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An insult to the Constitution

Prasenjit Biswas | Shillong |

The Khasi dress, Jainsem, worn byTailin Lyngdoh from the West Khasi Hills in Meghalaya, was the target of racial slur in Delhi last week.

What could be more antinational in a nation of 1.2 billion than term someone a “Nepali maid,” just because she was not wearing a saree or salwar, the supposed “national” outfit of Indian women?

This is what the staff of a high profile club in India’s national capital did to Lyngdoh. Isn’t it the case that this nation thrives on an overt symbolism of a supposed “Indian face”, the look of which is never like the Mongoloid fringe that constitutes one of the most diverse and invaluable regions of India?

The real question is when did India free itself of, what goes by, the name of racism? More than Lyngdoh being embarrassed, what the Delhi Golf Club honchos did was to downplay the depth of national shame, which shows a rabid impunity aided by New Delhi’s shallow commitment to its own laws and the principles enshrined in the Constitution.

Be it Rohit Vemula, Akhlaq or Junaid Khan, the state failed to discharge its constitutional duty of maintaining harmony and fraternity.

It will be worthwhile to recapitulate what the framers of the Constitution stipulated in Article 15. It says, “India shall ensure prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”. The slur of looking like a “Nepali maid” opens up multiple grounds of discrimination as Tailin Lyngdoh’s place in Nivedita Barthakur’s family was reduced from that of a “governess” to “maid” as she was asked to leave the table where she was seated for dinner on their invitation.

It compounds racist and sexist stereotypes and also undermines her “place of birth”, which is in the West Khasi hills, known for its rich uranium reserves and which the country is trying to exploit. Even if the state is equated with its land, territory and people, as ultra-nationalists do, can they dispense with its people altogether?

The slurs hurled at Lyngdoh and its invisible and unmentionable contours, dig up the visible practices of discrimination that the present has brought, in the form of lynching, shaming, and ostracising the “internal other”, and thereby undermining them in every possible way to uphold a jingoistic version of nationalism. Lyngdoh’s humiliation is not the last in the saga of discrimination against Dalits, tribals, women and other soft targets of a jingoist national ethos.

The lofty ideals of fraternity, solidarity, harmony, integration and respect for others are deeply dented and thrown overboard with impunity, as those who show it off on the roadside are hailed and protected. Such lynch mobs are readily constructed and put into operation to mount an assault on the basic human freedoms that are morally and politically guaranteed in post-Independence India.

As powerful segments reiterate the language of hate and division in terms of civil war, genocide and racial slurs in innumerable and rapidly increasing number of cases, such invisible lynch mobs are taking over the public spaces of India — clubs, restaurants, railway stations, streets and the like — thereby endangering the multicultural fabric of the country.

Lyngdoh’s specific cultural attributes looked so alien and unfamiliar to the club honchos that her Jainsem, known to anyone who has visited Meghalaya, could be so easily trashed. Without a whimper of regret, the club, in its public statement, now blames the “political and cultural overtone” given to this incident and claims that the apology they tendered has been “unconditionally accepted”.

No one knows why instead of saying that they gave an unconditional apology to Lyngdoh, they assert their hegemonic tone of saying that the apology is “unconditionally accepted”. What a perversity of an apology! Like their political bosses, they also blame “political and cultural overtones” as a sensitised media reported the incident with great remorse and lamentation.

In the context of Northeast India, the repercussions of this incident are immense as it attempts to nullify significant cultural differences in an idiom of “one India”.

The mainstay of the Indian Constitution, as articulated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in terms of “unity in diversity”, is inalienable but regular incidents of racist, sexist, communal and jingoistic activities have already tarnished its lofty ideals.

Racism, at its worst, has always chosen its victims to be a North-eastern benign face who looks completely befuddled amid India’s strongly homogenised Hindu-Hindi heartland that is still not ready to reason with itself on any significant cultural, political or religious difference.

Violence based on race assumes such a façade of “dress code”, which the Golf Club has decided for itself and attempts to impose it on any visitor, despite Articles guaranteeing one’s fundamental rights at all public spaces in the country.

Someone in a different costume with a different look is never secured by law, as fundamental freedoms are upheld only after they are violated. It’s not a mere mischief of some disgruntled Maoists, but the well-nigh, wellfed and nouveau riche of the country’s capital, who behave in the most insensitive manner. What is at stake is this overt and direct discriminatory behaviour that begins with a sense of difference and superiority that undermines the “other”.

This is deeply embedded in claims of cultural superiority that certain elements highlight as their tradition and heritage. It is this ethno-centric closure that resulted in the Lyngdoh kind of discrimination or the lynching of the young Nido Tania of Arunachal Pradesh three years ago and the teenager Junaid Khan — interestingly all these happened in the Hindi heartland.

Seemingly there is something shocking about it — are seats of power less and less tolerant of cultural difference and are they more prone to practices of discrimination? A thought needs to be spared on this. Is this manifestation of a ruling political and cultural elite who condone their own acts of omission and commission, especially on the country’s peripheries and if it happens to be Northeast India’s West Khasi Hills? Do we need to start a civilising mission in the heart of India so that centre-periphery relations are overcome by some semblance of a corrective action?

The question that needs to be posed again and again, is how a culturally and racially different individual or people bring out our dark instincts of acting in a criminal manner? Are such cultural crimes embedded somewhere in the psyche of the larger Indian pan-national identity? As Indians, are we still to learn about our inexhaustible diversity that does not allow settling for a shibboleth of Indianness?

The problem lies in imagining common symbols and the so-called unifying descriptions, which fail to recognise a different icon or code. In this case of insult on the dignity of Lyngdoh, what is most deplorable is a total blanking off of certain parts of Northeast India in the so-called mainland, where Northeasterners are often called “Northeastern immigrants”.

Lyngdoh’s home in the West Khasi Hills is a rich linguistic and cultural hamlet that India’s capital must acknowledge and national agencies operating there must pay back their debt to its people and culture.

It’s quite an irony of our national life that the Uranium Corporation of India is eyeing the rich uranium deposits in West Khasi hills, while its very own Tailin Lyngdoh is not recognised by the country and its most-chequered club honchos.

The writer is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong