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'Coronavirus' Is Now A Racial Slur In India: What Can Govt Do To Prevent Attacks?

Many Northeast Indians living in other parts of the country have been racially attacked and find it hard to even buy essentials like groceries at the time of a pandemic.
Students march during a protest in New Delhi on February 1, 2014 after the death of Nido Tania.
Students march during a protest in New Delhi on February 1, 2014 after the death of Nido Tania.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, there have been multiple reports of discrimination and racist attacks against Indians from the Northeast states and Ladakh.

Just last week, two students from Nagaland were refused entry into a supermarket in Karnataka’s Mysuru and allegedly told that they were “not Indians”. In an Instagram post, one of the students said they even showed their Aadhaar card but the security people told them, “we don’t accept foreigners”.

A 21-year-old student from Ladakh told HuffPost India’s Betwa Sharma in March about being shaken to the core after being called a racial slur and how he tried to fight back. At a local market in Jammu city on 21 March, he was told by a man, “chal hatt, aap logon ki wajah se coronavirus aaya hai.”

Alana Golmei, a lawyer and activist who runs the North East Support Centre and Helpline, told HuffPost India that they have received about 100 complaints from the end of February until the lockdown was announced this month. She herself was at the receiving end of a racist attack related to the outbreak in February.

This is not unique to India. Many Asians living in the US and Europe have also said they are becoming targets of racist attacks and verbal slurs. US President Donald Trump’s use of the word “Chinese virus” added fuel to an already fraught situation. A 26-year-old woman named Yuanyuan Zhu told The New York Times that she was walking to her gym in San Francisco when a man started shouting at her and then spat at her while she waited at the crosswalk.

This was similar to the frightening experience that a Manipuri woman in Delhi went through last month when she stepped out to buy groceries—a middle-aged man on a scooter spat paan on her and called her “corona”. He was identified from CCTV footage and arrested.

The alarming number of cases in India prompted the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to issue an advisory on 23 March, asking that “all law enforcement agencies in states and Union Territories be sensitised to take appropriate action in cases of harassment when these are reported.”

Golmei said that she had written to the MHA, Jt. Sec, North East Division almost a month before that, on 25 February, asking for an advisory after being called “coronavirus” by a man. She, however, said the advisory was just one component and a stringent law was needed to deal with these incidents.

Binalakshmi Nepram, a rights activist and founder of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, also told HuffPost India that an advisory was not enough and there is no pan-India level resource for Indians from the Northeast who are racially attacked.

HuffPost India spoke to Golmei and Nepram to understand if there’s anything different about the racism displayed after the COVID-19 outbreak and what the government can do to prevent such discrimination.

“Racism virus” must end: Binalakshmi Nepram

Nepram said that since the COVID-19 outbreak in China in January, both the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network and Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace (Nepram is the convener of Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace) have been receiving increased reports of racism against people from the Northeast who are studying, working or living in metropolitan cities of India.

She, however, pointed out that while the purported reason this time may be new, Northeast Indians have been racially targeted in many parts of the country for decades.

“Our research shows that racism against Northeast people has been prevalent since the 1970s when people from the region started to travel outside for studies and work,” she said.

She added that one of the reasons why there has been very little change in this attitude is because the rich history of the region is not included in Indian textbooks or in any curriculum.

“Hence, 1.3 billion Indians do not grow up knowing about us, our history, our culture and as a result they think whatever pre-conceived notions of who we are. Overtime, stereotypes — such as ‘North East people are uncivilised’, ‘North East people eat anything that moves, eat stinky food’, “North East women are morally loose’ and so on — started building up.”

Nepram said what was really shocking about the racism displayed this time was that people from the Northeast were even not allowed to buy essentials like groceries at the time of a pandemic. They were told to “go back to China”.

“If COVID 19 is a virus, we are clear that racism too is a virus that equally hurts us. It is time that what I call “racism virus” must end,” she said.

Successive governments are also to blame, said Nepram, pointing out the problem with discriminatory policies such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

According to Nepram, the Centre can take the following steps to tackle racism:

1. “India is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (India signed in 1967) and Indian Parliament must pass an anti-racism law. (Nepram’s office has worked with lawyers and has a draft ready on this).”

2. “India must implement the Bezbaruah Committee report on ending racial discrimination. I worked with several others on this committee for six months following the murder of Nido Tania, who was killed in Delhi. The committee report is 80 plus pages long and can be found on the Ministry of Home Affairs website and has extremely detailed steps that must be taken to confront racism in India.”

3. “India must include the rich history, culture, politics of the people of North East India in the curriculum so every child knows, learns and appreciates that India is a land of diversity.”

(Ed—The committee was set up following the murder of 19-year-old Nido Tania in January in 2014. One of the recommendations was a new law against discrimination. The other was creation of fast-track courts for handling cases relating to the North East people)

Fast-track courts are essential: Alana Golmei

Golmei also said that there is no severe law to punish perpetrators involved in a racist attack and therefore, they get away easily and repeat the behaviour.

“There is no exemplary action to prevent such racial abuses, police are not sensitive enough to tackle such harassment, enough sensitisation is not done both short term and long term,” she added.

Golmei also said that this time not just young people, but even old and middle-aged people have been at the receiving end of these racist attacks and abuses.

She said that people from the Northeast have been asking for an anti-racism law, but their demand has not been fulfilled yet.

Talking about the Bezbaruah committee, Golmei, who was also a member, said one of the major recommendations was creation of fast-track courts.

“Fast-track courts would deal with cases relating to Northeast people ‘particularly those which are racially motivated and heinous crimes against women and children’.”

Another major recommendation, she said, was the amendment of IPC sections 153C and 509A.

The committee recommended a provision in Section 153 of IPC, and insertion of a clause in Section 509 of the IPC to provide a maximum of five-year imprisonment and a fine as punishment for racism, according to The Indian Express.

“The most common demand is to make words like ‘momos’, ‘chinkies’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Nepali’, or any derogatory remarks related to race, culture, identity, or physical appearances punishable,” she said.

Amendment of IPC, she said, is still in process and nothing concrete has been done so far despite appraising the concerned authorities repeatedly.

This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact