Northeast Migrants in Delhi

Northeast Migrants in Delhi

Duncan McDuie-Ra
Amsterdam University Press, 2012. 225 pp.
Paperback Non-Fiction/English

Amit Rahul Baishya

The main thing was we can accept anything, but it is very difficult to digest that Indian player – if anybody calls him a racist… (India is) the country, which has always fought against racism. Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, started his movement in South Africa against racism and from there the rest of India took inspiration. So this (racism allegation) is not just acceptable.

Sharad Pawar in conversation with Karan Thapar, February 2008.

Sharad Pawar’s statements in the immediate aftermath of the so-called “Monkeygate” controversy reveal some common misunderstandings about race and racism in the contemporary Indian context. Racism, this version goes, is what “we” endure, and not what “we” practice. Moreover, it is preposterous to suggest that a country that had emerged from an anticolonial, anti-racist struggle could be racist. Pawar’s statements converge with the outright rejection made by many of my friends and acquaintances in the aftermath of “Monkeygate” about the structures of racism in contemporary Indian contexts. For instance, a few months prior to the Harbhajan Singh imbroglio in Australia, when a few members of the audience in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium made racist monkey-like gestures at Andrew Symonds, the only colored player in the Australian cricket team, I recall having a bitter argument with an old friend who insisted that no one was offended when the New Zealand cricket team were called “Kiwis”; so, why should Symonds raise a ruckus when he was being called “monkey”? Moreover, quite a few people opined at that time that “monkey” (bandar) is a term of endearment in India; therefore, the logic went, neither the two spectators nor Harbhajan Singh were being racist! What these pronouncements reveal is a deep-seated misrecognition, often spilling over into disavowal, of everyday structures of racism in the contemporary Indian context.

While there are a few articles (see Baruah 2005, 2013; Baber 2010) on race and racism in India and also comparative studies of race and caste (see Natrajan and Greenough 2009), anthropologist Duncan McDuie-Ra’s Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail could well be the first book-length study of race and racism as autonomous phenomena as they pertain to the contemporary Indian context. Focusing on experiences of racialization endured by migrants from Northeast India in Delhi, McDuie-Ra outlines two distinct reasons for using the heuristic of “race” to study the object under investigation:

First, “race” captures the distinction made by Northeasterners themselves to denote their difference from other peoples in India and it captures the ways migrants from the Northeast are differentiated by the Indian mainstream. Racial differences denote peripheral peoples, and this is the primary way migrants are seen and the primary determinant of how they are treated. However, treatment of frontier peoples is not characterised solely by exclusion, as will be seen below. More complex ethnic identities that characterise life in the region become less salient in Delhi, primarily because Northeast migrants are lumped into a singular category because of their distinctive appearance. The production of this category also works in favour of building solidarity among Northeasterners, even across rifts considered irreparable back home. This in turn engenders a reverse racism towards the Indian mainstream… Second, a concept of race is needed to analyse pervasive racism… For Northeast migrants, race defines their experiences of Delhi. No respondent ever qualified this. It was an unequivocal feeling. The characteristics of the Northeast category, most often expressed through the derogatory term “chinky,” are not defined by Northeasterners themselves. This is different to life in the Northeast itself, where groups have at least a modicum of control over articulating their own ethnic identities. (88-9)

The paragraph above, I believe, illustrates three distinct features that can help us grasp McDuie-Ra’s narrative and interpretive moves in this well-researched monograph with far-reaching implications. First, his use of “race” exposes the scopic regime in the Indian heartland that fixes populations from the Indian Northeast as racialized and peripheral “objects” (focus above on “are seen” and “treated”). Second, McDuie-Ra strongly emphasizes that modes of objectification by racial frameworks do not rob “frontier” populations of agency; instead, new and dynamic forms of solidarity and identity (such as a pan-Northeast identity) and, also, unsavory instances of reverse forms of othering show how such excluded populations re-imagine themselves as active agents. Finally, McDuie-Ra outlines his concept of racism on the basis of the “unequivocal” feeling that defines the experiences of almost all migrants from the Northeast. This feeling is one of disempowerment as the racialized term “chinky” homogenizes them from without and simultaneously exposes their relative inability to articulate their own identities in heartland locales such as Delhi. Moreover, this emphasis on “feeling” (“feel,” “feeling” and “believing” are italicized a number of times throughout the text) also chimes with McDuie-Ra’s point-of-view as an “engaged observer” in the text. The characteristics of this point-of-view are emphasized at two crucial junctures in the text. Early in the text, he says:

