Letter from Asia: A racist attack on a student has finally shone the light on India’s great divide

For years people in India's north-eastern states have complained of being treated as if they are from a different country altogether


It was day five of the protest in Delhi by students from India’s north-east and the city’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, finally showed up.

“We appreciate you coming,” says Binalakshmi Nepram, an activist. “But why didn’t you come four days ago?”

People from the north-east have been burning with rage since the death in the capital last week of a 19-year-student, Nido Tania, who was beaten by several men after being racially insulted. Three men have been detained. A further three are being sought. “We will punish the culprits,” says Mr Kejriwal.

“Whoever is guilty in this case, whether it is the police or the accused, we will have to get together to ensure they are hanged.”

The attack on the student from Arunachal Pradesh has highlighted one of the uglier aspects of life in India – namely discrimination towards people from the country’s seven north-eastern states.

Countless numbers from the north-east who come to Delhi to work or study find themselves the victims of insults, over-charging and even violence. They are often too afraid to go to the police.

“They treat us like we are different,” says Athene, 19, a student from Manipur who has lived in the capital for 18 months. “They look at us as if we are animals.”

The complaint by the people of the north-eastern states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura – is nothing new. At one point the strip of land between Nepal and Bangladesh that links the north-east to “mainland” India is just 14 miles wide. And for years, people have complained of being treated as if they are from somewhere else, referred to as “chinki” by people who know nothing about their culture. Women from the north-east, who usually wear Western clothes as opposed to saris or traditional clothes, are accused of being “cheap”.

“We are Indians, but they don’t treat us like Indians,” says another student from Manipur, Lung Har. “They don’t know where we are from.”

At the protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, site of an 18th-century observatory, a portrait of Mr Tania has been placed next to the stage and candles have been lit.

The teenager was studying in the city of Jalandhar and had come to Delhi to visit his sister when he reportedly got into an altercation with some men at a market, who poked fun at his bleached hair. He was then beaten with sticks and iron bars.

The police broke up the fight and Nido then went to his sister’s house, where he was found dead the following day. A post-mortem examination found that he died of swelling in his brain.

When his body was flown back to the city of Itanagar, thousands lined the streets.

At the protest, other activists delivered speeches, as did several politicians. It is election season and nobody wants to offer an easy target to their rivals. (Rahul Gandhi, scion of India’s first political family had shown up the previous evening.)

Meanwhile, the students insisted they did not want their colleague’s death to be politicised. Runu Bonham, a cousin of the victim, read a statement from his family.

She said that they were utterly distraught and that his mother had been taken to hospital, before adding: “The media should encourage our culture and make people aware of it.”

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