Not at home

What does it feel to be an ‘outsider’ in your own country? With a string of recent allegations of discrimination against people from the Northeast,a Dalit student at AIIMS,a Manipuri cashier in Delhi,a Kashmiri Muslim in Mumbai,a taxi driver from UP in Mumbai and labourers from Bihar in Manipur tell their stories

Written by Pritha Chatterjee | Published: May 13, 2012 2:59 am

Ajay Soyal,New Delhi
‘Someone wrote,‘You don’t deserve to be here’ on my door at AIIMS’

Pritha Chatterjee

Running between postings in the last lap of his internship,preparing discharge summaries and drawing blood samples from patients,22-year-old Ajay Soyal is proud of the MBBS degree that will soon be added to his name. With the advantage of brand AIIMS to go with it,he is living the dream of every aspiring medical student in the country.

“I always expected life to change after getting admission in AIIMS,everyone does. But that change can mean different things to different people. This was something I realised when I was barely halfway through my first semester,” he says.

Back in 2006,he was part of a batch of 50 select students who had conquered the AIIMS entrance exam. As is the custom in the institute,students can “choose” if they want to be ragged. “Everyone wants to experience the thrill of ragging,” says Soyal.

“The first thing seniors ask you is your rank in the entrance exam. In our year,the first 34 ranks were of general category students while the rest was from the reserved category,” he says. For Soyal,a Delhi boy from Punjabi Bagh’s Sanatan Dharam Saraswati Bal Mandir school,caste was a “mere formality”. “It never struck me that caste would be an issue,that I should lie about it. I blurted out my rank and they knew I was from a reserved category,” he says.

In the following weeks,pranks were played on him and other students from the reserved category. “Our doors would be locked from outside in the mornings. We would be stuck inside and had to bang our doors for someone to let us out so that we could go to class. We didn’t associate it with caste at first. But gradually we realised it was only the students from the reserved categories whose doors were locked,” he says.

His first year at AIIMS was when the anti-reservation movement was at its peak,following the government’s move to reserve 27 per cent quota for OBCs in central and private institutes of higher education. Frenzied protests,relay hunger strikes and demonstrations became the way of campus life. Soyal was part of the stir against the OBC reservation. “I was a regular Delhi boy. My friends through life had been general category students and I was just going with the flow,doing what everybody else was doing,” he says.

“Students used to pack themselves into buses and go to other institutes for demonstrations. I remember I had just boarded one of these buses during the early days of the movement when a few of my classmates came up to me and asked,‘Why are you here? You don’t belong in this struggle.’” Back then,he says,it hurt. That one question set the demarcations clear: Them and Us. Two groups on either side of the reservation line.

“In school and in my early days at AIIMS,I was as angry as my friends about reservation. But AIIMS changed me. That’s the change life at the institute has brought in me. Today I can tell anyone on their face that it’s my right to be here as much as everyone else’s,” he says.

Soyal had never heard of the term “caste” till his class X exams. “When I was filling the form for the board exams,I got stuck at the category section. I didn’t know what the options meant. When I asked my father,he explained that we belonged to a particular community,” he says.

At AIIMS,he understood the connotations the term brought. “It meant you were born with privileges that you did not deserve and that you were eating up the seat that rightfully belonged to a more deserving student. They threw that in my face every day,” he smiles.

In his second year at AIIMS,Soyal woke up one morning to find the door outside his room splashed in black ink. “You don’t deserve to be here,” it read. “It was a blatant,stereotypical humiliation. I tried washing it off but it wouldn’t go.”

He complained to the hostel superintendent. Promises of setting up a committee to investigate the matter followed and the door was painted over. Nearly five years later,Soyal says no committee was formed and no one was ever found guilty. The door was re-painted,but where the new paint is peeling off,the words still peep out.

Soyal has been glad of his surname in college. “At least I am not a Meena,that’s a dead giveaway. People mistake me for Goyal most of the time so I am glad,” he smiles.

In 2009,Soyal stood for elections to the students’ union. “I was part of a panel that had a mix of reserved category candidates and those from general category. The other two panels only had general category students,” he explains. “Though the two panels competing with ours hated each other,they didn’t want us to win. They came together and formed a collective panel just a night before the elections and we lost,” he says. 2006 was the last year AIIMS students’ union had a president from the reserved category. “Now,the unions have one or two token faces from the reserved category. They don’t get any meaty posts,they don’t have any real work,” he says.

Inadvertently then,life in the institute has meant seclusion on the basis of caste. “I do talk to students from the general category but obviously I relate more to students who are facing the same problems as I do,even though I was not brought up like them. My lifestyle is more like those from the general category but my best friends are from the reserved category,” he says.

