Chennai: If people were put into the slammer for say, anything up to five years, every time they referred to a North-East Indian as ‘chinki’, our state’s jails just wouldn’t be enough. Why? Because knowingly, unknowingly or casually, most of us have used the word and not considered it a racist slur. “Everyone in college calls them that,” says Siddharth R, a second year student at a city college where plenty of people from the North-East study. “In fact some of the teachers casually refer to them that way. There’s no racism in it.”
Going by the considerably high number of North-East Indians, Tibetans and others with mongoloid features who have made the city their home, it stands to reason that you might have had to refer to a group of them by some name. And ‘chinki’ pretty much did the job, right? Wrong. A letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs to all States and UTs has recommended that any sort of ‘atrocity’ against north-easterners should be dealt with severely under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The move has been generally lauded by students and young adults who have moved to Chennai from States like Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and parts of Assam. “We’ve almost got used to it by now but I guess it will give us a boost to tell people not to call us ‘chinks’ anyway,” says Jonsohn Jos, from Manipur. “I first heard the term when I came here to do my graduate studies, but there was very rarely any animosity. It’s outside the college walls that the problems begin.”
The directive to book anyone who refers to a north-easterner as 'chinki' has garnered considerable attention.
Kapil, 27, who works in a restaurant in Adyar along with his brother and girlfriend, says that the word keeps cropping up at work in a not-so-friendly context, “Over the last two years many of us (from Nagaland) have started working in restaurants and hotels to supplement income for college. But since we have become popular with owners and managers, staff from this region have begun resenting us,” he reveals. Though he doesn’t quite understand Tamil yet, he does recognise the swear words that accompany the scathing looks, “They always add the word ‘chinki’ to whatever bad word they use,” he says. But would he consider reporting them? “No,” he replies quickly, “I’ll probably be blackballed by hoteliers,” and with a smirk, “anyway we just curse them right back amongst ourselves in our language.”
While the current breed of students, who have been here for a while and have gotten used to even friends calling them ‘chinki’, may not really take recourse to this law, thousands of migrants who come here for education in the future will benefit, points out Barry L, a research scholar in Physics who arrived here from Mizoram in 2004. “It can be quite shocking when everyone in the classroom looks at you strangely when you walk in and as you sit down you hear someone say ‘chinki’. Maybe my kids won’t have to face that.” he says, the hope in his voice apparent.
Twitter, FB abuzz over the C-word
As with any issue in the country, the online community took to Facebook and Twitter accounts, mostly in ridicule, over the latest initiative by the Ministry of Home Affairs to stop racial discrimination.
Tweeter @vijucherian asked, “Fine and punishment on ‘calling someone Chinki' is ridiculous. Does anyone think its gonna help the discrimination the people from NE face?”
This was the general trend of tweets, which included a @lourembam who said, “Want free food and shelter for five years? Call a #Northeast person a #chinki and be jailed for five years!”
A Twitter user with the handle @chotudochai tweeted, “If #chinki is unlawful, so should be #madraasi. Either way, 5 years is way too long for a slip of the tongue! #india #funny_laws.”
Several other tweets said that if ‘chinki’ was a racial slur, terms like *golti, *mallu, *bihari and *gujju should be treated the same way.
Many expressed their distaste at the politicisation of a sensitive issue, as tweeter Fartik said, “Pass a stupid law and garner an entire vote bank. #Chinki”
In contrast, North-East Indian groups expressed their happiness, as @isikkim tweeted, “#Twitter welcomes Call a #Northeastern ‘#Chinki’, be jailed for 5 yrs #RacialDiscrimination.”
On Facebook the comments in the North-East Indian community forums reflected a disappointment with the new directive. The page ‘Stop Discriminating People From the North-East India’ posted on the issue saying, “Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has issued to book offenders guilty of racial discrimination or atrocity against people from the NE region, but sadly it is applicable only to SC/ST category. What about NE people who doesn’t fall under that reservation? Is MHA trying to play the old school trick of divide and rule policy on us?” This attracted some harsh comments, asking the government to rehash the law to cover all NE Indians.
Comments by FB users on other forums were more optimistic, hoping that the discrimination would cease. Hwever, users like Zovera D and Scarlette posted that they would much rather be called chinki than Chinese or Nepali.
Who’re you calling ‘chinki’ anyway?
If you’ve got mongoloid features, chances are you’ve been called a ‘chinki’. Very few people can actually distinguish between someone from the North-East and someone from Tibet, Bhutan, China or any other country, much to the second group’s consternation.
“When someone calls me ‘chinki’, I react very aggressively,” says Sophia Wang from China, who works as a technical writer. To differentiate herself from a north-easterner she “politely ask people to call me a ‘Chinese girl’ instead of a ‘chinki girl’.” Having settled in India, she believes that as offensive as it is for her to be mistaken for a North-East Indian, the fact that her mongoloid friends are all right with the term is even worse.
The other group of people in the city who have repeatedly been placed in the ‘chinki’ class are Tibetans. “I first heard the word when I began college here,” recalls Tenzin Samten who works at an IT firm.
“Initially I didn’t really mind too much but now I feel that as a Tibetan I have a distinct identity that should not be confused,” she says. To her it seems ironical that Indians seem to be discriminating against their “own people” just because they look more like “us (Tibetans)”.