Racism to cash crunch: How Coronavirus has caused distress to Mumbai's North East community

Updated: 19 April, 2020 09:08 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

The lockdown hits city's North Eastern community like a punch in the face as their physical appearance leads to shocking discrimination

Mount Mary Road resident Hoi Liethang, who works as a teacher at the International Society of Fashion Technology, faced discriminatory remarks when she stepped out to buy vegetables. Pic/Shadab Khan
Mount Mary Road resident Hoi Liethang, who works as a teacher at the International Society of Fashion Technology, faced discriminatory remarks when she stepped out to buy vegetables. Pic/Shadab Khan

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the lockdown is being extended to May 3, spa owner Leo Tharmi Raikhan's phone has been ringing incessantly. The calls are from friends who hail from the North Eastern states of Mizoram and Manipur and, like him, came to Mumbai to make a living. "Most are employed at restaurants, satellite kitchens, spas and salons. Due to the lockdown, they are surviving without salaries. And now, the landlords are threatening to throw them out," says Raikhan, 34, who runs Only and Only Spa in Kalina. His political clout as president of BJP's North Central Christian Minority cell and his semi-Mumbaikar status has made him the go-to person for the community. Over the last few days, he has been negotiating with landlords to defer payments. "Some have agreed, others haven't. Many said that the flats are their only source of money."

By his estimate, Maharashtra is now home to about one lakh persons from the North East, with a sizeable population in Mira Road, Bhayander and Navi Mumbai. With help from non-profit organisations and the BMC, he has managed to reach out to 80 per cent of them to provide essentials and groceries that will last them a week. "The Assamese population here is slightly better off than those from Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur, because the Assamese government has been actively helping out through the state-run Assam Bhawans," he says.

Graceson Thumnao runs KongSang, a spa in Kalina, and has been supporting his nine-member team since the lockdown. Like him, they also hail from Manipur

Graceson Thumnao, 40, from Ukhrul district of Manipur, runs KongSang, a salon in Santa Cruz East. The space has been shut since March 17. While he has been supporting his nine-member team from Manipur by digging into his savings, he is worried that he won't survive. "The rent for a one-room apartment with an attached kitchen is between R15,000 to R18,000; six to seven members live here. But now, due to social distancing orders, landlords are only allowing three people per flat," says Thumnao. Presently, Thumnao and other social workers have been galvanising volunteers from various neighbourhoods to reach out to families. "I just received a call from Malad; six families there have run out of groceries. Even if we manage supplies, transport is a problem, so you have to arrange for vehicles. The costs keep adding up."

Like some of the migrant workers who showed up at Bandra station last Tuesday to protest the lack of food, Thumnao says daily wagers from the North East, too, are waiting to get home. "They don't want to return, because there's nothing left here for them."

Graceson Thumnao runs KongSang, a spa in Kalina, and has been supporting his nine-member team since the lockdown. Like him, they also hail from Manipur
Graceson Thumnao runs KongSang, a spa in Kalina, and has been supporting his nine-member team since the lockdown. Like him, they also hail from Manipur

According to Thotmahai Raingam, vice president of Tangkhul Welfare Society Mumbai and former advisor of Naga Students' Union Mumbai, the condition of the owners of spas, salons and small eateries is worse than the staff they employ. "Most of their daily earnings have been funnelled to pay off loans and EMIs. They are now poorer than their employees." Fortunately, the students managed to go back just before the lockdown, says Raingam.

For those who are still in the city, it's been a battle on more than one front. Recently, the community shot into the spotlight due to reports of verbal attacks and racist slurs in the wake of the pandemic, with locals calling them 'Chinese' "who started it all", thanks to their physical attributes. "It was mostly targetted at students living in Kalina and Santa Cruz," says Raikhan, who reached out to the police and members of the media in order to put an end to the harassment.

Employees. Thotmahai Raingam
Employees. Thotmahai Raingam

Mount Mary Road resident Hoi Liethang, who works as a teacher at the International Society of Fashion Technology, was subjected to unsavoury comments last week when she stepped out to buy vegetables. "I heard somebody say, 'Coronavirus aa gayi'. I couldn't believe my ears. This was Bandra West, one of the city's poshest localities with educated residents. I wanted to cry," she says. Her cousin in Kandivli has had to purchase a burqa to walk out of home without harassment.

Television personality Meiyang Chang hasn't been spared either. Like Liethang, he was also called "Corona" while he was out jogging. Chang is a third generation Indian-Chinese, which means his family made India its home more than half a century ago. Interestingly, his roots are in China's Hubei province, of which Wuhan—the epicentre of the virus outbreak-is capital. Following the incident, he wrote on Instagram, "In times of crisis, some human beings devolve into the worst versions of themselves. Or maybe that was them all along? In light of the online and public #racism and discrimination against North East Indians & the Indian-Chinese, thank you everyone for your unstinting humanism. Let's stay united; in spirit & in philosophy (sic)." Although the controversy is gradually losing steam, Chang continues to receive stray DMs (direct messages) on his Instagram.

With some, he has tried to initiate dialogue. "There are those who believe that there were more relevant issues to discuss such as sanitation and hygiene, and I shouldn't be raking this up. If it was just verbal abuse, I would have ignored it. But this started interfering in the way of living. People could not buy groceries or get out of their houses. I had to speak up."

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First Published: 19 April, 2020 07:15 IST

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