As the country started shutting down last week in a bid to contain (as much possible) the spread of the novel coronavirus, fear gripped a 35-year-old Naga woman who lives in Phase 4 of Noida. Her landlord had just given her an ultimatum to leave. "People are not feeling good. They don't want to see anyone who looks like Chinese," she was told.
The 35-year-old lives with her sister and divides time between her hometown " Dimapur, the commercial capital of Nagaland " and Noida. To make a living, she gets dried fish from Nagaland, which she sells in Noida, and takes back garments to trade in Dimapur.
As India shutdown after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's second address to the nation on 24 August and transportation came to a halt, the landlord's ultimatum hung like a sword over her head. Overnight, trains and flights had been grounded and Modi had announced a three-week lockdown. She made many frantic calls to her family and friends. But she could not have walked 2,200 kilometres back to Dimapur. "I begged my landlord several times and told him I have nowhere to go," she recounts. Her plea has temporarily worked.
As the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China's Hubei province, rages on, it has renewed racial profiling and attacks on migrants from northeastern states in the rest of the country.
On 21 March, the Union home ministry issued an advisory to all states directing sensitisation of law enforcement agencies to deal with cases of racial harassment of people from the North East, following outrage from the region. However, the following day, a group of young interns employed at a five-star hotel in Kolkata were in for a shock.
A few locals who had been inquiring about them for the past few days " including one who was heavily drunk " landed up at their apartment. Tongou, their colleague at the hotel who showed up after a panic call, said the locals bashed up two of her male friends who had come with her to check on the group. "They kept screaming 'corona, corona' and accused us of carrying the virus," Tongou said. The group was taken to safety by a team from the hotel. However, Tongou alleged that the two cops who came afte the SOS call were not helpful at all.
When asked to comment on the incident, P Dutta officer-in-charge of Jadavpur Police Station, where the incident happened, said, "We have registered a case. It is under investigation. We have not arrested anyone."
The group of five interns " two women from Nagaland, and two women and a man from Manipur " were asked to vacate the place. "They have gone back home now," Tongou said. The incident was captured on video. Tongou said she is yet to receive a response to the email complaint that she sent to the police.
"Racial slurs like, China ka maal have now been replaced by Corona," said Cathy Chakhesang, a 24-year-old insurance call centre executive from Nagaland who works in Ahmedabad.
She and eight other colleagues had a horrid experience when they had to spend 24 hours in a quarantine facility after an anonymous complaint which reported that the group could be infected with coronavirus.
Last week on Friday, a little after Chakhesang and her eight colleagues (all from Nagaland) had logged in for their night shift, some officials turned up at the call centre at the city's Polo Road area. "The cops told the owner that someone has complained that we are from China and infected with the virus," she said. Soon, the group of nine was huddled into an ambulance and taken to a sports facility, which had been turned into a quarantine centre. A doctor, she said, ran premilinary checks on them.
"The owner tried to reason with them and told them that there is nothing wrong with us and that we are from India. But she was thrown out," Chakhesang said. The owner was following the group to check on them.
They spent the night at the facility with others with suspected cases of coronavirus. On Saturday, she recorded her ordeal on the phone. Soon the video went viral. As outrage spread, she got flooded with calls. The word reached top Ahmedabad officials, too, who rushed to the facility. Late Saturday evening (21 March) the group was allowed to leave.
The harassment, however, did not end. On Thursday, when she stepped out to shop for essentials, an unidentified man again screamed "Corona" after seeing her. "In our own country, this is insulting and humiliating," she said.
Even in Tamil Nadu, the office bearers of Naga Students Union say there is a constant trickle of complaints of harassment, of people being asked to vacate the house. "In the coming weeks the problem will get worse. The government here has been helpful. They have given us a building here in Chennai which can accommodate 100 people who are in need of shelter," said Asahrii Clement, of the NSU.
Clement complains how the nature of the gaze has changed since the outbreak. "Every time I move out to buy grocery, I find people moving away from me. They look at me as if I am a cannibal," he said.
On Sunday, a video from Mysuru, shot at a supermarke, showed at least two people from Nagaland pleading the workers of the store to allow them to buy groceries. "We are also humans. We also need groceries¦ why are you discriminating against us," they are heard pleading in the video.
Shame On us .... this is Mysore ... indian are racist towards Indians 🇮🇳🇮🇳🇮🇳😢😢🙏🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽🙏🏽 some poor Mizo boys were not allowed to buy groceries .... why ?? @narendramodi @KirenRijiju pic.twitter.com/Y592pB7NEJ
" Ranjit Bajaj (@THE_RanjitBajaj) March 29, 2020
It is very unfortunate that during this time of crisis our people from #NE are being harassed. In connection with an incident that took place in Mysore, I spoke with MP @mepratap, who assured to look into the matter. He informed that FIR filed & 2 arrested. @PMOIndia @AmitShah pic.twitter.com/XILvqngCdE
" Conrad Sangma (@SangmaConrad) March 29, 2020
I am pained, shocked and in my worst awe seeing this video! When has humanity stooped so low? I kindly request Shri @narendramodi ji Shri @AmitShah ji to look into the matter!#RacismIsAVirus #NortheastIndia #justice@Neiphiu_Rio @PemaKhanduBJP @SangmaConrad @sarbanandsonwal pic.twitter.com/4qU0A23b6e
" Zoramthanga (@ZoramthangaCM) March 29, 2020
After this incident on Saturday, one of the two victims took to Instragram.
