As an undergraduate student at Delhi University in the early 1990s, Dr Renu (Gupta) Naidu took little notice when her friends routinely referred to students from the Northeast as 'Chinkies' or hurled obscenities or racial insults at them.
"Any Northeastern student entering a college campus earns the epithet 'Chinky' on day one, and has to live with being looked at as, at the very least, an oddity, for the rest of her or his stay," says Naidu. "Students told me about being asked questions like whether they eat rats." This racial hostility comes unbidden from the non-Northeastern student community.
Naidu had herself faced discrimination as a "non-Marathi" student during her post-graduation at Nagpur, and it dawned on her that Northeastern students, with their distinctive 'non-plainspeople' epicanthic features, behavior and dress habits, were in all likelihood confronting far more discrimination than she had. In June 2006, Naidu was awarded a PhD for her work on the lives of Northeastern tribal girl students in Delhi, with her research based on interviews with 200 students from 10 colleges in Delhi University's North Campus.
The first disturbing fact - statistics compiled from official records of various colleges in the city - that Naidu's study has uncovered is that the dropout rates of Northeastern students touches 50 per cent, with more girls dropping out than boys. The reasons for this trend, according to Naidu, lie in the intense socio-cultural conflict, and the resultant stress, that impact all aspects of the lives of students from the Northeast.
"For a student from the Northeast, irrespective of whether she or he is from an urban or tribal background, Delhi is like an alien land," says Naidu. "The language is unfamiliar, the cultural and social terrain is unknown. Even getting a letter of introduction to open a bank account is a mammoth task. What is more, their distinctive physical features immediately mark them out as outsiders among the local populace."
Being cheated as a matter of course is one direct fallout of this situation. Angom*, a Manipuri student at Miranda House told Naidu, "Even rickshaw-pullers, auto-drivers, vegetable vendors and bus conductors cheat us because they know that we are not aware of the price of things here, and are not in a position to drive hard bargains."
For girl students, the situation is worse still: in the conservative Delhi milieu, their Westernized style of dressing and easy camaraderie with the opposite sex - owing in large part to their liberal tribal culture - they are seen as 'fast' or 'of easy virtue'. This imperception exposes girls from the Northeast to the worst sorts of sexual harassment, both within campuses and without. Diana, a Mizo student at Indraprastha college, said, "Delhi men believe that north-eastern girls are easily available. They look at us with only one thing in mind: sex. If we protest, they warn us to clam up, because we are alone and there is no one we can turn to for protection."
The attitude of college authorities and the local police to incidences of sexual harassment and teasing is usually nonchalant. "Incidents of this nature are treated as routine, and often the girls are blamed for them." Furthermore, she says, "Police stations refuse to provide data on the sexual harassment of Northeastern girls." One police official, in fact, told Naidu: "Yeh to in ladkiyon ka roz ka naatak hai, kahan tak complaint darj karien? Aur waise bhi bina chingari ke aag nahi lagti (This is a daily drama these girls play out; how many complaints do we register? Anyway, there's no smoke without a fire)."
The vulnerability of the girls is underscored by the fact that most Northeastern girl students live in rented accommodation. Nine colleges of the 13 (three are women's only colleges) in the North Campus have hostels; only four of these have girls' hostels.
"Rented accommodation exposes girls to different kinds of harassment," says Naidu, "They are subjected to sudden and arbitrary hikes in rent, and threatened with immediate eviction if they don't comply."
Here, too, sexual harassment is omnipresent. During their conversations with Naidu, many Northeastern girls confided to being harassed for sexual favors by landlords and their families. "The son of one landlord's family even offered a rent waiver in return for sexual favors!" exclaims Naidu.
Apart from sexual harassment, Northeastern girl students have to face discrimination at other levels too, and this impacts their education adversely "The general impression is that these students are not good at studies and are [here] just for a good time. The stamp of 'reservation' sticks to them, and the resentment that comes with it has to be faced," says Naidu.
According to her data, of the 200 students interviewed, only 10 per cent said that their classroom participation is high, while around three-quarters registered below average classroom participation. A sizeable proportion felt that teachers' attitude to their classroom participation was either neutral or discouraging. Of the 200 students, 111 said their participation in co-curricular activities was 'minimal'; 107 felt discrimination during co-curricular activities; 58 felt 'isolated'; 167 students registered feelings like helplessness, discouragement, irritation and stress in academic activities.
This overall pressure drives many students to drop out, Naidu feels. Those who stay on find it difficult to meet academic goals burdened with so much stress.
Consequently, most Northeastern tribal girl students are not particularly keen on getting jobs in Delhi after completing their education. "Coming to study in Delhi, for most Northeastern students, is a matter of prestige," says Naidu. "The unstable political situation in the Northeast has caused educational standards to drop, which makes it very easy for Delhi-educated students to get the best jobs once they return. This, coupled with the fact that the atmosphere does not offer much by way of encouragement to reach out and mingle, causes most students to see their student days here as just a stopover."
Students told Naidu that social work interventions, such as the presence of social workers in colleges in enabling and facilitating roles, and steps to fight discrimination and enhance socio-cultural exchange between communities of students, could help alleviate the problems. But the single-most important step that Naidu feels needs to be taken with a sense of urgency is arranging sufficient hostel facilities for Northeastern girl students. "This one step will go a long way in providing stability and security to their lives and help them concentrate on their academic goals," she says.
This is why Naidu is currently working on a policy paper to call attention to the issue of this manner of student discrimination, which she wants to send to the ministries of tribal welfare and social justice. "The problem of Northeastern girl students needs recognition in the right places," she says. "At present, the different kinds of stress that these students have to put up with is impacting their studies seriously, and every effort should be made to ease the situation."
(* Names of all students changed.)