Female migrants to Delhi from India's north-east are increasingly being subjected to sexual attacks made worse by police attitudes
Last week, after a local Assamese daily reported that another woman from India's north-east had been raped in the country's capital, a lot of my friends in Delhi started to get calls from anxious parents. A friend hoped her mother hadn't read the papers that day since they would worry and ask her to return home. Delhi is an unsafe city for women. Almost all women here face sexual harassment in some form or the other.
But what goes largely under-reported is that a significant number of these cases are against migrant women from north-east – a number that is increasing every day. It is a subject the jingoistic, popular Indian media is not comfortable talking about.
A year ago, an email was forwarded to me that had disturbing images of two Manipuri girls in Gurgaon, who were beaten with iron rods by their landlord as they refused to provide "sexual favours". They escaped with injuries to their thighs, backs and buttocks. In March 2010, when a Manipuri girl who was molested in Munirka went to file a first information report (FIR) in a local police station, the officer-in-charge initially refused to file it or arrest the accused, who she had chased and caught, until members from her community gathered and protested for two hours.
Last year, another woman was raped by a Delhi student and burned alive, apparently for resisting rape. It caused huge outcry, and north-eastern student organisations arranged a protest march demanding chief minister Sheila Dikshit ensure safety for the community, especially women.
One major factor behind these cases is, of course, poor administration, lack of adequate patrolling in the streets, but this isn't the sole explanation. The problem lies in the deep prejudice against north-easterns, and even more against women. Though the administration identified the increasing number of crimes against north-eastern migrants in Delhi, they are complicit in the perpetuation of racial prejudice.
In July 2007, a booklet was published by the west district of Delhi police where they asked north-eastern women not to wear "revealing" dresses and "avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily. Dress according to sensitivity of the local populace". After a gang rape took place in June 2005, the principal of Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi, publicly said the salwar-kameez must be the dress code of north-eastern women to avoid sexual harassment in Delhi.
The rest of India has a fraught relationship with its north-eastern states, but the politics of targeting north-eastern women with violence have only started to increase in the last two decades. Due to prolonged internal conflict between the many insurgent groups and the Indian state, student migration from these states has increased phenomenally. Now, thousands of students leave their home every year to different cities of India in search of better academic prospects and jobs. This has made the community a visible minority scattered across India.
Last summer, popular news channels and newspapers were practically hysterical over the racist attacks on Indians in Australia. This surprised the north-eastern community, for we have been facing similar things from other Indians for so long. Amid this mass mania of the solidarity shown for Indians in Australia, some news sites published a report referring to a recent survey that 86% of north-eastern students in Delhi face racial violence in many different forms, with 41% of these cases being sexual violence on women.
In December 2009, when the Dhaula Kuan rape case verdict was announced, reports said that the advocate defending the accused tried to argue for his innocence by citing that the victim from Mizoram, who was raped in a moving car, had an "active sexual life" – which probably meant that the rape shouldn't matter at all.
The judge responded with strong words but such a sentence could only have been hurled against a woman from the north-east; it is even worse that we hear of such debates happening in a court in this day in age, at the heart of this supposedly liberal, progressive nation.