"Me and my friend went to nearest more store this evening for groceries,we were in a queue for almost 25mins ,as our turns arrive we went to doors for entry and there were securities and they didn't allowed us to enter,so we talk them nicely like why can't we enter? We don't have any symptoms,or you can check us as well. And the securities said 'Coz you are not INDIAN', me n my friend were immediately offended with their response,but without any further argument we showed them our proof as an Indian (Aadhaar Card)and told them 'we are from Northeast India and a college students ', but still they said 'we don't accept foreigners'. We were arguing to proof ourselves as an Indian (for 5-10mins) in our own Nation. We went back home without groceries," he wrote in the post.
After the social media outrage, the police swung into action and took the staff into custody. "A video showing discrimination against Naga migrants in an outlet called "More" was noticed in Mysuru and immediately FIR has been lodged. Manager and staff of the outlet have been taken into custody," Mysuru Commissioner of Police wrote on Twitter.
"Some cases cases have been from Karnataka. We are trying to solve them with help of the police," said MD Kiba of the Naga Students Union in Bengaluru.
In some places, even the health workers at the frontline were not spared. Prity Umbe, a trainee nurse at a hospital in Hyderabad said she was called "trainee Coronavirus" by a colleague earlier this week. "I had to explain geography to the guy and tell him that Arunachal Pradesh is not in China," said Prity who hails from Lower Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh.
Some of these migrants believe the lockdown, in fact, is a blessing in disguise for them. "Isolation is shielding us from these attacks," said P Gonmei, a 26-year-old Naga from Manipur who currently lives in the National Capital. Earlier this month, while taking a stroll on Rajpath, a teenager who was with his family suddenly started walking towards her. He came close, saw her, turned back to his brother and screamed "Chinese, Corona!" The very next day, she was called Corona again by two men in Mukherjee Nagar in Delhi University's North Campus.
Anguished over the recent spate of racism, Merenla Imsong, a standup comedian from Nagaland recorded a song for "all those committing random acts of racism in these dark times" and put it up on youtube. Called A Song for the Racists it has over 68,000 views in three days. The comments section is full of incidents of racism over the past few days. Imsong's cousin was called Corona by a school kid in Mumbai. Another friend who stepped out for medicines was asked if she was infected by the man at the counter.
"Corona is the new Chinky," said Imsong as she recalled an incident from her days in Delhi University's North Campus where the neighbours called the police complaining that dog meat was being cooked by her. They had to open the pressure cooker and show fish bones to the curious cops to convince them it wasn't dog meat.
Alana Golmei, lawyer and activist who is also general secretary of the North East Support Centre and Helpline, concedes that migrants from the Northeast have internalised being called "Chinky, Chowmein and Chinese" in the past but this time things have gone too far. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, at least four to five victims of racism get in touch with her every day from across the country.
Golmei said there has been a spike in such cases since end of February. "I receive as many as four to five cases everyday," she said adding a caveat that only very few of these cases get reported. "In most cases, no complaint is filed," she added.
Across India, victims mostly get in touch with the local students body from their state. Since, the coronavirus outbreak in India, members of the students union have confirmed that the number of such incidents, racism over COVID-19 pandemic, have gone up.
"In many cases, they don't even complain. For example if a person has been thrown out of the house, they would just to go to a friend or relative," said Asahrii Clement of the Naga Students Union in Chennai.
"One thing is clear. It is deliberate and intentional," Golmei said. She said there is an urgent need, now more than ever, to change the school curriculum and include detailed lessons about the eight states in the Northeast, its people and its culture.
She also pointed out how the laws are inadequate and perpetrators get away with mild punishment even in those few cases when the survivors come forward to register a case.
On Wednesday, Delhi Police arrested a 40-year-old man in connection with an incident last Sunday where he spat on a Manipuri woman and called her "corona" after she objected to his behavior. "The man got bail within 24-hours. We need stricter laws. It is high time that the government accepts our demands of inserting 153c in the IPC to deal with such cases," Golmei said referring to the recommendations by the Bezbaruah Committee which demanded insertion of Sections 153C and 509A in the Indian Penal Code. Golmei was a member of the committee headed by MP Bezbaruah.
Appointed in 2014, to suggest measures to deal with racial discrimination against people from the Northeast, it recommended severe punishment, apart from several other measures like change in curriculum. The recommendations remain in cold storage.
Meanwhile, back in Ahmedabad, Chakhesang is resolute in continuing the fight. "I will file an FIR once the lockdown ends," she said.