India and China are clashing. Northeast India is caught in the middle — again

Activists protest against the final draft of the National Register of Citizens in the northeastern state of Assam, in New Delhi, India, on Aug. 4, 2018. (Altaf Qadri/AP)
Activists protest against the final draft of the National Register of Citizens in the northeastern state of Assam, in New Delhi, India, on Aug. 4, 2018. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

India and China are once again clashing along their disputed border in the Himalayas — for the first time since 1975. Soldiers on both sides have lost their lives — including at least 20 Indians and an unknown number of their Chinese counterparts.

Yet headlines in the outside world have largely overlooked the fate of local civilians — embodied by five young men from the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Apparently hired as porters for the Indian Army, they were captured by the Chinese on Sept. 1 and held captive until just a few days ago, when, thankfully, they were finally returned home to their families.

Those of us who call India’s Northeast home aren’t at all surprised to hear that geopolitics is once again overshadowing the lives of the people who live in the area. For decades, we have coped with the fallout from intense regional militarization and the excesses of the Indian security state. We’ve also spent generations contending with deep-seated racism among our compatriots — a regrettable reaction to the amazing ethnic and religious diversity of our strategically sensitive region, which borders on five different countries (China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh).

Connected to the rest of India by a 14-mile “chicken-neck corridor,” our region is home to 45 million people from over 272 indigenous communities who speak more than 400 languages and dialects and adhere to several indigenous and other faiths. The area includes four formerly independent nation-states that joined India between 1940 and 1975. To quell local insurgencies, India imposed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the region in 1958, a de facto martial law that continues until the present day.

The conflict in northeast India has resulted in the killing of over 50,000 people. The International Committee of Jurists has reported over 1,500 cases of extrajudicial executions, while Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented numerous cases of arrest, torture and rape over the years. Our schools, colleges, cultural sites and hills have become military barracks.

The war has widowed countless women. Manipur alone has 20,000 registered war widows. In 2007, I set up the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network to help female survivors of the conflict.

Most troubling of all, our region remains relatively unknown to the rest of India and the world. Our histories are not taught in any Indian schools — even in Northeast India itself — and the national government restricts media and humanitarian access to the region.

That ignorance has helped to fuel widespread racism against those from our region who have found ourselves in other parts of India. Perhaps the most notorious case occurred in 2014, when 19-year-old Nido Tania was beaten to death in New Delhi by a group of men who hurled racial insults at him, called him (among other things) “Chinese.” His killing was something of a tipping point, stirring protests against the culture of racist violence long endured by the indigenous peoples of India.

Yet such bigotry did not end with Nido Tania’s death. It stirred again when covid-19 hit India and the world. The first case of the virus was reported in the country in February 2020, and it sparked a stark increase in attacks against indigenous people simply because they, like Nido Tania, looked different. Since the pandemic began, indigenous peoples from our region have been thrown out of rented apartments, beaten, removed from jobs, detained, spat at, called “corona carriers” and told to “go back to China” for looking “more Asian” than other Indians. In the early stages of the covid-19 pandemic, the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace, of which I am a founding member, documented at least 200 racially motivated attacks.

The Citizenship Amendment Act passed by Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government discriminates against indigenous peoples who live within India, including those who follow indigenous faiths. Of the 2 million people left out of the National Register of Citizens, we estimate that 700,000 are indigenous peoples living in Assam and the Northeast.

While India signed the U.N. Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1967, the Indian Parliament has yet to pass any laws that address racism in the country. A report from the Ministry of Home Affairs has proposed urgently needed reforms. As a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, India should also adopt the National Action Plan to Combat Racism proposed by activists. India should also include information on the history, culture and politics of Northeast India in school curricula.

Rising border conflicts in South Asia, as well as growing authoritarianism, militarization and xenophobia in the region and beyond, make it incumbent upon democratic nations to ensure the dignity and security of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender or other attributes — and that includes the indigenous peoples of Northeast India. Only then can we successfully address the issues of racism, social justice and health, and bring about sustainable peace and development.

Binalakshmi Nepram is founder-director of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network and the Control Arms Foundation of India and the co-founder of the Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, Gender Justice and Peace.

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