NEW DELHI — Stanzin Rabka had stepped out to buy vegetables and pulses at his local market in Jammu city on 21 March, a few hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Janata Curfew” was scheduled to kick in the next day. The 21-year-old Ladakhi was about to approach the grocer when a man nudged him out of the line with his elbow and said, “chal hatt, aap logon ki wajah se coronavirus aaya hai.” (Go away, coronavirus has come because of you people).
Rabka could feel his face getting hot and flushed with humiliation, and said he could not find the words to defend himself. No else spoke up for him or countered the man who had passed the racial slur.
When he finally willed himself to speak, Rabka confronted the man, daring him to do it again while he made a video.
The video, uploaded on Instagram, struck a chord with many people, especially from India’s northeast states and the Union territory of Ladakh, who have been facing an increase in racist attacks since the coronavirus pandemic reached India.
In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, Rabka spoke about why the racial slur had shook him to his core, and why he made a video in which he tried to get his tormenter to “confess” and shared it on social media.
Rabka, who hails from the Buddhist town of Zanskar in Ladakh and is currently preparing for a competitive medical examination, said, “I’m Indian. I’m not the coronavirus.”
“People need to understand that we will not remain silent in the face of this racism. If we don’t speak out now, and the infection keeps spreading, this racism will only get worse. There will come a time when we won’t be able to control it. We have to bring an end to it now.”
“I’m Indian. I’m not the coronavirus.”
When this reporter asked him what he thought the words “you people” meant, Rabka said, “They slander us because our faces resemble the Chinese. We have got used to people saying ‘chinki, chinki’ and making fun of us. But now people are calling us ‘coronavirus’ and it is too much to bear.”
As the coronavirus outbreak has worsened in India, hate crimes and abuse targeting Indian citizens from the states in the northeast and the Union Territory of Ladakh have also escalated.
People from these two parts of the country, who are living in other states, are being called “corona” or “coronavirus”, and have even been asked to vacate hostels and rented accommodations.
On 18 March, Minister of State for Minority Affairs, Kiren Rijiju used Twitter to raise the problem of “racial remarks against North-East people” and said the matter would be discussed with the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the MP from Ladakh, on 19 March told the Lok Sabha that with the onset of COVID-19, students, especially those from Ladakh studying in cities like Delhi and Bengaluru, were suffering as educational institutes were closing down and they were being forcibly removed from hostels.
“Wherever our students are studying, looking at shakal surat (faces), first they used to call us ’chinki’ and Nepali, now they say ‘corona corona.’” I am requesting all citizens of this country, please do not attack us with these racial slurs,” he said. “We are Indian. We will remain Indian.”
In one horrifying incident in Delhi, a woman student from Manipur was called ‘corona’ and spat on. The Delhi Police has registered a case against the reportedly middle-aged man who did this on Sunday.
On Monday, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an advisory for all states to take appropriate legal action against people passing racial slurs and harassing other citizens.
In the weeks since the coronavirus gripped China, starting with the city of Wuhan and then spreading to other countries, people from China and those of Asian descent living in Europe, Australia, Canada, the Middle East and the United States have been harassed and attacked with racist slurs.
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly used the phrase “Chinese virus” to refer to COVID-19.
Sajjad Kargili, a political activist in Kargil, said that racism around coronavirus had manifested itself even within communities inside Ladakh, where hundreds were returning from a pilgrimage in Iran, one of the worst-hit countries.
“Ladakhis have been stigmatised in Jammu & Kashmir, in the rest of the country, and even within Ladakh in places like Chushot (Leh) and Sankoo Suru (Kargil), where people have returned from pilgrimage and feel discrimination,” said Kargili. “This should end because this disease doesn’t know any religion, border or ethnicity.”
“People need to understand that we will not remain silent in the face of this racism.”
After the slur
As he willed himself to confront the man who had passed the racial slur against him, Rabka dared him to do it again while he made a video.
Rabka said that he told the man about Namgyal, the MP from Ladakh, speaking in Lok Sabha, and that he planned to upload the video and tag the lawmaker.
This time, Rabka said, the man refused to repeat his slur, insisting the Ladakhi student had no proof he had ever said such a thing.
A video that Rabka made of this conversation shows a young man with a scruffy beard arguing with him, while the grocer speaks over the din and continues serving his customers.
“I told him to confess on video. He said I had no proof that he had ever made the racial slur. His friend also said he never said it,” said Rabka.
“No one else said or did anything to help me. I was on my own. I have always known that I’m Indian in my blood but why do people make me feel that I don’t belong here? It is too painful,” he said.
“I have always known that I’m Indian in my blood but why do people make me feel that I don’t belong here?”
Why he made a video
The video of his argument with the man after he passed the racist comment, which Rabka posted on Instagram after returning home that night, has received over 5,000 views.
In the more than 200 comments his Instagram post received, people shared similar instances of abuse and harassment they had experienced and thanked him for sharing the video, while noting that Ladakhis rarely speak out against the systemic racism they are subjected to in India.
One comment reads, “I’m having the same problem. Like people calling us Chinese rats, coronavirus and they tell us don’t touch us.”
Another reads, “This is also happening in Chandigarh with us and people are giving really bad stares.”
A third reads, “This is exactly what we all have been facing for the last few weeks, but no one actually came forward to stop this. Thank you for taking this step against RACISM.”
A fourth reads, “Well done brother, there are a lot of Ladakhis facing such kinds of problems (I am also one of them), but rarely like you are raising our voice against it. Let’s bring the change now.”
When this reporter asked why he had tried to make a video after the man had already passed the racial slur, Rabka said he felt it was important to relay that he had at least tried to shame him and hold him accountable.
“It happened with me today. It will happen with someone else tomorrow,” he said. “If someone sees the video, then they might also have the courage to speak out and shame the person harassing them instead of keeping quiet.”
““If someone sees the video, then they might also have the courage to speak out...”
Ladakhis in Jammu are facing a lot of harassment, Rakba said. Women, he said, were victims of street harassment and catcalling. Many students were living in fear of eviction.
There have been times, Rabka says, when people have just yelled out “coronavirus” when he has passed by, or just raised their voice and said “coronavirus” when he is in earshot.
“People used to call us ‘chinki, chinki’, now they call us ‘coronavirus,’” he said. “When we all have to come together to end coronavirus, if people carry on with this kind of racism, how will we do it? We need to stand together right now.”
“People used to call us ‘chinki, chinki’, now they call us ‘coronavirus.”
If the deadly virus continues to spread in India, Rabka fears that Ladakhis and citizens from the North-East will face even more harassment and discrimination, with grave and lasting consequences.
Rabka, who lives with his grandmother in Jammu, says he only steps out to buy essential items these days, but when he does, the Ladakhi student is as wary of the racial slurs as he is of the deadly virus.
“People have always given us this really bad stare and mocked us as ‘chinkis.’ Now, I’m afraid that when I step out, people will call me ‘corona’,” he said. “With all the worry that we have for our loved ones, can you imagine how that feels?”
“Now, I’m afraid that when I step out, people will call me "corona."”
Two racial slurs in one week
Udon Tsering, a college student in Jammu, told HuffPost India that she had been harassed twice in one week.
In the first instance, said the 20-year-old from Leh, the driver of the shared taxi that she took last week, looked at her and said “coronavirus” while she was leaving his vehicle.
Tsering, who described the driver as “a young man,” said, “Young or old, it makes no difference. Everyone is the same here. Everyone makes fun of us. No one ever says anything to stop the abuse.”
In the second instance, which happened close to where she lives in Jammu, three minors rode past her on a Scooty and the youngest of them yelled out, “coronavirus, coronavirus.”
“Even the children are doing this,” she said. “We don’t say anything back does not mean that people can say anything to us. It is painful. It is hurtful. Please stop.”
Earlier, people would yell out “chinki-winki” or “ching-chong” when she and her other friends from Ladakh passed them in the street, Tsering said. Now, they raise their voice and say “Corona, corona” when they pass.
When this reporter asked Tsering if there was one thing she would say to her tormenters, she said, “It hurts so much. We are also Indians. Do we need to walk around with our Aadhaar cards?”
“It hurts so much. We are also Indians. Do we need to walk around with our Aadhar cards?”
Teasing after the slander
When he had finished buying vegetables and moved to get dal at the kirana store next door, Rabka said that he ran into the man who had passed the racial slur against him again.
In this second encounter, Rabka said, the man smirked and asked him if he had uploaded the video. He opened his Facebook app, handed Rabka his phone and mocked him.
“He said why don’t you tag me as well,” said Rabka.
His voice cracking over the phone line, Rabka said, “You can understand what he was doing. He was teasing me and there was nothing I could do. If you were in my place what would you have done?”
Rabka decided to walk away.
“Everything that happened after he blamed me for the coronavirus lasted five minutes, but it will stay with me all my life,” he said.