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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Chp 498. Mumbai - Birth of a North East Helpline

People say there’s a light at the end of a tunnel to signify an end to an unpleasant situation or times of hardship. And sometimes that light can also be the light of an approaching train, about to run you over and end your hardships, along with your life.

But for the North Eastern people residing in Mumbai, that light at the end of a tunnel could very well be the light of an approaching Mumbai local train, driven by Mr. Rakesh Maria, the Commissioner of Police, on his way to pick up all those North Easterners waiting on the railways platform and help them live a better and easier life in this wonderful city called Mumbai.

It is no secret that people from the North East, especially those with mongoloid features, are mocked regularly across India. And no matter how much we write about it, blog about it, tweet about it, even rant about it, the discrimination and racial abuses we face do not stop. It was only after the death of Nido Taniam, who was publicly mocked for having “strange hairstyle, looks and clothes” and critically beaten up in an ensuing fight that the Central Government finally woke up.

Delhi, considered as one of the most unsafe places for women in India, is also a city where North Easterners have faced the maximum brunt of racial attacks. That is why the North East Support and Helpline group was set up in Delhi in the year 2007. The NE Support & Helpline is a joint initiative of various human rights activists, social workers, students, journalists and lawyers seeking to prevent harassment and abuses meted out to North East people residing in Delhi, and I have had the privilege of corresponding with Mr. Madhu Chandra, the spokesperson and one of the founders, regarding various topics on racial abuses and discrimination on my blog and other platforms.

This time, in light of Nido’s untimely demise, the Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi, has set up a committee comprising of reputed intellectuals from the North East including retired Civil Servants like Mr. M.P. Bezbaruah, IAS Retd and member of North Eastern Council, Mr. H.W.T. Syeim, IAS Retd, Mr. Alemtemshi Jamir, IAS Retd, Mr. S. Saha, Deputy Secretary at Ministry of Home Affairs, Mr. Robin Hibu, IPS and Joint Commissioner of Police, Delhi, Dr. Alana Gonmei, NE Support & Helpline Delhi, and all the Police Commissioners of various cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore etc and directed them to examine the situation of North Eastern people residing in such cities, to find the cause behind such frequent racial attacks, and to suggest measures to be taken by the State Governments so as to prevent another Nido Taniam from happening again.

In Mumbai, there had already been several meetings between various North Eastern groups and the police. A few North Eastern community leaders had earlier met Mr. Rakesh Maria, the Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, to discuss about various issues our communities faced.

Meetings had been conducted between Dr. Alana Gonmei and other Northeastern community leaders too, prior to this committee being set up by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In Navi Mumbai, members of the Arunachal Students Union had also met the Police Commissioner of Navi Mumbai, Mr. K.L. Prasad, to discuss issues faced by the Northeastern community.

And if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know about the Tea with Mumbai Police incident last year, and the aftermath, where we had a meeting with Mr. Nisar Tamboli, the DCP of Malbar Hills, to discuss about the racial abuses people from the North East face in Mumbai.

Later, we were even invited by Mr. Sadanand Date, the Joint Commissioner of Police, Mumbai (Law & Order), for a cup of tea to further discuss the conditions of North Eastern people residing in Mumbai.

One of the things discussed back then was to create more awareness about people from the North East among the police. Because, before educating the masses, the police should be first educated, so that they can be there for us and understand our problems when we face such abuses from the general public. One of the suggestions Mr. Sadanand Date made back then was to invite representatives from all eight North Eastern states at various Police Stations for the Flag hoisting ceremony on Independence Day. And they kept to their word:


Even though Mumbai Police did make an earnest attempt to reach out to the North Eastern communities, there was no centralized organization from both the North Eastern side and Mumbai Police to coordinate further such meetings, as we were all busy with our own respective communities and there was no “one voice” or one single organization to coordinate things here in Mumbai.

All that has changed now.

So, the committee formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs along with members of the North East Helpline and Support Delhi, called for a meeting on March 13th, 2014, with representatives from various North Eastern communities here in Mumbai.

It was a great honour for me to be asked by our MMA (Mumbai Mizo Association) leaders to represent our Mizo community at the meeting, along with my friend Lalfakzuala who’s the General Secretary of MMA. And so, off we went on his bike for the meeting, not exactly sure what we were going to talk about. The meeting was held at State Guest House, Kala Nagar.

Various representatives from the North Eastern communities were there. And frankly speaking, I was like, “Hey nice to meet you, I’m Kima”, “Hi, I’m Kima, from Mizoram”, “Hey there, I’m from Mizoram, my name’s Kima” to everybody at the meeting. See, that is how much of a stranger all of us were to each other. We all spoke different languages, had different cultural norms, traditions and heritage, and any of the other communities present that day were as different to me as any other communities from the rest of India. But we have always been clubbed together as one entity by a majority of Indians, which to some extent is understandable because we too are guilty of clubbing the rest of Indians as one entity. But the issue here is the way we are clubbed together – sometimes we are considered as “Chinese” or outsiders, and other times as aliens to this Nation who are not entitled to our Fundamental Rights. Those were the issues we discussed that day.