In adopting a standard ethnographical approach using participant observation and interviews/conversations, I make no claims to absolute objectivity. In fact I am clearly telling this story from the perspective of Northeast migrants. I have not interviewed those who employ Northeast migrants, landlords who rent to them, academics/teachers who teach them, their classmates, city authorities, or the police. This is deliberate. Northeast voices are seldom heard outside the frontier, and telling the migration story from the perspective of Northeast migrants – in so much as this is possible as an outsider – gives precedence to the ways they see their own encounters with the city and mainstream Indian society. (26)

Later on, when discussing the violence targeted against northeastern peoples, MacDuie-Ra states:

One of the difficulties in discussing violence experienced by Northeasterners in Delhi is the counterclaim that Delhi is a violent city and no community is immune. It is important to state that I reject this argument unequivocally. This argument was presented to me a number of times during fieldwork by non-Northeasterners… It is imperative to recognise that the problem lies not only in the violence itself but also in the way the police treat violent incidents, and the ways in which the discourse around violence blames Northeasterners for inviting violence. While it may be argued that violence by ‘a few bad apples’ cannot be used to reflect the attitudes of an entire city or indeed a broader social environment of north India, respondents in Delhi and back in Northeast believe violence reflects and even exemplifies their experiences in the Indian heartland. Northeasterners are targeted because of their race, they have virtually no recourse to justice, and they are blamed for the violence they experience. (103, italics mine)

McDuie-Ra’s emphasis on the subjective dimensions of “belief” and “feeling” reminds us of Frantz Fanon’s important observations in Black Skins, White Masks that any conceptualization of the everyday effects of racism has to contend with the experience of racism at the level of corporeality (“Look, Mama, a Negro!”) and affect. While he does not conduct an extended phenomenological analysis of felt experiences of racism a la Fanon, I find McDuie-Ra’s ethnographic analysis of racism through the optics of what northeasterners “feel” and “believe” to be a salutary narrative and heuristic move. Instead of telling us what racism is, he challenges us to contend with how racist structures exerts its effects at the level of the everyday. One effect of this narrative move is that it succeeds in presenting voices that are hardly heard or contended with in the “heartlands,” although McDuie-Ra emphasizes, and also demonstrates strongly through his succeeding analyses, that this portrayal should not be misconstrued as “a vaudeville scenario of valiant Northeast victims on one side and a devious conglomerate villain made of non-tribal urban dwellers, the Indian state, the Delhi government, and the authorities on the other” (26). After all, absolute victimhood is as monochromatic, reductive and morally suspect as absolute evil. Furthermore, the focus on feeling, corporeal experience and belief also undercuts the all-too-common claim, heard often by the author of this review, about the “universalization” of violence in Delhi (“no community is immune”). McDuie-Ra wisely asks us to shift our gaze from the violence itself to the effects of the violence which, more often than not, ends up blaming the victims, as the notorious document on “Security Tips for North East Students/Visitors in Delhi” from 2005 illustrates so strikingly.

These three aspects—the dialectic between becoming-object and emerging as agents, and the narrative strategy to represent the voice of northeasterners by foregrounding what they feel and believe—also provides us with an entry point to evaluate McDuie-Ra’s unique contribution to the field of Northeast Indian studies. Critiquing the predominance of “greed and grievance” scholarship on this region, McDuie-Ra argues that academic and policy studies on the Northeast tend to focus on the causes of violence rather than its effects on everyday life (17). These studies are, thus, entrapped in the conceptual gridlock of violence and fail to see the changes that have taken place in the region in the last few decades. While scholars and policy makers intensively study how India has changed, McDuie-Ra charges, “analysis of these dynamics is rarely extended to the Northeast region” (17). As a result, the region is still studied as if it is caught in a time warp separate from the rest of the country. McDuie-Ra’s focus on migration aligns with his professed intention to tell the story from the perspective of northeasterners—by doing so, he manages to capture the temporal dynamics of movement and historical change in the region, while simultaneously inscribing northeastern migrants as agents and actors in their own stories. Furthermore, McDuie-Ra also shows how this study of migration and change converged in two ways with his longstanding research interests in this region: first, the unexpected displays of agency that emerged from his encounters with northeasterners who existed outside stereotypical representations (such as those of “resentful tribals” or “happy,” “colorful” noble savages), and, second, the deeper links between the frontier and the city that were exposed by the migration of young people from the region who were “seeking  refuge from the frontier culture of violence” (19-20). This last point merges with the current focus in borderland studies on the creative negotiations that borderlanders and people in “frontiers” make with statist centers, a viewpoint that radically refracts and displaces the overweening centrality of the state apparatus in the modern imaginary.

