NEW DELHI – Ms Cathy Akhropele thought she was going to have a regular Friday at work with the weekend to look forward to.
The last thing this young Indian woman, with no coronavirus symptoms, foreign travel history or exposure to someone infected with the virus, expected was to be accused of carrying the virus and being confined at a quarantine centre.
Yet, that is what she had to undergo when she spent more than 24 hours in a hospital room last week with individuals who had recently returned from other countries and could have been possible carriers of the virus.
The only reason? The way she looks.
Ms Akhropele is from Nagaland, one of India’s eight northeastern states populated by many ethnic communities that share facial features with people from China.
But someone in Ahmedabad, the capital of the western Indian state of Gujarat, where she has lived for the last five years, thought she and her eight Naga colleagues were Chinese and infected with Covid-19.
The anonymous complainant called the police, following which a cop showed up at their office March 20 evening with an ambulance in tow.
The nine young people, who work for a dental insurance firm, were asked to get into the ambulance despite their employer stating clearly they were Indian.
The group’s ordeal is one of the many recent coronavirus-related racist attacks on those from the north-east.
The Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), a Delhi-based think tank, has documented 22 such instances reported in the media between Feb 7 and Mar 25 this year.
While these attacks were prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic, those from the north-east have long been been targeted in different parts of the country mainly because of a poor understanding of their culture and lack of integration.
Many victims in these recent cases were abused with “coronavirus” as a slur.
In one instance, a girl from the state of Meghalaya was forced to leave a restaurant in Delhi, following complaints as well as threats from other customers. A woman from Manipur, another northeastern state, was spat on in Delhi by a passerby who crudely referred to her as “corona”. The man has since been arrested.
Ms Akhropele and her colleagues were taken to the quarantine centre and kept there despite check-ups indicating they were healthy.
They were finally released the following night after a video shot by Ms Akhropele on her phone detailing their experience went viral, drawing condemnation and prompting intervention from senior police officials.
“Many people had gathered outside when we were being taken from our office. They were taking videos and it felt so weird,” Ms Akhropele told The Sunday Times. “We were targeted just because of the way we look. We don’t feel safe in our country and the government should really do something about it.”
The 24-year-old said she had been targeted even after the episode with “Hey corona!” taunts when she went out shopping for vegetables.
Also at the receiving end of such attacks was Mr Francis Yee Lepcha, a 41-year-old Indian of mixed Chinese and Lepcha ancestry from Kolkata. His maternal grandfather had fled Shanghai during World War II and subsequently married a woman from the local indigenous Lepcha community. Mr Lepcha is a singer based in Kolkata, a city that is home to India’s biggest community of Chinese-origin people.
While on a recent holiday with some of his family members in Puri, a popular beach resort town in Odisha, Mr Lepcha told The Sunday Times they were casually referred to by some as coronavirus carriers. On at least four occasions, people would say, in Bengali: “Corona aaschhe, corona aaschhe (Corona is coming, corona is coming).”
The train journey back home was uneasy, as other passengers were hesitant to sit next to them. “Not that they were badly behaved but they clearly suffered from a paranoia that we could be coronavirus carriers given the way we look,” Mr Lepcha said.
He broke the ice by speaking to them in Bengali to tell them that, while he understood their concern, he too was a local like them. “I was able to do this because I speak their language and understand their psyche. Not everyone can do this and any such situation may easily degenerate into physical violence,” Mr Lepcha added.
Prompted by his experience upon his return to Kolkata, he ordered a customised T-shirt with words in Bengali that read, “I am not coronavirus, I was born in Kolkata, I have never been to China.” It was an effort to raise greater awareness about the Indian-Chinese community as well as those from the northeast. “It was also, in some way, a self-defence measure,” Mr Lepcha added. A picture of him wearing it shot by a local photojournalist even went viral, drawing widespread support.
The frequency of these attacks prompted the Indian government to issue an advisory on March 21, asking law enforcement agencies across the country to “take appropriate action in cases of harassment” of those from the northeast. But this is of little help, argues Mr Suhas Chakma, the director of RRAG.
“The police are at a loss given the legal vacuum that exists when it comes to dealing with these acts of racial discrimination,” he said, pointing out how many communities from the northeast are not recognised as Scheduled Castes or Tribes. Those who fall under this category benefit from a specific legislation – the Prevention of Atrocities Act – that penalises discrimination against them.
“We need a similar specific law against racism that will empower the police to book perpetrators of racist attacks,” added Mr Chakma. “But this is a problem has to be addressed also by raising awareness about the origins and diversity of our people.”
This is a recommendation Mr Lepcha endorses too. “Schools in India need to incorporate lessons about the diversity of our people, including the Indian-Chinese and those from the northeast. This will lead to a greater awareness about them and the contribution they have made in diverse fields.”