A comment on hairstyle. A street brawl. And a 19-year-old is dead.
Nido Taniam, from India's northeastern state Arunachal Pradesh, was a student of Lovely Professional University in Punjab. He was on holiday in Delhi when he stopped at Lajpat Nagar market to ask for directions on January 30. Shopkeepers thrashed him and next day he died of injuries.
The death spurred outrage and widespread protests against continued racial attacks on those with Chinese looks.
"This is no random hooliganism. It is racism because we look physically different," Binalakshami Nepram, an activist, told DW. For years, people from the northeast have complained about racist slurs, jokes, assaults on the streets and harassments by landlords and employers.
The seven northeastern states - troubled by separatist conflict, military presence and chronic underdevelopment - are close to China but connected to India by a sliver of land arched north over Bangladesh. Each year, thousands of young people migrate to cities such as Pune, Delhi, and Bangalore in search of jobs and higher education.
"Nido's death is the tipping point. We will no longer tolerate being treated as second class citizens," Nepram said. The Northeast India Forum Against Racism was formed to campaign for an anti-racism law. "Many deny racism exists. The government describes the conflict in northeast as a law and order situation. Diplomatic words such as discrimination or prejudice are used."
'Share the ice cream'
Nepram points that India signed the "United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination" in 1967 but has not implemented it. "It is like you are sitting with a pot of ice cream and not sharing it with your family."
What she does say is heartening is that the administration appears to have woken up since Taniam’s death and is no longer in a slumber. A high-level government committee is expected to submit its report by March 31. The Delhi High Court gave interim directions to the government to employ more people from the northeastern states. It also called for the fast-tracking of 26 pending court cases of hate crime from the last five years, increasing police patrolling in areas where these communities live and greater outreach by Delhi legal Services Authority.
Attacks like the one on Nido Taniam have raised disquieting questions about identity and what constitutes the imagery of northeast and mainstream India.
Phurpa Tsering, a student - from the northeast - at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, says he is constantly made aware of his race. "Who are you and how you look becomes critical."
Recently, he was traveling on a train from Agra to Delhi when the police detained him. "They ignored my identity cards and insisted I was a foreign spy," he told DW. His friends, who are not from the northeast, had to vouch for his citizenship. But Tsering says racism is an everyday reality and is inflicted on people from southern states and tribals along with the northeast. "These incidents further alienate us."
Harassment is commonplace
The people of the northeast are sometimes referred to in reference to their single-fold eyelid.
"It is so common that we are forced to ignore it. No action is taken when we complain," said Taba Doni of Arunachal Pradesh Students Union in Delhi. He complains that people ask all to often if he is from Nepal or China.
"‘Do you know kung-fu or karate?’ they ask. Some call us names: chow-chow, king-kong and momo. When we respond, see what they do; They beat us like when they killed Nido," he adds.
Women from the northeast say that they are looked upon as "party girls," and teased and molested - even when men from their region accompany them.
Five years ago, Dipa Bodo left Assam to work at a call center in Haryana. "Men approach us on the metros and ask how much we charge for a night. They stare at all women but they only ask this question to women from northeast" she says, her voice taking on an angry edge.
Alana Golmei has been running the Northeast Support Center and Helpline in Delhi along with four other volunteers since 2007. On an average they receive 20 to 30 calls a month. Many complaints are about the non-payment of salaries and physical assaults. Often, when people from the northeast rent rooms, the landlords hike the price. They are forced to pay extra for a rental agreement.
"When we call to resolve these issues the people say they are locals and we are outsiders. They are dare us, threaten us by saying: 'try - you won’t be able to do anything,'" she says.
Countless instances of hate
Golmei hopes the galvanized activism and attention resulting from Taniam's death will bring justice to others such as the seven-year-old girl from Nagaland who was raped and murdered in 2009. Her body was recovered from a neighbor's water tank in Delhi and the case was shut. Last year, Reingamphi Awungshi, 21, from Manipur was found dead in her rented room in Delhi. The police claimed it was suicide but new test reports found traces of semen on her body but no poison or drugs. This triggered protest in Delhi but the 25 members of the parliament from the northeastern stated did not show any interest in Awungshi’s case even though Golmei contacted each one of them.
Stereotyping is rampant, she says. "Northeastern women are seen as morally loose, easily available, while the men are painted as losers, drug addicts or insurgents."
But Golmei argues that the region itself is subjected to "step-motherly treatment," from Delhi - while development remains elusive. She says the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in place in northeast has given the army unbridled power to raid without evidence and arrest or shoot without warrant or reason.
"I know how my aunties were kicked by the army, how my brothers were pulled out of homes at 2 a.m. What kind of India is doing this to us?" she asks.
Kadambari Gladding, spokesperson for Amnesty International India, agrees that the imposition of the AFSPA has contributed to discrimination and violence.
"The AFSPA has led to grave violations of the rights to life, liberty, security and justice and has been described by official panels as a 'symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness,'" she told DW.
In 2012, a number of people from the northeast working in Bangalore fled the city fearing "targeted discriminatory attacks" which showed the level of fear and insecurity haunting the community, Gladding told DW.
The problem does not appear to be on the wane. "The government of India has often shied away from dealing head-on with racism that the people of northeastern states face."