Besides borderland studies, the insights that this novel focus on migration opens up links Northeast Indian studies to new fields of inquiry that weren’t quite in its orbit before, such as studies of the impact of neoliberalism on urban spaces, masculinity and gender studies, emerging studies of ethnic minorities in Asian studies and the recent turn towards analyses of “grounded” notions of cosmopolitanism. Each chapter in the monograph, while following a recognizable narrative pattern, initiates a conversation with a new field of inquiry. To deploy cinematic parlance, McDuie-Ra follows a “shot/reverse-shot” format as his predominant narrative strategy in the seven chapters in his study. He begins most of the chapters by entering an existing scholarly conversation on the phenomena he wants to study; mid-way through the chapter, he reverses the gaze to show how Northeast migrants insert themselves as agents in discourses that otherwise objectifies them. For example, Chapter 4 begins with an extended discussion of the different aspects of racism endured by northeasterners in Delhi. However, with the section titled “Responding to Racism” (108), McDuie-Ra shifts the gaze and studies how northeastern migrants respond to racism by a) tolerating it in multiple ways, b) retaliating through violence, humor or ridicule and c) organizing or banding together for purposes of safety. Similarly, Chapter 5 extensively analyzes the challenges to “Northeastern masculinity”—the object of analysis in this section— in Delhi. However, with the section titled “Fluidity and Adaptation,” McDuie-Ra directs our gaze towards how migration to Delhi “necessitates the adoption of more fluid ways of being masculine and also makes these expressions more possible and visible than back home” (138). In the remaining sections of this chapter, McDuie-Ra studies two manifestations of the “fluidity” of such everyday performances of masculinity through the optics of “subaltern” and “cosmopolitan” masculinity respectively.

Two key questions, however, have not been addressed in this review as yet—given that migration from the Northeast to Delhi is a relatively new phenomenon, what are the factors that precipitate it? Furthermore, why focus on Delhi when Northeast migrants can also be found in other metropolises in India like Bangalore, Mumbai or Pune? Chapter 2 outlines six major “push” factors for migration:  refuge, livelihood, aspirations, attitudes towards India, recruitment and connectivity. One of the interesting points that McDuie-Ra makes in this chapter are the differences in aspiration and attitudes towards India between younger people of the current generation and the preceding ones. For instance, while earlier generations from ethnic communities in the Northeast displayed overt hostility towards India, many new migrants display a “(tacit) tolerance” to India and an “ambiguous” attitude towards Indian citizenship. Mizos from the new generation, for instance, suspend their “mistrust” of the Indian state relatively because they did not directly witness the brutalities of the bloody period from the 60s to the 80s (54-5). The author also extensively addresses recruitment strategies and practices that attract labor from the Northeast to Delhi in this chapter (56-9).

Chapter 3 directly addresses the second question posed above: “The reality is that Delhi provides the opportunities to work, to study, to learn the tools of the Indian bureaucracy, and to do all of these things at once. Among respondents there is a sense of inevitability steering them towards the city” (63). While learning the tools of the Indian state and its bureaucratic system and opportunities for higher and tertiary education remain strong factors for migration, the rapid changes in Delhi in the post-liberalization era have created new opportunities for work and employment. This is where McDuie-Ra’s analysis of migration converges with recent scholarly work on the tectonic changes in Indian urban spaces in the neoliberal era. However, the author makes a very distinct claim here—while the focus of the extant critical literature has primarily been on realities and experiences of exclusion from the neoliberal city, it “is precisely because these (newly emerging urban) spaces (which) are crafted as global that they are open to peoples outside the boundaries of the nation” (61). In other words, the labor of Northeast migrants is prized precisely because of the growth of “de-Indianized” spaces in the neoliberal city. Such “de-Indianized” spaces include Chinese or Korean themed restaurants that hire Northeastern migrants because of the widespread provenance of a visual orientalism in the Indian context, new consumer spaces such as shopping malls which try to create the ambience of the “global” in the “local,” and in the services sector, like call centers, where the “un-Indian” accents of northeasterners are often accorded great value. However, McDuie-Ra cautions us against uncritically celebrating such an illusory “inclusion.” At the end of the day, most Northeast migrants still remain “clients” rather than “owners” (65). Moreover, as McDuie-Ra summarizes the viewpoints of one of his respondents, Zana: “…Northeasterners work in these malls but can’t afford to shop there, so they are becoming viewed by the Indian mainstream as a race of shop assistants and waiters. This makes it easier for them to get work in these types of jobs but harder for them to be taken seriously in other professions or in their studies” (75, italics mine).

