As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread, reports of racial attacks on Chinese and other South-East Asian people across the world are becoming rampant. In India too, there has been a surge in racism against people hailing from the northeastern region.
Last week, a young woman from Manipur was spat at and called ‘corona’ in the national capital. The same evening, I faced severe online abuse with trolls labelling me as ‘bat-eating’ and sending explicit content with the derogatory slur, ‘chinki’. These are just two examples from the hundreds of racist incidents that my brothers and sisters from the region are currently facing. While the whole nation focuses on fighting the contagious coronavirus, we have to fight an additional battle called racism.
It goes without saying that racism has always existed, but the sudden spike is alarming. That is why it is important for us to understand the cause if we are to successfully tackle it.
It is a well-known fact that the coronavirus pandemic originated in China. Though the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially named it Covid-19, many continue to call it ‘Chinese virus’. Such nomenclature that associates diseases with regions was discouraged by WHO in a guideline issued in 2015 in an attempt to minimise unnecessary negative impacts on trade, travel, tourism, and animal welfare; and avoid causing offence to any social, cultural, national, regional or ethnic groups. History has seen the negative impacts caused by the usage of names like ‘Ebola’ and ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome’. Now, the continued unchecked usage of Covid-19’s unofficial name across the world has led to the stigmatisation of people who are either from China or have Mongoloid features.
In India, northeastern people have always been subjected to racial slurs like ‘Chinese’, ‘Momo’, ‘Chowmein’, etc, because of our facial features. With the normalisation of the term ‘Chinese virus’ and internet memes mocking Chinese people, it is but natural for communities like ours which have been at the receiving end of this racism for decades to also bear the brunt.
One could argue that there is nothing racist or xenophobic about using the unofficial name and holding China responsible. While it is okay to hold the Communist Party of China accountable for its misinformation and cover-up, targeting innocent people is immoral and unjust. The ramification of this stigmatisation is also felt by communities like ours, without any fault, in our own country.
In addition to this discrimination, there is also a sense of hopelessness caused by the lack of comprehensive legal remedies. Though India is a signatory of the International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination which was adopted in 1965, we still do not have an anti-racial discrimination law. Since the last decade, civil society organisations have been demanding the enactment of such a law because while the current Indian Penal Code has provisions for crimes committed against an SC/ST individual, no safeguard is in place for people belonging to other categories. Due to this lacuna, despite the severe racist and sexist online trolling I endured, I had to seek refuge in the Information Technology Act.
In July 2014, the government had promised to implement the Bezbaruah Committee recommendations, constituted and submitted in the wake of the Nido Tania murder case, on how to reduce racial crimes. It also assured to amend the Indian Penal Code to criminalise hate speech ridiculing one’s origin, region, or place of birth. However, it lies forgotten now.
In the absence of political will and legal remedies, the onus to tackle racial crimes falls on the citizenry, especially at a time of crisis like now. Therefore, we need to open up our hearts and spread love. Not hate. We need to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable sections of the society. We need to be sensitive about the words we use. Language matters. We need to understand that it doesn’t take long for internet memes and harmless banter to become ingrained in the normal parlance and be used as ammunition by those who intend to divide the society. Just like each one of us has a role towards flattening the curve, we also have a role to play in creating a society that doesn’t discriminate whether one is an airline personnel, a doctor, or an ethnic group. Alienating any section of people goes against the need of the hour — collective effort. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the fear of the unknown and project one’s insecurities onto others. But we must not forget that the novel coronavirus doesn’t discriminate. So, it is absolutely necessary that we all be humane and stand united in this fight.