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Sanjoy Hazarika is a columnist, author, filmmaker, Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair at the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.

Delhi listens to Northeast’s concerns for a change

The young spoke of police disinterest when their rights were being brushed aside, of being at the receiving end of sexual harassment and of ugly terms about their looks.

Women from the Northeast hold placards during a peaceful protest against the rape of a girl from Mizoram, in New Delhi in November 2010. AFP

he minister listened patiently at the first floor conference room in the large government building in Delhi to the outburst of a mix of impatience and anger, bitterness and sadness, where the personal experiences of individuals flowed with the indignation of communities they represented or were drawn from. He had come in late from Parliament where a major debate had been taking place and the group that had been waiting for him for over an hour.

But on the advice of Yogendra Yadav, the eminent social scientist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies at whose initiative the meeting was taking place, the wait was turned into a useful exercise to discuss issues of common and individual concern. The concern was simple: it grew out of the tragic deaths of two young people from the Northeast, one from Meghalaya and the other from Manipur, in recent incidents where people from the region had allegedly been targeted — stereotyping, prejudice or what is otherwise called "racial profiling".

As young people spoke, at times breathless in their anger, at other times, calm and firm, Yogendra put the perspective broadly but clearly: there would be issues which can be resolved by government and institutions and others which would be broader, societal matters. Several points were made, of how police and often college/university faculty members were unhelpful and even biased, of how people from the region often came from completely different social conditions and were quite unprepared for the social stress in places like Delhi. Ignorance is vast.

Another important issue also came up, of the lack of convergence of the issue — how people from the area often "grouped" together and did not collaborate with those from other states within the region.

When Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal walked in, the education secretary (higher education) and the officiating chairman of the University Grants Commission flanked him, signalling the importance that the ministry and Sibal gave to the issue. He listened quietly, making notes and points, as young people, representing student associations spoke, as well as senior scholars and others. His concern was reinforced when he heard of faculty members taking "unacceptable" attitudes. Many of the young people spoke with passion and at length, of police disinterest when their rights were being brushed aside, of being at the receiving end of sexual harassment and ugly terms about their looks, whether it was being called "chinky" or some other derogatory word or phrase.

A good suggestion came that such derogatory words should be specifically made illegal. Unless the sting of prejudice is met with the power of prosecution on the side of those who are vulnerable, then the State will be shown as discriminating against the Northeast twice over: in the region with laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (why Special) that apply there, and outside it with the inaction of prosecuting agencies.

This in turn creates a greater sense not just of injustice but also anger which can be tapped by those committed to the undermining of India, whether underground groups or criminal gangs.

Sibal defused the indignation and the anger in the room by taking a few simple, straight decisions: the first was that there should be an amendment to existing University Grants Commission guidelines on discrimination and that racial profiling also would not be tolerated. The second was an urgent meeting with the Delhi police commissioner and senior officials to make them understand the compelling nature of the issue and sensitize police personnel at lower levels. In his individual capacity, he said, he would ask education ministers from different states where there were large NE populations also to convene such meetings. Another decision was to institutionalize a Northeast Helpline at the UGC.

A clear message that the stakeholder is involved in ensuring justice is the key to crime and punishment. How large a gap exists is visible in the fact that Sibal is the first Cabinet minister in years to hold such a meeting with a group of student and other non-political representatives. A crucial beginning has been made — it's critical to sustain it.

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