The author’s focus on the agency of northeastern migrants comes full circle in Chapter 6 which is devoted to place-making strategies deployed by Northeast migrants in the city. Employing John Freidmann’s (2006) framework of viewing places as “small spaces” of a city, McDuie-Ra argues that for Northeast migrants, “getting by in Delhi depends on the creation of places and the capacity to express ethnic and tribal identities” (146). This capacity to express ethnic and tribal identities manifests itself through food, kinship networks and also the practice of religion. The author also sketches the “northeast map” of Delhi—a form of “urban knowledge” which predicates a shared topography with commonly shared landmarks (148). Following this map also shows how the performance of identity by Northeast migrants is “multi-layered”—it is simultaneously “tribal, pan-Northeast, cosmopolitan” (146). The exploration of “pan-Northeast” and “cosmopolitan” identities closes two themes that bobs and weaves their way through the text. Recall that the racializing gaze homogenizes people from the region by erasing ethnic and other differences. However, this gaze also paradoxically creates the ground for a pan-Northeast identity in Delhi which is evident in protests around issues that have the potential of affecting all “northeasterners” (such as protests against the AFSPA or against violence against northeasterners in the city).  To be sure, parochial politics from the frontier are also played out in the city; however, it is critical to note how a pan-Northeastern collectivity forms around common issues like racism and violence. Additionally, drawing upon recent studies of what Bruce Robbins (1998) calls “actually existing cosmopolitanism,” McDuie-Ra argues that:

For Northeast migrants, cosmopolitanism is not a worldview that promotes a universal humanism. Rather, it is a way of reshaping ethnic, tribal, and pan-regional identity, challenging mainstream stereotypes, and enabling Northeasterners to endure Delhi. It also affirms differentiation from the Indian mainstream. (185)

This view of cosmopolitanism is not antithetical to ethno-nationalism; instead, it shows how a performance of certain versions of cosmopolitan identity helps reinforce both a pan-Northeastern identity and also an ethnic one. The role of rock music, food and religion here are obvious touchstones. What will also be of great interest for readers is the extended study of the impact and reception of Korean pop culture among Northeast migrants.

I commend McDuie-Ra for initiating a bold new direction in Northeast Indian studies. Written in an accessible style, this book will be of interest for both scholars as well as lay readers. However, in a comradely spirit, I would like to offer three major criticisms of this important monograph. My first criticism concerns McDuie-Ra’s adoption of the framework of the exception which, as in the work of many other scholars who have worked on the Northeast, draws upon the insights of the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben (2005).(1) Many scholars in postcolonial studies, critical race studies and feminism have taken Agamben’s concepts of the “exception” and the associated idea of undifferentiated “bare life” to task for their inability to contend with categories of difference such as gender and race.(2) It seems to me that the over-reliance on the Agambenian framework of the exception, which in any case is a reading of a specific trajectory of modern Euro-American political theology, occludes the necessary task of historicizing race and race-thinking in the colonial and post-colonial Indian contexts. This lack of historicization is also evident in McDuie-Ra’s use of this Agambenian category. The author begins by distinguishing two ways in which the exception is manifested in post-colonial India: through race and through the law. Thus, northeasterners are an “exceptional” population, while the region itself is governed by an “exceptional” law: the AFSPA. But, this observation, which is correct on an empirical level, would have been strengthened if McDuie-Ra investigated the potential hidden links between race-thinking and the promulgation of an “exceptional” instrument of governance further. Sanjib Baruah (2013) all-too-briefly broaches this possibility in his discussion of the “Mongolian fringe” in a recent essay. Baruah writes:  “Suspicion of the Mongolian Fringe was built into the institutional matrix of the British colonial state in India, and substantial traces of it remain in the practices of the postcolonial state” (83). Could it be that the AFSPA, which was first applied against the Nagas in 1958, itself emerges out of a nexus of race-thinking and the promulgation of exceptional instruments of governance? A further exploration of this question would have historicized McDuie-Ra’s exploration of the structures of race in governmental strategies and everyday realities in India, and also steered it into the direction that David Theo Goldberg (2002) challenges us to explore: is race-thinking fundamental to the organization of the modern form of the state? More than any other work in Northeast Indian studies, Northeast Migrants seemed to be the best equipped for these tasks. However, not extending the inquiry in these directions is, in my opinion, a missed opportunity.