Talking about the recent suicide of a first-year student Anil Meena this year,Soyal says,“When he died,students boycotted classes and demanded justice for him. But in due course,the agitation changed track. The union’s final list of demands had very little to do with the problems faced by students from reserved categories,” says Soyal.

Soyal,the first doctor in his family, has tried to talk about this issue with his parents but they are not too keen to discuss it. “They just want me to get my degree and do well. If I raise these questions at home,the standard retort is,‘tumhe hi kyun hero banna hai’?” He does,however,bond over this issue with his younger brother who joined a medical college two years ago.

Will he come back to AIIMS for his post-graduation? “No. Right now,my focus is civil services. That’s the route to bring about real change,” says Soyal.

Yunus,Mumbai
‘Taxi drivers ask you only your destination,not where you come from. But in this city,we were targeted’

SMITA NAIR

Yunus carries two fresh notes of Rs 500 on days when there is a police nakabandi (checking). The Mumbai Police will not accept anything less,he says. On days when Mumbai celebrates,he prefers to drive at night as mornings bring memories from two Holis ago,when a group of people greased his face and abused him.

Yunus is a taxi driver,who,although was born in Mumbai,is identified as a ‘bhaiyya’ because his father came from Uttar Pradesh. At 55,he says he still can’t call the city his ‘own’. Yunus began driving a taxi soon after he turned 18,after his father took ill and the family’s finances crumbled.

The city made him work hard and even move homes. “Today,I wish my sons go to an ‘office job’ and pursue a career. This line is very hard,but worse for us as we are from Uttar Pradesh. And we are Muslims,” he says.

In a city which is progressive in many ways,from its demographics to the choices people make,Yunus says the “native card” is the harshest to deal with. “Taxi drivers never ask you your community or your state of birth,only your destination. Then why is it that the city chooses us as targets,” he asks.

On holidays,he says,areas with large Marathi-speaking populations such as Lalbaug,Parel,Dadar,Worli and Prabhadevi become “open ground” for people to target ‘bhaiyya’ drivers. “No one will say this openly,but drivers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar will not ply in those localities until the revellers return home. There are so many instances where they have walked up to us,hit us on our head and even greased us. They sit in the cabs and want a free ride,want us to follow their friends who ride bikes and travel from one area to another. Eh bhaiyya,chal,gaadi nikaal,nahi toh seat main rang daal doonga.”

On the other hand,Yunus says,he has always had a cordial relationship with the Marathi Dalits who live in his neighbourhood. “Once you are on the road,the situation changes. There was always some animosity as the Shiv Sena had problems with Muslims and they ensured that the divide spreads. It’s only when the new party,Maharashtra Navnirman Sena,picked ‘bhaiyyas’ as targets that they found a section of people on whom they could vent their anger,” he says.

“If we even park near a toilet,our cabs are towed away. In nakabandis,we have seen how Maharashtrians get away. Bhaiyyas and drivers with Muslim names have to show all documents and give bribes to be spared. No one will speak about this but this discrimination exists,” he says.

Sinawom Ramror,New Delhi
‘When we go to markets at night,men stare at us’

Nandini Thilak

Sinawom Ramror,27,a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur,moved to Delhi in 2007 after her graduation. Since then,she has been working as a cashier at a well-known Italian restaurant in Defence Colony.

The second of five siblings,for Ramror the move to Delhi was a way to contribute to the income of her parents,who run a small shop in Ukhrul apart from tilling their family land.

“I graduated in botany from a university in Meghalaya. After that I decided to come here to study and work. Lots of young people come to cities like Delhi and Mumbai to gain experience and to learn things one doesn’t get to learn in our hometowns,” she says.

Like many other newcomers to the capital from the Northeast,Ramror depended on relatives in Delhi during her first few months. As she looked for a job,Ramror lived with an aunt in Chirag Dilli.

Her first feeling of being a bit “different” came from not knowing Hindi. “Here at the restaurant or in a mall,almost everyone speaks English so it is not a problem. But in other places,it becomes a problem. If you go to buy vegetables in the market,without knowing Hindi,you will get nothing. So I write down whatever I want and then ask people at work to translate it in Hindi for me,” she laughs.

While communication is a problem,careless remarks from strangers are a bigger worry. “Even though we’re Indian,people think otherwise. They call us Nepali. In some places,they call us ‘chinkies’. If you go to the market at night,young men stand in groups and stare.”

Ramror lives in Moti Bagh in south Delhi with her two younger sisters who work at a coffee shop and a jewellery store in the city. “When my sisters came to Delhi,I told them,‘just be polite to everyone. Don’t be ashamed that you don’t speak Hindi,be yourself and don’t be too friendly because you can be misunderstood,’” she says.

