Migration, Racism and the Corona Virus pandemic

Omen Achom writes of his long experience of racism, brought to a head during the Coronavirus pandemic. originally from Manipur, Omen stayed with his friend in a Telangana village to pass the lockdown peacefully, before returning home.

It’s my 12th year outside my home state, Manipur. In these 12 years I have stayed in many places viz Hyderabad, Kolkata, Guwahati, Delhi and Pondicherry for my education and job opportunities.  All and all, in short for my ‘survival’ which in my home state seems to have been curtailed because of the Indian occupation in the state. When the people of Northeast migrate to mainland India it is difficult to classify their movement, whether they are a refugee or IDPs (internally displaced people). Refugee because of the cultural and racial distance from the rest of India, also the pro-independence tendency which stems out of the forceful merging and annexation of some North eastern states to the newly Independent India. IDPs because the Indian state and the armed militants are at war like conflict, a violent atmosphere with heavy militarization and restrictions on civil rights.

The racism I faced at home is the structural racism which many refuse to see, I would say this as more life threatening since it is legally authorized and sanctioned in the form of ARMED FORCES SPECIAL POWER ACT (AFSPA), 1958, by controlling and disciplining the population by manifestation of violence in many forms: fake encounters, shoot at sight at mere suspicion and uncountable instances of rape. With the heavy militarization and the increasing tumultuous political atmosphere in the state, parents who could afford, started sending their kids to the mainland in 90s, a) for a better higher education b) to escape the atrocities under Indian occupation. There are ample number of cases of youth being picked up by paramilitary forces and state police only to be found dead or missing. Even my brother was sent away from home in 1995 to Delhi, after his 10th board exam for his higher studies and since then he too has been shifting to various place of the country for his education and job, his 25th year outside the home state.

A pookalam or muggulu in front of the hosue where Omen spent his lockdown days, rural Telangana. Photo: author.

When I left my state, to mainland, it was a different form of racism that I encountered. Name calling in streets and corners, being dragged into a brothel in GB road in Delhi on my way back to my rented room from college, questioning my identity and citizenship on multiple occasion, being thrown out of rented room by landlord for my food habits etc. Perhaps this was less of a life threatening racism,  but how can we forget the racism related death case of a Manipuri boy Richard Loitam in 2012 in Bangalore, Dana Sangma– a girl from Meghalaya in 2012 in Noida, Nido Tania from Arunachal in 2014 in Delhi. The biggest revelation after coming out of the state was that I was no longer leading a life among the paramilitary forces, militants and political uncertainty. The restrictions I had faced were not from parents but from the patrolling Armies and their convoy truck, from being frisked at their wish, to being looked upon as a potential militant, house raids at any day, from the fear of being picked up: if unlucky – a fake encounter,  to if lucky – a butt stroke on your head or on your abdomen.

It was during my Post Graduation days in Hyderabad, that I remember receiving many frantic phone calls from my parents on the outbreak of racial violence against the northeastern people in July 2012 in the metropolitan cities of India. Racial attacks were lashed out against the northeastern people because of the communal clash between Bodos and Muslims at the Bodoland territorial Autonomous district of Baksha, Chirang, Dhubri and Kokhrajar of Assam. There were reports and rumours of Manipuri IT professionals and students being beaten up by Muslims in Pune. Similar cases of racial attacks were reported from Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, isolated cases were reported throughout India. These attacks created panic among the Northeasterner and they received threats asking them to leave or they would be attacked. The Northeasterners started fleeing to their home states from all over the country, trains were overcrowded, it is said around 30000 strong fled from various part of the country. Some were even dragged down from the train near Hyderabad and there are unconfirmed reports that some people were killed on their way home.

Having lived for years with racial slurs, attack and discrimination I intuitively foresaw and made my best attempt to overcome the recent racial attacks during the ongoing Corona virus pandemic. Nonetheless to put it chronologically, at beginning of February I was in Khammam district of Telangana when the first Covid-19 case was reported in Kerala, the first in the country. I had come to attend a family function for my friend and my current flat mate. I caught a cold and a throat infection owing to my chronic sinusitis and the seasonal change. I was even denied a tea at Khammam railway station for I bear the East Asian look or the Chinese look. Towards the end of February, I visited Kerala for a friend’s engagement and some work related to my research. I was constantly mocked, taunted whether I am from China and don’t I carry the virus.

Omen participated in the harvest season in his friend’s village. This plate of food features different kinds of mango pickles, that they picked and prepared. Image by author.

If memory serves me right, Hyderabad reported its first Corona case on 2nd March. I was looked with suspicion as carrier of the virus in all the public spaces, be it a tea shop, grocery store, eatery joints, university campus. There were instances where even the neighbour kids would scream corona, cover their face as soon as they see me walking down the street. What I anticipated unfolded slowly with each passing day and the rise in covid-19 count. I prepared myself mentally for the days to come and not to be bothered by any racial remarks or abuses at this point of time. To be honest, I was scared of the racial attacks and discrimination more than corona virus infection.

By March second week, we were told that university will be shut until further notice and there were rumour floating around for a possible lockdown. I was asked to come back home by my parents, their concern- racial discrimination. I was in a fix, the flight tickets shot up overnight in price. There are no direct trains from Hyderabad to Manipur and both my parents are 65+ and diabetic I was scared of carrying an infection to them from Hyderabad and infecting them. Seeing me with no options, my friend asked me if I would like to come along with him to his village, Rayudupalem- Khammam  District, Telangana, till the university reopens, instead of staying in Hyderabad, where I have high chance of contacting the disease and as well as bearing the brunt of racial discrimination. I was a little apprehensive joining him at his home because nobody would really like an extra person in the house at this trying time. I had to confirm it with him several times if his parents would be fine with me, staying for months. We went to my friend’s home a day before the Janata Curfew on 21st March. On the second day at his village, the ASHA health workers took my personal information as per the protocol and we were asked to keep a close monitor of our health. For the first few weeks I didn’t venture anywhere in his village except to their fields and plantations, not to scare the village folks with a strange face. Later only when the villagers became familiar with my face I started involving in daily activities, and participating in the harvest season. The villagers asked me about my place, and I was extra careful not to identify my geo location with China or Burma, I would say it is next to Kolkata or Bangladesh. Things went smoothly for two and half month and I came home on June 8th,, after a brief layover at Hyderabad.

There are enough cases and reports of racial attacks all over the country against the North eastern people during this pandemic, which was later fuelled by the India-China border standoff at the Galwan Valley, Ladakh. In the future, I suspect a resurgence of  racial discrimination or abuses when Northeast people protest if the Indian Govt starts implementing the CAA and NRC, which will affect the most in this region.  

Cover Image: Krishna Babai and Omen Achom. Babai, from Kothuru Telangana, struck up a friendship with Omen, while both of them were drying grains. Courtesy author.

Omen Achom is a doctoral researcher at The English and Foreign Language University, Hyderabad. he can be reached at mahidak@gmail.com.

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