My last two critiques concern issues that McDuie-Ra acknowledges but does not explore in great detail. While McDuie-Ra spends a lot of space on northeastern masculinity, his exploration of changes in the ideas of “femininity” is disappointingly brief. To be sure, he says that his approach of “intersectionality” leads him to argue that masculinity is “ruptured” more than femininity through migration (119). It is also true that Chapter 5 provides sufficient space to the voices of women, while simultaneously mounting an important critique of the doxa that a “softer patriarchy” operates in the northeastern region. All said and done, however, his brief summative analysis of “femininity” (142-43) could have been pushed much further. Finally, one wishes that McDuie-Ra would also have introduced a sustained comparative analysis of the experiences of racism faced by Northeast migrants and Africans in Delhi. McDuie-Ra touches upon the relationships between northeasterners and Africans briefly in Chapter 5. Admittedly, Africans fall outside the optic of citizenship; however, given that this book is one of the first major explorations of the question of race in the Indian context, a comparison between the experiences of Africans (who are often referred to by the derogatory term “hubshi” in Delhi) and northeasterners in Delhi would have strengthened the analysis of racial frameworks in the Indian context.


  1. For instance, see Vajpeyi (2009) and Gaikwad (2009).
  2. For feminist critiques of Agamben, see Ziarek (2008) and Mills (2005). For the connections between race and the state of exception, see Mbembe (2003) and Gilroy (2009).

Works Cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,         2005.

Baber, Zaheer. “Racism without Races: Reflections on Racialization and Racial Projects.” Sociology Compass, 4 (4), 2010, 241-248.

Baruah, Sanjib. “India and its Northeast: A New Politics of Race.” IIC Quarterly, Vol. 32 (2& 3) Winter      2005, 165-76.

———-. “India: the Mongolian Fringe.” Himal Southasian, Vol. 26 (1), January 2013, 82-86.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008.

Freidmann, John. “Reflections on Place and Place-making in the Cities of China.” International Journal      of Urban and Regional Research, 31 (2), 2007, 257-279.

Gaikwad, Namrata. “Revolting Bodies, Hysterical State: Women Protesting the Armed Forces Special           Powers Act (1958).” Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 17, No.3 (Sep. 2009). 299-311.

Gilroy, Paul. Race and the Right to be Human. Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht, Faculteit Geesteswetenschappen, 3 December 2009.

Goldberg, David Theo. The Racial State. Malden, Mass.; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

“Indians are not Racist: Pawar.”, 04 February 2008.

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” trans. Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15(1), 2003. 11-40.

Mills, Catherine. “Linguistic Survival and Ethicality: Biopolitics, Subjectivation and Ethicality in Remnants of Auschwitz.” in Politics, Metaphysics, and Death: Essays on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer. Ed. Andrew Norris. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005. 198-221.

Natrajan, Balmurli and Paul Greenough. Against Stigma: Studies in Caste, Race and Justice since    Durban. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2009.

Robbins, Bruce. “Introduction Part I: Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism.” in P. Cheah and B. Robbins        (eds.), Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation. Minnesota: The University of M     Minnesota Press, 1998. 1-19.

Vajpeyi, Ananya. “Resenting the Indian State: for a New Political Practice in the       Northeast.” in Beyond Counter-Insurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India. Ed. Sanjib Baruah. New Delhi:           Oxford University Press, 2009. 25-48.

Ziarek, Ewa Plonowska. “Bare Life on Strike: Notes on the Biopolitics of Race and Gender.” South             Atlantic Quarterly (107:1), Winter 2008. 89-105.

Amit Rahul Baishya is contributing editor with Northeast Review. He completed his PhD from University of Iowa and teaches at Ball State University, Indiana.

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