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Delhi’s exotic migrants

Migrants from India’s northeast put focus on the dynamics of urban change

20 October 2012

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Asian Currents, October 2012 (Pages 13-15)

by Duncan McDuie-Ra

Neoliberalism takes on a variety of national and subnational forms. In the case of India this has necessitated a shift from the role of the state as provider under Nehruvian socialism, to the role of the state as a champion for private investment and market penetration.

The role of the state in this process is varied at the federal and local levels, and in different sectors of the economy and society. Attempts to transform Delhi are driven by the desire to fashion a ‘global city’, set out explicitly in the Delhi Development Authority’s Master plan for Delhi 2021, released in 2007.

The global city aspiration has necessitated a shift in urban logic resulting in the privileging of planned and profit making uses of space and the vilification of informality. The poor, including the working poor, are seen as threats to the sanitised spaces of the global city.

Urban transformation is certainly creating new exclusions, yet scholars and activists have rarely asked how these transformations can include groups that have been historically marginalised or had little engagement with large cities. Northeast migrants are one such group.

The Northeast refers to the territory between Bhutan, China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, which contains eight federal states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.

The region is almost completely cut off from the rest of India, joined only by a narrow corridor of land. A large proportion of the population traces their linguistic heritage to Mon–Khmer, Tai, and Tibeto–Burman peoples. Much of the region has been characterised by armed insurgency and counter-insurgency for the last six decades in the pursuit of separatist demands and for ethnically- based autonomy.

While India contains diverse regions and peoples and a coherent national society is not always identifiable, there is a distance between the Northeast and the rest of India that is qualitatively different to that between other regions and peoples in India. There is a strong belief in both the Indian ‘mainland’ and in the Northeast that the different states, autonomous units, and peoples grouped together as ‘the Northeast’ will never be able to be accommodated as part of India in the same ways as other diverse groups of peoples.

Historically, those migrating from the Northeast to Delhi went to learn the tools of the Indian bureaucracy and for tertiary education; Delhi attracted the wealthy, connected and educated from the Northeast. This group of migrants continues to come, but the dramatic growth of migrants from other backgrounds in the last decade is most relevant to this article.

As migration to Delhi is internal and as most tribal migrants don’t own property, businesses or vote in Delhi, their population is not accurately recorded. Recent survey data from the North East Support Centre and Helpline puts the number of Northeast migrants in Delhi at approximately 200 000 people accounting for 48.21 per cent of the total population of Northeast migrants in Indian cities—a 12-fold increase since 2005.1 However this data is limited and is likely to be an underestimate.
Most migrants come to Delhi in their 20s and migrate without their parents; though from fieldwork it is clear there is an increase in families migrating to Delhi together, especially from areas affected by armed conflict, such as Manipur.

During fieldwork, migrants gave a number of reasons for leaving the Northeast including seeking refuge from conflict, changing attitudes towards India, and increased connectivity between the frontier and the city. However, most migrants gave the availability of work in retail, hospitality and call centres as the primary reason.

Job opportunities in the Northeast are limited by insurgency and by a number of associated difficulties such as corruption, low levels of investment, capital flight and the proliferation of illegal and semilegal economies. Alongside work, the opportunity to study outside the region is a major impetus for migration.

The availability of work means that migrants from the Northeast can support themselves during study, or support family members to study. Education is sought to gain an edge in labour markets back in the Northeast, especially in the public sector, and to meet changing aspirations and consumer desires.
Furthermore, as Northeast migrants have begun to create a niche in certain labour markets in cities, labour recruiters are travelling to the Northeast to offer jobs in call centres, restaurants, hotels and spas.

Northeast migrants are highly visible (and audible) in call centres and upscale retail. In Indian call centres, workers are trained to ‘neutralise’ their accents, and call monitoring, scripting, and ‘locational masking’ are all crucial components of call centre work. This has advantages for Northeast migrants.

For many Northeast migrants, racism characterises their experience of Delhi.
Most Northeasterners from the hill areas attend English medium schooling and literacy rates in hill areas are very high. English is the lingua franca between different ethnic groups. There are other factors affecting language in different parts of the Northeast: for example, Hindi is banned as Manipur domination. As a result most Northeasterners do not have typically Indian-accented English.