All in all, it was a very fruitful meeting. What everybody at the meeting seemed to agree was that Mumbai is a much better place than Delhi when it comes to racial abuses. From the testimony of those North Easterners who had lived in both cities for more than 10 years, they felt Mumbaikars are much nicer than Delhiites (though I don’t want to spark off any Mumbai-Delhi debate here). But of course that doesn’t mean we don’t face any harassments.

Perhaps the biggest limelight of the event was when Gamli, Amo, Soso and Kevin (representatives from different North Eastern communities) suggested about how we had to stop maintaining our silence and make a “noise” whenever we face such racial abuses. It was a suggestion met with applause from both the participating members and the Ministry of Home Affairs panel.

Irene Lalumpui from Meghalaya also stood up and advised the others on how we could tackle such public name callings like “chinky” to a certain extent, like walking up to them and asking them right to their faces what their problem was. People continue uttering racial slurs at us because we just cower away and never answer back.

That reminded me of a very recent incident, when I was walking with my friend at Bandstand, Bandra, enjoying the idyllic sunset view along with the rest of Mumbaikars out there to enjoy the view. Just like everybody else, we just wanted to be there, enjoying the free Mumbai spirit and reveling in its carefreeness. We started off with mouth-watering paani puri near Taj Lands End, moved on to roasted corns prepared by the roadside (or should I say sea-side) vendors, and mesmerized on the romantic sunset walking hand-in-hand on the pavement and strolling past other people enjoying the mood of the moment, when suddenly we heard a voice, “ching chong chinky chong”… we ignored it, but again the guy shouted even louder, “ching chong chingkisthan” and laughed…

That was it.

I turned around and walked right up to the guy sitting in the back seat of a (I think it was a white Santro) car and asked him what his problem was. He ignored me, avoiding eye contact. There were three other guys with him, two sitting in the front seats and one standing outside the car and none of them looked directly at me either. But there were many people walking around me and that made me neither fazed nor afraid. I probed further, asking him why he had to call me that and he didn’t respond.

I took down the car’s license plate number immediately: MH 02 AK xxxx. If you don’t believe me, you can check it up, it was on 12 January 2014, Sunday, Bandstand, around 6 PM. I don’t screw around when it comes to this. (EDIT: I have decided to remove the complete license plate number for now. Let's just say, "Water under the bridge".)

And then I mentioned how it was now a criminal offense for him to abuse me that way according to the recent Supreme Court judgment, and that was when his friends came forward and apologized immediately. I explained how we were all Indians just like them, that we were just minding our own business and there was absolutely no need to spoil anybody’s mood, and his friends agreed. In a way, even though there had been so many critics to the SC judgment opposing the ban of the use of the word “chinky”, as far as I know, till today, there is not even a single case of anybody being charged with it (partly our fault too for not filing a report), but in a way, it gave me and many North Easterners an upper hand in dealing with such situations. Though the main guy who uttered those words still denied it, saying I must have misheard him (much pride perhaps?), his other three friends apologized on his behalf and we let it go at that. Trust me, that guy will definitely think twice now before uttering those racial slurs at the next North Easterner he sees.

Silence is definitely not golden in our case. If we keep ignoring such racial remarks without confronting them and then later write about it from the sweet comfort of our home ranting about being racially abused, then that is not a proactive solution. Nido decided to fight back, and even though he lost his life doing so, look where that got us - it woke up the Central Government. He is a martyr, along with Richard Loitam, Johny Lalhmangaihzuala and any others whose sacrifices had created ripples across the media and society.

The meeting with the committee from Ministry of Home Affairs went far beyond its scheduled duration as more and more people wanted to share their experiences and grievances. Finally the panel had to end the meeting. 

The best outcome of the meeting was when Dr. Abraham Mathai, former Vice-Chairman of Minority Commission, and Dr. Alana Gonmei, North East Support & Helpline Delhi, discussed about the need to start a North East Helpline in Mumbai. This discussion continued with various Northeastern community leaders and with Mr. Rakesh Maria, the Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, and finally, on March 14th, 2014, the “North East Helpline – Mumbai” was formed, with Dr. Abraham Mathai as the patron and Dr. Alana Gonmei as the adviser. The Commissioner of Police also directed his team to conduct an audit of the vulnerable areas in the city where there’s a large Northeastern population and proposed more patrolling of such areas. He also directed frequent meeting with Northeastern representatives on a regular basis. An office space was even allocated to us for this purpose!

After many more discussions with various North Eastern community leaders and representatives, a meeting was again conducted on 22nd March, 2014, at the new office – 2, Mini Rose Apartment, Vidyanagari Marg, Kalina, Santacruz (E). The agenda of the meeting was to discuss about the newly created Helpline, like how important it is for us to come together as one, how to maintain decorum in our newly created NorthEast Helpline-Mumbai Facebook group, and what are the next steps to take.

The meeting was headed by our newly appointed patron, Dr. Abraham Mathai.

It was an honor for the other representatives to let me have the floor and share my expertise on the digital platform and online behavior and netiquette. I brought across various incidents that I had experienced in the past and the best ways to tackle such issues.

Two other Mizo friends Sangtea and Charlie, the Sport & Culture Secretary of MSYM (Mizo Student & Youth of Mumbai) accompanied me to the meeting, where other North Eastern representatives contributed to the discussions and stated their opinion on various topics. Below are Soso, Kevin, Ningsang Jamir and others who contributed a lot of good suggestions.

Below is Mr. Amo, who worked really hard for the group and coordinated various members to the meeting.

Another main point discussed that day was the exploitation of North Easterners in Mumbai. While racial abuses and discrimination are many of the heads of the Hydra we need to slay, exploitation is another key issue faced by North Easterners here in Mumbai. Many people from the North East are employed in Mumbai without proper papers or records, especially in Spas, massage parlors and other unorganized sectors. There had been many reported incidents where the employers would take advantage of the “meek” North Easterners and refuse to pay them their salaries, knowing they won’t make a ruckus about it or go to the police or press. Sometimes there are incidents where the employers would even force the women to sleep with a client “or face the consequences”. This is still an ongoing discussion as of today.

The main agenda of the meeting was to decide who the representatives from the different North Eastern communities were going to be. After much discussion and weighing all the pros and cons of whether or not to have area-wise representative, community-wise representative, state-wise representative, qualification-wise representative, the following people were selected to become official representatives of North East Helpline – Mumbai:

Deepen Rajkumar - 9969233909
Priyanka Borpujari - 9820741992

Joseph Joute - 9702951772
Soso KJP - 9930717364
Kevin Guite - 9892877545
Tim Ramror - 9820522237
Jacob Tao - 9833056448

B. Lalramhluna - 8108755364

Ningsang Jamir - 9594195660
Chenithung Ezung - 9769136620

Lalramthang Amo - 8976341108

Arunachal Pradesh:
Gamli Bogo - 9004339417
Sora - 9987099317
Gotum Doke - 8898928052

Sikkim: Absent, to be selected.

Tripura: Absent, to be selected.

People can call up any of the numbers mentioned above when they face any harassment. Representatives will also take it up to task to verify such complaints and forward them to the authorities. Within a week of setting up the North East Helpline – Mumbai (NEHM), it swung into action and here are its achievements so far:

1. On March 22, a Northeast girl (name withheld) was refused salary by the owner of Om Thai Spa, Water Field Road, Bandra. That lead to an altercation and the owner allegedly punched her on her temple and chest, with a final kick on her belly which left her unconscious for around 10 minutes. She had severe wounds on both arms and a 12 cm lacerate on her left forehead. With the help of NEHM, an FIR was filed (23rd March 2014/FIR/122) against the Culprit (Employer) under the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr. P.C) sections, 323, 354 and 504, and he’s in custody now. The Northeast Community Nodal Officer, Shri. Gharal, ACP, and Shri. Sanjay Pawar Crime Branch/IB had been updated about the fateful episode and they stand with the Northeast Community in Mumbai.

2. On March 23, a Northeast family residing in Navi Mumbai reported about how they had been continuously harassed and racially discriminated by the secretary of their housing society for the past 14 years. Deepen Rajkonwar, NEHM representative from Assam and five other committee members visited the building along with the police, and after assessing the situation, the police issued a stern warning to the building secretary.

3. On March 27, 10 PM, a Northeast girl was molested and punched twice in Kalina by three unidentified men who later fled the spot. The victim was on her way home to Kolivery when the men physically molested her in the vicinity of Kolivery main entrance, where Kalina residents used to pick auto-rickshaws. With the assistance of NEHM, the issue was reported to the police and beat constables were deployed to the area immediately, but however, the culprits were not found.

This is not a bad achievement at all in a span of just one week, that too considering the NEHM is still at its nascent phase. And this is giving more courage to other Northeasterners to step up and let their voices be heard. Another Northeast girl working as an aesthetician at a prominent 5 Star Hotel was racially and verbally abused by a male colleague last week, and she had reported this incident to the management and HR. If no action is taken against the accused, then the NEHM is ready to give her the support she needs to fight for justice.

Two more meetings with the police are coming up in the next two days – the first meeting is between Vashi Sr. PI. Gade and Northeastern residents of Vashi. Senior Police Inspector Gade played an important role during the Myanmar and Assam tension last year in Pune and was extremely helpful to the Northeastern community there. On Monday there is another meeting at Air India Colony Hall, Kalina, Santacruz East, between the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Shri. Ramdhan Chavan Arun, Asst. Commissioner of Police, Gharal Zungjarrao, Sr. PI. Vinayak Muyle, Sr. PI. Bharat Kumbhar, Sr. PI. Sanjay Pawar, and the Northeastern community of Mumbai.

However, the NEHM still has a long way to go, and its success is possible only if there is support from the Northeastern community of Mumbai. There are still many points to discuss, which will be done in the next few weeks.

Hope these great initiatives taken by Dr. Abraham Mathai, Dr. Alana Gonmei, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Mumbai Police will not be in vain and life will be better for the Northeastern resident of this wonderful city. Aamchi Mumbai! God bless the people of Mumbai.