Earlier this year, when I was moving into my rented flat in an area in South Delhi that has a considerable population of people coming from the Northeast region, I decided to buy a secondhand refrigerator on olx. The seller was in the same area and when I went to the seller’s residence to collect the fridge, we were having small talks about our experiences living in Delhi as Northeast people. The couple, originally from Arunachal Pradesh and were planning on moving back to their home state, started sharing about how life in Delhi is so much more expensive and difficult for people who look like us and how they’ve had to pay more for everything in every level of transactions that happen here. They were specifically talking about how the rent for flats were higher when the landlords and the brokers see that the renters are people from the Northeast region and how everyone here overcharges when they hear a Northeast accent and complexion. They mentioned that they had been living here for more than 10 years and decided to move back home. They looked relieved to be going back. On my way to my rented flat, I was pondering on the conversations and thinking about how similar their experiences are to mine.
Back during my bachelor’s, my friends and I had decided to rent a flat together and went to a broker for assistance. We had found a decently sized apartment with rent that came under our budget. However, when it was time to sign the papers and the landlord came, he looked at us as if our existence was offensive to him. My friend introduced himself and tried to shake his hands but the landlord shook his head and refused. The landlord then spoke to the broker outside and we were informed after that the deal was off. The broker then mentioned in passing that it was more difficult for him to match us with landlords because we were from the Northeast and that as Northeast people we have to be willing to shell out more money because most landlords will be reluctant to have us as tenants. This particular experience had been etched in my mind because even though I had experienced racially insensitive remarks and comments prior to this, it was the first time that people had been so blatant and unapologetic about their racism and xenophobia with me.
A lot of times, in my conversations with other Northeast people living in Delhi, there is always some mention of how they have been financially taken advantage of in the city in a matter of fact way. Perhaps we also share these experiences with each other because when we mention these things to mainland friends or colleagues, they resort to justifying it by saying that it has more to do with us being from outside the city and not being good at Hindi, or they mention how they have also had similar experiences glossing over the racial aspect of it all. While it may be true that mainland Indians might have experienced being overcharged, it is not normalized for them whereas as Northeast people, we are expected to accept the fact that life is simply going to be more expensive for us here because of how we look and where we come from or our dietary habits.
I call this phenomenon of us having to pay a higher amount of money for basic amenities and shelter “the chinky tax”. It is when landlords, brokers, or other service providers ask for payment that is much higher than they ask mainland Indians or they outright refuse service. In all levels of transactions, there will always be a separate fee that people in mainland India charge people who look like them and a separate fee that they will ask for those of us from the Northeast. I never really noticed this until I started to actually ask mainland people around me how much they were paying for things. When confronted about why they are charging us more, the service providers will come up with various excuses. For example, in one of the places I rented, I realized that I was paying more fee for garbage disposal than the other tenants there and when I asked the landlord about this, he justified it by saying that it is because I eat non-vegetarian food. Even for rent, they will come up with excuses like “Oh it’s because Northeast people cook smelly things”. Does vegetarian food not decay? And is the smell of garam masala and other spices not pungent also?
Many urban mainland Indians think of indigeneous tribal people from the Northeast as freeloaders who do not have to pay income taxes while stealing “their” seats through ST and OBC reservations and therefore issues of monetary exploitation and the racism/casteism we face in mainland India often fall on deaf ears. Additionally, as persons whose reservation status is evident in our skin colour, complexion and race, we are often the default targets of discriminations in institutional and professional settings. There exists a sense of superiority among the ‘intellectual’ mainland urban dwelling “tax payers” wherein during debates or arguments, they will often resort to mentioning that we are wasting their hard earned tax payer money with our income tax exemptions (which comes with conditions) and that they know “many rich Northeast tribals” who are misusing their exemptions. They conveniently forget the fact that they are benefitting from generational wealth, cultural and structural hegemony, and also benefiting from generations of caste and class exploitations while indigeneous people in the Northeast have faced colonialism, armed aggressions capitalistic profiteering, displacement, state sponsored murders and persecutions with laws like AFSPA. In addition to these, we are also subjected to fleecing and racial oppression when we move to the mainland.
Perhaps the reason that Northeast people tend to “stay in groups” in mainland India is because we have similar experiences of marginalization, and of having to pay our “chinky tax”. I remember when I first moved to Delhi for my bachelor’s, my friends and I shared an e-rickshaw in North campus with a law student from Meghalaya. Knowing that we were new to the city from our chats, she was giving us tips on how to survive in Delhi and made sure the driver didn’t charge us more by telling us the standard charge. She also noticed the driver being inappropriately close to our friend and scolded him and remarked, “We have to look out for each other here because they think we are gullible”. Even when I bought the secondhand fridge, the woman talked with the rickshaw porter and negotiated the price for us according to the standard in the area. This idea of feeling the need to look out for each other and the sense of camaraderie that Northeast people have in mainland India I think, is a fascinating form of resistance and something that arose because of shared exposure to alienation and subjugation that is simply unfathomable for those in the mainland.
-Ruth Chawngthu is a Postgraduate student of Social Design. She is passionate about creating art and writing about culture, sexuality, and marginalization.