Like most junior call centre workers, the bulk of Northeast migrants are unmarried and in their 20s. Most do not have children or have left their children with relatives back home. This makes them able to work shifts timed to serve Australian, European, and North American business hours. As such Northeast migrants have become desirable as a ‘flexible’ and well-qualified workforce for the burgeoning call centre industry.

In retail, Northeast migrants find work in clothing stores, sports stores, spas and cosmetic stores. They are especially well represented in stores and restaurants that project a global brand image. Women in particular are cast in highly sexualised roles, particularly in fashion stores, restaurants and spas. Many of these women are not from the Himalayas but from Manipur and Nagaland. The highly orientalised labour force constructs a space that is in Delhi but not of Delhi; perfect for ‘world-class’ aspirants of the middle classes.

Outside the enclosed spaces of malls and call centres Northeast migrants face a number of challenges in their everyday lives in the city. For many Northeast migrants, racism characterises their experience of Delhi. Northeast migrants, particularly those with Mon–Khmer, Tai, or Tibeto–Burman roots, are judged based on ascriptive notions derived from their physical features. Northeast migrants look different to the other peoples inhabiting Delhi, and while India contains many communities earmarked as ‘others’ based on religion, caste and even ethnicity, the nationality of these communities is not under continued suspicion.

For most respondents, racism in Delhi is reflected in the epithet ‘chinky’. Respondents found this term integral in their everyday engagement with the city’s inhabitants. Respondents reported hearing the term called out in public places, in negotiations in shops and for transport, and used by colleagues or classmates. Most respondents found the term to be deeply racist and hostile.
Epithets matter because they reflect deeply embedded stereotypes about Northeast women and men. Stereotypes are not always negative and have enabled the growth of the labour niche for Northeasterners, yet Northeast women and men have very little control over the ways they are perceived, whether the impacts of these perceptions are positive or negative. Northeasterners are cast as backward and exotic, antinational rebels and as immoral and sexually promiscuous.

Finally, Northeast migrants experience harassment and violence in Delhi. Respondents were adamant that the day-to-day violence that characterises their time in Delhi is continually downplayed in the media, by the authorities and by non-Northeasterners.

Northeasterners feel they are targeted because of their race, they have virtually no recourse to justice and are blamed for the violence they experience. In the pamphlet Security tips for North East students/visitors in Delhi issued by the Delhi Police, Northeast women are advised to act and dress more conservatively. The pamphlet reads: ‘Revealing dress to be avoided. Avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily. Dress according to sensitivity of the local populace.’2 Respondents found this pamphlet and its sentiments amusing but also instructive of the ways in which they are viewed. Northeast women are held responsible for the sexual harassment they have to endure and the perpetrators are often ignored.

The case of Northeast migrants in Delhi complicates the exclusionary narrative and forces sharper focus on the intricate dynamics of urban change. It also shows the ways in which the city and the periphery are connected through the neoliberal transformation of urban India, as well as the limits of this connectivity.

Northeast migrants are not the only beneficiaries of these changes, yet their prominence in the consumer and service industries and the impact this has had on the flows and profile of migrants from the frontier to urban India make them the ideal case for analysing these changes.

In the case of Northeast migrants in Delhi, their economic inclusion in the city appears to have had little effect in spaces farther afield. Yet Northeast migrants are not simply ‘victims of the city’ and have created their own places, networks, and neighbourhoods. As these communities continue to grow, and as migrants return to the Northeast after time spent in the city, the interconnectedness of frontier and heartland in rapidly changing India is thickening.

1. North East Support Centre and Helpline 2011, North east migration and challenges in national capital cities. NESCH.
2. Delhi Police 2005, Security tips for North East students/visitors in Delhi, Delhi Police West District

Duncan McDuie-Ra is Associate Professor in Development Studies at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of New South Wales. His most recent books are The politics of collective advocacy in India: tools and trap (Sterling Va: Kumarian, 2011) coauthored with Nandini Deo, and Northeast migrants in Delhi: race, refuge and retail, University of Amsterdam Press/ IIAS Monograph Series, 2012.


The above article from October 2012 issue "Asian Currents" published by the Asian Studies Association of Australia, is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.