Lajpat Nagar- a consumer’s heaven and a glimpse of what is generally understood to be “mainland” Indian culture- is visited by numerous students from the Northeastern states of India who are studying in Delhi. It is also frequented by Kashmiris, Afghanis and Punjabis alike for its culinary and shopping delights. When one thinks of Lajpat Nagar, one thinks of leisure, shopping, food and fun. However, this time it was none of those things. By the time the JNU Students’ Union reached Lajpat Nagar, hundreds and hundreds of students had already occupied Lajpat Nagar. The entire stretch from Westside to Lajpat Nagar police was occupied. Slogans ranged from “Punish them” to “We are Indians” and “We want justice”.
People were not thinking of shopping and they weren’t thinking about food. All they wanted was to be treated fairly, treated at par. The extremely unfortunate murder of Nido Taniam seemed to have sparked a revolt. The attack was seen not only an attack on Taniam but on the identity that is India’s “Northeast”. While anyone who knows the Northeast well enough knows that there is no homogenous “Northeast” identity. However, the perpetrators would not have known the difference between an Arunachali and an Assamese person. Taniam was mocked at because he looked a certain way. He was attacked because he challenged the racist slurs and fought back. Was he fighting back merely against the racist slurs directed at him? I would like to believe that he protested against decades of racial discrimination and injustice that the “Northeasterners” have been facing in what is termed “mainland” India.
One can’t help but think about the similarities between Nido Taniam’s murder and Nirbhaya’s murder. Both were targeted because of their identity. Both were attacked in South Delhi. Both sparked a revolution that was almost spontaneous, unrelenting and full of anger. This time, Jantar Mantar would not do. Assurances would not do. People wanted justice. However, it would be naive to think that the justice being demanded is merely legal. This was an assertion of citizenship, demand for social justice, equality and non-discrimination. While some scholars would opine that, for a Northeast student to shout “I am Indian” is similar to a woman shouting “I am chaste”, I would like to believe that these students from the Northeast also meant to assert and demand their citizenship rights rather than to reify the already problematic construct of nationalism.
However, the fight for dignity is only a baby step in the assertion of democratic rights by people of the Northeast. It will be several decades before Irom Sharmila gets regular front page coverage for her unmatched feat. It will be a while before draconian laws like AFSPA rake up the conscience of this nation. After all, these do not affect people in the “mainland” India.
-Shehla Rashid, AISA activist from JNU