For Ramror,people from her Tangkhul tribe living in Delhi are her support system. “On Sundays,we go to the Methodist church near Defence Colony where everyone gets to meet. There’s also a Tangkhul Facebook group and we hold events like a freshers’ party where we welcome newcomers to the city,” she says.

Nazrana Bhat,Mumbai
“A broker said,‘yahan sab high class rehte hain,Muslims nahi’

SMITA NAIR

Nazrana Bhat,26,has moved houses four times in the last three years that she has lived in Mumbai. One of those four moves was forced on her when her landlord discovered she was a Muslim from Kashmir and asked her and her husband to vacate.

Ever since she moved from Gurgaon to Mumbai after her husband found a job as an assistant vice president in an MNC,she has been made to feel an outsider on a number of occasions. Real estate brokers,housing societies,the affluent Gujarati community and the middle-class in Mumbai have always had a say in where she can live.

In Gurgaon,they never faced such discrimination,says Bhat,at least not regularly. “Just once,when I went to get a tatkal passport for my child. The officer looked at me and said he could not give a tatkal passport for a six-month-old,” she recalls. “When I told him the baby possibly can’t have any problems with tatkal verification,he paused and said ‘the parents are Kashmiris and our orders are not to do their verification in tatkal’.”

Nazrana and her husband were born in Kashmir but raised outside the state. In 2010,a week after they first moved into a rented apartment in Mumbai,they had to leave for a wedding only to return to an upset landlord. “The landlord realised we were Muslim Bhats and wanted us to leave,” she recalls. The search for a house resumed. “Sometimes we saw six houses or more in a day,with a baby in tow. We would be turned away from the gates,where the security guards would say,‘No Muslims’,” she recalls.

In July 2011,when they were house-hunting again,a broker for the upscale Mayfair Apartments told her,“Yahan sab high class rehte hain,Muslims nahi hain”,after she gave away her identity.

At Powai Vihar Apartments,a Muslim family refused them an apartment after they found they were from Kashmir. “Just ‘Kashmiri’ did it. Even my husband’s company documents,police verification and all our birth records were of no use,” Bhat says.

Now,she says,she is familiar with how house-hunting conversations go,the way brokers work and negotiate. “Upmarket places are the worst. Societies with Gujaratis do not even allow Muslims to step inside compounds,” she says.

“We sometimes sit in the colony park with our kids—me and a couple of other Muslim women. We don’t wear head scarves. It’s not that we do not want to mingle with the rest. The other women just say hello from afar. They never stop by to make friends,to know us. We are Kashmiris,with that face and that accent.”

Migrant workers,Imphal
‘We have no choice but to silently take the abuse’

ESHA ROY

It’s quiet at the Marwari dharamshala in the heart of the bazaar area in Manipur’s capital,Imphal. A few traders from outside the state are staying in the dharamshala. Outside,migrant workers sit along a broken footpath,waiting for work.

But it wasn’t always this quiet here. In the summer of 2010,the dharamshala was flooded with migrant labour from Bihar,herded into the charitable guesthouse by the Manipur state government after a number of workers from Bihar had been shot and stabbed by local Manipuri youth. The workers stayed there for over a month till things calmed down.

“This place was like a prison then. We have two entrances to the dharamshala. Both were locked and the migrant workers were not allowed to leave the premises and go out to earn their daily wage,’’ says Prakash Kumar,the dharamshala caretaker who is from Muzaffarpur in Bihar.

Outside the dharamshala,Tej Narain from Begusarai district in Bihar waits patiently for someone to hire him. A tile layer,Narain came to the state 15 years ago as a 20-year-old youth. “Things were different then and there weren’t that many underground groups. The number of migrant labourers were also fewer and there was a need for labour in the state. So there was more acceptance. Even now,very few Manipuris work as labourers,which is why so many migrants come here,’’ says Narain.

Attacks on migrants haven’t deterred them from coming to Manipur. Lal Chand,59,from Begusarai,Bihar,is one of them. A plumber,he has been working in the state for over 25 years. “Most residents of Begusarai go out to look for work. A sizeable population comes here. Every once in a while we hear of someone from Bihar being killed in Imphal. We never move out of the bazaar area after five in the evening because all the Mayangs (outsiders) stay here. This is the safest place to be in Imphal. The government provides security and commandos here,” he says.

Tej Narain says he has been attacked a few times. “I have been abused and kicked a couple of times. One of my friends was beaten and robbed. They tell us to go back to our state. We have to silently take the abuse because my work and my clients are here now. I am old. I can’t go to another state to look for work,’’ he says.

Living in fear,Narain,like many other workers,has never got his family to Manipur. “I have two sons and a daughter who live with my wife. I go to meet them in my village once,sometimes twice,in a year. It is not safe for them to come here,’’ says Narain.

For all the latest News Archive News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results