The death of Nido Taniam is a stinging affirmation of the reality of discrimination in India, especially (but not limited to) its north and the Delhi region, against men, women and children who are “different” and look different. Taniam had protested this abuse — for upholding his rights, he was humiliated and beaten.
While Taniam will be remembered always as the victim of a hate crime, a racist attack, an abusive society, the haste with which politicians of all hues have rushed to proclaim their commitment to equality and justice smacks not just of hypocrisy but of seeking to take political advantage at a time of political uncertainty, when every vote and seat in Parliament will count.
A look at some incidents shows that few political parties have done anything to address the root of the problem — the lack of pluralism. There was Dana Sangma who hanged herself at a private university; Richard Loitham in Bangalore who died after a clash; a young girl from Manipur who had just arrived in Delhi but was allegedly beaten and killed by her landlord for resisting his loutish behaviour; the BPO/call centre employee who was grabbed by a bunch of thugs as she walked home and raped in a moving vehicle; the young woman who was taken off a train in Bihar and abused brutally. The list goes on. Where are the convictions, what is the status of the cases, where and who are the accused and the guilty? How have the survivors survived? How have their families coped? Who has supported and sustained them?
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The political narrative plays out in the comprehensive failure of both the state and the media to demonstrate any long-term commitment to victims, to give them a sense of protection and resilience and ensure that those who operate under the presumption of impunity cannot get away. It is not enough for politicians to rush to protest sites and proclaim support and promise to fix the problem. The problem can’t be “fixed” just like that: Arvind Kejriwal opened up a fresh debate by demanding death by hanging for the guilty. A debate about the death penalty will divert the issue at stake, which is part of a larger social malaise — discrimination, intolerance and inequality, of dividing people into categories of “us” and “them”, where “they” are always outsiders, the “other”.
There’s a history behind the violence against people from the region: over decades, it has taken the shape of verbal abuse, including jeers and comments about their looks to jostling and intimidation, sexual harassment and physical molestation, to extortion by taxi and scooter drivers as well as refusal by landlords to rent out rooms or apartments because they cook different food that is described as “smelly” or supposedly party a lot, etc.
The political script is one not just of intolerance, but of the failure of each and every political party to make Delhi and other cities safe for all Indians, to enforce the right of everyone to travel, migrate, live, study and work where they want. Of course, because of existing laws, there are exceptions to this constitutional right, such as in Jammu and Kashmir, parts of Himachal Pradesh and the Northeast. In the latter, non-tribals cannot purchase fresh property in several states; this is in place to protect the rights of small communities concerned about being overwhelmed.
It’s bad enough that a discriminatory law such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has existed with inbuilt ruthlessness, abuse and impunity in several parts of the Northeast for over 50 years, putting innocents at risk and those in uniform above law. Yet discrimination pursues many who leave the area’s insecurity, instability, lack of jobs and its inadequate educational systems for a place in the Indian dream and narrative, perhaps embracing the idea of India just as surely as an earlier generation in their lands had resisted it. They suffer the double sting of discrimination and abuse.
Behavioural change, whether in Delhi or elsewhere, is key. But it can’t be legislated. Yet, without tough implementation of existing laws, the climate of aggressive insensitivity that characterises racist incidents can’t be tackled. Of course, there’s the longer, surer, accompanying process of better education about the region and its people, sensitive counselling and media dissemination. School and university curricula that reflect its history, culture and realities are critical, and there are enough official reports on how this is to be done with the government of India (including a task force I headed and which submitted its report on January 7 this year). The government needs to put these together and process them without delay. But first, all political parties — whether in government or out of it — need to come together to support tough compliance with the law. It can’t happen with occasional refresher courses on hate crimes and human rights for policemen.
The criminal sting of discrimination must be met with the full force of the prevention of atrocities against SCs and STs act. Book those arrested for Taniam’s death under it. This can be amended to expand its protection to all citizens. While that may be a legislative task for a new Parliament, till then, enforce the law. While the message of zero tolerance for hate crimes must go out clearly, what is needed far beyond legislated tolerance, just as in the case of the Delhi gangrape victim.
It is respect for another person, community and culture as Bhupen Hazarika’s anthemic song, “Mauhe mauhor babe”, reminds us: If man does not think for his fellow human being/ Who will, comrade?/ If a demon turns more humane/ Who will it shame more, comrade?
The writer is director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia. Views are personal