi’s work on racism, noted that racism “has an institutional life, it requires an institutional (which is to say a political) response”. And these institutions come in different forms – family, education and social spaces.
While the common conception is that racism is centred around ‘whiteness’, racism is also prevalent in India as antagonism against skin colour, language, appearance, eating practices, etc. And one of the recurrent victims of such racism are people from the Northeast. Frequently at the receiving end of racial slurs like “chinky”, they are often discriminated against for their appearance, ways of dressing, cultural life and eating practices. Women, in particular, are subjected to sexual violence and harassment, in addition to racially charged intolerance. A report from Jamia Millia Islamia University highlighted the various forms of discrimination faced by women – from being over-charged in local public transports, facing lewd comments, being mistaken for foreigners in tourist places, to being teased, molested and even physically assaulted by property dealers, transport drivers and landlords.
What the Bezbaruah Committee Found
Such behaviour, at its core, is informed by power, context and fear of that which is inexplicable and made inaccessible. The people belonging to Northeast India are stripped of their complex lineage and history, and that manifests as a misdirected and over-simplified association to China and “generally Chinese” heritage.
This impulse comes from many things, one of which is the power and context within which such behaviour takes place. For an imagined majority, minorities of all kinds are objects of hate and are ideal subjects who are victims of racism. In this instance, forgetting their own complex and enmeshed heritage, mainstream India converges on acts of hatred based on what ‘looks’ different.
Racism is discursively present in the way bodies from the Northeast are profiled. They are carved differently in time and space, deterritorialised from their own geography of Indianness and reinscribed onto other foreign spaces. In being referred to as “chinky”, as Duncan McDuie-Ra notes, Northeasterners are made peripheral and external to the mainstream population and from their “hierarchies of caste, region and language that make up an established order”. In the minds of ‘mainstream’ Indians, those from the Northeast belong elsewhere, where establishing belonging becomes a process of erasing history and complexity, as the majority sees fit to do.
In response to multiple instances and complaints of recurrent harassment, the Central government had formed the Bezbaruah Committee to report on insecurities and racism faced by Northeastern folks living in urban villages (lower-middle-class areas) of various metropolitan cities in India.
The report, submitted in 2014, stated that racially motivated incidents faced by people from the Northeast are proportionately higher than any other group in the sub-continent. It further noted that the respondents increasingly felt that they are often targeted due to their “physical features”, leaving them vulnerable and insecure.
The report also observed that due to such an increase in attacks, profiling and discrimination, people from the Northeast feel “bitter, angry and frustrated”.
The Need to Educate the Mainstream About the NE
The committee stressed the need to integrate the Northeast into the rest of India, emphasising that social conflict is at the root of racism faced by people from the region. It noted that the landlords and residents of Delhi perceived the clothing and social habits of people from the Northeast as ‘modern’ and in conflict with their perception of morality. In misguided fear of their children being influenced, they try to control the behaviour of the people and inevitably produce conflict. People from the Northeast are also often targeted for their cooking and eating habits.
The Committee’s emphasis was on the need to educate people about the region and create a sense of unity between the Northeast and the rest of India. Pointing out that a large part of the problem was the misconstrued understanding of the region as a homogenous block of people with similar cultural traits, the committee encouraged greater educational engagements. Apart from a focus on education, the committee also stressed the need to legally intervene in cases of racism. For instance, cases of police trying to suppress, ignore, refuse to register FIRs and attack the victim's character were frequently reported, making legal and institutional interventions indispensable.
The Committee’s recommendations, placed within the existing (and evolving) legal framework on anti-discrimination, offer a lattice of legislations that aim to criminalise certain conduct as racially antagonistic.
Apart from the equality provisions within the Indian Constitution (Articles 14, 15), sections 153A and 153B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) punish, among other things, racially motivated attacks, vilification, publications or even gestures that may cause harm to, demand proof of nationality, allegiance to the Indian Constitution and such from people based on membership of any religious, racial, language or regional group or caste or community.
The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (Chapter II and Amendment Rules 2016, in particular) also asks for similar institutional punishments.
But Racism Can Also Come From Within, as in the Case of Kashyap
One of the Committee’s recommendations, taken up by a Bill pending in the Rajya Sabha, was the introduction and implementation of sections 153C and 509A, which framed racially motivated antagonism in the language of human dignity and criminalised racial slurs as well. While these legal interventions are significant, it is important to ask how law influences anti-racism politics and what it can realistically prevent. Punishment-based accountability can deter some behaviour, but it also runs the risk of framing such acts as external to one’s self, community and context. In thinking of these as bad things, as some people may do, we forget that there is also the tendency to internalise racist thinking as mainstream, normal and objective.
And that is the question one needs to deeply engage with, particularly in light of the criticism Kashyap’s song generates. Racism is not simply an external act towards an imagined other. It also includes practices of exoticising the self in keeping with this imagination of the majority. It speaks to a certain blindness to conditions of materiality, history and enmeshment. Race, like gender and caste, is a mark of difference. It is used to discriminate against people. It classifies and ranks people.
Can one be racist towards one’s own community? Can the use of racist slur by anyone amount to participating in racism?
It is racism if one is discriminated against based on skin colour, food habits, and certain traits, including by oneself, especially when the use of such terms is not an act of reclaiming but an act of solidifying existing misconceptions of people.
What About NE Racism Against Muslims?
Amidst the criticism generated by this song, there is room for further introspection about racism within the Northeast as well. How important are context and power in assessing racism? How do we separate racism from the xenophobia or chauvinism of the Assamese, Mizo, Khasi, or Meitei people exercised against minorities? What are the different forms of racism that we see within the Northeast? Who are its victims?
Do the same voices speak against such racist perpetrators and express solidarity for victims when the victims are Muslim or “tribal”? Why was there silence when Nituparna Rajbonshi, a prominent cartoonist from Assam, gleefully and repeatedly profiled Muslims in his work during the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process?
Why were popular songs and protest platforms during the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests that targeted the Muslims of Assam using tried and tested racist animalistic metaphors not subjected to similar scrutiny?
Why do popular songs and literature in Assam go unscrutinised for their continuous profiling and vilification of the Muslims and “tribals” of Assam?
These questions are of utmost urgency and provoke us to introspect not just on racism but also on our criticism of racism for its selective focus on some forms of discrimination, while remaining disinterested, withdrawn or silent about many other racist experiences.
(Suraj is a sociologist based in Singapore and Rohini Sen is an Assistant Professor at Jindal Global Law School and PhD Candidate at Warwick School of Law. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)